Monthly Archives: August 2010

Family History: One Degree From Al Capone

I love the six degrees of separation thing, because I believe it. On the McArthur side of our family I’m one degree from O. Henry, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman — my great-grandmother went to her grave deploring Whitman’s personal hygiene. And that’s just one degree of separation!

On the Rovai side, I’m one degree from Al Capone, and he might have eaten from the old set of Limoges Troy pattern I set out on the table for holiday dinners. We inherited it from Lou’s great-aunt Lucy Ronga.

Lucy was married to the dapper and debonair Dr. Ronga, whose office at 1208 W. Lexington in Chicago was two floors down from the flat we lived in when Honor was born. My late father-in-law Joe Rovai was a staunch member of the American Italian Anti-Defamation League, and one of the most honest, clean-living men I’ve ever known. He spoke of his dapper uncle with emormous pride, and acted as his chauffeur, when he was eighteen, in that gorgeous Packard convertible to Ravinia and the Lyric Opera  to treat the thoats of Caruso and Galli-Curci. Joe adored his impeccably tailored and generous uncle, and it’s taken his children awhile to get the real deal on his dude.

He was the doc to the Chicago mob. His daughter Anna married Frank Nitti, Capone’s capo.

And Joe never, ever mentioned the mob connection. Surely he knew about it? Was he just fed up with the idea that if you were Italian-American in the twenties and thirties and hailed from Chicago, you had to be mobbed up? The haughty Tuscan Rovais deplored this stuff, but Nonna’s Neapolitan relatives were pragmatic.

Joe spoke fondly and often of his across-the-alley dear friend Johnny D’Arco. They’d go to Sox games together, swim at the 12th Street Beach, and Johnny drove my mother-in-law to the hospital an hour before my husband was born. Could Joe really have been so loyal, so upright, so blind to not have known that his best boyhood buddy went to jail on crime charges? John D’Arco Sr., the immensely powerful First Ward Alderman. And Joe never, ever mentioned the mob connection. Surely he knew about it? Was he just fed up with the idea that if you were Italian-American in the twenties and thirties and hailed from Chicago, you had to be mobbed up? I found this tonight.,cst-nws-mob23.article

I think Johnny D’Arco was one of Joe’s groomsmen, as well as the reason my husband wasn’t born at 1208 W. Lexington, but at Presbyterian-St. Lukes. It haunts me: Joe must have known, but from pride, loyalty and his own honesty he never let on.

I’ll air the McArthur/Moss laundry sometime soon.


Filed under Born in Chicago, History

Check that Box — The Pull of the Poll

I love taking online polls, and I suspect that most of us do. It’s anonymous, often silly and it’s like throwing the lever back in the days when polling places had levers. I have the Goddess-like ability to add polls to my blog and I’ve used it only once, way back in the day. For practice in using the poll feature I’ve decided to add one tonight — it’s not  Gallup, but it poses questions of pressing importance to me. If you check “Other” please use the Comments section to point out the error of my ways. In fact, natter on about anything.

I have many, many burning questions to put to you, Dear Readers. In fact, why not send me your own burning questions and I’ll include them in another post? In a few days, I’ll do the big reveal and tell you how I voted.


Filed under Free, Music, Polls

Men in Aprons

I’ve been working on two apron commissions. I like saying commissions. It sounds as if Lorenzo di Medici had called me on my cell: “I want my portrait on one side and pale lavender chintz on the other.” Janice and Debra, I hope to get yours in the mail tomorrow, and although I’ll take snaps before I send them, I won’t post the pictures until you get them. Kim, I’m assembling your fabric. Next week, Babe.

But here are a few pix of two of my favorite men, in previously unpublished photos. When I see the brilliant cleanliness of Lloyd’s kitchen, I’m surprised he didn’t run screaming from mine.

Here’s the tender side, wrought from fabric left over from what I call “The Lloyd Memorial Guest Rooms Curtains.”

Thanks, Lloyd, for sending me the pix displaying  your apron and the Pacific Northwest.

Here’s the internet debut of a reversible I’ve made only once before, and Honor bought it as a Christmas present for a friend who’s not so much a cook as a crafter. It does have that smock vibe, and it’s no strings — there’s a cunning flap (closed with Velco) that can be adjusted to fit most. I apologize for the pictures — Lou Zoolander  was impatient and I could barely snap off a shot, let alone do some professional styling. He kept wailing: “My ice cubes are melting! Hurry!”

He stepped towards me as I was snapping — hence half his head is missing.

Back detail: it would look better had he given me time to adjust the band.

I could have made full length Lloyd Memorial Guest Room Curtains!

I like this pattern a lot, and might adapt and dabble further with the design. It wouldn’t work as well for men as for women. but it’s plain enough to inspire lots of ornamentation ideas.

I love a man in an apron, and wish I could find, in my madly disorganized Picassa files, a couple of shots of my buddy Dean in his cupcakes and skulls. Tomorrow I’ll write about something cheap and high-minded — John Milton?

I think not.


Filed under A yard of fabric, Apron of the Day, Needlework, Ten bucks or fewer

Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix: My Baking Shame

I’m a baking fundamentalist: no mixes ever, no freezer case puff pastry, and until I live in Montreal or France no tartes or gateaux from a bakery. No whomp biscuits from a can, unless I’m cooking in a lake house in the UP and the flour there has been collecting pantry flies for eight months. I do buy bread and English muffins, but I bake them too. I have never bought a cake mix.

Please don’t think I’m setting myself up as a purist paragon — I just really like to bake. So why, when it goes on sale for under fifty cents, do I stuff the shopping basket with six boxes of Jiffy Corn Muffin mix? Cornbread is so easy and cheap  to make that buying a mix makes no sense at all.

(For all my American readers, especially my Southern friends, it might interest you to know that a cornmeal flatbread, aka hoecake or Johnny Cake is a traditional and ancient Quebec recipe — we have the maple syrup after all. In fact an old racist English-Canadian chant went like this:” Pea soup and Johnny Cake makes a Frenchman’s belly ache.” The pea soup is made with whole, not split dried yellow peas and chunks of ham and I love it.)

We still have to add egg and milk to the mix, so it’s no money saver and it’s a mere thirty seconds faster than making your own. So why do I, and zillions of others love a box of Jiffy? I can’t speak for the zillions, but I can speak for me: it tastes good, it’s convenient and I don’t have to throw out a neglected canister of cornmeal because flies drift up my nose when I open it. It tastes good because it contains lard –pig fat, so glorious!

And for those nights when rice or pasta don’t feel right,I’m lazy, and there are no potatoes rattling around on the bottom shelf of the fridge, Jiffy is my friend. It’s so versatile: muffins, pancakes, waffles Hush Puppies or a pan of classic cornbread. We like to add a chopped jalapeño and some frozen corn for a silly Tex-Mex sensation. Speaking of Tex-Mex, pour it over a cast iron skillet of chile and there you are: a tamale pie.

But I don’t ever buy it unless it’s on sale. I understocked the last time, and I’ve been mixing my own for a few months, which is no hardship. One thing I know is true — it will be cheap just before Thanksgiving and I’ll do some serious stocking up. With the cornucopia of cooking that comes with that holiday I love me a box of Jiffy mixed with all those holiday herbs to transform it into cornbread dressing.

Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix from the folks in Chelsea, Michigan — when it’s cheap it’s for sure cheerful.


Filed under Food, Holidays, Home, Less than 50 cents

Gift from a Stranger

An unexpected package from a friend  marks a red letter day. That padded envelope or box from Amazon, just because your buddy has seen a book he thought you’d like to read, or music she knows you’ll love, or food from his kitchen or her trip to Greece — well! It’s only slightly  less wondrous than  a new baby or a loved one’s  recovery from a grave  illness.

Let’s push up the wonder factor: the gift comes from someone you’ve never met, or spoken to.

That person lives in Japan.

The gift is intricate and beautiful, and she made it by hand. It’s fashioned from scraps of kimono silk. If I’d known that such a lovely thing existed, it would have been at the top of my Christmas list. I marvel every time I look at it, which is daily, and think “That lovely woman spent a long time making this, and she gave it to me!

The lovely woman who sent me this gift via my daughter is what my grandmother would call a “connection” — a friend or family member of someone in your own family who isn’t related to you. She’s the mother of my son-in-law’s sister-in law Kei. (Got it?)She’s the daughter of a post-war Japanese Prime Minister.She  took a shine to my daughter when Honor and John were visiting a friend in Japan — they stayed with her in Tokyo and she  introduced them to Kyoto and its high refined cuisine.When they left she gave Honor “a present for your mother.”

I don’t even know what she looks like, but I can show you her daughter and granddaughter Hana.

Kei’s in black and white in the front row  — Hana’s in flower girl attire at her aunt and uncle’s wedding. (Kei had a baby sister for Hana last week, Juna Michael.)

Here’s the bouquet of  silk tulips:

She painstakingly sewed them, stuffed them, wired them to the silk stems and leaves, and sent them to the United States as a gift to a stranger. Here’s some detail:

To send a handmade gift, or one lovingly chosen, to a friend : that’s love. To send one to a stranger: that’s class.


Filed under Art, Cool Japanese Stuff, Home, How Cool is That?, Needlework, Travel

A Free Planter: The Big Red Can

I’m going to take advantage of my fatigue and eyestrain today to bring Cheap and Cheerful back to its roots —  a shortish post about a cool cheap thing to make or do.  (A short night’s sleep, the new Laurie R. King, an early doctor’s appointment and a shot are all part of my drowsy mix.) I believe I spotted this idea in Martha Stewart Living a couple of years ago, made it last my own  year and should do it again.

I like to plant seeds in containers except for the price of the containers. Even at the tackiest garden center or hardware store they cost way too much money — heck, I could buy a rosebush for the price of three half- gallon plain ole  clay pots.And because I’m lazy,I often leave my clay containers to overwinter, and I’m punished by retrieving cracked pots in the spring.Here’s a picture of the Big Red Can that I produced in less than five minutes last year. The nasturtium plant is on it’s way out, but you’ll get the idea.

The planter can be a paint can, a coffee can or a Crisco can.  Punch a  few holes in the bottom. Find a can of enamel spray paint from your garage — the red paint is the refresher for the front door. If you wanna get crazy with masking tape and stripes, go for it! You can get as artistic as all get out, but in the end, what you have is a cheap, cheerful lightweight  planter.


Filed under Free, Growing things, Home, The Great Outdoors

Good Seed: Basil

I’ve learned to say zee instead of zed for the last letter of the alphabet. I don’t say leftentant any more, I say lootenant. It took me awhile to call Karkees Kakees. (Khakis.) The one Canadian shibboleth I can’t shake is pronouncing the word for that lovely herb Bayzil. It will always be Bazzle for me, as in Basil Faulty. But all this etymological chat is just me yammering on — let’s talk about the herb.

I can’t remember the first time I tasted basil. It wasn’t as a young woman travelling  in Tuscany in February, for sure. I didn’t miss it — all the trattorias and bars stocked luscious poached pears with chocolate sauce, served warm. It wasn’t in the Quebec of my childhood: the herbal profile was Old French: summer savory, thyme, clove, nutmeg. In some Fellini time warp I found basil at the same year Marcella Hazan’s seminal Italian cookbook was published, which was close to the time  we moved to the “Ville and I planted my first garden. I’ve talked about how I love to spill seed into the ground — flowers, vegetables, and herbs, and I’m still astonished that basil is so darned easy to grow.

My husband’s paternal grandparents, operatic cooks and gardeners, didn’t grow basil — and his Nonna’s family hailed for Porta San Pietro, a suburb of Naples! I remember Nonna having a shake jar of dried basil in the pantry, next to the oregano she preferred, but she and Nonno never grew or bought fresh basilico. I’m going to lose some foodie cred here: although fresh basil is best, dried basil should never be despised.

Gardening here in Chicagoland is tough, especially if you, like me, love the economy and charm of a package of seeds, rather than bankruptcy at the Garden Center. Deep freezes, snow , and root buckling in the winter, a late spring, and a long hot summer that can be either rainy and tropical, like this year, or blistering and dry. Oh, the Augusts I’ve scoured the soles of my feet on the frizzled Astroturf of our lawn during a dry spell.( This year the lawn should be mowed every other day.) But no matter what the weather gods bring, basil grows from seed in these parts.

I always buy one basil plant from the nursery in the drunken besotted state of a Midwestern gardener in May. Among the chives, tarragon and weeds you can see the original Big Basil plant  here, and Willow’s fans can see her paws in the upper right hand corner.

I think I paid three bucks for it, and it provided that sweet, minty, summery lift I needed when every other herb was either sulking or nonexistent. But when I bought it, I spent a buck on a package of seeds, planted them in pots, and strewed them about in the beds. For you Californians, Georgians or Virginians who are probably scratching your heads about my excitement — you don’t understand. A swell herb that sprouts from every single seed? Impossible, but true.

Three planters:

Yes, there a couple of pears in those pots. Oy, the Asian Pear tree from hell is dropping fruit and attracting wasps earlier than usual — but that’s another story entirely. The branches look pretty:

I’m doing something with slices of eggplant (deep fried) ragu, pattypan squash and cheese for dinner tonight. Strewed inside and out with the cheapest and cheeriest  product of a seed pack I know. Maybe I’ll avoid the irritating pronunciation divide of the great English speaking nations and call it basilico.


Filed under About a buck, Free