Wednesday, October 31, 2012

This Blog Has Moved

Hi, friends.  I've chosen to move my blog over to Wordpress, and I hope you'll follow me there!  The url is

Monday, September 24, 2012

My Slice of the Nile

As some of you may know, I love container gardening.  I like it because the small size allows me to be much more creative in terms of how I add interest.  Also, bonus, it's a hell of a lot easier and more manageable than plotting out a whole landscape in my garden (which, sidenote, has a fricking cucumber growing!  I am so pleased!).  While I've been working on organizing my yard into something more aesthetically pleasing and less weedy, sometimes I just need a quick shot of energy.

That was how I put together this beautiful container garden.  I have to admit, at first I was annoyed, because the garden center didn't have many things designed to hold water, and so I was forced to settle for this rather utilitarian plastic planter.  I had been envisioning half-barrels with single perfect water lilies, so this was a decided step down. 

What I realized, though, once I put together container and the plants I'd chosen, those that enjoy having their feet wet, was that I had a microcosm of a beautiful riverbank.  Because of the fronds, it felt very Egyptian to me, so I promptly played up that aspect.  Can you see the little marble camel lounging in the shade?

There's a pyramid too!
The management for this garden is almost non-existent.  Once the plants were set at proper heights (using tiny upended dishes for those that need more elevation), I filled it up with water, and since then, I've more or less forgotten about it apart from occasionally refilling.  I'll probably throw a little compost tea in soon to feed the plants as well.  But it sits on my front stoop, bringing a shot of artistry to its rather pedestrian surroundings, and it makes me smile every time I see it.

I'm still dreaming of that half-barrel and water lily, though!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Artist's Way Week Five

So this is where I start to go off the rails with Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way.  Oh, I'm still doing my morning pages and treating myself to exciting "dates" like going to the garden center or renting a movie from Amazon Instant Viewing (ah, life in a small town). 

For Week Five, Cameron talks about prosperity.  Now I suppose there are ways to talk about prosperity that aren't offensive--for example, the President could talk about how to increase national prosperity, and that would be nice (nicer yet if he had a workable plan, but we'll let that pass).  But in general, when you use the word prosperity, you've lost me.  First off, it's more or less a polite way of saying money.  Second, it's too diffuse and general a term.  What is prosperity?  Is it having a fresh cup of quality coffee every morning?  Compared to most of the world's standards for living, that's pretty prosperous, and I could check that off--I am prosperous.  But that doesn't mean I don't owe a small nation's GDP in student loans.  My net worth on a financial scale is negative. 

But Cameron insists that God wants to help me out with all this.  Indeed, the only hangup is that I am too reluctant and faithless to really trust God to help me become prosperous.

It is, I hope, self-evident that this is crap.  It is a grotesque blend of Prosperity Gospel and The Secret: the worst of both worlds.  It is where New Age meets televangelists, and can you really imagine a worse place than that?

Jesus is not Santa Claus.  He does not hand out candy as a reward for good behavior.  I wish he did because then a) I'd get to meet him, and b) I would maybe have some candy.  Like, maybe one fuzzy Bit o' Honey.  Remember when Jesus said, "Your father who sees in secret will reward you in secret"?  That didn't mean a flashy car.  That meant the kingdom of heaven.  You know, after you die?

One of the Artist's Way exercises for this week had me write down the reasons I couldn't really believe in a supportive God.  I felt only one word was needed: Auschwitz.  Yes, the Holocaust is an answer so easy that it's almost cliche, but there is nothing else that so cleanly encapsulates the fact that God is not going to protect you from bad things.  He may support your spirit, he may whisk you off to a life of ease and joy among the clouds, but the one thing he doesn't do is shut down the fricking gas chambers when you're about to be killed.  God's chosen people prayed for deliverance, and six million of them were killed.  So the next time you start talking to God about how you'd really like a new car, or even a big bag of groceries so you can stop eating those disgusting canned peas, put it in perspective. 

I know this is a lengthy post, and it's obvious that Cameron has pushed some of my buttons with this stuff.  But saying that we can achieve prosperity by entering the flow or obeying God or anything other than working our asses off and hoping for the best is the worst kind of first-world victim blaming.  Sorry, small child who is dying of starvation right now.  I guess you just didn't trust God enough.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Strawberry Dandy

I started investigating fruit shrubs this weekend—no, not currant bushes, though I am in the midst of executing a new garden project that I hope will be photo-ready soon. No, what I'm talking about is a sweet, vinegared fruit syrup—a trend on which I am way  behind. In investigating the mix, I found that refreshing drinks using shrubs date back to colonial days. Though I couldn't personally verify this claim, I did find an 1890 recipe for “Raspberry Shrub or Vinegar” here  that seems to be pretty much the same idea.

Many modern bartenders are apparently now turning to the shrub as inspiration for cocktails—and I decided to follow suit with an invention of my own! What follows is a recipe for a Strawberry Dandy, a cocktail that would be perfect for a summer garden party or a Sunday brunch.

Strawberry Dandy
1 part strawberry shrub syrup
2 parts Dubonnet Rouge
2 parts seltzer, chilled

Combine strawberry shrub and Dubonnet Rouge in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake vigorously. Pour into a glass and top with seltzer.

For strawberry shrub:

1 teacup of water
1 teacup of sugar
1 teacup of roughly chopped strawberries (I used some pretty sketchy ones from the back of the refrigerator)
1 sprig of fresh lavender (this is a completely unnecessary grace note)
½ teacup of white vinegar

To anticipate objections, it doesn't matter how big your teacup is, as long as you use the same teacup for all measurements. Stir together water and sugar over a low flame to create a simple syrup. Add chopped strawberries and smash roughly to release juices. Simmer for approximately five minutes, then allow to “steep” for fifteen to thirty minutes more. Strain the syrup and discard (or devour) solids. Pour into a jar with lavender sprig and vinegar. This will keep in your refrigerator for about a week.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Princess Syndrome

These days, if you read an article about little girls, it's often bemoaning their enslavement to Disney Princesses.  They only want to dress in pink and pretend to be a princess, mothers bewail.  This is not progressive or even aesthetically desirable.

But personally, I find the princess backlash confusing because seriously, who the fuck didn't want to be a princess?  Long before Disney princesses, before the Princess Diaries, there was still Sara Crewe and her eternal pretense of princesshood.

For those unfamiliar with the 1905 Francis Hodgson Burnett book A Little Princess, it is the story of a pampered child, who, thrust into adversity and servitude as a London slavey, uses her imagination to sustain herself and others.  Sara's longstanding "pretend" is of being a princess, and she comports herself so admirably that all who behold her are moved by her grace and generosity.

This was a touchstone book for me as a child--I, like Sara, had a great many pretends and plays that shaped my character.  Like Sara, I loved beautiful things and imagined my world into something far grander.

I found myself considering this question tonight as I realized that I, thirty-two, fat and dissolute, still want to be a goddamn princess.  So why, I asked myself, is this still a thing?  What is it about princesses that makes them so special?

Then it occurred to me--what other type of woman, in our shitty society, is automatically valued simply for who she is?  For the effortless task of being born?  She walks into a room and everybody pays attention. Her likes and dislikes matter. Her interests are encouraged. She is an object of beauty in and of herself.  I'm speaking, understand, of the idea of the princess more than actual princesses.  Actual princesses seem pretty miserable, which is a shame, but doesn't change the ideal at all.

What of you, dear reader?  Were you a princess or did you have more progressive dreams as a child?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Artist's Way: Weeks Three and Four

I didn't want anyone who might be reading this to imagine I had drifted away from this commitment to a "creative recovery" so early on.  Last week was just a little quiet, with no drama apart from running out of empty notebook and having to buy an emergency composition book at the grocery store.

This week, however, things started happening.  Noveling came thick and fast.  Blog posts were written.  Three pages written every morning became just a thing I did.  I have to say, feeling this comfortable with my creativity is pretty awesome.  There are still things I don't like about the program (more on that next week!), but it does seem to be a good sort of roto-rooter for the brain.

Also!  I finally went on a really good artist date, to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.  That was actually a lot of time, so I may have to try and do better dates with myself in the future.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Support Art: On the Uses of Wealth

Yes, dear readers, it is time for me to get on my high horse and abuse the wealthy once more--not, however, for precisely the reason you would expect. 

Yesterday, I visited the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, where there was an exhibit of Duncan Phyfe furniture.  Because I enjoy decorative arts just as much as fine arts, if not more, I spent a fair amount of time looking over this exhibit.  As I looked at graceful lines, rich woods, and carefully tailored purposes, I thought, "This is what rich people are for."

I won't say that only rich people can be patrons of the arts.  But it is, in general, their best and most important role in society.  Rich people want nice things, so they support artists, who (ideally) then go on to share their talent with the rest of us.

But going to the "Indulge" section of the Neiman Marcus website (something guaranteed to raise the blood pressure of anyone who works hard to keep a roof over their head and food on the table) shows that the rich, apparently, can think of nothing to do with their money but buy items that look like everything else in the world, but cost ten times as much.  Where are the hand-bejeweled chess sets?

This is my argument: not with the money spent, but with the poor value of money spent.  In the old days, rich people knew how to spend money.  They bought beautiful, costly things.  What are we going to put in a museum a hundred years from now?  A Fendi bag?  Maybe!  But darlings, let's face it--the rich have deserted fashion as well, and haute couture is now functionally dead.  There will never be another Elsa Schiaparelli.  Instead, fashion struggles to retain relevancy where it has, in general, neither taste nor beauty nor the good craftsmanship that should be the hallmark of a couturier.

Really, Mitt?  Where is your costly diadem?!
Consider, if you will, Mitt Romney, everybody's favorite money-stuffed punching bag.  Mitt Romney could go around encrusted with rubies and draped in ermine.  Or he could wear a suit made of chinchilla.  Instead, Romney spends what I'm sure is a tidy sum to look like "just another" corporate casual asshole.  Well done, sir.  I salute you.  His wife seems to have slightly (only slightly) better priorities.  Her fondness for expensive horseflesh is decadent and conventional.  But what's all this shit about elevators for the Cadillacs?  For that kind of money, you could fund the education of another Cellini and set him up with costly materials to make a treasure for humanity.

So rich people, please stop wasting your money on crap.  Support artists.  Support art.  Give humanity something beautiful.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Artist's Way: Week Two

I've now finished my second week of following the Artist's Way, and I won't lie--it's getting a little tough.  When I can tap the right vein, three pages in the morning comes out easily.  But when I can't find that voice of honesty and self-examination...well, it comes hard.
Hennig's Girl Reading

I also find the Artist Date increasingly hard to keep to.  For last week, I chose to decorate my workspace (the kitchen table).  I cleared off all the junk, including salt and pepper shakers, and placed a yellow rose floating in a blue china bowl in the center.  I pinned up a picture of a girl reading (the image seen here) to provide inspiration for my dissertation as well as something to look at when I'm sitting despairingly searching for the next sentence!

I also had the pleasure to read this excellent post by Maria Popova on Tchaikovsky (about whom I have written before on this blog) and his work ethic.  The quote from Tchaikovsky that really stuck with me was this: "We must be patient, and believe that inspiration will come to those who can master their disinclination."  Mastering disinclination is, I think, what it's all about.  Some days I want to write.  Some days I don't.  But if I let my work go until I "feel like it," it never gets finished.

Stay tuned for more on my "creative recovery"!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Outstanding and Outdated: The Posset

A seventeenth century posset pot from the Victoria and Albert
Outstanding and Outdated is a series in which I take a look at historical recipes, particularly drinks, that have fallen out of favor.  Today, I want to consider the posset.

The posset has a long and rich history from medieval times up until the present.  Lady Macbeth famously drugged the possets of the grooms in Macbeth.  In 1638, John Taylor records a story of servants who, making a posset while their employers slept, heard someone coming down the stairs, whereat "one of them took the Bason with the hot Posset, and (to hide it) laid it upon the seat in the House of office, Master Gent suspecting no harme, went thither in the darke, and set himselfe in the Posset, which hee found so scalding, that hee cried out Helpe, helpe, the devil's in the Privie: thus was the Servants deceiv'd, the Good-man scar'd and scalded, and the Posset most unluckily spoyl'd and defil'd."  Clearly the last consequence is the most serious.

But what is a posset?  In practice, it is a kind of spiced hot milk with alcohol.  The first Earl of Carlisle's sack-posset, recorded in 1671, called for sack (which is a dry wine of the sherry family), cream, spices, and a great many eggs, which presumably made the drink very custardy.

Another method of thickening the posset is oatmeal, used particularly in Scotland.  Using this method, the milk is boiled with oatmeal, then strained.  I have used this method myself and found it very effective.  Breadcrumbs may also be used for this purpose.

The kind of alcohol used in a posset is really up to the user.  Wine, ale, and spirits have all been used to concoct possets.  Brandy, whiskey, sherry, or stout are all excellent options, and stout in particular creates a thick, creamy posset with a lot of body.

The posset is generally both sweetened (either with sugar or honey) and spiced with nutmeg, cinnamon, mace, or any combination thereof.

The recipe below is one that I have refined by trial and error.  It will be very foamy; the foam is called the "grace" and may be eaten with a spoon.

Sophie's Posset Cup
Serves two not particularly greedy people

1 c. milk
1 heaped tablespoon rolled oats
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
2 Tbsp. honey
1/2 c. Guiness or similar

In a small saucepan, simmer together the milk, oats and nutmeg until the oatmeal is soft and well-cooked.  Using a fine strainer, separate the liquid and solids, pressing well on the oatmeal with a spoon to extract all liquid.  Stir in honey and add Guinness.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Artist's Way: Week One

I'm sure that, even now, there are hundreds of other people doing The Artist's Way, a creative recovery self-help program.  It's such an attractive program, and the rewards it offers are tremendous.  Unblocking creativity is big business, perhaps rightly so.

For personal reasons, I've begun using The Artist's Way to help me be more creative.  I find the system very intuitive; lots of writing, lots of reflection, concrete tasks to help me focus.  The core discipline of the program is writing three pages a morning by hand every single day.  You are also supposed to schedule time for weekly "Artist Dates" to spend time nurturing your creative self.

So for this first week, I agonized, plotted and planned over where to take myself, and finally wound up enforcing an evening of beauty maintenance on myself.  I'm fairly certain that's not a very good date, but it was nice and relaxing structuring a whole evening around self-care.

There are times when the tone of the book, the countless inspirational stories and affirmations, maddens me.  Affirmations are one of those things that I consider harmless lunacy, except that apparently they're supposed to work.  Maybe.  Being told to read and write affirmations feels pointless, but I'm doing it anyway, as much as I can. 

I'll check back next week to let you know how the process is going!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Modern Luxury

I spent five days of last week in a small shack in the woods near Prescott, Arizona, helping my mother cater a retreat for a group that comes there every year.  This is all very well and good, but Prescott, while a good deal cooler than Phoenix to the south, can be very warm indeed. 

Luckily, we had the technology to solve this problem: a small, thirty-year-old swamp cooler parked right in front of the bed.  I spent off time between meals lying in front of that little gust of cool air and drinking a Dr. Pepper from the refrigerator and musing that, just because of this simple luxury that I take for granted every day, I am enjoying greater luxury than Greta Garbo or Dolly Madison or Beau Brummel or Cleopatra. 

Everyone always wants to pin down the one invention that changed America--well let me tell you, my nomination is most certainly the air conditioner.  Air conditioning built the enormous Southwestern suburban cities, making deserts or swamps into livable places.

Computers may hold all our media, most of our social connections, and perform other amazing functions, but in my neck of the woods, if you asked someone what they can't live without, it's their air conditioning.

It all made me think of a favorite Marilyn Monroe comedy, The Seven Year Itch.  I'm sure most of you have seen it.  But has it ever occurred to you that, if you take Monroe's character as a desiring creature rather than merely an object of desire, the whole thing is a long, dirty love letter to air-conditioning?

Other inventions that changed our lives so dramatically we didn't even notice: the refrigerator, efficient lightbulbs, and food-canning technology.  These small things shape our lives more subtly, but ultimately more drastically, than all the silicone chips we like to bury ourselves in.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Status, Cars, and the Hedonic Treadmill

I was planning to compose a post for today in response to the whole “Busy Trap” flutter going around the chattersphere. I will still try and write that post, because the issue is interesting to me, but a discussion with a friend on striving for status made me realize something strange.

First of all, there are a lot of ways to define status. A house, a job title, a judicial appointment, a fair wage. But if someone says, “Status is very important to me,” most of us assume that that person is a big jerk. That they want to lord it over the little people and maybe run over a few peasants on their way to and from the gourmet grocery store.

But if, say, a high school English teacher said to me, “I want more status,” I would immediately agree that they deserve more status. Because part of status is respect. And if teachers want to not be viewed as idiots who couldn't hack corporate law, then that seems like a fair demand to me.

What I really want to talk about, though, is cars. Cars have a unique association with status for many people. If we envision someone consumed by the desire for status, we generally assume they drive an overpriced car.

Here's the thing. My car gives me a sense of status. I drive a 2001 VW Beetle, and I love that machine like a child. Looking at its vivid blue color makes me smile. Children and old men yell, “Nice bug!” at me, and I grin at them and say thanks. It makes my day. My car is basically a reflection of my aspirational personality. It's quirky and cute, but it is still a “Volkswagen” as the Germans originally conceived it. A car for the people.

Interestingly, I can only think of a few cars that people react to this way. People at the convenience store don't yell, “Nice Beemer!” even though BMW does undoubtedly design lovely vehicles. In fact, other than the Beetle, the only other car I know of that elicits that reaction is the Fiat. The Fiat, like the Beetle, is basically unusual in that it is an example of good, even iconic, product design for the masses.

And therein lies the real attraction of these cars and why, in my case anyway, they are completely exempt from the hedonic treadmill that demands we constantly acquire more and better stuff. I have had my Beetle for five years now, almost. I have never once in that time wished for a better car. (Well, I've often wished for a car whose “check engine” light wasn't permanently on, but that's a different question). The pleasure I got that first day on the lot is the same as the pleasure I get every time I see the car in the driveway. If I could afford a brand new Mercedes-Benz, I would buy a brand new Beetle instead and then laugh my way to the bank. Because the Beetle isn't just another car. It's my car. It's the car that I want.

That's what breaks the hedonic treadmill. Not a resolve to live in austerity, but taking the time to find objects that are exactly what you want. Not a cheap substitute for what you want, not just a means of displaying wealth, but an end in and of themselves.

What objects do you have that never lose favor? Jeans that fit just right, a can opener that works perfectly, a beautiful painting?

Sunday, May 27, 2012


It is truly stupid how many times I am taken aback by the simple fact that planning is a good thing.

I'm not talking your refinancing your mortgage or doing over your bathroom.  I'm talking simple, everyday stuff.  Slipping herbs into the water pitcher, packing homemade lemonade and some edamame for a long drive down to Phoenix, always remembering to keep lotion and lip balm by your bed.

These are the things that make a day work.  These are the things that prevent fast-food stops, bottled water purchases, late fees, headaches from happening.  These are the tiny doable actions that will make life run smoothly.  More than that, they're the best way to plan change into your life.  A menu plan and grocery list will do more to get that ayurvedic diet started than reading through a bunch of magazine articles and books about your dosha. 

Go do one tiny thing that will pay off later now!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Old Genre Fiction Puzzler

“Somewhere in its history,” Lev Grossman writes, “reading novels has gotten all tangled up with questions of social status, and accepting the kinds of pleasure that genre novels offer us has become — how perverse are we? — a source of shame” ( ). He produces this “gem” in the middle of an essay on the ways in which genre fiction acts disruptively towards modern literary fiction. And while what Grossman says is undeniably true, it also demonstrates a really frightening ignorance towards the origins of the novel.

“Somewhere in its history?” Try always. Try the prose romances written by women in the seventeenth century that were obviously not literature because they weren't poetry. Try Daniel Defoe and his uneasy relationship with “real-life” crime literature. Try Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding sniping at one another about what, exactly, the novel was supposed to be.

It's this last that's particularly instructive. Both Richardson and Fielding were invested in inventing “the modern novel,” despite the fact that neither of them really did so. Richardson's novels were morally sententious, painfully realistic (to the degree that Pamela can be considered realistic, which is certainly arguable), and (sorry) boring. So really, if Grossman wants someone to point his finger at for the way we think of literary fiction: serious, stylistically ambitious, and coded with a kind of moral valence, it's Richardson who deserves to take the brunt of that blame.

Fielding, on the other hand, wrote in a tradition that was much closer to the romances that were the novel's true origins. His work had a picaresque, postmodernist quality. Nonetheless, casting him as a kind of anti-hero of the novel's development is stupid. He was just as invested as Richardson in making himself the “father of the novel” (which had so many forgotten mothers...), and therefore in codifying literary genre.

What does this mean for the novel today? It means that we are still doing what we always do. We always want to ask ourselves, “But is it art?” Maybe that's not a bad question. Grossman lists authors like Neil Gaiman, China Mieville, and Catherynne Valente to demonstrate that art abounds in the genre fiction ghetto. And I'm not inclined to disagree. Novels like American Gods or Deathless are art, whether they are slapped with a genre fiction label or not.

But I do see a difference between literary and genre fiction. Practically, there's a difference in the ways these things are produced and sold. There's no MFA mill for genre fiction writers, which means that their understanding of conventions and the creative process is distinctively different from that of literary fiction writers.

For the reader, however, I believe the main distinction is one of investment. A reader who picks up a mystery, a sci fi romp, a romance, has different expectations than a reader of literary fiction. They aren't preparing themselves to seriously engage with the prose in order to appreciate it, they're preparing for the payoff. If the payoff takes too long, they put the book down.

And literary fiction could absolutely benefit from a stronger “philosophy of the payoff.” Too many modern writers seem to feel they need to beat the audience with sticks and leave them bleeding in order to demonstrate their “seriousness.” But there's still a value to something that makes readers sit down and suspend their desire for immediate gratification and comprehension. There's value to a novel that demands study.*

And, finally, I think that Grossman's article demands a greater transparency. The reader has a right to ask whether he is responding to the reception of his literary works, which could perhaps best be classified as fantasy fiction, and demanding a larger share of the “art” pie. Merely excising the personal from the critical does not in itself equate distance. Grossman should be open and honest about what the stakes are here for him personally.

*Please don't point me towards the Tolkien scholars. The fact that a thing can be studied does not mean it needs to be studied.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Why I Will Never Be Cool

Tennessee Ernie Ford

I was not a popular child. That's the only real explanation I can come up with for my musical tastes. I liked Madonna as a child, and Oingo Boingo, but by fifth grade I didn't even know which New Kid on the Block was which. In junior high, I pretended to like Boyz 2 Men, but realistically, I spent most of my time at home, where my mother's boyfriend was playing his Johnny Horton records.

Thus an unusual ear was formed. Most popular music slid right off it, but a song like Bobbie Gentry's “Ode to Billie Joe” had me mesmerized for days. The positive effect of this is that I can out-hipster the hipsters. I dug into the history of popular music with idiosyncratic and insatiable appetite. There's always something new out there to find, you just have to hear it at the right time. I listened to Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen and the fucking Carter family and Dylan and Joni Mitchell. But the list doesn't stop there. Because there's John Denver too, and Glenn Campbell and Conway Twitty and Vera Lynn and everybody you wouldn't be caught dead listening to.

This is why I will never be cool.

Coolness is primarily humanist in perspective, which is to say it has to do with canon-making. It's cool to like old music so long as it's not music your grandmother liked. She was never hip enough to dig Chuck Berry.

I don't care if my grandmother liked it. I don't care if nobody but my grandmother liked it. I will listen to blues, to funk, to country hits that they sell on tv, to folk rock, to novelty music. I will listen to Harry Chapin singing about the “wild man wizard” inside of him when he gets high. And not for the pleasure of being different, because I mainly hide these tastes like leprosy.

With all that said? Led Zeppelin still sucks. I guess it must be music for cool people.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Tale of Two Cooks

My mother is a very good cook.  In terms of technical know-how and reliability, her cooking expertise far exceeds my own.  On her watch, everything gets cooked correctly.

So why do I hate her cooking?  The answer is simple: style and preparation.  My mother primarily relies on the same recipes she's been using for thirty years.  Do you remember what American cuisine was like thirty years ago?  That was the era when frozen vegetables were "fancy" for most people, and fresh vegetables virtually unheard of.  The majority of her meals involve an enormous slab of meat.

Personally, I am not a good cook.  I'm terrible at frying things.  I'm an indifferent baker.  Yet I like my own cooking better than anyone else's, and the reasons are the same I cited above: style and preparation.  I like to peruse recipes for inspiration.  A lot of my specialties are very simple and simply cooked foods that, in combination, become something more.  Example:  One of my favorite breakfasts involves sliced Spanish chorizo, chickpeas, tomatoes, and torn parsley all tossed together in a skillet.  It's an idiot proof dish--anyone with minimal cooking skills could prepare it.  But the dish itself has a taste that's to die for.

My point here is not that technical skill in the kitchen isn't important!  And with practice and attention to detail, anyone can overcome natural deficiencies in skill.  My point is, rather, that taking the time to assemble a meal--with main dish and sides that harmonize or a fantastically pulled-together single dish--can work wonders, and you don't have to have a lot of skill to do it.

So experiment.  Find out what foods go together, what you like, and don't be afraid to take things to the next level with a dash of freshly grated cheese, green herbs, or chopped nuts.  Little things like that have a big impact on a meal, and they're delightfully easy.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Befriending Tchaikovsky

Artist Jane Mackay's representation of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet

At some age in my youth, probably around fourteen when I first took music appreciation in school, I decided it was cool to hate Tchaikovsky (and Beethoven, Schubert, etc. etc.). I thought that the best music was plainly baroque in origins, with exceptions for Mozart. Formally elegant, intellectual pieces seemed to me far better than music that was overly emotional or “pretty.” I listened to a great deal of Bach.

This is not to say that I shunned everything after Mozart. I had a grudging little love affair with Debussy that I couldn't shake. But for a good fifteen years, that's more or less what I would have said had anyone questioned me on issues of classical music.

But recently, I've begun befriending musicians I once dubbed uncool. Schubert may have been the first because I wanted to listen to some lieder. And then it was the Tchaikovsky. Seriously, can you name another classical musician who's had such a hold on the mental “ear” of the public? (Okay, Beethoven, pipe down.) At least a dozen of his melodies are instantly recognizable to any adult and most children, from the Nutcracker Suite to the Sleeping Beauty Waltz.

This music isn't “just” for ballets and stage-work. It's dreamy, disciplined work that sounds positively opulent to the ear. It's a genuine pleasure to listen to the swelling strings he uses. And really, if I'm going to make any pretensions at all to coolness, I don't want it to be through rejecting something beautiful.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Outstanding and Outdated: Beef Tea

1900 Bovril advertisement, per the Victoria and Albert Museum

This post represents what I hope will be an ongoing series called Outstanding and Outdated, an idiosyncratic history of drinks. Please feel free to suggest drinks you'd like to hear about!

Upon eating some delicious beef stew tonight, I was recalled to some experiments I had once made in preparing beef tea. The ubiquitous Victorian food of invalids had long piqued my curiosity. So I bravely took lots of beef and double-boiled it and found it fairly bland and uninspiring.

In terms of cook books, beef tea seems to first appear in 1861's Book of Household Management. There Mrs. Beeton explains that the tea is “to be administered to those invalid to whom flavoring and seasonings are not allowed” (unlucky people!).

In 1870, Napoleon III ordered beef to feed his troops, and a Scotsman created Johnston's Fluid Beef, later called Bovril. This was and is the most popular commercial beef tea in production and it remains an iconic part of British culinary heritage today.

The New York Times in 1880 apparently had so many inquiries that related to beef tea that they decided to devote a special column to the matter. There we read that beef tea is entirely composed of gelatine and that humans cannot derive sustenance from gelatine. The author instead recommended taking some commercial beef tea and then adding to it meat and water to make...homemade beef tea.

Beef tea, which is nowadays pretty much exclusively Bovril, has strong associations with British football culture, as a beverage for fans to enjoy on a cold morning in the stands. It has mainly lost its early associations with invalidism and is nowadays made at home only by anachronistic food enthusiasts like myself.

You can find Mrs Beeton's recipe here.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Snow Day Reading

I realize this post is fairly unseasonable for most readers, but here in the mountains, we've had snow coming down hard for a night and a day now, which inspired me to pick out the perfect books for a snow day.

Let me be very clear—snow day reading is all about comfort. For this reason, about half of my choices are basically children's literature. These are the easy-to-reread favorites that are easily picked up with a cup of tea and put down for a long nap under a quilt. 

The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder--Laura and her family may be barely surviving a hard winter, but you're cuddled up with a cup of cocoa! Enjoy the vicarious hardship.
Deathless by Catherynne Valente--An exquisite novel that reimagines Russian folk tales in the era of Communism. Warning: may cause beet-cravings.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis--The archetypal snow day book. Look out your window and imagine that every snow-covered lamp post is magical.
The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen--This fairy tale is immensely influential and strangely underappreciated. Anderson is the master of the literary fairy tale, and this is one of his best.
Three Blind Mice by Agatha Christie--If you'd like a literary frisson, enjoy this gripping murder mystery that unfolds in a house completely cut off by snow.  You say cliche, I say classic.
Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan--I had to have one literary fiction selection, and I chose this over The Shipping News primarily because I've read it more recently. As a Red Lobster closes its doors forever, snow falls and falls and its manager tries to reconcile himself to both the past and the future.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Men, Women, and Silver-Screen Style

"Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other.  Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then."  --Katherine Hepburn

When a woman is perpetually single, into her thirties, she gains, or has thrust upon her, a good deal of appetite for her own way.  There's no slow lesson of compromise and consideration, only the independence that sometimes being lonely will reward.

This is not to say that such a woman cannot find her perfect partner at any age, but it suggests that when love enters after three decades, it can be harder to adjust to.

I was watching Mary, Queen of Scots with Katherine Hepburn last night, and it occurred to me how iconic she became not just as a strong modern woman, but also as an actress who portrayed women of powerful self-will.  One of the greatest roles she ever played may have been Eleanor of Aquitane, another indomitable female.

Those phrases are still a little uncomfortable, aren't they?  "Appetite for her own way." "Self-will."  "Indomitable."  Yet these are phrases that have historically connoted admirable strength and determination--in persons of either gender.

And so I return to the Hepburn quote above.  I love the off-the-cuff wit and elegance it displays--but also the radical rethinking of what romantic relationships are meant to be.  If "women of a certain age," like myself, are going to be won over to the side of domestic felicity, it's going to be a felicity on our own terms, where we don't have to share a bathroom

Monday, February 13, 2012

Flying Solo on Valentine's Day

As one who is perennially single, I like to think I've achieved a certain level of aplomb and savoir faire about flying solo. There is one time of the year, however, universally acknowledged to be a big fuck-you to the large and ever-growing singles community: Valentine's Day.

You may be perfectly fine with sitting at home watching Downton Abbey any other night of the year, but Valentine's is supposed to be the day that someone surprises you with flowers, diamonds hewed from the blood of African workers, and, of course, mediocre-quality chocolates vulgarly adorned.

Now, I will say nothing against flowers any day of the year, and indeed I think there need to be a lot more flowers in all of our lives. But do you really want the rest of that? Complete with some mouth-breather to be your significant other? I think not.

So here are some few suggestions for the holiday for those of us who have chosen to eschew the mouth-breathers.

  1. Party up. My most recent, and best-loved, Valentine's Day was spent in the company of two dear friends watching Shakespeare and wearing a faaabulous dress. Gently feel out your single friends for plans and then do something fun. Sound pretty simple? It is.
  2. Pick up a bottle of prosecco. There is something depressing about buying chocolates for one's self at this time of year, but buying booze is just like buying toilet paper, isn't it? For an elegant, depraved touch, enjoy your bubbly in the am rather than pm. It was good enough for Noel Coward, after all; when asked why he took champagne for breakfast, his careless reply was, “Doesn't everyone?”

  3. Buy yourself a plant. Not flowers, a real, breathing plant (though something with flowers would be lovely). Perhaps this is the time to take up the luxury of raising orchids, or the day to put a little flowering chive by your front stoop. Spending time with green things is one of the most cheerful things I know, and long after the vulgar long-stems of others are in the trash can, your plant will be rewarding your care and attention.
  4. Dress up and cook yourself a swell dinner. Wait, you thought this was the evening for yoga pants and a pint of Haagen Dasz? For shame! Dressing nicely makes any occasion feel festive. Add a pretty ruffly apron and work that domestic magic. Recommendations include vibrant shrimp soft tacos; eggplant lasagne; crab pasta; a huge dinner salad with, perhaps, fresh artichoke, heart of palm, and anything else you fancy; and a basil lime sorbet.
  5. Put on some swinging music. Good mood music for the day includes Cole Porter, Lady Gaga, Bellowhead, or Les Chauds Lapins.
  6. Make a valentine for someone or anyone. No, don't make one for yourself, the whole concept there will just depress you. A major part of the frustration with Valentine's Day is not having a recipient for our affections. But what about your mom, your sister, your best friend? Hell, if you're strapped for people to love, drop a tiny homemade valentine in the tip jar at your coffee shop. The barista is a very important person in our lives!
  7. Masturbate. I really can't fathom how many prissy guides out there leave this out. They'll give advice like “pamper yourself” or “buy yourself a present,” but it all has to be above the waist? Retire to bed early with a naughty novel and some lavender oil.  I'd recommend Michelle Slung's Slow Hand: Women Writing Erotica.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Happy Birthday, John Ruskin!

Anyone who knows me very well knows my peculiar fondness for John Ruskin. My first dissertation chapter didn't really come alive until I found The Ethics of the Dust
, and for that alone, I will always be grateful to him.

Recently, I've been trying to learn to draw decently, and, naturally enough, I turned to Ruskin, whose Elements of Drawing
is available on Amazon for the Kindle quite cheaply (or you can read it for free at Project Gutenberg). To begin with, there is some of the usual pontificating. As I quite enjoy Victorian pontificating, that did not deter me in the least. At length, I began the first exercise.

It was a square. Not a cube, just a square, shaded evenly. In the second lesson, however, Ruskin, admitting that such work is “tiresome,” suggested that I turn to botanical prints to copy them. He recommends Baxter's 1834 illustrations, and I therefore dutifully looked them up. Unfortunately, Ruskin advices using a pencil first, then going over the whole with ink. As I am in possession of some India ink and a dip pen, I promptly drowned the whole with black on account of accidentally using a too-thickly cut pen. Not precisely a success.

Ruskin is a big fan of copying: in his introduction he suggests that children should be given books with illustrations by Cruikshank to copy. Personally I think suggesting Cruikshank is absolutely cracked—but Rackham would be a wonderful substitute, as he does a lot with very little color and works creatively with lines.
The Rackham Original
My clumsy copy

Not daunted by my first failure, I decided to learn more about the book itself. In this way, I stumbled across something very special—the Ashmolean's Elements of Drawing site. Here I discovered videos of drawing lessons all taken from Ruskin's teaching methods. Stephen Farthing, who presents these lessons, does not, thank heavens, start with the shaded squares, but rather with the outline of a leaf. This exercise is heavily Ruskinian, suggesting you use tracing paper to compare and correct your drawing. The idea is not, as so many modern instructors might suggest, to give your “interpretation” of a leaf, but rather to convey, as accurately as possible, the actual leaf.

I find this helpful and interesting simply because modern instruction has taken a path away from copying, tracing, and sheer draftsman's accuracy to convey a more liberal aim for drawing. At the same time, our desire remains the same: to convey an idea visually. I don't mean, you must understand, to suggest that basic representation is the primary function of drawing. But I do believe that is a part of our experience and ought, probably, to be part of our training.

Is this a boring way to learn to draw? Absolutely! But drawing (or the kind of drawing of which Ruskin approves) is a skill just like speaking another language or playing a musical instrument. These are the verbs to be recited, the scales to be repeated. Eventually, it pays off. I think. I hope.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Meatless Monday; or, Watch Out, Cucumber!

I found myself feeling decidedly in the mood for something lighter over the weekend, and while some turkey lettuce wraps were good for an evening, it made me suspect that I needed an overall change in my nutrition. Not a dramatic change—I'll still be eating lumps of homemade pecan fudge—but a nudge in the right direction.

What I decided on was Meatless Monday. One day of abstinence weekly to help pep up my digestive system and get in a few nutrients I might otherwise zoom by on my way to the meat.

So I started out my Monday filled with anticipation. I had rye flakes for porridge, and, along with banana, blueberries, milk, maple syrup, and a few hazelnuts, they made a sumptuous breakfast.

Many people think a hot cereal is too much trouble in the morning, but I'm pretty sure they just haven't worked out the lazy girl way to do it. What I do is put quite a lot of water and a fairly generous helping of oats into a pan (for those who need ratios, a minimum of 3 to 1—lots of this water is going to cook off), put on low heat, then go and drink my coffee and smoke about fifty cigarettes. As long as the heat is low enough, the oatmeal/rye/wheatberries don't burn, and you don't have any trouble getting a good hearty breakfast!

Over the weekend, I definitely had pickles on my mind. Not the kind that have been languishing in a jar forever, but fresh pickles. They seemed to be popping up everywhere, including over at Make Grow Gather. With excitement, I brined up a bowl of fresh carrots that have been getting tangier and more delicious every day since. As you can see, I didn't really peel them, just scraped them a bit and washed them well.

Finding a basic brine recipe isn't hard, but here's mine:

1 c. cider (or rice wine, or even white) vinegar
½ c. water
1 generous tsp. sea salt
2 tsp. peppercorns, juniper berries, and perhaps a bay leaf (feel free to experiment here)
A small handful of complimentary herbs like dill or thyme
2 tsp. sugar
1 c. vegetable of choice

Heating the brine first is a good idea because it helps the salt and sugar dissolve and makes the spices more pungent. So combine everything but the vegetables and herbs in a saucepan, bring to a rapid boil, then allow to cool slightly. Arrange your vegetables and herbs in a glass jar/stoneware crock/non-metallic bowl/old butter tub, then pour the brine to cover. Refrigerate for at least one hour. Eat within three days.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Library Thing

For those of you who've managed to miss the wonders of Library Thing, here is your wakeup call. You know how you love fiddling around with your books and sorting them by genre, by author, etc? Now you can keep a virtual catalog of all your books and sort them any way you please!

But Library Thing is a lot more than just a cataloging utility. Library Thing is a community. It feels, sometimes, a little bit like wandering around naked as you add all the odd things you read because one's bookcases are just a little like one's soul or genitalia: super private.

But at the same time, wonderful forums and groups lead to wonderful exchange and debate. I have long enjoyed the What Are You Reading Now? and Go Review that Book! groups. It's wonderful to peek into what others are reading and share their excitement as they talk about their literature.

For academics, this can be a particularly rich way to discover others in your field. I stumbled onto some wonderful people just by looking at who shared the many texts on Victorianism and readership that I have.

Best of all, there's the Early Reviewer program! Recently released books are offered on a limited basis to those willing to review them within the community. The books are usually matched to you based on request (obviously) and also how well they fit in with your collection. So you're likely to get something you're at least somewhat keen on.

Overall, it's a wonderful tool, community, and opportunity for those of us who take books seriously.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Dish Gardening

Inspired by a recent article in Martha Stewart, I decided to put together a decorative dish garden. My mother helped kickstart the project by digging out a lovely, shallow soup tureen, and then I was off to the garden center to pick up materials. I bought charcoal, orchid bark, orchid food, button fern, some other houseplant, a decorative accent, and three orchids (what extravagance!). The photo below is what my raw materials looked like.

The poor orchid is soaking in a pitcher of water to loosen its roots so I could pull the exhausted potting bark out and put in fresh stuff. I don't think that orchid will want to be watered for a month.

I began my dish with a layer of gravel at the bottom to provide drainage, then some charcoal to keep the pot fresh. Root rot is not on the agenda here.

Because the orchid woman was so vehement about needing to keep the roots tightly bound, I replaced the orchids in their little cups, but trimmed the cups down so that they wouldn't be visible. This will keep the roots tight and the arrangement pretty.

Then I tucked smaller plants like the button fern and the whatchamacallit around to provide stability and also variety of height and texture. (I was going to include myself more in this photo, but I was showing WAY too much cleavage!) While the orchids were well packed in bark, the other plants have little pockets of the soil that they prefer. Finally I covered the whole with some attractive mossy stuff and added my decorative accents.

My decorations, as you can see, are a wee little bridge that I bought at the garden center, along with an old marble frog. I like the "landscapey" effect of this arrangement, and I'm keeping it next to the kitchen sink where it can get sunlight and humidity. Next I'd love to try a terrarium arrangement under glass (I have a lovely cheese dome that would work perfectly), but I think I need to do more research before I prepare a whole ecosystem. I'd also probably have to do some woodland raiding for moss.