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Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Three Legs of the Stool

Despite some opinion to the contrary, I am not a very good cook. I am careless. I am usually more concerned with convenience and efficiency than I am with cooking. Although I love to eat, I do not have a nuanced palate and thus am perfectly willing to substitute one ingredient for another at my whim.


So where does the reputation come from? To start with, I do cook. I cook all our meals and always have. I don't own a microwave and would leave my husband in a New York minute if he ever brought one home as a surprise.


So the first leg of the stool is that I do indeed cook. The second leg is that I read a lot, retain about half of what I read, and thus can talk a good game. Ask me about something culinary. Go on, ask. If I don't know the answer off the top of my head (or if I can't manufacture a plausible answer), then I can find it for you quick as a wink (and not on the Internet). So I sound as if I might be able to cook.


The third leg of this milking-stool story is that I cook from scratch. My husband says that our back room is full of large bags labelled "Scratch," into which I dip as I begin to prepare a meal. I pride myself on making my own this and my own that. (Someone spoke to me recently about letting go of my "pride"—and I scoured my brain hunting for instances of pride. Well, I just found a major one!) My own ricotta. My own catsup. My own pancetta. My own lard. My own bread.


Anyone could do this, since it isn't difficult cooking. It takes a little time, but not much talent. I've always done it. This is who I am. So the question is, why? Why bother?


Have you inferred my politics from things I've previously said? It isn't as if I don't wear my heart on my sleeve. Politics is why I make my own lard and ricotta. I have always distrusted the corporate world, and I've seen nothing over the years to change my opinion.


Here's my view.  Imagine a baker named Susie Q. When Susie made cakes in her kitchen, all those many years ago, she made very good cakes. When she turned her cake-making into a small local business, she made very good cakes. When Susie Q went corporate, her responsibility was no longer to her customers but to her shareholders. Susie's cakes began to decline in quality. Using all butter, which was more expensive than other fats, cut into the profit margins. Powdered eggs were cheaper than fresh eggs, and much less labour-intensive. Susie's mixer, which made three cakes at a time, was replaced with industrial mixers that made 3000 cakes at a time.


The bottom line is this:. Susie Q's cakes are no longer what they used to be--and might not be what you want to put into your mouth or the mouths of your children. Susie Q no longer has control of her product; it's all about shareholders and profit.


I make my own lard because lard from the supermarket is hydrogenated (though why they need to hydrogenate lard I don't know). I like to cook with lard, and I want animal fat, not genetically modified oils that have been hydrogenated. So I make my own.


I make my own ricotta because I can, and because I've never found a source for ricotta made from organically produced milk. It's easy and it gives me a by-product of whey, which I use in making soups and breads. (I could be buying powdered whey supplements instead, but see the Sara Lee story above.)


My point is that because I am so cynical about our corporate world, I have no choice but to make as many food items as I can. The corporate concern does not include my health or my nutritional intake. Their concern is their own bottom line, and I refuse to contribute to it.


Substitute "agri-biz" for "corporate world" and you will understand why I buy as much produce and meat as I can from small family farms. Three cheers for the Dufferin Grove Organic Farmers' Market!


I must tell you, however, that when I eat out—whether at a cheap-and-cheerful place, at a high-end restaurant, or at the home of friends—all bets are off. I eat what's put in front of me.


Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor   

Sunday, August 22, 2010


As I sat in my chair

a tiny movement caught my eye.

Turning my head, I saw a minute house spider.

Suspended from a single silken filament,

she stared at me, eyeball to eyeball.


We have an arachnid-friendly house,

but that does not extend to

such intimate interaction.


I rose from my chair.


Reacting to my movement,

the spider climbed up her home-spun lifeline,

just a few inches.

I waved my hand beneath her

and she climbed higher, gobbling up her thread,

climbing, climbing.

We played this game a minute more,

me waving her on, she climbing to save her life,

until she reached the safety of the ceiling.


I returned to my own safety

of sitting still in my chair,

satisfied at the non-violent outcome.


Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor   

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Stymied Cook

Our oven is broken. Every six or seven years, the pilot light in the oven conks out. That is, the mechanism that controls it conks out, the thermocoupler. We call Home Service, and they call Gino. I tell Gino the problem and he says, "No problem." But this time there is a problem. He comes on a Friday, but even though I've told him what's wrong, somehow Gino hasn't thought to bring a new thermocoupler with him. So already we've lost a day. Gino comes back on Tuesday (should have been Monday, but we have no control over that). On Tuesday he puts in the new thermocoupler and it doesn't work. Uh-oh. Something else is wrong. Gino leaves, saying that he will call the manufacturer and also talk to several stove-fixing friends, and he will be back on Wednesday. That's good news, because we're having guests for dinner on Wednesday.


Unfortunately, Gino doesn't come (or call) on Wednesday. We create an ovenless meal for our Wednesday night guests. Nor does he call or come on Thursday. We begin to revise the menu we had set up for our upcoming Friday night dinner party. (Maybe we should stop entertaining so frequently.) Sure enough, in the middle of our Friday dinner party, Gino calls. He has found the needed part. He will pick it up on Monday—but will not be able to get to us until Tuesday. And no promises about that, either. On the coming Friday we're having a neighbourhood party for thirty-plus. I'd like to be doing a few things ahead of time, but obviously I won't be doing anything that requires an oven!


This is my beloved Garland stove we're talking about. Stupid, I know, to fall in love with an appliance. Essentially it's just a gas stove. Not even a six-burner, at that. But it's a Garland, a commercial restaurant stove. Big, black, and beautiful. The huge oven easily bakes six loves of bread at a time on the single rack. The flame of the burners is larger than the flame of any ordinary gas stove I've ever seen. It heats water in the twinkling of an eye. Well, several twinklings.


And we've had it for 23 years. (Dino found, with minimal searching, the original bill of sale.) For 23 years it has inspired me, tolerated my lapses, and supported me when I get out of my depth with an overly ambitious menu.


I love my stove.


I have no doubt that Gino will find and fix the problem. Dino is not so sanguine. He's already saying, "Shall we give each other a new stove for our anniversary?" But I don't want a new stove. Or, if I did have to have one, I want this exact same stove again. Don't tempt me with computerized this or digitalized that. All I want is reliability, a huge oven, and four big fat burners. No clock. No broiler, even. (Okay, I do occasionally miss having a broiler.) Garlands have quadrupled in price since we bought this one. The company was always reluctant about putting a commercial stove in a private residence—and perhaps now they won't even do it.


I'm crossing my fingers for Gino's work. And, of course, I'm also hoping he manages to carry off his miracle before the end of the week. I've got cooking to do!

Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor   

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Babies, Babies

I brake for babies, the unsung wonders of our world.


Recently I saw a baby girl in a stroller, about a year old, though tiny and small-boned for her age. As her mother pushed the stroller quickly over the bumpy sidewalk, this little adventurer sat on the edge of the stroller seat, with her legs and arms stretched out in front of her. She was deliberately balancing herself—"look Ma, no hands"—on the seat as the stroller jostled her. She was expanding her world, a big smile on her face, taking on the risk of tipping over or falling. She was delighted with herself! Her mother knew nothing of all this, since the stroller's collapsible awning hid the baby from her view. But what a merry chase that baby is going to lead her mother—from the first running-away the minute she can run, to her solo trip to India when she's 16, having just pulled herself out of high school. And I got to see it all, in miniature.


A moment later I saw a daddy walking his 18-month-old son to the park. Daddy was walking on the sidewalk. The toddler, bundled up in a bright coat and with sturdy shoes supporting him, was about eight feet from his father, walking along the slope of the rise that bordered the sidewalk. As they neared the park, the rise went even higher and the little guy unhesitatingly moved toward the rise. He didn't ask for help, and he also didn't say, "Daddy, I'm going this way" (or whatever version of those words he might have been able to manage). He just went off on his own, solidly exploring life away from his parent. Another adventurer.


I must point out, however, that the whole time they were in my sight, Daddy made no attempt to communicate with his son. Perhaps he was in a rare bad mood. I hope so. I hope that what I saw was not typical of their relationship.


I asked my own, grown son once if he had any new Sam stories since I'd last seen Sam, who was in the Terrible Twos at the time. He said, "There probably are some, but it's hard to think of them in the midst of his mischief-making." And then he told me this story:


Sam had refused to take a nap. No nap. There's a disaster in the making. By 5 p.m. Sam was a walking, talking time bomb. His mother was working late, so his father was fixing dinner. Sam was playing by himself.


I do need to preface this by saying that humor is a big part of our lives. My son loves to do and say funny things. Even at two, Sam "gets" jokes and teasings and is aware of the importance of humor around the house.


So he comes to the kitchen and says, "Daddy, come see! Come see what I did! It's really funny!"


Cautious, my son asks, "Am I going to like this, Sam?"


Sam says, "Oh yes, Daddy! You'll like it! You'll like it because it's funny! It's really funny! Come to the dining room and see. It's really funny!" (And yes, Sam did talk like this at two and a half.)


So my son follows Sam into the dining room, where Sam points proudly to the dining room table, now totally covered with salt, and says, "See, Daddy? See how funny it is?"


Look at the nuances of this interchange. Sam knew that what he had done was not going to be considered appropriate behaviour, so he tried to pull his father into the humor of the situation right off the bat. Since he couldn't put the salt back into the box and hide his actions, he knew that humor was the best approach to take. If he could just convince his father (and perhaps himself) that the whole thing was hilarious, then perhaps the naughtiness of it (a concept he also understood very well) might be ignored.


Sam's father didn't think it was very funny. I do, but I didn't have to clean up the salt.


Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor   

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Out of Sorts

I'm out of sorts. Is anyone else feeling out of sorts?


What does "out of sorts" mean? Where does the silly term come from? Is sorts "normal?" When I'm out of it (them?) am I feeling not normal?


There's a definite pejorative feeling to the term. You're absolutely on the wrong side of your norm when you're out of sorts. You don't say "I've had such good luck lately that I'm really out of sorts." No, it's always on the negative side of normal.


I feel headache-y. Mildly depressed. It's hard to see the bright side. I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. As I so often do, I'm living in the midst of my calendar rather than from my own core. (Today, after this I do that, and then I have to remember to stop for that and then when I get home I have to do whatever and then my potluck dinner friends will come and will the dining room be ready?)


And that's just today. Tomorrow and the next day are equally crowded with this and that and the other, and then there's the next day and the day after that.


So where is my central being in all this? I've been sleeping through the alarm lately instead of getting up to meditate. That's not helping me to find that central core, is it?


What's going on here? Let's have a story. The cure for being out of sorts is a story!


After our divorce, the children spent summers with their father in Tennessee. This left me alone, with only my day-job to deal with, for two and a half months. All summer long was a vacation for me. Eight hours of work, then sixteen of freedom, every day.


During one of those summers, we were living in our second house on High Street. It was on a corner lot, and its big yard was fenced in the back but open in the front. The house across the street had been rented out to a group of five or six male university students. I didn't know them and didn't see them often.


But one Sunday afternoon they had a party, or a beer blast, which seemed to consist of a lot of oversized young men drinking beer and playing touch football in their yard.


And then touch football in the street.


And then touch football in MY yard.


Now, I've never known how to confront anyone. We were raised to avoid confrontations. If it can't be swept under the rug, then suck it up yourself (although I don't think my mother, Eileen, would have phrased it quite that way).


So there I was, alone in the house, watching these big, noisy, boozing, young men encroach on my territory. They were completely harmless, I'm sure. But I was really angry that they were in my yard.


I had been sitting in the living room listening to the Leontyne Price recording of Cosi fan Tutte. The noise of the football game was interfering with the opera.


What were my options? I could ask the boys to leave, or I could keep quiet and hope that they'd eventually go away. There was no way I would confront them, so my only choice was to wait.


But I decided to facilitate the process. I cranked up the volume on the record player and opened all the windows on the first floor. The noise of the opera was deafening inside the house. And "Come scoglio" thundered out into the yard. Thundered! Leontyne Price louder than life-size.


I showed no mercy. More bass. More treble. More volume. Mozart filled the neighborhood.


After a short time, the boys left, drifting back across the street into their own yard. But by then I was too out of sorts to want to hear the rest of the opera.


Would an actual face-to-face request have been as emotionally draining for me as cowering on my couch waiting for Mozart to do the job? Don't know. We do what we can with what we have.


Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor