Category Archives: History

Don’t Worry Baby — It’ll be Fun Fun Fun

So, it’s in the high forties in the ‘Ville, I’m in a creative slump and I miss California. The Rx was lying there, unjacketed, slipping around on our tower of cds.

The Best of the Beach Boys. Oh man, I was fourteen again, frugging in the basement rec room of our house in Trois-Rivieres Quebec. I’d never heard of a girl named Rhonda — my friend’s names ran to Elizabeth, Joanne, Kathy and Debbie. I liked my school fine, but being true to it was an alien concept. I’d swum only in fresh water, never seen a surfboard except on a Beach Boys album cover, and “Tach it up, tach it up, Buddy gonna shut you down,” might as well have been Finnish.

It was mysterious sunshine, a teenager existence I couldn’t imagine. (I did realize they’d ripped off Chuck Berry, big time.) I totally got “In My Room.”

When I got to college the Beach Boys dropped acid  in quantities that made my two terrifying trips look like two grains of sand on Manhattan Beach. The upside: “Sloop John B” and “Good Vibrations,” and that’s a huge upside. The downside is that Brian Wilson went nuts.

When my daughter moved to Los Angeles I understood at last that blissed-out, sunny, surfy SoCal car-driven culture. I understood the close harmony singing. “Surfin Safari” made sense. So did “Little Old Lady from Pasadena.”

And, oh yes, “Good Vibrations.”

So, the cold and grey has disappeared and I’m grooving to “Dance, Dance Dance” as I type this. The Beach Boys are the sonic equivalent to those bright lights that fight SAD in dark northern climes. So bright, so happy, so about dancing and surfing and driving fast. I’m not up to all of this stuff, especially the driving, but the sunshine, the surf, the heroes and villains are making me hear a V-8 purr and smell salt water and feel the clouds lift. The Beach Boys are aural Prozac, irresistible, the remedy for Celtic genes. Cheap sunshine.My new cure (and old cure) for the grim and grey. If only everything was so simple. Wouldn’t it be nice?

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Filed under Body, History, Into the Mystic, Music, Ten bucks or fewer, The 'Ville, Uncategorized

The Stocking: That’s Christmas Cheap and Cheerful

Opening the stocking in front of the fireplace on Christmas morning is the platonic ideal of Cheap and Cheerful. The fireplace is optional, of course, and my mother never made a Martha-ish ideal of hanging stockings as decorations – in fact they were actual socks, wool – one sized for my father and recycled into his wardrobe after the holidays. As we got older, my booty was stuffed into a pair of black tights and my brother’s into a pair of his own wool socks: two stockings, why not?

I can remember the invariables of every stocking of my childhood. The wide top bit might hold a copy of “Seventeen” and Yardley Glimmrick eyeliner – they were the variables, changing with every year and every interest. For Ian, it might have been hockey cards and licorice, for my little sisters, skipping ropes and headbands. That was the changeable top layer.

Here’s the never-changing bottom layer, from the toe up: a quarter, wrapped in tissue paper. (A quarter was serious currency for a kid in the early sixties. ) A mandarin orange, which was a piece of Christmas exotica back in the day in Quebec. Then there was the awesome orange: the foil-wrapped Droste chocolate orange that fell into segments when you tapped it on a tabletop. As an enormous fan of “Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates” that Dutch chocolate orange put a silver stroke into my skating when we tried out our Christmas skates in subzero weather on Boxing Day.

Of course there was a big, I mean a foot-long, http://www.laurasecord.ca/ candy cane hanging over the lip of the Xmas Sox.

When my daughter was a girl the top-of-the-stocking might have included the new Beverley Cleary, a pair of earrings, or a Burt’s Bees lip gloss. The toe of the stocking was frozen in time: a quarter wrapped in tissue paper, a mandarin orange, a Droste orange, available from Walgreens or TJMaxx — the big old candy cane came from Fanny May.

A stocking may not be quite as cheap as it was when Honor was a nymph, let alone when I was a bookworm, but, adjusted for inflation it can be kept Cheap and Cheerful. Resist the sweet impulse to slip a blue Tiffany box under the copy of “Vanity Fair.”  The Christmas stocking top layer should be personal and, well, cheap.

If I still hung up a stocking, here’s what I wish Santa would grok. A cheap fun pencil sharpener. Two soft pencils. The ab fab Burt’s Bees Facial Cleansing Towelettes, worthy of its own blog post. Some fruit jellies in a tiny box.

But never forget the toe: don’t wrap up a dollar coin – a quarter is fine. Many firms make better chocolate than Droste, and you can send me a box for my birthday, but not on Christmas Day. And the fragrance, pressed against the Christmas morning nose, of the mandarin orange and the candy cane, is fifty cents worth of cheerful.

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Filed under Born in Chicago, Cheap and Cheerful Object of the Day, History, Holidays

A Whiter Shade of Sauce — Especially for Your Thanksgiving Green Bean Casserole

More recycling form Daily Gullet!

 

A Whiter Shade of Sauce 

It’s never inspired a wild fandango, let alone cartwheels cross the floor. Calling it Béchamel doesn’t make it chic and rolling the ls in balsamella won’t make it sexy. It’s White Sauce, pale, pure and reliable, the Vestal Virgin of Escoffier’s Mother Sauces.

 

It’s a Mama sauce, a Maman sauce, a Mom and Mummy sauce. . There’s no macaroni and cheese, no creamed spinach, no creamed potatoes or onions without White Sauce. No lasagna, no rissoles, barely a scalloped potato. No soufflés. No crap on clapboard. No sauce for chicken fried steak or salmon patties. No choufleur gratinee or cute little coffins of chicken a la King. No éclairs, cream puffs, or Boston Cream Pie, because isn’t pastry cream white sauce with sugar, egg and vanilla?

 

 

In this order, place butter, flour and milk in a saucepan, some salt, maybe a twist of beige from the nutmeg grinder –all it calls for is some attention with the wooden spoon and an eye to the size and activity of the bubbles. The proportions were way simpler than the multiplication flashcards by father drilled me with in third grade. My mother called them out over her shoulder as she cleaned the big can of salmon and chopped parsley.

 

Forty years later she would have said “Listen up!” or if she’d been Italian, maybe the stern “Ascolta!” I remember: “One tablespoon each of butter and flour for thin, two for medium, three for thick. Keep stirring. Watch the heat – you don’t want to burn it.” Some Maternal Units would never besmirch the snowy stuff with black pepper – though not my mother, Julia Child was passionate about thee white pepper only rule. I like the black specks, (always) a grating of nutmeg, and (often) a pinch of cayenne. When I have extra time I add a fillup of my own: I throw a bay leaf, a sprig of thyme, and a few fresh tarragon leaves into the milk, warm it up to the small bubble stage, then let it cool down and let everything infuse. I strain out the herbs before I add the milk to the roux and ponder what a great idea the bouquet garni is, and what a clever cook I am.

 

Research is fun, and I stacked up my reference books on the kitchen table — otherwise known as my study. First: let’s get the history out of the way. It will surprise no one who buys that story that all French cooking started as Italian cooking that Catherine di Medici‘s Italian cooks introduced it to the French when she married Henri II in 1533. Well, could be – but why do Italians call it balsamella, not caterina? Larousse Gastronomique tells us about Louis de Béchameil, Marquis de Nointel, who got a plum job as Louis 1V’s Steward of the Royal Household. “The invention of béchamel sauce is attributed to him, but it had, no doubt, been known for a long time under another name. It was more likely to be the invention of a court chef who must have dedicated it to Bechemeil as a compliment.”

 

And who was Louis’s chef de cuisine? Francois Pierre de la Varenne, that’s who!. Varenne(1615-1678) included a recipe for Sauce Béchamel in his Le Cuisiner Francais. I wonder if it was a printing error in the first edition that dropped the i in the Marquis’s name? I hope the Marquis was flattered enough to give Francois a shift off.

 

But as I pulled books at random from the stack and read recipes, the room was humming harder as the ceiling of my self-respect as a food historian flew away. The formula for a white roux and milk sauce reads like a formula for papier mache binder. Careme starts with a veloute made from white veal stock then pumps it up with a liaison of eggs yolks and cream, with a walnut-sized piece of butter and “a few tablespoons of very thick double cream to make it whiter. Then add a pinch of grated nutmeg, pass it though a white tammy [sic] and keep hot in a bain marie. ‘

 

Let’s fast-forward eighty-odd years to Escoffier’s Le Guide Cuilinaire (1907   ) translated by H.L Cracknel and R.J. Kaufmann. (John Wiley and Sons, 1979.) Um: meat? Yes, the ‘Scoff adds chopped lean veal, two sliced onions and thyme to the roux and milk mixture, allows” them to simmer gently for two hours, and pass through a fine strainer.” Maybe Cesar Ritz liked the veal gelatin.

 

While Escoffier was wowing London, Charles Ranhofer was chef de everything at Delmonico’s in New York; the late nineteenth century’s Achatz, Keller and Waters combined. He was a white-whiskered tyrant with more energy than a grill cook at the Billy Goat Tavern under Wacker Drive. He’s his take on béchamel, on page 293 of his 1183 page master opus The Epicurean:”

 

“This is made by preparing a roux of butter and flour, and letting it cook for a few minutes while stirring, not allowing it to color in the slightest; remove it to a slower fire and leave it to complete cooking for a quarter of an hour, then dilute it gradually with half boiled milk and half veal blond. Stir the liquid on the fire until it boils, then mingle in with it a mirepoix of roots and onions, fried separately in butter, some mushroom peelings and a bunch of parsley; let it cook on a slower fire and let cook for twenty-five minutes without ceasing to stir so as to avoid its adhering to the bottom; it must be rather more consistent than light. Strain it through a fine sieve then through a tammy [sic] into a vessel.”

 

Not content with the veal presence and the mushroom peelings, Ranhofer adds a mirepoix of root vegetables? Will the madness never end?

 

Let’s fast forward thirty years and hop the train from Manhattanto Bostonto check out Mrs. Fanny Merrit Farmer’s cooking school and her The Boston Cooking School Cookbook – my edition’s from 1913. Fanny infuses a cup and a half of veal stock with carrots, onion, bay leaf, parsley and peppercorns for twenty minutes. (So much for any pretensions I may have had about steeping a few herbs in the milk.) “Melt the butter, add flour, and gradually hot stock and milk. Season with salt and pepper.”

 

The Rombauer Ladies don’t include a recipe for béchamel in the 1975 Joy of Cooking. If you look it up in the index you’ll find “Bechamel sauce, see White Sauce.”  You know, the recipe with the roux and milk and salt and pepper?  What I’ve called Béchaml since I was a hoity-toity teenager in the kitchen? Maybe Joy set the modern formula for Béchamel in this country; it’s awesome they called it White Sauce.

 

James Peterson’s recipe in Glorious French Food (2002) requires: shallots, celery, a carrot, a garlic clove, thyme, bay leaf and “4 oz. (115 g.) of prosciutto end, pancetta or veal and pork trimmings.” C’mon Jim, am I making aa sauce or a stuffing for ravioli?

 

If there’d been a waiter with a tray, I would have called out for another drink. I felt like someone who’d spent her life telling people how to make pate by grinding up Spam, or insisting that Mario Batali told me that he heats up Chef Boy-R-Dee at home when he wants pasta that’s really authentic. Or a schoolmarm who’d been teaching creationism forever, saw the light, and realized she’d been talking up her ass for years with her skirt tucked into the waistband of her pantyhose .Had I never made a Béchamel sauce?

 

In my not Smithsonian-sized cooking library I found the writer who, for the first time, called White Sauce Béchamel.  I’ll give you a hint: the year is 1961. Want another? Her kitchen is on view in the Smithsonian. You got it: Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I. Julia, Louisette and Simka are my first in-house references for “plain” Béchamel Sauce.  But: in a preface about Sauces Blanches, the Gourmettes say: “Sauce Béchamel in the times of Louis XIV (yeah Varenne,) was a more elaborate sauce then it is today. Then it was a simmering of milk, veal and seasonings with an enrichment of cream, In modern French cooking a béchamel is a quickly made milk-based foundation requiring only the addition of butter, cream, herbs or other flavoring s to turn it into a proper sauce.” The recipe doesn’t mention butter, cream, herbs or other flavorings. .

 

And now that there is no reason and the truth is plain to see, the word “Béchamel” will never again pass my lips. I’ve never known squat about real Béchamel:  I’ve known about White Sauce. And along with my grandmothers that’s what I’ll forever  call it: White Sauce.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under A Couple of Bucks, Food, History, On the Street Where I Live

Bye Bye, Big White

Today I waved good-bye to my favorite car, ever. All those of you remembering that Sprite or Mustang or ’67 Chevy will guffaw when I do the big reveal.

Please chuckle  — don’t guffaw!  The car I’ll miss the most is a 2001 Ford Focus.

Why? Well, for starters I was ten years younger, and the last decade has been the most challenging of my life. After years of Escorts and Mirages, the Focus felt big and luxurious. For the first time in my life I had power windows, air conditioning  a CD player and one of those clickety things. I drove it on icy roads at midnight returning from work, so warm and so trusting of my front wheel drive. We traveled to Ottawa dozens of times, a book on CD whiling away endless hours on the 401.

What I’ll always remember the Focus for is providing one of those too rare moments of transcendence. I was driving home alone in a snowstorm after a convivial evening with friends. The windshield wipers thwapped, the snow drifted down in fat flakes like the flocking on a Christmas card, and Vladimir Horowitz was blasting a Chopin Ballade from the radio. Apart from Vlad, the night was silent, as most snowy nights are. I was in my warm capsule of peace and joy, and I don’t mention words like peace and joy unless I mean it.

Six months ago Big White’s battery started to give us problems, Lou’s cool Tiburon decided to swim to that eternal junkyard and we bought our peppy Little Blue Toyota. As neither of us has what you might call a Day Job, the Focus sat in the driveway because we couldn’t start it and we didn’t need it.

On a rainy day late last week Lou came back from the mailbox with an note enclosed in a baggy. It read : “I was wondering if you would be interested in selling this car? If so, call or text me. Kevin.”

I called Kevin. He has a friend two streets over and — good grief! — he had fond memories of his own old Focus. He was thinking about giving it to his sixteen-year-old brother for the kid’s first car. Of course he asked “Do you have the title?” Yipes.

We spent ten hours on Saturday tearing through every cursed piece of paper we’ve accumulated for the last five years. I mean every single damned piece. The veins in Lou’s temples throbbed. I’d checked the Secretary of State’s site for the form to get a new title, and I offered up the idea of the 95 buck fee. Note: We finally cleaned up that stack of mail.

Lou had gone to the grocery store to pick up the two indespensibles: toilet paper and cat food. Kevin rang. He was forty-five minutes from a viewing and he asked again: “Do you have the title?” Nope, Kevin, but we’ll take care of it.

Lor love a duck. As I was sweeping the stacks of redundant paper from the dining room table (AKA Mission Control) the Great Being cut me a break. We’d been through the stack ten times, but there it was in plain sight: the title.

I was thrilled to tell Kevin I’d found it  when he came over and tried to start Big White. Big White wasn’t cooperative. We lowered the price. He said he’d get back to me.

Today Kevin and his charming  father arrived with a stack of bills and a trailer.  Bye bye, Big White.

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Filed under Cheap and Cheerful Object of the Day, History, On the Street Where I Live

Making Bargains

I had a big birthday this summer, but I still feel as bewildered and bedazzled as I was when I  was fifteen. I think, at least back in my day when I was cheated out of the fun of an IPad, an IPod and an IPhone, I had I huge fantasy life. That fantasy life included Ray Davies, Glenn Gould and Pierre Trudeau falling madly in love with me. Those fools.

(I still don’t own any of those IThings. but I know my son-in-law could hook me up.)

In my early twenties I saved my money — 1000 bucks, and it financed four months in Europe. London, Paris, Rome, Florence.  Viarreggio. Oh, for the romance of one’s early twenties! Yeah, I picked  up a husband over the breakfast table at the Locanda Anna in Florence.

It stabs me, I mean it stabs me to the heart to know  that without an enormous creative effort from me and huge economic luck, , I’ll never see St. Paul Covent Garden again. I’ll never see the Pyramids, Ankhor Wat (forgive the bad spelling!) and Machu Picchu, Or Venice. Or NYC.

Maybe this is a list of the possibles:

Spillsville, Iowa. Antonin Dvorak lived in Spillsville for a year and wrote “The Symphony From the New World” there. I want to smell the air he breathed. I love Dvorak, and I adore annoying my husband by saying “He’s better than Brahms!” (He is.)

Columbus, IN. Here’s the deal from Travel and Leisure:Travel + Leisure magazine said:
Designed by legendary architect Eero Saarinen, the J. Irwin & Xenia Miller House ranks alongside Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, and Philip Johnson’s Glass House as a hallmark of Modernist design.  It was completed in 1957, but unlike those residences, it is surrounded by some of the most beautiful Modernist gardens in the United States, created by landscape architect Dan Kiley.“ 

Nauvoo, IL, the stop off point for the Mormons on the way to Salt Lake City. Freaky, but worth it.

Hannibal, MO. Mark Twain, period paragraph.

But my big North American travel dream is to get to Newfoundland, that wild and crazy place endowed with huge history, fat fish, cliffs, meadows and sea. And L’Anse Meadow, a Viking settlement whose existence has haunted my dreams since I was ten. (Of course, I’d have driven around Cape Breton Island,checked out Halifax, hopped the ferry to PEI where I’d visit Green Gables and gorge on shellfish and potatoes before I got to The Rock.)

Closer to home, there are Arthur/Arcola, the Amana Colonies and the Indiana Limberlost of Gene Stratton Porter. I have a huge crush on mounds, especially if they’re in the shape of animals — do I have to go to North Dakota to see one? (Attention Dale Simpson Jr.)

I’m laughing. Seems like my trip to Newfoundland will cost as much as a trip to Rome. I want it anyway, and I want to rent some goofy SUV and go with my father,my husband, my daughter, and my son-in-law.

And please, if you have any touristic advice — chat on.

 

 

 

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Filed under History, How Cool is That?, Into the Mystic, Worth it anyway

Newspaper Names: Read all About It!

I sport some newspaper genes. Many of my McArthur ancestors were journalists, my father spent his career producing the very paper on which your daily is printed, and, I, in my small way, write a regular column that appears on newsprint. I remember when there was a morning paper and an evening paper in most towns of any size, and when I first moved to Chicago there were four dailies: The Tribune, the Sun-Times and the Daily News. We’re down to two. (**Edited to mention that the fourth paper was the Chicago Daily Defender.)

But this isn’t going to be one of those nostalgic pieces full of millennial gloom and doom about the disappearance of the daily rags. (I am glad to see my hometown journal,  Le Nouvelliste is still around with all the lurid stories filed under “Faits Divers.”)

Those who know me well know I have a weird kick in my gallop about names. People names, pet names, place names, botanical names, brand names, grocery store names — I roll my tongue around a good name, then store it away in the rental storage unit my brain’s become.  A discovery of a great newspaper name among all those ho-hum Timeses and Posts and Gazettes and Suns and Newses makes me happy, well, forever!

Among the big market papers are some really good names. How about The Cleveland Plain Dealer? I have no idea about the paper’s politics, but it just sounds so solid. So plain. The there are the portmanteau names, where the second word dispenses some character to the blah first word: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The New Orleans Times-Picayune, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Should I ever become a newspaper magnate I’ll rename my paper to include the word Picayune.

In fact, there’s a paper in Texas that I might need to save up some apron money and buy: The Beeville Bee-Picayune. The Rochester, New York daily Democrat and Chronicle has some nice old-fashioned newspaper name heft. But hey, all these guys don’t make the cut, or would have to qualify, to get into the Best Newspaper Name Tournament.

I don’t have to drive but a couple of hours downstate to Bloomington-Normal,( home of the Redbirds!) to find a beaut: The Pantagraph.  Then there’s the Laramie Boomerang — what the heck? The Nome Nugget ? Perfection! I’d love to shake the hand, backward over the years, of the wag who named The Tombstone Epitaph.

Go pour yourself a big fat flute of champagne, stand up, and shake out the folds of your de la Renta gown. Drumroll. Ladies and gentlemen, the award for the best newspaper name in America goes to the Linn, MO Unterrified Democrat!

Do you have any nominations for next year’s ceremony? Or maybe you’re like Lou, who’s been making up names of his own while I’ve been writing this. He likes: The Rockford Files, the St. Paul Epistle, the Ledger Demoines, (yeah, it takes awhile and isn’t that great,) The Lincoln Log and the Aspen Tablet. Send them this way, and we’ll read all about them.

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Filed under Collections, Free, HeeHee, History, How Cool is That?, Library Card

Poached Pears

There are some recipes that never, ever fail. Let’s consider the pear, a fave of mine because they’re one of the few fruits that can ripen on the window sill. (Except of course, my Asian pears from the backyard tree, which don’t taste like pears, never ripen and are used principally as compost fodder and wasp nectar.)

 

Lou was lured by the price: Bosc pears at a dime apiece. I love the elegant, slim-waisted Boscs, but these were tween pears; undersized, skinny and sullen. Oh, and harder than a cheap lip gloss.

 

I should have lined them all up on the kitchen windowsill to ripen, but I spared just two. I don’t need dessert every night, but last night I was feeling the poached pear love, so I peeled, seeded and poached. I know that any but my maddeningly useless Asian pears can be poached into something good, even skinny Boscs.

 

So: you don’t need good red wine, never a problem in my house. I slapped those pear halves in a pan, covered them with a slop of Châteaux Cheepo, dumped in too much sugar, some cinnamon and a couple of cardoman pods. I tastds the liquid, realized it was way too sweet, then added the grated peel of a lemon and all it’s juice. Those hard skinny pears took almost an hour to poach – the unlooked for bonus was a deep, thick, first-boil caramelly sauce.  Even with sullen pears this worked like a dessert charm: if I’d been working with ripeBartlettsthe result would have been so much better.

 

I chilled the pears and warmed up the sauce. I tucked some ricotta into the scooped out belly of the pear halves, drizzled them with honey, then spooned the thickened sauce over everything. That spot of green garnish is a lemon balm leaf, chosen because it was pitch dark, the lemon balm surges outside my back door, and I’d have had  to stagger in the dark to find the mint.

 

Oh man, they were good, and I remembered that Julia had taught me about poaching pears when I was a cooking neophyte in my twenties. Talk about cheap and cheerful, ageless and accessible. (White wine works well too.) Next time I’ll sub Greek yoghurt for the ricotta and I have a hunch it will be better. I wonder if I should have added some mint, or rosemary to the poaching liquid? Nemmind, I have four poached halves in the fringe, and two whole pears on the windowsill.

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Filed under Food, History, On the Street Where I Live