Sunday, November 25, 2007

Kitchen Aid

On Saturday, Jack asked me if he could officially be my kitchen assistant. I said yes and immediately put him to work peeling potatoes. So, okay, it took him thirty minutes to peel eight potatoes, and it took me thirty minutes to clean up the potato peels flung hither and yon, but I think we're at the beginning of something good. I've always wanted my own personal sous chef.

Jack has been helping me in the kitchen since he was two. We've made a lot of cookies together and kneaded a lot of dough. Around the time Jack turned three, Amy hipped us to Mollie Katzen's Pretend Soup cookbook for kids, and together we made just about every recipe in the book.

Jack hadn't shown much interest in cooking for awhile, until we signed up to serve refreshments at the church coffee hour. The first time we had coffee hour duty, we made brownies and chocolate chip cookies. They were a hit. Jack was a hit. He really, really gets into serving refreshments at coffee hour, and it's hard not to like an enthusiastic eight-year-old who's handing you a sumptuous brownie (Joy of Cooking recipe, mid-century edition, make sure eggs are at room temperature, etc.) in the name of God.

Last week, we made three Bundt cakes for coffee hour--pumpkin spice, coffee cake, and chocolate. I thought we were possibly overdoing it. Our church is of the Episcopalian variety, and there are some of us who are not often moved by the Spirit to stay after church and socialize. But there is always a core group of folks who do, probably about one and a half Bundt cake's worth.

Last week, coffee hour was in the Parish Hall, which is a hop, skip and a jump away from the main church building. It is a hop, skip and a jump that many won't make, not even for a cup of coffee, which is why coffee hour is usually held right outside the church doors. It ups the numbers significantly. However, on Sunday last, our good rector announced that coffee hour would be in the Parish Hall because of inclimate weather, and furthermore, he expected people to attend because Jack was serving refreshments. This child is serving God by serving you food, Father Bob said. In other words, Show up or else.

And show up they did. They ate all the cakes. The men shook Jack's hand, and the women all said to me, "Aren't you lucky to have a son that cooks?" I concurred. Later, my friend Sally, a long time church member, said, "They ate three Bundt cakes? At coffee hour?" Her mouth fell open in a shocked capital O. Clearly, the mass partaking of the cakes was unprecedented at our little church.

So Jack came victorious into Thanksgiving week. He made another Bundt cake to take to my mother-in-law's house in Charlotte. And on Friday night, preparing for our second Thanksgiving dinner on Saturday, Jack made two pumpkin pies. By himself. All I did was help him pour the pumpkin pie mix into the pie shells. I wasn't even in the kitchen for the most part. And the pies were good. They were, in fact, excellent.

Today at coffee hour, Miss Betty came up to me and handed me her famous Ginger Snap cookie recipe. I've been looking for a good ginger snap recipe for ages. The ones I've tried have always yielded cakey ginger snaps, not snappy ones. Miss Betty promised me her recipe would rock my world. Okay, she's seventy-four and she didn't say that, but that's what her promise implied.

As soon as we got home, Jack went on ginger snap duty. I helped him measure out the vegetable shortening, but otherwise he was on his own. He was cool with that. And I have to tell you, what he ended up with are the best ginger snaps I've ever had. So of course I will share the recipe with you, because everyone needs to get snappy sometimes. These would make great Christmas cookies--have your kids bake some today!

Miss Betty's Ginger Snaps

You'll need:

2 C flour
1 Tbs ginger
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt

3/4 cup Crisco
1 C sugar
1 unbeaten egg
1/4 cup molasses

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Whisk together dry ingredients (through salt). Miss Betty, of course, recommends sifting, but I don't have a sifter, so I told Jack just to whisk stuff real good.

3. In a separate, large bowl, cream shortening. Add sugar gradually until shortening and sugar are well blended. Beat in egg and molasses.

4. By hand, mix dry ingredients into shortening mixture. Form teaspoon-sized balls of dough by rolling in palms of hands. Roll dough balls in a pie pan of granulated sugar; cover entire surface.

5. Place cookies two inches apart on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for ten minutes, or until tops are slightly rounded, cracked and lightly browned.

6. Remove and cool on rack.

Friday, November 16, 2007

That Time of Year (Already)

"On the first Sunday in December, I sit in church and hear these words:

Now is the time to wake out of sleep: for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed

And I think: now is the time to make a purposeful trip to the supermarket and do the shopping for all the baking that needs to be done. Now is the time to make sure all the church programs and neighborhood parties and school activities are penciled in on the calendar so we don't overbook like we did last year. And if we really are going to get a goose for Christmas dinner, then now is the time to order it from the butcher.

Now is the time to pick up last year's party dress from the cleaners! Now is the time to get up in the attic and dig out the Christmas decorations! Now is the time to get the children to the barber, and see if we can't get the carpets shampooed before the open house on the fourteenth, and call the university to see if they have any decent tickets left for this year's performance of A Christmas Carol."

--Alice Slaikeu Lawhead, "Advent"

It is two and half weeks before the first week of Advent, and yet I am already feeling behind in my Christmas preparations. Which is, of course, insane, except for the fact that it's not, not if I want to be intentional about Advent and Christmas this year.

I don't mind that Christmas is a big blend of the religious and the secular, but in my experience, if something's going to get squeezed out of the equation on any given year, it's the religious stuff. Too much glitzy and glimmery competition. The religious celebration part of it sinks beneath a pile of wrapping paper and credit card receipts.

Don't get me wrong, I love the glittery aspects of Christmas. I love trees and presents and shiny paper. I love secular Christmas carols (though I could do without hearing them until mid-December) and baking sugar cookies with the kids. I love the Christmas specials--"Santa Claus is Coming to Town," "A Year without a Santa Claus," and "Rudolph."

But I always feel sad those Christmases when I don't feel the true Christmas spirit, which comes, for me, from feeling connected to the wonder and excitement of Jesus's birth.

So this year I'm planning ahead. I'm already thinking presents. I'm already thinking Christmas cookie decorations and wrapping paper and extra scotch tape. I'm already thinking, 'Time to address the Christmas card envelopes.' Because when Advent begins on December 2nd, I want to be there. I don't want to be so distracted by ten million other Christmasy things that I forget to put out the Advent wreath until mid-December.

This year we're going to do up Advent around here. We're going to be talking about waiting. We're going to be talking about wonder. And, sure, we'll be talking about Santa Claus, too. My big hope is, if I get the running around done now, there will be time to talk about everything. This year I want time to ponder, to sing, to listen, time to hear the animals talk, time to watch for the light.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

This and That

I been sick. Just the wiped out, slightly feverish kind of sick, nothing to visit the doctor over. It's a drag, though, when there's so much to be done around here.

On Friday, before I got sick, Amy and I took the kids to the playground. We talked about this and that, about Thanksgiving plans and whether or not I should take up scrapbooking (Amy, a scrapbooking enthusiast, thinks I should). We talked about the December Martha Stewart Living, which Amy, a subscriber, had a copy of. As Heather of Pneuma pointed out in a recent comment, it's a sort of disappointing cover. I am tired of seeing people on the cover of their own magazines. Tired of seeing Oprah, tired of seeing Rachel Ray (well, I'm tired of seeing Rachel Ray period--talk about not my cup of tea), tired of seeing Paula Deen (though I love her and her million pounds of butter in every dish). Now it's true, we haven't seen Martha on a cover in ever-so-long, but on the Christmas issue? It's just not working for me.

The December issue of MSL is now on the stands, but I have resisted buying it. I'm doing some Christmas prep, but once you get the December Martha Stewart Living, you're in it. You've accepted that Christmas is coming and that you will make all sorts of plans that you will regret later (from deciding to knit everyone socks this year to agreeing to bake five dozen cookies for your kid's school Christmas party). You've accepted the hours of your life you will hand over to wrapping presents, including the time it will take to track down the scissors and tape, which never, ever land back in the handy-dandy "wrapping center" you bought at Organized Living three years ago. You've accepted the miles you will travel to buy your loved ones Christmas presents, knowing your gifts can never compete with the electronic gizmos that rain down on them from distant relatives. You've accepted exhaustion, bitterness, and the inevitable three-to-five pound weight gain.

I am not ready for that yet. So you will have to wait until after Thanksgiving for my December MSL review.

I did purchase one last November magazine this week. I had to choose (not being made of money) between Better Homes and Gardens and Country Living, though, honestly, it wasn't really a contest. Here's what I have to say to the BH&G editors: Too much content! Chill out! I simply cannot process BH&G anymore. As with Real Simple, after I'm done reading (which can take days, if not weeks), I feel overwhelmed. Where to start? Turn my backyard into a fish pond? Remodel my kitchen? Buy all new furniture?

If they only published one issue a year, that would be great. But each issue is like one year's worth of material. You read BH&G two months in a row, and you start to wonder, 'Do they really expect me to completely revise my life twelve times a year?' Because every month it's a whole new set of furniture, seedlings, patio styles. A whole new set of expectations as to how I should be living my life. Enough already! BH&G is a magazine I will buy in March (when I want to get psyched about gardening) and in December (when I buy every magazine published).

So Country Living it was. CL is fast becoming one of my favorite mags. It's like the poor man's Martha Stewart Living. Reading CL, you never feel like you should have a second home (or two), you don't even feel like you ought to live in the country (a plus for all us suburban dwellers). The content is fairly simple: some crafting, but not too much (like MSL, the November CL has a how-to article on candle-making, but this one seems actually do-able, and it's very cute--making candles in flea market tea cups), a few good recipes, a few pages of antiques, a couple of decorating tips. The lay-outs are attractive and enticing, but do not produce anxiety--as in, I love that look, but lack the two million dollars it would take to achieve it.

Does the November Country Living pass the holiday test? How could it not? Throw in some antiques, some turkey recipes, open up with a very nice spread on decorating your Thanksgiving table with do-able decorations, mention a flea market or two, and everyone's feeling that Thanksgiving love.

The only thing that gives me pause about CL is its ads. They carry an enormous number of drug ads (the kinds that run for three pages because of all the warnings) and lots of just generally cheesy ads that don't run in MSL or BG&H (but that you might see in, I don't know, Depressed Grandmothers' Monthly), and there are pages and pages of them up front. It's like one page of an article, three pages of cheesy ads, another page of article, another three pages of cheese. It's a little distracting--just as you're getting a flea market buzz or a cool new way to craft with felt buzz, there's that ad for a medication to take care of a certain problematic feminine dryness or what have you.

Back to the playground. As Amy and I stood by the swingset, we concurred that as far as we're concerned, Martha Stewart's true gift is as an educator. The parts of MSL that I dig the most are when she gets down to brass tacks: Listen up, gals, and I'll tell you how to get that grout cleaned once and for all. Amy testified that because of MS, she knows how to fold a fitted sheet, no small accomplishment, we can all agree. I personally can be found avoiding housekeeping by reading MS's Homekeeping Handbook, which could not be handier. You just know you're getting the straight domestic scoop from Martha. Her recipes don't always work, everyone's sick of hearing about whatever house she's bought and decorated now, but, baby, if you've got a mildew problem, Martha's your girl.

So that was our afternoon, trying to keep the boys from killing each other (actually, trying to keep my boys from killing each other; Amy's boy was just fine and not the least bit homicidal) and trying to keep little Riley from falling off the swing, although she wanted so badly to swing on the big kids' swing, and she's only two, bless her heart. So she swang and she fell, swang and fell, but she kept getting back up, and she didn't cry once.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Holiday Magazine Watch: November Martha Stewart Living

Reading the November issue of Martha Stewart Living has made me reassess my review of the November Real Simple. I realize now that in order to properly evaluate a holiday magazine, you have to have an aesthetic in place. You have to have standards.

For a holiday magazine to be a true success, it must be infused with the spirit of the holiday--i.e. all content should speak to the holiday at hand, even indirectly. For instance, the November MSL has an article about vacuum cleaners, and you might wonder, vacuum cleaners? Their Thanksgiving significance is--? But of course vacuuming is perhaps the number one chore of the holiday season, which begins with Thanksgiving. A vacuum cleaner article in the November issue could not be more timely.

Ultimately, the November Real Simple failed the spirit of the season test. Because it ended with recipes for Thanksgiving fare, it did leave me feeling a bit Thanksgiving-ish, but the feeling was short-lived. A good holiday magazine will stay with you for days, if not your entire life (ref. Martha Stewart Living, December 2000). There were far too many articles about things that had nothing to do with Thanksgiving or getting ready for the holidays. An article on colds--definite January material. "Garages" to park your various i-pods and cell phones--no, no, no.

Real Simple, please bow to your master, Martha Stewart Living. Note the obsessive detail to serving platters and gravy boats. Note the long how-to article on candle making. Pumpkin candles, darling little orange pumpkin candles that you can do yourself (if you have three or four years to devote to candle-making). Note page after page on making the upper crust of a pie crust, the fluted-disk crust, the faux-lattice crust, the absolutely insane leaf-lattice crust. Note the visit to a cranberry bog. It doesn't let up.

I admit, there was one article that failed the holiday spirit test for me: "By a Thread," about using needlepoint and crewelwork to update upholstery. The subject didn't bother me as much as the the photographs illustrating the article. The photographer lit the rooms so as to evoke summer mornings and bright afternoons. In one picture, green leaves show through a bedroom window.

In a January issue, this sort of lighting would be welcome, a harbinger of good things to come. But in a November issue? All wrong. November has its own particular, evocative light. A November issue of a magazine should help us conjure crisp fall days teetering on the edge of winter. In November, we will still brave the outdoors to rake leaves and tidy up the yard, but we want the house cozy when we get in.

Despite this singular lapse, the November Martha Stewart Living is well worth the admission price. It is a keeper and the standard by which the other 2007 November magazines will be judged by.

Holiday Magazine Watch

It's that time of year, when the holiday magazines appear on the stands, winking brightly at us beneath the grocery store's florescent lights, promising perfect Thanksgivings and Christmases if only we'll shell out the $3.99 cover price.

I am a sucker for magazines in general, though in recent years I've curbed my profligate monthly purchasing. The fact is, you could subscribe to Family Circle or Women's Day for one calendar year, save all your issues, and then just recycle through your stash ever after. If there's a new issue of FC or WD on the stands, I can promise you the following headlines: Walk Off the Weight! Twenty Minute Dinners Your Family Will Love! Ten Medical Tests You Need to Know About!

But when it comes to the holidays, my heart melts. I actually save most November and December issues of MS's Living and lesser magazines as well, just because when I start feeling Christmassy, I want some literature to feed the fire.

My first holiday magazine of this season is the November Real Simple. Now, as we all know, Real Simple is neither real, nor is it simple. I usually start having a mild anxiety attack about five pages in. The "Why Not?" feature gives you six ways to simplify your life. I don't have time to simplify my life in six ways. In fact, having six ways to simplify my life actually complicates my life. What are these people thinking about?

As someone else has said, if Real Simple were actually simple, it would be three pages xeroxed and stapled. Instead, this issue comes in at nearly 400 pages. How many of those pages are ads, you wonder? Really, almost all of them.

The fact, is Real Simple is pretty much about all the neat things you can buy in any given month. This issue has a spread on what you need to fill your cleaning bucket (p. 135). You won't believe it: you'll need rubber gloves and a scrub brush. Who woulda thunk it?

There are articles about what you'll need (and how much you'll need to spend) on stuff to keep your skin from looking all wrinkly and the lovely hostess gifts that it would have never occurred to you to purchase before reading this article. The RS editors kindly tell us which dish rack works best (the one that costs $20, natch) and present a selection of makeup pencils that will be sure to make us look just like the twenty-year-old models batting their eyelashes at us from the pages.

When RS gives us actual content, I often quite like it. My favorite section is where readers have written in with advice on a particular subject (this month, Thanksgiving Shortcuts). There's an article on the art and etiquette of invitations that was full of good, commonsense tips about dropping people from your party list and ensuring no one thinks your invitation includes their twin Boston terriers. And while I felt wildly irritated reading the article on using screens to divide living space (for what the screens cost, you could add another room off the kitchen), I thought their ideas for Thanksgiving decorations were nice and--get this--simple.

Did I finish this issue of RS feeling ready for Thanksgiving? Since we go to to my mother-in-law's for Thanksgiving (my husband comes from one of those fabulous southern families where about 75 people show up for Thanksgiving dinner at Cousin Jane's house and there's at least eleven green bean casseroles and seventeen plates of cornbread), I don't have much Thanksgiving prep to worry about. But I did enjoy reading the recipes and looking at the pictures of the stuffing (my favorite Thanksgiving food), and I felt sufficiently cozy and pilgrim-like when I finally put the magazine down.

Next up: the November Martha Stewart's Living.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Arbitrary Housewife

This fall has not turned out as I planned.

First of all, it was hot almost all the way to the end of October. So in fact, it did not feel like fall. It felt like a global warming nightmare: summer, summer, all year long. Now, if you live in Florida, then, hey, no big deal. But here in North Carolina, in the heart of the lovely southeast corridor, you expect fall and winter and spring. We are not Louisiana. We are not Corpus Christi, Texas. We are North Carolina, and Halloween should be brisk.

So, it's been hot. And on top of the heat, there were the above-mentioned global warming fears. Ten years ago, the heat would make you moan and groan. Now it makes you moan and groan and feel guilty every time you fire up the car.

Plus: drought. We're in the middle of a big one here. They say my city has about seventy days of water left. The drought might just be drought, or it might be the result of too much development and, yes, our old friend global warming. So on top of whatever guilt I might be feeling about my excess carbon emissions, now I get to feel guilty for any use of water that might be deemed as excessive, including rinsing dishes and showering longer than three minutes.

All this said, it's hard to work myself up into my usual Autumnal state, which involves feeling vaguely nostalgic for my childhood and the strong desire to can something. It also usually involves a lot of knitting and domestic joie d vivre. But who wants to knit when it's 86 degrees in October?

Cool weather makes me straighten up and fly right. I get things in order. I make lists. Hot weather, particularly out of season, makes me feel schlubby. I don't exactly know what schlubby means, but I know what it feels like. Lethargic. Mildly depressed. Uninterested in canning (which, by the way, I have no idea how to do and nothing to do it with), cooking, baking or other housewifely pursuits. I do housework in unseasonably hot weather, but with no sense of mission.

Now, we have had a couple weeks of moderately cool weather, so I'm hoping things are looking up. I'm also hoping for rain, though none seems to be on the horizon. And I'm definitely hoping my friends who pooh-pooh global warming as a myth and a sham are right. I don't think they are, but a girl can dream.

Now, on a complete tangent ... Jack and Will have been getting along lately. Not all the time, mind you, but for the last month or so they've been tolerating one another reasonably well and sometimes actually just hanging out. Two weeks ago we finally got the matching twin bed for Jack's room, and now every night Will sleeps in Jack's room. I'm actually tempted to make them share a room, but we don't really need Will's room to be anything other than Will's room (thank goodness for walk-in attic space), and I don't want to start any rebellions. But I think it's good they're pseudo-sharing Jack's room. I don't even yell at them (much) for chattering into the night. I'm happy to hear them talk to each other and have fun.

Complete different tangent: Went to Linens 'n' Things for some hand towels today. When I got to the checkout line, there were two people ahead of me with relatively small purchases. The checkout clerk looked slightly, well, not bright. The first transaction took five minutes (should've taken about thirty seconds). The second took approximately two years. At the end of Year Two, when it was clear we would be heading into Year Three, I abandoned ship. Just lay the towels down and walked out the door.

It could be argued that I had been standing in line for almost two years and five minutes, why not wait a couple of more months? But you just get to a point where you can't wait any more. Where incompetence can no longer be tolerated. Where you don't trust yourself to be civil when it's finally your turn. Also, I'd heard the clerk ask the woman in front of me for her phone number at the beginning of the transaction, and I had yet to come up with a polite way to say, "Hell, no, I'm not telling you my phone number. Zip code, what the hey. But if you want my phone number, you can look it up your own damn self."

So I left. And I may never, ever go back.