And Now For Something Completely Different


I’m taking a hiatus from the book tour this week. My favorite niece (See above. She’s bigger now.) is getting married and I expect to fulfill my auntly duties by running errands and tying bows on things. Apparently I am also the designated cake decorator, in which, fortunately, I will be assisted by a talented friend of the family.

I will make a strong effort not to drop anything.

The Going Price for Squirrels

My sister from out of town is staying at our lake cottage. She is being respectful of my writing time while she works on our late mother’s house, doing many things that I am tired of doing. She told me she didn’t want to distract me, and that I shouldn’t be worrying about her during this period of intense writing. But she did want to borrow a dog for company. Well, not “a” dog. She wanted snuggly, sweet Pete.

On her first night there she announced that we had mice or something in the ceiling. I did not find this alarming. Mice kind of come along with cottages, and much as I love animals, having seen what they do when we’re away, even I have been forced to take a hard line. So the situation did not seem particularly alarming or challenging. But when my sister began to describe what she was experiencing it began to seem unlikely that mice were the culprits. Scampering, twittering, scrabbling, and, yes, chewing.

I am living my own novel.

We went out to the cottage that night and were sitting on the couch drinking wine, looking at family treasures my sister had unearthed when she stopped me and said: Listen.

Above our heads we heard what I can only describe as the kind of squeals and squeaking you expect to hear in a Disney animation. This was not a squirrel. This was a colony. At least. And it had happened so fast. We hadn’t been away for more than two weeks. It actually was alarming. There were many, many, many animals up there. And they were apparently rather busy. From the sound of things, they were singing to themselves as they made a dress for the ball.

My husband gave me the lecture: You cannot be softhearted about this. You have to call an exterminator. There is no other way. I nodded and pretended to look reasonable, but I confess that I had no intention of exterminating an entire neighborhood of baby squirrels. Sometimes I wonder if he knows me at all.

The next day I called a company that my friend had once used to remove a bat. Or a raccoon. Or both. They specialize in trapping and releasing wild animals that have taken up residence in your house. They assured me that they would not harm the squirrels, and they even have a squirrel expert–although he has injured his back and is not as available as usual. They charge $149 for the house call, and $39 per squirrel.

They will be there at 8:30 this morning. And I suspect that the bill will be rather high.


The Most Beautiful Day in the World

One of my favorite writers, the melancholy anthropologist Loren Eiseley, wrote an essay called “The Most Perfect Day in the World”. In it, he describes a day when, utterly impoverished and riding freight trains across the country, he and a friend stopped in a small town on a sunny day, pooled their resources to buy a case of grape soda, and lay on the grass in the shade of a big tree all day, drinking soda and watching the clouds. This notion of perfection would not suit everyone, but it strikes me as a fine expression of the pure enjoyment of living: when time stops and you can live in this one moment, freed from fear and worry.

Today I am home from the office, ostensibly to proof my manuscript. But I have not done much work.  It is a delightfully cool, breezy June morning, the first time that sunshine has combined with the full fresh bloom of early summer. The dogs and I lolled on the grass before attacking the long list of procrastination–I mean errands–on my list. I walked in the garden where the irises are an edible deep purple, the pink roses are in bud, and the peonies are tight balls waiting to burst. I rambled out to the garage to find the loppers to prune the dead branches from the climbing rose on the arbor, and wrestled them to the ground without too many thorn pricks.  It is impossible to breathe in the air on day like this without experiencing a deep sense of wonder and gratitude. This is how I would like to spend my mornings forever.

But the day’s beauty makes a hard contrast to the suffering happening in this moment in other parts of the world, of the people who are terrified, in pain, in fear of horrible deaths, in an agony of despair for their futures. Marcus Aurelius counsels the practice of these contrasts as a method of valuing each moment of life and of inuring the soul against too much dependence on the vagaries of fortune. I read his teachings, and I have tried to absorb them. And I believe that we must all do what we can to make what we touch better, and to broaden our reach to others. But I think that modern angst is the result of our knowing too much about the suffering we cannot control. We are bombarded by war and poverty and natural disasters in every corner of the world, by the sufferings of people and the sufferings of animals. There is no doubt that we are meant to endure the suffering around us. But the suffering of the whole world is not a burden a human being can bear.

And so, Pete, and Moses and I will go out into the orchard and play ball in the sunshine, grateful for our blessings. But I will also offer my prayers for the souls in the dark, knowing that I am helpless to give them any relief. For us, it is the most beautiful day in the world. And that is how it has to be.


Real Cook Kitchen

The Stove

The Stove

My husband and I recently changed our cable service, and suddenly, after years of watching TV only for Packers’ games, election nights, and storm coverage (we live in the Midwest), we have TV’s in three different rooms and I am watching nearly every night. DVR technology is nothing new to most Americans, but to me, it is an exciting new arena for experimentation. Gone is the slightly stuck-up tone I used to use when I’d say in response to someone’s query about a great new TV show: “We hardly ever watch TV.”

In short, I have been watching a lot of cooking shows. Actually, only one: Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa. I adore her and want to be her friend. Although, for the record, someone who cares about her should take her aside and suggest that she stop relying too much on stock phrases lest she descend into self-parody like Martha Stewart. But I digress.

As I am fast-forwarding through my DVR’d shows (I also adore Top Gear, the British version, and am already heartily sick of Rehab Addict), I have had occasion to pick up the tail ends and the very beginnings of other cooking shows, and gradually, I have been slowing down to watch these brief parts of them. It’s fascinating how many chefs and/or cooks with widely varying styles one can find. There was a time when Americans had only one beloved television chef: Julia Child. But now we have as many as the Food Channel can program.

What intrigues me most is the sanitized methods of these TV cooks, even as they, apparently, revel in their idiosyncracies. They may be ranchers’ wives, or girls who dress up in costumes to match their menus, or people who have very tight budgets, but their ingredients are mise en place; their kitchens are carefully organized; and everything always goes smoothly. They always have the ingredients they need and the right size pan.

This is not an accurate reflection of the cooking adventure. At least not in my house.

Let me begin with my stove. It is a vintage Chambers stove from somewhere in the 1950’s. It is lined with firebrick, and weighs about 600 pounds. I got it for free 23 years ago, and shipped it to Wisconsin from Maryland.

I know.

Anyway, this stove has become a strange part of my identity. It is special, and mostly wonderful. The rusty burners are infinitely adjustable, and have different configurations for different kinds of cooking. There’s a stove top broiler with a griddle on top, and a well, a kind of mini oven, which I may have used once. One of the things I love about my stove is that there is no electronic anything on it. This means that even in a power outage I can make a cup of tea or a lovely beef stew to eat in front of the fire. We’ve lived in our current house for 13 years and had approximately 3 power outages. But never mind.

The other identifying characteristic of my stove is that it has no oven thermostat. Apparently—and I hadn’t realized this until he told me some months later—when my late, adored, engineer father re-installed the stove in our new house, he decided for some reason that the thermostat was dangerous. Or something. Anyway, he removed it.
We won’t get into my father’s approach to repair. I’ll save that for another day.

But in the aftermath, when I was complaining that my oven either burned or under-cooked things, no matter how I set the temperature, the subject of the thermostat came up. After pondering this problem for some weeks I casually mentioned to my mother that it was probably time for me to get a new stove. “But you can’t!” she exclaimed, horrified. “Your father worked on that stove for two whole days. He would be so hurt!”

This line has become a source of first, teasing, and now, resignation for my husband. When I mention that in our kitchen renovation we should consider getting a new stove, he points out that we can’t, because my father—now gone for nearly 6 years—worked on the stove and it is now historic. I used to think this was funny.

But anyway, this is one reason that cooking in my house is not like the cooking on TV.

The other reason is me. I’m actually a pretty good cook. I learned the art of creative cooking from my mother, who all her life made delicious meals by artfully tossing in a bit of this and a handful of that—all accompanied by copious quantities of butter and good white wine—but whose techniques were somewhat erratic. My mother rarely used a measuring cup, and when she did, it was only a gesture.

I learned the need for method in cooking from my 6th grade home economics teacher, Mrs. Wallesverd. Mrs. Wallesverd was old school in every sense. She was the kind of teacher who brooked no nonsense, and who looked at you in a disapproving way if you strayed from the path. Those looks had a powerful effect. But cooking is chemistry, after all, and I learned from her why sifting flour mattered, but also why you wash the glasses and silverware first, and other key points of organized housewifery. Another topic for the future: the serious loss to children in the elimination of home economics courses.

So my cooking is a curious amalgam of creativity and method, and except for those days when the oven temperature isn’t quite right—which, I must admit, are rather frequent—it usually turns out rather well.

So on Thanksgiving morning, I decided to make pumpkin bread. Bread, as you probably know, requires baking. Which requires an oven. Which, unless you are a French chef with a traditional boulangerie, usually requires a thermostat. Nevertheless, emboldened by the success of my pies yesterday, I decided to give it a try. Quite apart from anything else, the kitchen in our old house is cold, and the oven heats things up nicely. It’s the firebrick.

I have discovered that by pushing in on the alleged temperature gauge as it turns, I can usually alter the temperature of the oven up or down. But only generally up, or generally down. Never so specifically as, say, 350 degrees. It’s all a crap shoot. So I turned on the gas, listened for the sound of it rushing through the burners, and inserted my little plastic igniter into the hole in the oven. A sort of a WHOOMP sound told me that the oven was lit.

It’s all an adventure.

It was while I was doing this, and pulling together the ingredients, that I was struck by how completely unlike a television show my cooking was. Now, I know from Mrs. Wallesverd that level teaspoons are important in baking, and I also know that if I don’t put everything out and pre-measure that I will forget something. That’s like a cooking show. But that’s pretty much where the resemblance ends.

I have never seen a cooking show chef peer into her flour canister and discover that it’s empty. Nor have I seen her have to open a bag of flour and have to deal with the mess as it poufs out of the paper package all over the counter and floor. Television chefs don’t have to interrupt their cooking to rinse out the flour canister and dry it because the rim has something crusty on it, and it’s probably not a great idea to put a new bag of flour in it without washing it first.

Cooking show chefs have the right size pans carefully laid out. They rarely have to sit down on the cold kitchen floor to rummage through the pan cabinet, searching for the right size. There is no avalanche of colanders when they pull out the possibilities. They don’t run out of paper towels and have to run down to the basement for another roll.

They don’t have bread pans purchased on the run from Piggly Wiggly that were intended 23 years ago to be temporary, but have endured ever since with no sign of a Williams Sonoma replacement. They don’t have to dig around for their reading glasses, and then hold said pans under the light to see if, somewhere, they have their dimensions imprinted on them. “That’s probably about 8 inches, isn’t it?”

Rarely are TV chefs reduced to pulling a tape measure out of the drawer (conveniently stored in the kitchen to resolve extemporaneous remodeling inspirations) to measure their pans. Television chefs never lick their fingers. Nor even the beaters of the mixers. They never have to interrupt themselves to throw the ball for the puppy, and then have to wash their hands again so that their pumpkin bread doesn’t have puppy spit as a flavoring, which is undesirable, no matter how engaging the puppy.

Television chefs remember to plug in the mixer before they try to turn it on, and their whisk attachment doesn’t have one broken wire that makes an ungodly racket when it hits the sides of the bowl.

Television chefs also don’t have to open the oven and then discover that the hardware store thermometer has once again overturned itself, and has to be fished out from the bottom of the oven, while carefully avoiding the burn from yesterday’s similar adventure, and then curse the designer of the thermometer who thought it would be a good idea to make a little clip for the thermometer which serves only to make it impossible to move it, but not to actually make it stay in place when someone is trying to put a pan in or take it out.

I was reflecting on all these things as I bumbled around, making bread, relishing my time in my kitchen, sipping my café au lait, and licking my fingers. There were all kinds of birds on the bird feeder outside the kitchen window, and deer browsing in the snowy woods below the house. My husband was still sleeping, and later when he woke up, the house would smell of good things and the kitchen would be warm. So, not so much like television chef cooking, but much more satisfying and real; a truly happy morning.

I have to stop now. The timer just went off. The one that only works occasionally.

And the pumpkin bread smells delicious.

Irony Alert:

As I should have realized had I not been lured into oven complacency by the success of my pies and bread, the reason the baking went so well was because the oven was keeping its temperature low. But this is not the right temperature for roasting a turkey. Especially not a larger than usual turkey.