Monthly Archives: February 2010

The Free Squirt

I’m pro-parfum.

I still felt that way after sitting through five interminable acts of Mussorgsky’s “Khovanshchina” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, seated behind an operaphile who was also a Dior Poisonphile. Remember Poison?

I’m quoting the ***** review Luca Turin gives Poison in the must-have “Perfumes:The Guide” he wrote with Tania Sanchez. Honor gave it to me for Mother’s Day a few years ago (knowing my proclivities) and I’ll spend a whole post extolling its greatness at a later date.I’ve spent more time memorizing its contents than I ever did on Bible verses. Just saying.

“Reviewing Poison is a bit like road-testing an Abrams M1 tank in the evening rush hour.People just seem to get out of your way, and if they don’t, you just swivel that turret to remind them you’re not kidding.This is the fragrance everyone loves to hate, the beast that defined the eighties, the perfume that cost me a couple of friendships and one good working relationship…” “Every perfume collector has to have this, but please never, ever wear it to dinner LT.”

Or to the opera. Or within twenty feet of another human being. I think it would be fabulous when skyjumping — brazen and apologetically unnatural. My opera Poison-Mist dispenser hadn’t the sense to tone it down, but hey, I admire her chutzpah, and I’m pro-parfum.

Many disagree with me. My scent-phobic sister-in-law once got on the phone with the billing department at Marshall Field and told them she would cut up her credit card if she ever received another smelly insert with her bill. Sensing she meant it, once a month someone hand-stuffed her bill. But me: go for it. Express yourself flagrantly and fragrantly — I don’t intend to tone it down, even if you haven’t the exquisite taste to appreciate my Apres L’Ondee. (“Guerlain *****”Among pale romantic fragrances, only Apres L’Ondee has the unresolved but effortless feel of the watery piano chords that make Debussy’s pieces[Images is exactly contemporary]so poignant, One of the twenty greatest fragrances of all time. TS”)

I always have a few Guerlain fragrances in rotation — all ***** according to Luca and Tania — and I find them necessary to my happiness in some essential, primal way. Cheap they’re not. But I’m the kind of parfumophile who has no problem with approaching a perfect stranger and asking “What are you wearing?” I don’t know how it is, but they never say “Uh, jeans and a Hawks jersey?,” but “Cool Water.” Not ” Pendleton,” but “Rive Gauche.” They are my brothers and sisters of the atomizer, my educators, and the most personal version of the Free Squirt.

My husband works as a part-time caregiver to a man with serious developmental difficulties named Nelson. The job consists of getting Nelson out of the house — er: into the community. Nelson loves malls and grocery stores. Lou loves malls and grocery stores –it’s all good. All winter Lou’s come home with a pocketful of the paper smellies his sister hates so much, mostly from the Macy’s fragrance counter. During cocktail hour he’ll pull them out, and say “Guess,” or “What do you think?” (I think Angel is overrated.) Free Squirt fun for cabin fever.

But here is the history of the purest form of the Free Squirt.

As a young woman I felt foolishly furtive trying out the testers at Saks. I was afraid of the macquilleed -coiffeed sisterhood behind the counters, afraid that one of them would reach into my wallet with her manicured hand and terrify into buying, say, Poison. My mother, wrapped in black mink and veils of Joy (Patou ***** “Joy does not smell of rose, jasmine, ylang or tuberose. It just smells huge, luscious and absolutely wonderful LT”) loved the Sisterhood of the Spritzers and all those pretty testers on mirrored trays. She knew what she liked and knew she’d receive her “big bucket of Joy” every Christmas from my father. But she too had a curious nose, and would smile at the saleslady who sensed a perfect customer. When asked: “May I help you?” Mummy would say airily “No thanks, I’m just here for my Free Squirt.” She’d leave the store with about twenty of those freebie tiny vials the saleslady pulled unprompted from under the counter. Shopping with my mother, whether for fish or frocks was always a small adventure.

I’m older now, and have real things to fear, not well-groomed saleswomen with swollen feet. Now I smile when approached and say “No, I’m just here for my Free Squirt.” They laugh and chat with me and occasionally hand me one of those tiny plastic-capped vials. Never give up on the chance for a free squirt of joy.

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Filed under Body, Free, Into the Mystic, Library Card, Scent

Tramezzino con la Ouva e il Peppe

I’ve written two long pieces about eggs, both for egullet.org. One of them even got me into “Best Food Writing of 2009,”which I never saw coming. Thing is, I’m going to have to set up a new category here called Eggs, because I’m far from cracking the shell of this topic. But the season of Lent and a refrigerator drawer of green peppers has given me the  focus to write about that Chicago Italian standby: The pepper and egg sandwich.

Now, I’ve been making myself scrambled egg sandwiches on white toast since before puberty, and it’s still a fine “nothing else in the house” lunch. But I met my fate at a storefront Italian Beef joint on Racine Avenue between Lexington and Flournoy (the heart of Chicago’s Little Italy) in, maybe, 1980. Cathie and I had picked up our daughters at the Near West Side Community Preschool and walked by the storefront, its windows plastered with hand-lettered signs proclaiming those Chicago classics: Italian Beef, Italian Sausage, the Combo and Today’s Special: Pepper and Egg sandwich. The price was indeed special, maybe a buck, so we scrapped our lunch plans of PBJs and applesauce and walked into what felt like a neighbor’s kitchen with a cash register.

The three cheerful ladies behind the counter were definitely products of the ‘hood. I’d never met them, but they had me pegged: “You’re married to Atta Rovai’s grandson, right? How is she? We missed her at the bingo at Our Lady of Pompeii last week. OK, two Pepper and Eggs.”

The peppers lay on the grill in a giant pile, being as they are a key ingredient (along with hot gardiniera)in the Beef, the Sausage and the Combo. One woman (“She looks just like a Rovai, but she must get the blonde hair from your side,”) scrambled a few eggs with a chunked off portion of peppers. She slit a ten inch slice from a loaf of the baguette-shaped woolly textured local “Italian Bread,” churned out loaf after tasteless loaf by either Gonella or Turano bakeries.( Yeah the bread’s useless for anything else except, maybe, garlic bread, but a Chicago Italian sandwich plain isn’t right using something crusty, artisinal or tasty. ) She slapped the pepper and egg mixture into the bread, wrapped it in wax paper, collected my four quarters and said “Thanks, hon. Tell your Nonna Angie Calabrese said hi.”

Sandwiches always tastle better eaten outdoors so we settled onto a bench in Amerigo Vespucci park and sat silent until we’d eaten every scrap and crumb. The two-year olds asked for more. The creaminess of the eggs wedded to the sweet, soft peppers was one of those too-rare gastromic experiences: A New Taste Sensation. Since then I’ve learned that a Pepper and Egg sandwich is the classic Ash Wednesday lunch in Italian American families. Heck, we’ve never kept Lent, but I know what we’re having for dinner — I’d better pull on my boots and walk to the grocery store for that bread.

Note: This doughty blogger wasted fifteen minutes looking for the Italian word for a sandwich that isn’t a panino. Who knew?

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Filed under Born in Chicago, Five bucks or fewer, Food, Incredible Edible Egg

Baby, You’re the Greatest!

Discovering something new at the right time in your life is a kind of harmonic convergence. The planets weren’t aligned when I took my first sip of coffee (I was three — yuckie!) listened to the Mahler Five (twenty-two) or read Olivia Manning’s “Balkan Trilogy” (thirty-five.) With age came discernment, thank God. I mean to say:life without coffee?

We’re the kind of annoying people who say “We don’t watch much television.” Part of it is geographic — our one set, aka The Jumbotron — lives upstairs, so watching a show or a movie is a choice. We won’t pay for cable, and until we sprung for The Jumbotron last fall, we could pull in only one network station, no matter how much we wiggled the attic antenna. Digital technology allows us to, (OMG!), pull in all the free channels ,with crystalline reception and that big badass picture. PBS cooking shows! Tennis finals! The Olympics! And that’s about it, except for the network news at 10:00. Yeah, we’re wild and crazy kids. I’ve yet to see episode one of, say, CSI, whether Miami or Moose Jaw.

Because I don’t think Dave, Jay and what’s his name are remotely entertaining, and I had a half hour wait before BBC News (Yeah, I know, but I’m not a foguette, honest) I decided to run the channels one night. Except for the late Olympic wrap-up on NBC the last week or so, I’ve had a steady date with a fat blowhard every night since.

Oh, thank heavens I met, at last, Ralph and Alice and Norton! (Trixie too, but she doesn’t get much screen-time.)”The Honeymooners” has to be over fifty years old, and it shows its age — in a good way.It may be the only place a modern kid will ever see an icebox, or a housewife in heels. When Alice and Trixie go to a double feature (before my time) they stop to don a perky hat. Your buddy and you belong to a Lodge, and the sight of Ralph and Norton in their ritual Raccoon hats makes me giggle every time.

I’d heard forever about how politically incorrect “The Honeymooners” is. Well, yeah, Ralph expects his dinner on the table the minute he comes home, and barely removes his bus-driver cap before he tucks in. (Norton was way ahead of his time — he never takes off his beat-up fedora indoors, like our sons and grandsons in their backward baseball caps.) Yes, Ralph regulary threatens to send Alice “To the moon!” but he never does. (And humor is funniest when it’s not PC, as everyone from Jonathan Swift to Chris Rock have proved.)

It took me a week to understand the running joke: Alice always wins. Every, every time. Ralph isn’t the smartest raccoon in the woods, and Gleason brings such brainless braggadocio and bombast to the part that I wait breathlessly for the (beautiful) Audrey Meadows to cut him down a few sizes. And why did I never know how funny Art Carney could be? He’s the breeziest, most scene-stealing second banana in the history of television.

Talk about cheap: one room set, maybe two costume changes per character. Talk about cheerful — I’m guaranteed at least eight giggles and three full-out LOLs every episode. And talk about timing — you need those endorphins as you slog through a Midwestern winter that feels as long as Dubya’s administration. To paraphrase Ralph, as he says at the end of every episode as he engulfs Alice in an embrace, “Honeymooners, you’re the best!”

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Food: Fast, Fake and Fuzzy/C & C Giveaway!

Let’s say three of the things you live for are curling, Kierkegaard and carpentry. Then let’s imagine you found an activity that pulled all three together in one cheap, cheerful place. Oh frabjous day!

I love Japanese culture, fake food and the fun and consolation of not-very-challenging crochet projects. If you glance at the header you’ll see how they all came together in that enchanting, kinda useless Japanese crochet category called amigarumi.

The Japanese rock the fake food world! Think of those plastic replicas of sashimi and noodles in the windows of Japanese restaurants — I think they’re (very) minor works of art, and they’re pricey. Think about those wind-up sushi toys: Wacko Jacko’s in LA has a great collection and I’m kicking myself that I gave away a suitcase full when I got home. Origami has a small but growing culinary division, and I hope to share a folded meal with you when I master that tricky double-dip ice cream cone. The Japanese are so good at this stuff they can make real food look like fake food — think of those molds that can transform a hard boiled egg into a wee race car or bunny.

My grandmother Frances Henrietta Moss McArthur , apart from filing a column with “The London Free Press,” running the distaff side of a farm, and playing the organ at church, was a notable needlewoman. She bought me a sampler from the five and dime in Glencoe Ontario when I was six and initiated me into the sisterhood of Lazy Daisies and French Knots. When I was nine, she lent me a crochet hook and the golf ball-sized remnant of a ball of wool and had me churning out granny squares for an afghan in progress. Embroidery and crochet remain my favorite forms of handwork and I regret that she died before I could thank her adequately. If she’s keeping up with my blog while superintending choir practice in heaven, thanks Gammy!

Amigarumi is an offspring off the calculatedly cute Japanese culture of kawaii — think Hello Kitty. If you remember my original header, those perky animals are amigarumi’s typical subject matter, and I’ve hooked out a small zoo in the last couple of years. But when food subjects began to make an appearance at crochet wbesites I put off making mates for my monkeys and started to whip up cupcakes and bacon and eggs. I figure that by this time next year I’ll have run though a diner menu, meatloaf sandwiches and all.

GIVEAWAY! If you place a comment here about an activity that combines curling, Kierkegaard and carpentry, you’ll be entered into a raffle to win one of Magz Rags Custom Aprons. I’ll pull the winner on March 4th,

As Soren said:” Boredom is the root of all evil .”

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Filed under About a buck, Collections, Food, Giveaway, Needlework, Yarn

When WordPress Hands You Lemons, Think Pizza

I’m not feeling cheery. De tout.

You may have noticed that I’ve changed my header. That’s because, in the last couple of days, WordPress is on the fritz and the button that allows me to post pix has up and gone. I kinda remember when I’d type something into a dos prompt and cross myself, willing that the appropriate action would transpire. Well, I don’t think a novena or a trip to Lourdes on my knees is gonna help — support at WordPress hasn’t.

While I was doing my own “support” I noticed that I could upload a new header. So while the adorable (if I do say so myself) snaps I was going to post on my original story won’t work, a slab of the pizza we made last week will. So as technically frustrated as I am, I’ll remember to take my blood pressure medicine and think happy thoughts. And I’ll gab on about the subject that fits the header shot.

I think I ate my first slice of pizza when I was thirteen years old, off the hood of my Uncle Joe’s car. It was pointed towards the wide blue of Lake Huron on the Bahamas-worthy white sand of Sauble Beach, Ontario.I don’t think I ate another slice until my first year at McGill, when I was seventeen, I fell in with a bunch of American boys who had been bred on pizza. The closest parlor to the student ghetto at McGill was Pines Pizza, a Greek joint on Pines Ave.  Let’s put it this way: it was cheap,  they had a signature slice of raw green pepper smack damn in the middle of the pie and prompt delivery. As I’m sure you understand, munchies were happening.Montreal made great food — a smoked meat sandwich  at Schwartz’s or Ben’s, a bagel way up rue St. Urbain. A poor student could eat well — just not pizza.

I went to Italy when I was twenty. I ate a lot of cheap mediocre  pizza in Tuscany and Umbria, and some phemon pizza in Rome. (No, I never made it to Naples, but my husband had.) We both agree that Roman-style pizza, with a quarter inch crust, crispy all the way like toast, makes the best crust.

I realize that food people everywhere talk about good pizza as if it’s the Holy Grail. You need Nancy Silverton at your back. You need a wood-fired oven. Without that kind of oven at home, a great baker and an Italian chef, you can’t make  great pizza. Oh! Of course, you need a pizza stone.

That’s balls, folks. As I learned from my Nonna-in-law, Annunziata Rovai, what you need is a batch of plain bread dough, a black pan (that big cast-iron skillet is perfect) and you always press the dough into the pan, never EVER roll it. Chaste toppings — lots of parm, not too many tomatoes, and easy on the mozz. 400 oven. It’s perfect.

We’re having pulled pork tacos with salsa and rice tonight. I’m on my second glass of wine, and I’m watching the silliest Olympic event — Ice Dancing. Whatever it takes to be cheerful, right?

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Filed under Five bucks or fewer, Food, Home

Hot Day, Cold Beer

This is wishful thinking, of course. Here in Chicago we get grim, hot humid summers, but they start around July 4th. (Memorial Day mostly requires a sweatshirt, windbreaker or wool turtleneck — or some kind of layering combo.) It’s the middle of February so I’m going to have to stick with decent ales and legwarmers for the foreseeable future..

I wait until the sun’s over the yardarm religiously, making exceptions for the few and far between elegant restaurant lunches. When my friend Liz took us  out to lunch with her sister Meghan at Blackbird last fall a bottle of prosecco and three of Henriot champagne disappeared like kegs at a frat party. (Have I thanked you enough for that fab lunch, Liz?)

But drinking during the day isn’t my thing, with one fizzy exception: a cold, cheap beer on a hot day. It’s an occasion of joy, medicinal and hedonistic at the same time. The set up has to be perfect.

My hair and my clothing must be plastered, sweat-stuck, to my skin. If I’ve been clever enough to wear a sunscreen, rivers of perspiration have washed it away, and the pale Hibernian skin on my nose will peel tomorrow. An afternoon in the bleachers , a county fair — they’re obvious opportunities. But for the full appreciation of the experience, that brewski must be earned. Here are a few times situations where you might want to have a six pack of PBR handy.

In a moment of insanity, on a 97 degree day with no air conditioning, you decide to wallpaper the smallest stillist room in the house, the downstairs powder room. You watch your marriage begin to crumble during those four hours. The smarter half of the couple suggests leaving the border for another day.

Thunderstorms are approaching, and you want to lay that brick patio now.

You’ve almost dislocated your back pushing a half-ton rototiller the length of both sides of your house, to create a daffodil border and a n herb garden. The mercury is 98 in the shade. If your fingernails are dirty and your cheek is topsoil smudged, you’re golden.

I’m sure you can come up with a few ideas of your own. But there’s a ritual here, and it should be followed as closely as the bells and smells of a High Anglican church during Easter week.

The beer must be canned, not bottled. It must be cheap Lite beer. You don’t want to be tempted to sip, and that thin near-hopless slips down easy. Go for Pabst Blue Ribbon, Bud Light, or that dreadful-looking Michelob Ultra that Lance Armstrong is pushing in Olympics ads.

Don’t stop for a shower. Grab a can from the fridge, rub it across your forehead, along your neck, and into the neck of your Tshirt. Go back outside and pop the cap. Throw your head back and chug — you shouldn’t come up for air more than three times. Let that thin-flavored, fizzy lifesaving fluid wet your lips, dribble down your chin and give you a cold beer brain-freeze. I find a second can an anti-climax myself, but if you’ve been pouring asphalt in Death Valley, be my guest.

Well, anticipation makes everything sweeter. Just four more months!

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Filed under Drink, Five bucks or fewer, The Great Outdoors

I Can Fly

As far as I can remember, “I Can Fly” by Ruth Krauss and Mary Blair was the first bedside story my father ever read to me. I blame that Little Golden tome for the sure knowledge that I’m going to watch more television in the next two weeks that I will in the other fifty combined. (There will be a spike during Wimbledon and the US Open.) You see, I’m a Winter Games geek . Also: I want to fly.

On the first page of “I Can Fly” our heroine in a red dress is standing up on a swing trying to catch as much air as she can, willing herself to fly. While I’m glued to the tube, my butt broadening every day, I’m flying vicariously.

(Note: I’m not crazy about commercial air travel without a muscle relaxant and a Johnny Walker, but that’s not flying — it’s taking an airborne Greyhound.)

The Gold Medal for the scariest aerial Olympic split seconds happens in pairs skating, when the man tosses his bodacious besequined partner  into the void. I hold my breath every time, terrified we’ll see a painful ignominious splat on the rink instead of that graceful gleaming landing on one blade.

Today was my introduction to a thrilling form of lunacy called Skateboard Cross. It’s a wild ride down a ramped, curving course dotted with, in the lingo, Features. I call them freakin’ huge flat-topped mountains, over which one , well, flies through the air. I’m so glad my daughter sticks to tennis, and I’m holding my breath and sending my prayers to other snowboarding parents as their kids take on the halfpipe.

Moguls: what the heck? (And Oh Canada!) What maniac came up with this one? I’m glad other people want to tear downhil, skiing in what appears to be an enormous, icy upside-down egg carton. They pause twice to launch themselves off ramps, fly and twist head over heels, stick a landing and ski tight and fast as hell. Thrills, spills and chills in about 25 seconds.

Sure, I want to fly, but I want to float like a butterfly, not cling to my coach at the  gate like a baby. For me, ski-jumping is like the gentlest floating, dreamlike in its beauty. I’m a true blue chicken, a Lady of a Certain Age, and I don’t think my ankles could survive the landing, but I’d love to, just once, look down a pristine mountain, hearing chilly silence, and fly.

I’m considering saving my allowance for the next big birthday and striking a bargain with Hot Air Balloons ‘R Us.

Winter Games Hunk Alert: I’ve never strapped on a ski. I’ve never been in a room with an actual gun. So why was a glued to the Men’s Biathlon yesterday? Because these dudes look like the heroes on the cover of some Nordic bodice-ripper, that’s why. So muscular, so fleet on the skis, so controlled with the gun, oblivious to frozen snot or anything but the wild beatings of their hearts…

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