Sunday, March 31, 2013

Homesick Harris?

Exploring the forbidden territory of my husband's desk, Harris just hit the answering machine button and played the message I've been saving since October, when Robin from Kitten Associates announced that we'd been approved to adopt him. We still had to get through a phone interview and the visit to her house successfully, but hearing her message still makes me happy. And she sounds so happy herself. I'm never erasing that message. It was the feline equivalent of the test strip turning blue.

Are you homesick for Kitten Associates, Harris? Do you miss Robin, Sam, Spencer, Buttons, and the fabulous raw diet they gave you there? I'm sorry, pal, but you're stuck here with us. We can't part with you and your winning ways. Possum would never forgive me, Toffee needs his accomplice, and even Wendy likes it when you chase her. I'm already worrying about our summer trips to Maine because it will be so hard to be away from you and the rest of the furry crew. I might need to tuck you in my suitcase.

Little Harris, aka "Pixie Face"

Friday, March 29, 2013


Possum hugely enjoyed reading Lady Susan, Jane Austen's short, less-famous, epistolary novel, with me. He's always been a Regency kind of cat. I thought the book was wonderful, too, although much too short. We also enjoyed David McCullough's Mornings on Horseback. Good books give Possum a lot to think about, and that's what he's doing these days:

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Spring Cleaning

Toffee helped me subdue the curtains yesterday. Together we herded them into the washer:

The kittens had no interest in helping me polish the silver, but Harris befriended the Swiffer and "helped" me dust the walls. It's amazing how dirty walls get. It's also amazing that I see no improvement when all that dirt is gone.

Harris also tried to "help" by attacking my disgusting old lambswool duster-on-a-pole as I went over window frames and so on. Please note that I'm just listlessly going through the motions of a major cleaning, not doing a thorough job. I hate cleaning. I can only stand so much. For example, I'm not doing the outer windows; I'm not capable of standing outside on a narrow window ledge, risking death. I'm also not washing the wooden floors since we have too much heavy furniture to move and they never get really clean and shiny when I attempt it anyway. (I might call the cleaning service we've used a couple of times, after construction and other disasters. But I'd rather just move.)

Today I've got to do the rest of the dusting, wash the bedskirt and coverlet, and clean the kitchen and bathroom. Ugh. Tomorrow, there's still vacuuming and brushing the furniture to remove fur (an almost-daily chore around here). Then I'm calling it quits. Possibly forever.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Quest for the Ideal Cat Food: Part 3

I've learned a bit more since I wrote the last post about my Quest for the Ideal Cat Food, a quest that began in earnest in late fall, months after realizing that I needed to research the subject because there's no simple way to provide a cat with optimal, safe, quality nutrition.

So many cat owners are old-school, buying well-known "premium" foods from a supermarket or pet store chain, trusting that they are good because there's so much advertising backing them up and because huge multinational companies are manufacturing them. That ignorance is bliss, until their cats develop diabetes, obesity, thyroid and kidney diseases, and lymphoma — almost predictably. Then most vets will sell them "prescription" food, which is often worse than the stuff in the stores. The pet food companies we've trusted most should be trusted least, I'm sorry to say. While cats are living longer, healthier lives in general, I credit improved veterinary care and not the food. It's common sense but most of us never get this far: feeding a complex creature like a cat properly has to be more complicated than opening a box and pouring out fish-flavored cereal twice a day.

My hat is off to you if you're also pondering this subject because the vast majority of us cat lovers are not. So, if you're interested in thinking about cat food with me, read on. If not, just enjoy this photo of Harris doing The Twist and skip this post.

You may have followed some of the links in my previous posts and learned that cats are obligate carnivores who need a very high animal-protein diet and not much more. If you want a good introduction to the basics of cat nutrition, go to those links or just read this, by Dr. Lisa Pierson, probably the top expert on feline nutrition whose work is accessible online. But I'll summarize: supermarket brands of canned and dry cat food are usually loaded with grains, carbs, and non-animal protein sources that are not nourishing for cats. The simplest way to improve your cat's diet is to stop feeding dry food. Even low-quality canned cat food is better than high-quality dry food, because cats need water to aid digestion and protect their kidneys and urinary tracts. They rarely get a sufficient amount by drinking, so it needs to be right in their food. Mixing water into kibble is not a solution, trust me. I'm not going to get into the disgusting ingredients that are in many popular brands of dry food. Use your worst imagination, and know that bacteria can grow even faster if you add water to the stuff.)

* * *

In a nutshell: there is no safe, perfectly nutritious, affordable, easy-to-serve commercial cat food. (And if there were, your cat still might not want to eat it. I'm not going to get into THAT problem, either!)

If you want "the best" food, you need to make your own. Option 1 is to grind your own raw poultry and meats, being careful to use a mix of different proteins (duck, chicken, turkey, quail, lamb, rabbit....), with the correct proportions of phosphorus and calcium (from bone), which I find a tricky proposition. Too little and you'll have deficiencies; too much and it could stress the cats' kidneys, and also cause constipation. You have to figure out the correct proportions of meat, fur, fat, etc., to approximate what cats catch and eat in the wild.

Then you should add poultry hearts, to provide taurine, plus some additional supplements: vitamins and minerals, Omega-3 sources, probiotics, etc. Dedicated cat people spend part of a day making a large batch of raw food about once a month. They buy ingredients in bulk, sometimes from a supplier that takes care of the grinding and then freezes the meat. Then they thaw it, tie on their aprons, get out their giant metal bowls, and measure and mix away. They weigh out portions, package them, and refreeze for rethawing later. Then they do a whole lot of disinfecting.

My freezer is the size of a breadbox and it's full of homemade chicken stock and soups that I can't part with quickly or easily. If we ever move, I hope we'll have a grown-up freezer, so I can join this merry band. Because they are doing the very best for their cats. And cats who are fed good raw food prosper.

When I do join the band, I'll be a nervous wreck, and not just because I'm worried about salmonella and  the other germs that vets and cat food companies warn about. If you're careful about cleaning and use common sense and good ingredients (no packaged meat from supermarkets, for example), you're supposed to be fine. I imagine I'll be pretty obsessive about cleaning. I'm more worried about getting the mix right every time. There are online calculators to help with this, and there are pre-made supplements you can buy that are supposed to include everything you need. For me, mixing a box of powder into the food seems to defeat the purpose of its being "natural." At any rate, it remains a very complicated operation as I see it. I'm also worried that I'll be grossed out by making upwards of 30 pounds of cat food a month, which is the minimum I'd need to feed mine twice a day.

Now for Option 2: Another dedicated group of people feed their cats whole prey. Raw chicken parts, for example, or defrosted frozen mice and small birds. This is more natural than feeding raw ground food because it gives a cat something to sink her fangs into. Besides the nutritional benefits, these cats exercise their jaws and clean their teeth as they munch (something no dry food will ever do, by the way). The difficulty with this is that you end up with body parts all over the kitchen. Cats like to play with their food. Needless to say, I'm not ready for this. I wanted to adopt the mouse that Possum found last summer and build it a lovely house. I still long for that mouse. I can't be cutting mice lengthwise so my cats can eat them.

Option 3 is raw frozen food, available in logs, patties, tubs, and nuggets. I have only experimented with the logs, also called "chubs," and found them a total pain to defrost, slice up, and repackage for re-freezing. They leak blood all over your fridge if you aren't careful; no one told me that. I need to try patties and chunks, which come in bags that shouldn't leak. But these are expensive and the quantity I need for four cats adds up to a small fortune, and also requires freezer space I don't have.

Then there's Option 4: freeze-dried raw food, in bags and boxes. Just add water to rehydrate and serve. My cats love this stuff but the brands available around here are outrageously expensive. It worked out to be something like $12/day to feed my foursome, if I did the math correctly. So I feed it as an occasional treat. It takes so long to rehydrate that the cats go crazy waiting for it while I attack the soaking nuggets with a fork to speed up the process. You're paying not only for quality ingredients but for the convenience of not having to deal with fresh meat.

Option 5 is my option: high-quality canned food that's very high in animal protein and low in starch and carbs. It's not the best nutrition because raw food has more nutrients, but it's still "complete" nutrition... allegedly. And it's safe nutrition... allegedly. And it's easy to serve, relatively affordable, and simple to buy, store, and handle. Ideally, you should rotate multiple brands and different flavors constantly. You should avoid fish (too many toxins). I also avoid beef and any meat from China.

Always keep an eye out for recalls if you use commercial food. Even the best brands have recalls, so stay vigilant. Sign up for Susan Thixton's newsletter on (Here's a woman doing hard, important work to protect animals from the often-hidden dangers of pet food.)

What I'm Feeding

I chose my canned brands after consulting Liz Eastwood's Natural Cat Care Blog. She's done excellent research and recently revised her list of Today's Best Cat Foods. I believe this list is as good as it gets. While I spent weeks doing research online and grew more and more confused as I sought the best foods, Liz did the same work with real results, using the same criteria I did, and more. (There are many small, regional raw brands that aren't on her list, which aren't easily available in Boston; to find out about those, you should buy Susan Thixton's list of her highest-rated food. But that list has a lot more to offer dogs.)

So, I'm feeding the following brands, which are available in the Boston area — and I admit it isn't perfect. But less than a year ago, I was feeding Fancy Feast cans and Taste of the Wild kibble, so I consider that I've come a long way in a short time, with further to go. I'm feeding

1. Nature's Variety Instinct (duck and lamb, some chicken, and not rabbit because it's sourced in China). This stuff ranks in 2nd place on Liz's list because it contains montmorillonite clay, which is controversial. It also has a bunch of fruits and vegetables, making up about 5% of the food, which may provide essential nutrients or may not, depending on whom you believe. I'm generally against putting cranberries and carrots, etc., in cat food, but practically every "good" brand contains a small amount, perhaps because they think it makes it seem more appetizing to the humans buying it. Veggies and fruits are cheaper than animal protein, too.

2. Nature's Logic (rabbit and chicken). This brand was dropped from Liz Eastwood's list because it does not meet petfood industry standards for nutrition in a couple of ways. The company's argument is that it doesn't use chemical additives; all the supplements come from food, and that those standards are much higher than what cats actually need. I consider it good organic food but I use it as no more than a quarter of the cats' diet).  This stuff also has montmorillonite clay and fruits and vegetables. I talked to a customer rep and my impression is that they know what they are doing. I tend to be skeptical, but I like this food — as does Susan Thixton. I recommend subscribing to the paid portion of her site, where she analyzes and rates pet foods, if you're serious about checking out brands.

3. Tiki Cat (only non-fish flavors: Puka Puka Luau [chicken] and Koolina Luau [chicken with egg]). These are basically chicken breast in water, with supplements. Very simple, high-protein food. The one with egg is high-calorie, while the regular kind is low-calorie. Together, they average out, and calories aren't all that important when they come from a good mix of protein and fat rather than carbs.

4.  Hounds and Gatos (chicken, lamb, rabbit). This food also consists of a few basic ingredients, with lots of protein. Simpler is better.

We're spending $8 to $10 per day to feed four cats. It's a bit stunning, compared to how cheaply we were doing it for many, many years. But it makes good sense to me. I'm willing to pay more to feed these youngsters right. If they stay at healthy weights and don't develop kidney or thyroid diseases later in life, I'll be thrilled. I order my food from a local, independent pet store and they deliver it for free (120 cans a month, a heavy load). I might find better deals online but probably not when shipping is factored in.

I will eventually get some of that soup out of my freezer so I can buy more raw frozen food. I envision a 50–50 raw-canned diet as my next step toward optimal nutrition. I'd like to try Radcat, K9, and Feline Pride, but they are only available online, with high shipping costs, at least for those of us in the Boston area. Instead I'll try Nature's Variety and Primal. This might turn out to save us money, too.

Well, I'm worn out, and I bet you are, too! Thanks for reading! I love discussing cat food, and it would be fun to do so with others who are actually interested (instead of overwhelming every unsuspecting person who asks me a question in a pet store) for a change. So please send me comments, let me know your thoughts, what you're feeding, what your concerns are. I still have a long way to go.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Publishers Services Center: Don't Fall for It

Do you get subscription renewal notices from "Publishers Services Center"? I hope not.

We've never done business with this company, but we've gotten their notices frequently for many years. I usually toss them out unopened. At least a year ago, I got fed up and called them, spent the requisite 20 minutes on hold, and asked them to remove us from their list. They said they would, but did not.

I felt like opening the one that arrived to today. Talk about a rip-off:

A one-year subscription to Mac Life, straight from the publisher, is $24.95, according to the website, and $19.95 if you read the fine print in the magazine. You can always get a deal, of course. I found a subscription offer online: less than $11 for 12 issues.

So who pays $74.85 for a year of Mac Life — with automatic renewal?

People who are busy and not paying attention, that's who. People who mistake these notices for actual invoices from the publisher. People who didn't parse this statement on the "invoice" correctly: "You're receiving one of the lowest available rates WE can offer for your regular subscription."

They can't offer you the much lower, retail price of a subscription because they wouldn't be making an easy $50 or $60 a year off you. Every year. With automatic renewal.

To stop that automatic renewal, you'd have to call them. Good luck with that.

The sad thing is that what they are doing is probably perfectly legal. It's just taking advantage of people who aren't sharp enough to smell a rat.

As I wrote this, I was on hold with Publishers Services Center. (I have a speaker phone so I did other things as I waited, too.) After 20 minutes, I was shifted to voicemail without their mentioning it, and then I was disconnected. They got to hear me typing this for several minutes, anyhow. I'll call them again later to ask, among other things, what they are doing while they put everyone on hold for 20 minutes. I suspect they are sitting there, reading cheap magazines and twirling their long, black dastardly mustaches. I can't imagine their call volume is that high, so it must be their standard ploy to frustrate people. But I have loads of time and lots of curiosity, so I'll be be trying them again, when I'm in complete command of my temper. I just think it's such a nasty way to make a living. If I find out anything amusing, I'll post it here.

Monday, March 25, 2013

So Harris Ate the Cat Catcher Toy

It was only a matter of time. The Cat Catcher's tail, eyes, and ears had disappeared a while ago. Its tiny, hairy mouse fit right inside his mouth, and he loved nothing more than clamping his jaws around it and hunkering down, growling.

Photo courtesy of Drs. Foster & Smith.

I thought I was keeping a close eye on him (I held the wand, which has a sturdy metal line, always keeping a little tension on the line) even as I played with another toy with Toffee. Harris could hang onto his mouse for upwards of 10 minutes, so it was pretty boring for the rest of us.

Possum joins me in supervising Harris with his Cat Catcher. 
Possum always crosses his paws, being a gentleman.

But, during a play session four days ago, the line suddenly went slack. I immediately grabbed Harris and extracted a sizable piece of the mouse's fur from his mouth. The only thing still attached to the line was a slender brass pin, which was the inner core of the mouse. Rewrapping the skin around that pin did not add up to an entire mouse, so I had to assume that Harris had eaten something. But the mouse had always been teeny-tiny, and it didn't seem like he'd had time to gulp down anything substantial before I pried the skin out of his mouth.

 Harris, a few minutes before the demise of his favorite toy. Note his "airplane ears."

Before panicking, I called the company. It took a while for a customer service person to get back to me, but she was informed and reassuring. The toy is made mostly of deer hair and leather, including the ears, eyes, and little tail, so it's digestible if it happens to be eaten. But it isn't supposed to be eaten, she reminded me. The toy is meant to be chased, not slowly dissolved in a cat's mouth.

I mentioned this to Harris, who disagrees.

The customer rep told me that the body of the mouse was made entirely of thin deerskin, with hair, wrapped by hand around the pin. So there was no "core" for Harris to eat, only more deerskin and hair. He must have eaten some of it, but she said it is digestible. 

She also told me that the tail had been attached with glue and a small plastic bead. I'd found that bead in the bedroom days ago, and wondered what it was. How nice that Harris hadn't eaten that on my watch. I'm still hoping the tail will turn up because I really did supervise the cats when they played with this toy. But I have to say that my husband was always very nervous about that mouse and he was right. (But he's also nervous about the cats eating feathers. So he just got lucky this time.)

Needless to say, I'm looking for a different, larger, sturdier replacement for that mouse, something like a rabbit's foot, I'm thinking. Harris will only get bigger and stronger, and that little mouse was no match for him.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Boys Together

Toffee and Harris are best friends, and we hope that never changes:

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Cat Pairs Slacking Update

Recently, Wendy and Possum introduced Toffee to the feline sport of Pairs Slacking. I've written about slacking before, and I'll quote my own explanation of the sport from a post in 2011, when Possum and Wendy began training at the Pre-Junior (or Beginner) level:
This sport's competitions are high-pressure, breathtaking and emotional — similar to those in [human] figure skating. But here, the nitpicking international judges are looking for unison in lazy posing and an exquisitely lethargic attitude in each lounging couple 
The judging criteria include flopping down in unison, equal mastery of slacking technique, lack of energy, lack of choreography, lack of interpretation, sloppiness of pose, sleepiness of eyes, and graceful foot and tail positions. They get points for achieving all of that.
Points are deducted for seeming too alert or creative, excessive tail energy or ear movement, twitching, being startled by noise (a big challenge for Wendy), and falling or slipping off the slacking surface. Teams lose major points if there is more than one element in their program, i.e., they change position, or if they appear to have practiced too hard. It's a really tricky sport....

Wendy and Possum tell Toffee about the sparkly costumes worn in competition.

Possum and Harris had tried a bit of pairs slacking practice together in the weeks before Toffee arrived. But the debate about opening the sport to same-sex couples is ongoing, and somehow no one got around to explaining things to Toffee. Wendy and Possum are a well-matched team and have two years of (admittedly on-again, off-again) training together so, if Harris and Toffee can't compete together, what would be the point? 

For the record, we all believe that there's absolutely no reason why same-sex couples should be barred from competition. It's not a bit like figure skating, for example: one cat doesn't have to pick up the other cat, spin it around overhead and throw it into a clean landing. All cats need to do is look similarly exhausted.

As everyone waits for that official decision, valuable training time is being lost. So, with the hope that the Feline International Pairs Slacking Commission will get around to doing the right thing, Possum and Wendy encouraged Toffee to consider a future as a slacker. Possum gave him a quick introductory coaching session with Wendy. Here they are in a beginner-level "school position," the Classic Curl.

As you can see Toffee's maiden effort is far from ideal — to be expected, since most cats need years of practice to attain a professional skill level. His pose mirrors Wendy's to some degree but they are too close. His tail didn't stay curled on his leg with correct lassitude; instead it twitched and fluttered because he was excited about his first lesson. And his head, eyes, and ears are all wrong. He appears wide-eyed and alert instead of lethargic. Instead of attending to his coach, he's staring out the window, looking about as peppy as a curled-up cat can be. 

In my photo, Wendy has broken her position and is expressing some philosophical differences pertaining to Possum's coaching technique. She loved being coached by Snalbert; she and Possum work by themselves now and miss that grumpy, demanding, peachy-colored Persian, as we all do. (You have to trust me on this, but Wendy has come a long way since her early slacking days. She has both ears under control most of the time nowadays, although she still needs to work on bolting.)

But everyone has a lot of work ahead of them. Today, Harris and Toffee were practicing some poses that they may later attempt to polish and perform in unison. As you can see, Harris seems to have even more of a natural gift for slacking poses than Possum has.  He looks as limp and content as a ragdoll — but note his gracefully crossed legs. He makes slacking look effortless.

Toffee, on the other hand..... Slacking is not coming easily to this kitten. No matter how hard he tries to seem sleepy and nonchalant, he can't help looking like he's plotting a feline felony. Of course, he's trying out the Super-Cat pose here, which is much too advanced for him. He is committing the classic novice error of looking like he's flying instead being in a semicomatose state. But he's young; he may learn, and the next Pre-Junior competition isn't even on the calendar yet.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Give Me Liberty

I checked out J. Crew's "Liberty London" collection recently and thought I'd share it. I like their bright colors and springy, '60's mood. They have the same appeal as a mixed bouquet or a blooming window box, and many of us New Englanders are craving gardens (whether our own or our neighbors') at this time of year.

I seldom wear prints but I enjoy seeing them on other people. And William Morris fabrics are always hard to resist. While I deciding whether I was too cheap/sensible/broke to buy the Morris "Strawberry Thief" ball cap ($78), it sold out. It's okay — I decided I was all three.

Click here and you can browse the Liberty collection. There's a lot more, including swimwear and items for girls. The leather-trimmed tote, below, is meant for girls but could work for women. There are also ties and pocket squares for men.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Toffee Mystery Explained

Toffee shows his fluffy side. 

Last week I wrote about Toffee, wondering how our longhaired kitten became shorthaired over a period of days in January, and suggesting possible theories. On Saturday, I heard from our vet, who had looked at photos but didn't have an explanation. She reassured me that whatever happened to him was most likely normal, since he's in good health, is not a bit neurotic, and eats a nutritious diet. But that still left the question about whether Toffee's fur might ever grow back. It seems that some fluffy kittens turn into shorthaired cats for good. Others' coats wax and wane dramatically, usually in sync with the seasons but not always. And I couldn't help wondering about divine retribution, since I prefer my own cats to be fluffy rather than sleek.

When I have a question, I like to ask Possum. He knows a lot and, if he's stumped, he's creative about making up answers. While I can't trust his accuracy, he often opens new avenues of thought because his mind heads in odd directions. He was no help this time. I'd forgotten that Toffee and Harris are "his" kittens; to him, they are perfect. So I got a lecture on how feline coat colors and lengths are unimportant, how I have an unreasonable bias against shorthaired cats, how I'm a hypocrite because I shave my legs, and how I'm giving a Toffee a complex by worrying about trivialities out of his control. Then he called me a "furist" and suggested it was time I did something with my own hair.... at which point I left the room.

My next step was Google. I searched around, and found Moosecoons, a Maine Coon cattery in Maryland. The owner seemed passionate and knowledgeable about cats.* In addition to showcasing her stunning Maine Coons, her website is a fairly comprehensive guide to cat care that will be helpful to anyone, especially those who are new to cat ownership or in need of a refresher course. (I needed one when I got the kittens — "best practices" have changed a lot in recent years.) If you browse her site, you'll find clear info on subjects ranging from vaccines and clipping claws to poisons and toxins. I agreed with what I read, learned several things, and was most riveted by her page on growth and development of Maine Coon Kittens. She has heaps of experience that only a breeder can have. I read aloud the paragraphs about kitten coats to my husband and we agreed it sounded like Toffee's situation.

I sensed a kindred spirit, so I sent the owner an email, asking her to please look at my post about Toffee and give me her opinion. She sent me the nicest reply, which she allowed me to post here:

He is quite a handsome boy and I love that look of "planning mischief" in his eye.  He is definitley a domestic long-hair, or technically speaking a "semi long-hair" as the only true long hair cat is a Persian. He looks much like a young boy who has recently shed his kitten coat and has not yet begun to grow in his adult coat.  Since he was a stray, you may have misinformation about his true age, or certainly the medications he had to take could have thrown his growth patterns off course a bit.
Either way, I assure you I've had numerous cats that have looked like him at some stage in their older-kitten/young-adult stages.  I have no doubt that his coat will come back in and be long and luxurious and lovely — I just can't tell you when.

I consider this a definitive answer — and notice how she zoomed right in on Toffee's bad-boy personality. I know he's a mixed breed and not a real Maine Coon, but I trust her judgment. And besides, there's his tail. I don't believe he will be a shorthair because his tail is still almost as wide as he is. Cats' tails are always telling you something, and they don't lie.

* She also makes and sells pretty and enticing cat toys.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Recent Adorableness

I wish this photo came with sound: Harris was growling while Da Bird was in his mouth. So frightening!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Flour Vanilla Doughnut

I have a friend in Pennsylvania* who bakes beautifully and does so every day. She runs an inn and serves memorable hot breakfasts, accompanied by two kinds of homemade bread and something sweet: muffins, popovers, coffee cake.... In the afternoon, she keeps a cookie jar filled for her guests, too.

Yesterday, she emailed out of the blue to ask if I tried the vanilla cream doughnuts at the new Flour Bakery on Clarendon, because she's trying out Joanne Chang's recipe and wishes she could visit one of the bakeries in person. She told me to "feel free" to review it here whenever it was convenient.

I leaped into action with my typical speed; it took me 24 hours to go over there. And it was a good thing, too, because Flour only sells doughnuts on Sunday. (What's the matter with doughnuts on weekdays? Such a Puritanical attitude— and those often appeal to me, being a Proper Bostonian. But not when sugar is involved!) 

I'd already been contemplating a visit to Flour this weekend, since I was home alone and in need of a treat. I love it when friends read my mind and ask me for favors, especially when the favor is sitting at the tippy-top of the Food Pyramid.

I spent some of Saturday wondering how my friend in PA even knew about Flour, and searching online for the answer because that's what I do. I learned that the cookbook is #23 on Amazon's Bestsellers in Baking list. So Flour is nationally known and deservedly so, but I still didn't understand how she knew there was a new Flour in my neighborhood since she lives 350 miles away and plenty of Bostonians don't know about it. I know my friend skims this blog once in a while but I never mentioned it. Every branch of Flour is a zoo whenever I go, with a long line and nowhere to sit. So I keep quiet about Flour in self defense.

I dutifully trotted to Clarendon Street today and discovered that zillions of people know it's there, where the Hard Rock Café was. It's not my fault. I found the back of the line, far away from the bakery display. You spend your time in line trying to figure out what you want, not knowing if it will be gone by the time you get there.

I snagged the last vanilla cream-filled doughnut. It wasn't easy. "That one?" asked my bubbly server. "Yes," I said. "The last one?" she asked. Was she imagining I'd say, "Oh, gee, I don't want to deprive someone else, so I'll take a raspberry?" "Yes!" I said again, emphatically. "I'm not sure I can reach it!" she exclaimed. It was in the very front of the display. I was about to go for it myself when she moved a cake stand and grabbed it.

I carried it all over the South End. I had to go to Formaggio because I needed more Robiola a Due Latte, a soft, stinky, $15 cheese that's so mild you can eat the rind without incident. Forget Brie, this is what you really want. I probably shouldn't have told you, because Formaggio is a zoo, too. The next time I go, they'll probably be out of Robiola. And the Robiola at Foodie's is $22. I can't figure that out, either.

Anyway, I came home and greeted my husband, who had just flown in from Philadelphia (he has friends in Pennsylvania). I told him I'd bought a huge doughnut, and then I cut it carefully in half. Then I ate both halves. I was the one charged with reviewing the doughnut; he hadn't been mentioned. And he'd bought a giant Starbucks' white chocolate mocha somewhere between Logan and here, so he wasn't deprived.

It was a very good doughnut, but not what I expected. Before you get the wrong impression, I should say that I was not expecting a Dunkin Donuts experience, and it didn't taste anything like Dunkin Donuts, so that's not what I mean. But a lot of New Englanders use Dunkin Donuts as their doughnut aesthetic baseline, which is a shame. There are plenty of excellent doughnut shops around Boston, as will show you every other week. But there still aren't nearly enough — because of Dunkin Donuts. I like Ohlin's in Belmont, and Lyndell's, of course. (Long ago, when Krispy Kreme's northernmost outpost was Penn Station, I used to race off the train (traveling Boston–Philly, or vice-versa), run upstairs, buy a bag, and fling myself back on the train as the doors were closing. Those Krispy Kremes never saw New England. But when they starting selling doughnuts up here, I tried a hundred or so and decided they were cloyingly sweet.)

But I digress. Back to the doughnut in hand. I think of doughnuts as light and airy. Even cake and cider doughnuts should be light and fluffy, so you have room for more than one. The Flour doughnut is heavier, with a chewy, bread-like texture. Look at the photo above to see how dense it is. It was delicious, but it didn't taste doughnutty. Even fritters are lighter.

I was initially disappointed when I saw how little cream there was inside. Usually, a cream or jelly donut is just a vehicle for a ridiculous amount of filling — too much. But this one was just right. The filling flavored almost every bite, and it was delicate and light, with authentic vanilla flavor.

The outside of the doughnut was dusted in crunchy sugar and I was happy about that, too. Overall, it was a fine variation on the cream-filled doughnut. But too heavy — I'd rather save room for three different flavors from Ohlin's. And for $3.16 ($2.95 + tax), I could buy three Ohlin's doughnuts, too.

* The state motto used to be "You've Got a Friend in Pennsylvania." I always thought it was fawning and awkwardly constructed. Plenty of people don't have friends in Pennsylvania. And that's fine. Pennsylvanians can be friendly enough but we're not in the same class as Golden Retrievers.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Toffee Mystery

Here's a mystery that's been bothering me for weeks. Read on, examine the photos, and tell me what you think. We adopted Toffee as a longhaired kitten on November 28. Here he is at the shelter:

He had a gorgeous, long, fluffy coat on our Christmas card photo, taken on December 8:

But now Toffee is a shorthaired kitten! The photo on the left was taken on December 9; the one on the right is from February 24:

What happened to his handsome ruff and plush coat? All that's left is his huge tail, some tufts between his toes, and fluff on the backs of his hind legs. His belly fur is fluffy but short. The fur around his neck is about a half-inch long.

He looks kind of odd as a shorthair with that humongous tail, as you can see:

When did it happen? I've been looking at photos, trying to figure it out. I think it happened shortly after all of his emergency room excitement in January. On New Year's Eve, he burned his paws jumping onto a hot stove burner. On January 4, he swallowed a length of hemp cord and a fabric toy that I'd stupidly left lying around. He was given a strong (horse) tranquilizer to help him throw it up.  Then he was given an antidote to the tranquilizer, which didn't work. The vets at our regular hospital think that the pain medication we'd given him earlier in the day for his burns caused a bad reaction — he stayed heavily sedated for 12 hours longer than expected. (Harris got the same treatment but the antidote worked fine for him.)

Anyway, Toffee's fur loss started shortly after all that. Here he is on January 2:

Here he is, already looking different, on January 8:

Here he is, quite shorthaired although his head still looks a bit fluffy, on January 15:

Now that I see the change in photos it seems dramatic, but I honestly didn't focus on it over the past couple of months except for a nagging suspicion that Toffee looked different. For weeks, all I really cared about was preventing him from injuring himself again. And he was perfectly healthy, active, and adorable, so I just figured we had somehow adopted a shorthaired cat with a fluffy tail. But we didn't:

Longhaired cat under Christmas tree.

Shorthaired cat with big tail.

About three weeks ago, I wrote about how seeing Toffee from the back reminded me of another cat I'd loved and lost decades ago, a tiny brown longhaired tiger named Truffalo. But I realize now that, except for his tail, Toffee doesn't remind me of Truffalo one bit. If you compare the tabby markings on his back in these and other photos, you can see how much they've changed, from blurry and soft to ticked and "tweedy" — sharply delineated in his very short fur.

We adore our Toffee however he looks; we'd love him if he were bald and toothless. But we'd kind of like our longhaired Toffee back since this appearance change doesn't seem quite normal. I have a few theories about where his long fur went, and I welcome hearing yours:

1. Toffee had a heavy winter coat as an outdoor stray. Then he was adopted and became an indoor cat, and so he shed it like mad about six weeks after arriving here. (However, Toffee never acted like an outdoor cat, he was perfectly at home with us and completely socialized from Day 1.)

2. Toffee gambled away his handsome coat, at cards or football betting, but was smart or lucky enough to hang onto his tail.

3. The trauma of burning his feet and/or the bad experience of the treatment after he swallowed the toy caused stress-induced hair loss.

4. A medication reaction: in addition to the horse tranquilizer he got in the ER, we had to give him 56 doses of a worming antibiotic over many weeks, plus an additional worming medication. We finally finished that in mid January, around the time he lost his fur.

5. Wendy had Toffee abducted by the calico mafia but then realized we'd nail her as the perp since she was the only one in the house who didn't adore him. She replaced him with a similar-looking cat, but not quite. (They get along fine now, and Wendy often does have a guilty look....)

I called the staff of our cat hospital to ask for their theories and I look forward to hearing what they think; I may hear back tomorrow. Thank you in advance for your help in solving the mystery. I'll keep you posted about what the doctors have to say.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pope Lardo

Possum has been unusually quiet since yesterday. About an hour ago, he admitted that he was disappointed in the papal election. He'd been hoping privately that a miracle would happen and that he'd be elected the first Norwegian pope in absentia. (I decided not to explain to him that he'd have to be a cardinal to get elected. He'd probably give me a withering stare and say that, with God, all things are possible. And that cats are superior to old men in dresses, pretending to be birds.)

He had already chosen his papal name, "Lardo," because it sounded suitably Italian and, if there ever was a Saint Lardo, he certainly wasn't getting enough recognition. I liked his choice, and said it was snappy, original, and descriptive. He didn't understand what I meant by "descriptive," but he was pleased to hear it all the same. Then he said he wasn't completely sure of his choice and would like some help in thinking up alternatives, just in case the cardinals realized they'd made a mistake and hold another papal election soon. 

This would have been his official papal portrait.

Possum thinks it's too bad that popes can't keep their Christian names when they are elected. 

"It's his Christian name!" said Possum. "What's the matter with that?

I said, "If you don't know the answer, I guess you aren't ready to become pope yet. 

He said, "But 'Pope Possumus' would have been both Latin and elegantly alliterative."

I love how Possum uses big words. Where does he learn them? I rubbed his considerable, fluffy belly to cheer him up. But he still seemed downcast. So I said, "But, Possum, just because you aren't pope yet doesn't mean you aren't infallible." 

And he perked up and began swatting at Toffee.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Would You Buy This Condo?

The curb appeal of this recently listed Boston-area property doesn't quite appeal:

Now I understand why so many listings include close-up photos of basics like faucet sets, ceiling fixtures, and toilets. Take nothing for granted in this market.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Tree Carnage at Charley's

As I've written before, we miss Charley's, a casual neighborhood restaurant at Newbury and Gloucester Streets, which is turning into a Frye boot store:
The best thing about Charley's, besides its tall, perfect wedges of Boston Creme Pie, was the brick patio facing Newbury Street. On warm spring and summer nights, one could sit under the kousa dogwoods, and their blossoms glowed in the lights strung on the trees. No matter how the food was — and it was always fine, at least, beginning with the round loaf of hot, soft bread and a pot of butter —the atmosphere was charming, with some of the best people-watching in Boston. We liked to go after 9:30, to just order dessert — that Boston Creme Pie. The crowd on the patio would have thinned by that hour and the lighted trees seemed even more romantic.
Tonight we were horrified to see that all EIGHT TREES have been chopped down around the patio, leaving none standing. Besides the kousa dogwoods there was a white birch, and other trees. It's a grim scene and a great loss to our neighborhood:

Four stumps of mature trees are visible in this view.

This looks like a crime scene to me. 

I emailed Margaret Pokorny, a neighbor who is Boston's greatest champion of trees and a fellow member of the Garden Club of the Back Bay. She told me that the Garden Club had tried to save the trees by doing all they could — providing Frye with an assessment of the trees and recommendations — and Frye was not persuaded. She said they will plant four little trees along the curb and one bigger tree on the property. Then she gently reminded me that it is not a perfect world...

No, it's not. But there must be some little something I can do. Since I love boots and live in them, I was looking forward to buying some Fryes from the new store. I know they make spectacular bags, too. Now I think — no, I know — I can never own a pair of Fryes or a bag. At least not until there are twinkling lights on some tall kousa dogwood trees on that corner again. I will miss the trees far more than I will miss the boots or the bag. I'll bet I'm not the only customer they lose over this.

But Newbury Street lost one of its treasures. Farewell, wonderful trees.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Trader Joe's: The Good, the Wicked

A good brownie makes a glass of cold milk taste like heaven. Trader Joe's Truffle Brownie Mix is an excellent product for getting yourself to nirvana; the instructions call for a stick of melted butter, so what can go wrong? I enjoy baking from scratch but, when it comes to brownies, I usually want need them fast, so I use mixes.

I decided to take a short break from chocolate. It's Lent, after all.  So I bought a box of TJ's Blondie Bar Mix, a cross between brownies and chocolate chip cookies. (Yeah, there's chocolate in them... go ahead and excommunicate me, and see if I care.)

I'm pleased to report that Blondie Bars are another worthwhile way to use up a stick of butter. While they are flatter and more crumbly than brownies, they are equally rich. I found myself adding more chocolate chips for no understandable reason, and I'll probably do it again.

While Trader Joe's makes good mixes (I recommend their cornbread, too), I wish they'd do some work on their bathroom tissue. They could start by sending it to reform school. I bought my first two six-packs in the past month or two, after years of buying different brands at Shaw's. I've never seen anything like them. They are self-destructive, sneaky, and peripatetic — not qualities I'm seeking in bathroom tissue.

I have proof: while I was in the living room this morning, the spare roll we keep on the windowsill stormed its way into a corner of the bedroom. Here's where I found it, looking much the worse for wear and tear, either because it's terribly neurotic or because some brave, responsible cat tried a little too hard to awaken it to its sense of duty:

I guess it really, really wanted to see itself in the mirror but first it had to scatter bits of itself all over the bedroom floor.

I worry about the cats' safety with these creepy, self-centered renegades on the loose. I should switch brands.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Cats on a String

The kittens are more playful than ever. I thought they'd simmer down as they got bigger but they have more energy and creativity for destruction than ever. I have to "gallop" them with the laser pointer twice a day to wear them out. I've gone through three laser pointers so far. FYI, it is cheaper to buy new pointers than replacement batteries.

Speak of the devil: Harris jumped on the kitchen counters, still covered in blue tape for Operation Stickum as I was writing. He didn't like it, but he hasn't given up on jumping there. Operation Stickum continues for the foreseeable, leaving us with about a square foot of usable counter surface.

I'm trying to keep them from being bored. I recently got them two more interactive toys from Cause to Paws in Brookline. They have a good selection of cat items despite being yet another dog-centric store, and they always know what's been a hit with their customers' cats.

I bought a Cat Charmer, a very long "ribbon" of striped fleece attached to a plastic pole. It's made by the company that makes the Cat Dancer, so I figured I couldn't go wrong.  Here's Harris playing with the original Cat Dancer, a flexible, bouncy wire that has bits of rolled cardboard on one end and a relatively useless green plastic mouse on the other, which I use as a handle:

The colorful fleece Cat Charmer was also a big success: even Possum roused himself to play, and he usually affects boredom during the kittens' toy sessions. But I have proof that he likes it:

It's true that he didn't bother to leave his heated cat bed to actually chase it, but he played with it long enough for Toffee to get bored and leave.

The other new toy seems to be Harris's all-time favorite, the Cat Catcher. It's made by Go Cat, makers of the ever-popular Da Bird. It's a tough, tiny mouse with a rawhide tail attached to a pole with a spinner and strong, flexible wire:

This toy is more exhausting for me than the kittens. That mouse is so tiny that Little Harris can get the entire thing into his mouth. When he does this, he growls continuously and refuses to let go. He transforms into a vicious beastie, victorious and selfish over his prey. I pull, he growls; I cajole, he growls; I insist, and he fights my attempts to pry it out of his clamped jaws. We take turns dragging each other around the apartment. Our battles have gone on for as long as 20 minutes — I was on the phone listening to my dad and didn't have two free hands to extract the toy. (The growling on both ends of the line never stopped.) 

Here's a bad photo, taken one-handed with my phone as I tried to keep him from dragging me into another room. I'm not sure if the toy is small enough for him to swallow and I plan never to find out. Of all our toys, this one needs the most secure storage spot.

So the real game, of course, is to keep the toy away from Harris's mouth and to give Toffee time to have fun with it, too. But Harris always wins.

Time to go to war play.