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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Domesticity: More Organizing

My chest-style freezer is stuffed to the brim. The only thing I find when I look into it are plastic quart containers of half-baked plum tomatoes. I like those tomatoes, and I want them in the freezer, but I don't want them to cover the entire top layer so that I have to move fifteen containers of them before I can go any deeper.


And deeper is where the good stuff is. (Beware:  possible falling metaphors ahead!) In my freezer, deeper is the home of spare ribs and lamb shanks and big organically grown roasting chickens. Deeper is where I keep the romano beans and roasted red peppers that I put away by the bushel in mid-September.


The poblano chiles are deeper, for example. If I want to make rajas, with onions and poblanos and potatoes all cut in strips, first I have to struggle through those quarts of roasted plum tomatoes.


I need signposts in my freezer, for it's obvious that I don't know where I'm going. I need to organize it, with a place for everything and everything in its place. We all know how long that would last, even if I could pull myself together sufficiently to straighten it out. Twenty pounds of frozen cranberries or ten pounds of coffee beans would arrive one day from the supplier and in my haste to create space for them I would dislodge all those carefully laid-out signposts.


My husband prepares himself well for freezer-diving. He wears gardening gloves to avoid frostbite as he moves twenty packages of organic ground beef from the right side to the left—the better to find the 4-liter bag of milk that we know is "deeper." He definitely has more stamina than I do; he will doggedly continue the search for a missing package of lamb shanks long after I've given up and changed the menu to canned tuna.


Now this is not a question of labeling. I actually do label some of the things I put into the freezer. I write "tom sauce" and the date on a slip of paper and fasten a tip of the paper between the container and its lid (there's many a slip twixt the quart and the lid). Or I write "chick stock" and the date, or "ricotta whey" and the date. Or I write "D" on an index card and rubberband it to a package of dandelion greens, so I'm not surprised by their bitterness when I thought I was serving up kale. (Other greens remain unlabelled: I see no reason to distinguish between kale and mustard and chard and collards.)


If I could just arrange the freezer contents so that everything is on the top layer and nothing lurks mockingly at the bottom, I would feel successful, organizationally speaking. When will they invent a one-layer freezer for our convenience? It would need a dedicated room, of course. But perhaps the freezer could lie beneath the floorboards, which would be equipped with numerous trap doors to access the freezer contents. No, I think this is a non-starter.


Copyright 2007 Ann Tudor

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Domesticity: A Reason to Organize

I am not an organized being. Anyone who has been listening will recognize this as the truth. In some of my long-ago jobs, I used to be responsible for filing. Like my bosses, I thought I was good at it. It wasn't until my memory became less reliable that I realized that I wasn't a good filer at all. I simply had a good memory for where I had put things. My filing was not logical (well, it was alphabetical, but that was the given). I could relocate any needed item simply because my mind made connections—I just remembered where I'd filed it.

The same principles applied outside office work. I knew what was what because I remembered, not because I was naturally organized. Then I married a highly organized ex-librarian (opposites attract). Well, you can take the boy out of the library, but you can't take the library out of the boy. My husband makes notes of everything. He keeps a day-book that never fails him. His calendar of coming events is a model of foresight. He never mislays our subscription tickets. He never forgets to do anything because he always makes to-do lists and then acts on them.

Imagine his surprise when he discovered that his charming bride—old enough to know better when they married—was as slap-dash as a rebellious teenager.

Oh, it was hard. The first couple of years took considerable compromise. But gradually I acquired a few of his organizing skills. Not too many, of course, since it was important to preserve the unique charm of my spatterdash approach.

We have a lot of things in our kitchen. I have ceiling-high shelves lined with 2-quart jars, 1-quart jars, pint jars—all filled with grains, dried fruits, oils, and ingredients both exotic (dried Kaffir lime) and prosaic (barley). My impulse was always not to label the jars but to rely on my memory. Why should I label them? Can I not tell brown rice from basmati from Arborio? Don't I know couscous when I see it through glass? Aren't black turtle beans significantly different from Great Northerns or from pintos? Really. What overkill, what a waste of energy, to label all those jars.

On a winter day several years ago I decided to make oatmeal cookies. I'm a cookie monster. It was a cold winter day. Some fresh-from-the-oven oatmeal cookies? What a good way to spend the afternoon! Cookies and milk while I sat on the sofa and read a novel.

So I made them, complete with currants and walnuts. Don't you love that occasional tart-sweet hit of a currant or raisin in your oatmeal cookie? I do, so I put in currants.

As soon as they were out of the oven, I grabbed a warm cookie and ate it. H'm-m. This one did not have a tart-sweet hit. Maybe the currants were unevenly distributed through the dough and this particular cookie was lacking currants. It had a slightly different flavor, which I couldn't identify. I tried another. Still no currant hit. H'm-m. I ate four more cookies and found no taste of currants at all--just that strange, unidentifiable flavor.

I stopped eating the cookies and began to think, staring at the glass jars on the shelves and trying to retrace my movements as I had made the cookies.

It didn't take too long before I found it. Instead of currants I had grabbed the jar of Chinese salted and fermented black beans. Hey, they do look alike, especially if you're trying to pretend that your eyes are still young and you don't need to wear your glasses. Fermented black beans are salty and, well, fermented. Their resemblance to currants is strictly visual.

So I didn't eat cookies and milk as I read my novel.

When my husband came home I had to admit my mistake. Luckily, he prefers savoury to sweet. Also, he hates waste, particularly the waste of food. So over the next few days he ate every one of those misbegotten cookies.

After that, I reluctantly started labeling the jars on my shelves. Not all of them, of course. I still insist I can tell a pinto bean from a split pea. But if there's any ambiguity at all, I slap on a label. And I've never since made cookies with fermented black beans.

Copyright 2007 Ann Tudor

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Domesticity: The Mystery of the Red Dress

Well, with such a title this story could go any way at all, couldn't it? It could be a Monika Lewinsky kind of red dress. Or the red dress could be like the red shoes, compelling the wearer to go to a salsa club and dance the night away. Many exotic mysteries might cluster around the idea of a red dress.


But my mystery is prosaic and domestic. At my favourite store's January sale I bought a beautiful red dress of heavy cotton, with vaguely Japanese black marks sweeping over the fabric. The top is a simple sleeveless tank-top shape, loose-fitting, and the full, swinging skirt is attached just below the natural waistline. But the skirt is enlivened by numerous one-inch deep horizontal tucks about five or six inches wide. These tucks puff up the fabric and catch the observer's eye. The skirt is exciting to see and to wear.


No mystery yet.


I wear this dress in both winter and summer, adding black tights and a black turtleneck in cold weather. I wear it for special occasions at home, such as when I'm hosting a dinner party. At those times I always wear an apron over it, because cooking is messy and unpredictable.


I always wear an apron when I cook, except when I don't. And it was during one of those latter, apronless times that a big fat spatter of grease landed at the ribcage area of my beautiful red dress. The spot was as big as an egg and very noticeable.


The next day I pretreated the stain and washed the dress. I let it hang to dry, so as not to set the stain in the heat of the dryer. When it was dry, the stain was still there. I pretreated the stain and washed the dress again. Same result. I put the dress aside.


And then, serendipitously, I read in a magazine that the best way to treat a grease stain was to spray it with WD-40 before washing it. This sounded very strange, but what did I have to lose? The dress was useless as it was.


I sprayed the stain with WD-40 (which, despite its little straw nozzle, tends to spray an area larger than you expected). The WD-40 covered the egg-shaped stain and then some. It was now a four-by-six-inch oval spot. But I had faith. I washed the dress and hung it to dry.


Two days later, when the dress was dry, I couldn't see the grease spot, but that was because the WD-40 stain obscured it. Instead of a little egg-shaped stain, I now had a large dark oval in the middle of my beautiful red dress.


I took the dress upstairs to the sewing room, hoping to be inspired and to find a clever way to disguise the stain (it wouldn't be the first time I'd tried that sort of thing). But during two weeks of off-and-on mulling, no clever idea came to me. The dress was a write-off. I left it in the sewing room until I figured out the best way to dispose of it. Or maybe I'd cut off the unstained skirt and find a way to use it without the top.


Soon, however, I needed to clean the sewing room to turn it into its subsidiary role as guest room. The dress, along with several other half-finished projects awaiting decisions, went into a box that I tossed into the back of a closet.


That's the background to the mystery of the red dress. Or is this the miracle of the red dress?


Scoot ahead three months to summertime. The woolens in my closet have been replaced with linen and silk and cotton. One very hot day when I needed to look dressed-up for a trip to town, I remembered the red dress. (I belong to the out-of-sight, out-of-mind half of the population, so I'd totally forgotten the dress until that day.) I wanted to wear the red dress. I looked in all possible closet spaces and did not find it. But as I was looking I began to have a tiny memory of a stain, an ineradicable stain, on the red dress. Okay, I finally remembered that part of it. But what had I done with the dress?


I gave up on the dress that day, but the next day I had an hour to spare so I began searching again, and I found the box in the back of the closet and the dress at the bottom of the box. I took the dress to the light to refresh my memory of how bad the stain was.


There was no stain. There was no stain at all, neither an egg-sized grease stain nor a paperback-book-sized WD-40 stain. The dress, though wrinkled, was spotless; it was ready to be ironed and worn.


So I ironed it and wore it. It felt wonderful. I felt beautiful in it, swinging the skirt like a five-year-old.


I think the WD-40 evaporated over time. That's the only explanation.


Lessons learned? (1) Wear an apron when you cook. (2) Don't ever panic; things will work out. (3) Use WD-40 on a grease stain, but allow a LONG time for the WD-40 itself to disappear. (4) Have patience. (5) Procrastinate. It always pays off in the end.



Copyright 2007 Ann Tudor

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Domestic Scene: Can she mop a kitchen floor, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?

I mopped the kitchen floor yesterday. I'd like to say it was the floor's weekly, regularly scheduled mopping, but anyone who knows me would recognize this as a lie. I mopped the floor yesterday and I won't tell you how long it had been (bless me, Father Murphy's Oil, for I have sinned. It has been X months since my last mopping). The interval between moppings will not be revealed here.


At several points during that interval, however, I read, by chance, comments on floor-washing. And each author said something like "stand-up mopping just doesn't get the floor clean. You have to get down on your hands and knees . . ." A sentence like that sticks in your head if you have a propensity for guilt.


I used to garden a lot, and with great pleasure. I'd crawl around, kneel, get up, dig up plants and move them to someplace else in my little garden. But as my body has aged a little, getting up and down has become less of a pleasure, and I have found that I do less and less gardening. Now, if I won't get down on all fours to garden—which I love—do you think I would do it to mop my kitchen floor? Do you know how to spell "fat chance"?


But I did mop my kitchen floor yesterday, as I've said, and the recommendation for hands-and-knees scrubbing was strong in my mind. So here's what I did. I got myself a virgin green nylon scrubby and a small bowl of water to which I added some Murphy's oil soap and a little vinegar. And whenever I passed a corner or an edge—you know what I mean: those grimy, never-cleaned places that the sponge mop can't even get close to, let alone scrub—I put my mop aside and bent down (briefly, each time) with my little scrubby and I actually scrubbed those corners and edges clean!


This was a perfect compromise: I didn't have to do the whole floor on my hands and knees, but I did clean some of those areas that the mop can never touch.


I can hear you saying "big deal." Most women have clean houses because they know how to clean or they hire someone who does. I don't know how (and it wouldn't make a lot of difference if I did, for I don't want to do it). Nor have I hired anyone to help me. I'd be too embarrassed for her to see my filthy kitchen floor.


So it may seem like no big deal to you, but I am thrilled that I have made my kitchen floor cleaner than it usually is--even though I know it's only temporary.


Copyright 2007 Ann Tudor

Friday, October 12, 2007

Scenes from Childhood: Stepping Stones, Skipping Stones

Kids lined up for a picture are often arranged as stepping stones, from the shortest to the tallest (or the other way around, depending on your point of view).


Skipping stones are something else. They're flat and thinnish, and the right people can skim them over a body of still water. Standing on the shore, some talented people can deliver a flat stone with a practiced sidearm throw and that stone will skip on the surface of the water once, twice—even ten times or more!


I can't do that at all, and I wish I could. If I could do that and could also do two kinds of whistling, I'd die happy. I want to be able to do the two-fingers-in-the-mouth shrill whistle that will tell the Gryphon Trio or the St. Lawrence String Quartet how much I love them—AND I want to be able to whistle a Sousa march with verve, panache, and a few trills of the piccolo part.


Copyright 2007 Ann Tudor

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Scenes from Childhood: The Trip to the Ballpark

When I was no older than 13, we drove to Chicago for an All-Star baseball game. Uncharacteristically, my father had bought a clutch of tickets for the All-Star game at Comiskey Park. In the station wagon were my father and his brother, their two wives (my mother Eileen and our aunt Jeannette), and a pile of kids: me, a boy cousin or two, and a couple of my brothers. That's a lot for one station wagon, but those were pre-seat-belt days, and we just scrunched tightly for the two-and-a-half-hour drive.


Here was the plan. We would drive to Comiskey, on Chicago's South Side, and everyone except Eileen and Jeannette would get out of the car and go to the game. The two women would drive across town (these two very rural, small-town women would drive across Chicago) to see a distant third cousin. Then they would drive back to pick us up after the game.


Baseball is a game without a clock, which is one reason I love it. A game can be any length at all. But that made it difficult to know in advance just when the women should leave their visiting and start driving across town to pick us up.


The game ended. The thousands of fans tumbled out of the stadium, found their cars or their public transit, and left. We stood, our little band of men, boys, and a girl, and we watched for our green station wagon with the Indiana plates. We certainly didn't expect them to be "on time", since no actual time had been set for the pick-up. They couldn't have known when the game would end, although I think Daddy expected them (perhaps had even told them) to listen to the game with one ear as they chatted, so they could begin the cross-town drive at the bottom of the eighth.


We waited, watching stragglers leave the stadium. We saw the hot-dog and beer vendors leave the stadium. We saw the umpires leave and the uniformed guards leave. We watched the players leave, their slicked-back still wet, their crisp short-sleeved shirts making them look almost ordinary, much diminished from the god-like status we had accorded them earlier in the afternoon.


And then there was no one else around. We waited. We paced. We sat on the pavement and pouted (only the children). We had been there completely alone for some 30 minutes when a police car drove up to us.


"What are you folks doing here?"


To them we must have looked like a bunch of dangerously innocent rubes on their beat, a violent incident waiting to happen.


"Don't you know this is not a good neighborhood?"


Well, actually, we might have known that. But to a small-town person, what does "not a good neighborhood" mean? That this is where the mean old lady lives who yells at kids? I think the Chicago definition was somewhat different. We explained why we were waiting, and the policemen left, warning us to "be careful" (and what did THAT mean?) but otherwise abandoning us to the South Side. I think we felt a little less safe having heard their concern.


My father and his brother were responsible for the lives of all of us, weren't they?  I never gave a thought to danger because I was with my Daddy, who would protect us all. He knew everyone, surely. He could just say, "I'm Myron Johnson, publisher of the Delphi Citizen," and everyone would respect him. So I wasn't worried. Perhaps I should have been a little smarter by the age of 13, but I was a late bloomer.


How long was it? Two hours, I think. Two hours of standing alone in front of the stadium as afternoon turned to evening, sunlight turned to dusk and then to dark.


Which was worse for my father and my uncle? Worrying about us in our precarious situation, or worrying about what indeed had happened to their wives as they wandered through the unfamiliar big city?


Well, Eileen and Jeannette finally arrived. They'd just got to talking and they couldn't get away. And then it took longer than they had expected to get back across town to the ballpark.


We piled in the car and went home to Carroll County, not worse off for our urban adventure, and not even smart enough to be grateful for the uneventfulness of our visit to Chicago.


Copyright 2007 Ann Tudor

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Scenes from Childhood: Dancing at the Nuns' House

The nuns' living quarters were in a tiny house beside the two-room school, which was attached to the church building itself. The three nuns (two teachers plus a housekeeping nun) lived on the upper floor of the tiny house. The main floor had an entrance hall, a largish room to the left, and, farther down the hall, the door to a small chapel. Although the chapel was just for the nuns, at some point during our eight-year attendance at the little school we students were allowed to visit the chapel. Perhaps it was only seventh and eighth graders.


I know we were allowed in there occasionally, because I remember one thing about that little chapel: it contained a Little Infant of Prague statue. Some day I'll look it up and discover the true story of the Little Infant of Prague. As a church artifact, it seems always to be a real doll dressed in sumptuous, hand-sewn garments. Ours wore a red velvet cloak trimmed in white fur and gold braid. He held an orb in his hands and wore a gold crown on his head. The Little Infant of Prague seems always to be clothed in real fabric. I don't know whether you could go to a Catholic outfitters' shop—the kind where you bought fancy rosaries and beautiful prayer books and plaster of Paris statues of the Black Madonna or Our Lady of Guadalupe—and buy ready-to-display Little Infants of Prague, or whether you bought a naked plaster doll (probably not anatomically correct) and took him home to dress in hand-sewn silks and velvets.


But I loved the Little Infant of Prague that was in the nuns' chapel, with its real clothes.


The year I was in the eighth grade, the front room of the nuns' house was made into a "rec room" for the eighth graders (the oldest kids in the two-room school). Being given our own, separate space was a big deal. I guess they'd noticed that we were too old for Red Rover. They (and who were "they"?) put a record player in the room and even seeded it with a few records. We were allowed to go into the rec room at recess time and during the noon hour (we all went home for lunch but would come back early to take advantage of this new, private space). The record I remember was a Glenn Miller recording of "Opus One." There may have been others. We danced to "Opus One" every day.


Now, why didn't I learn to dance in that room? The two Crosby girls, Carol and Mary, were in grade 8 with me. Their older brother, Tom, was the coolest dancer in high school, and I'm sure he was already teaching Carol and Mary how to do the "fast dance" that separated the sheep from the goats during the four years of high school.


So if the Crosby girls already knew, in grade 8, how to fast dance, then how's come I didn't learn it from them? Were they holding on to their precociously acquired skill in order to reveal it once they reached the social paradise of public high school? Or was I too bookish and standoffish and did I refuse to try to learn to fast dance?


Had I learned it, would my high school career have been more pleasant? Would it have made any difference at all? Would I have become a dancing fool and abandoned all my other interests in order to pursue ballroom dancing?


If Carol and Mary Crosby had taught me to fast dance to "Opus One" in the rec room in the nuns' house, who know what would have become of me? Whenever I hear "Opus One" now, I'm reminded of how my life did unfold, progressing along its path to end up in unlikely Toronto. My lifetime dancing career has consisted of two private lessons with Mr. Alexander, who has taught Dino and me to jitterbug happily in the privacy of our own dining room, with the table folded down and pushed against the wall.


Copyright 2007 Ann Tudor

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Scenes from Childhood: Spitballs

The "little room" of my two-room elementary school was home to the first four grades, its pupils ranging from six to ten years old—quite a handful of an age span. Sister Mary Cecilia was equal to the challenge. She could listen to the times tables, explain the theology of that man on the cross, and clean up the pee from a timid first grader afraid to ask permission to visit the outdoor toilet. She could do all of this with one hand behind her back or—more to the point—one hand fingering the huge black rosary that hung from her waist.


But she couldn't deal with little Jack Anderson's spitballs. How do boys learn to make spitballs? Does Popular Mechanics run a yearly spitball article? Or is the skill passed from older to younger brother ("You want to tee off the teacher? Here's how. You take a bit of paper, chew it up . . .").


I don't know how Jack Anderson learned to make and send a spitball, but he was durned good at it. You'd be sitting at your little desk, one six nailed to a pair of parallel 1x4s, minding your own business. You might be intent on deciphering the answer to 2 plus 3. Minding your own business, as I said, or thinking about who you would play with at recess. Or looking at Mary Crosby's long black braids in front of you and longing to tug on them. Minding your own business.


And suddenly your exposed little neck would be stung. You'd slap the spot, jumping from the shock. And there, on your neck, would be a tiny, sloppy-wet little ball of chewed-up paper.


Jack Anderson strikes again.


Copyright 2007 Ann Tudor

Monday, October 1, 2007

Scenes from Childhood: Fear

In the old house where I grew up, the bathroom was on the main floor. Upstairs was a little half-bath with a toilet and a tiny sink, and our family of eight appreciated that extra toilet!


The little bathroom was right at the top of the stairs, and within it, just opposite the toilet, was a small door that opened into an unused attic space. A tiger lived behind that door. And I knew that any time I went down the steps, the tiger could emerge from behind the door and leap, in a single bound, onto my back. The tiger never leaped at me when I was coming up the steps. He attacked only from behind.


None of my siblings ever mentioned the tiger. But then, I didn't mention him either. I think that we all knew that the tiger was there and that we were all afraid. But no one spoke of it for fear of being ridiculed. Ridicule was a big part of our family culture.


If I made it around the hairpin turn in the steps before he leaped on my back, I was safe. But there were fewer steps below the turn than above it, so the longest part of going down the steps was the part where the tiger could leap on my back.


I would be brave when I started down the steps, telling myself that it wasn't true that there was a tiger. But after the first two steps I started getting scared. I could feel the tiger crouching to leap onto my back. I would go faster and faster down those remaining steps with a flutter inside me that shook me all over and made my legs and feet clatter faster to get me around that bend in the steps, safely away from the threat of the tiger.


I must admit that the tiger never did leap on my back. But I knew he could at any time. He was very large and very real. And I was little and scared.



Copyright 2007 Ann Tudor