Category Archives: Twenty bucks

Cheap and Cheerful Object of the Day: Sleeping Gloves

My hands are a gnarly dry mess. My thumbs could sand 2X4s, my knuckles are cracked and I’m shedding dry skin like like cats shed hair in June. Don Giovanni would never sing “La ci darem la mano” to me.

Which made me rustle through my lingerie drawers for my sleeping gloves. You know, the ones I bought from The Vermont Country Store in, like, 1979. I didn’t find a single glove and I’m cross.

I know gloves have gone the way of MS DOS, but these gloves were special in a pure Vermonty way. Wrist length, white cotton. You’d slather your hands with the unguent of choice, slip on the gloves, and awake, after three faithful days, to hands worthy to be kissed by an Archduke.

I Googled about and discovered the The Vermont Country Store still carries them, at about three times what I spent back in the day. I’m going to close my eyes, click , and order three more pairs.

Go here:





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Filed under Body, Cheap and Cheerful Object of the Day, Site of the Day, Twenty bucks

Girls’ Night out in the ‘Ville

I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve the friendship of Jayne and Gretchen, but I’m glad that after what — eight years — they still want to hang out with me.

We met at a former employer of mine, where they were, and are, stars, and where,for the first time of my life, I found a job where I felt out of my depth in a couple of important ways. It wasn’t all my fault (trust me!) but the mysteries of the payroll taxes, different in all fifty states, was something I came to undertrained and mystified.

Having my life’s work and happiness dependent on the quarterly accounting schedule was something I didn’t take to like a Canada goose to the man-made ponds of our office campus. Gretchen and Jayne helped me with the nuts and bolts of W2s, 1099s, and county taxes in Indiana, but more than that — we clicked. I’m older than either of them, and we’re different, each of us, in all kinds of ways. But we’re more alike than we’re different, we rejoice in our victories, have kids to be proud of, husbands to joke (very kindly) about, and sympathy for the professional and health mountains and valleys.

Best of all: I know that if I ask for advice, I’ll get it: frank, thoughtful and loving. No, strike that! Best of all is the laughter.

Erase any concept of Girls’ Night Out involving Cosmos and Manilos. We met at the Towne Tap, a Warrenville fixture dating back to the fifties. It’s a tiny, friendly wood-paneled roadhouse with a Cheers vibe. It shares a building with Al’s Pizza, another ‘Ville fixture, and the businesses have a symbiotic relationship. A drinker at the Tap walks next door to Al’s, orders a pie, gives his name, and Al’s will deliver it to your table at the Tap.

I’d like to thank Gretchen — another girl from the ‘Ville — for suggesting the Tap, because in all my years of residence, I’d never bought a beer there. That’s time wasted. I’m a big time pizza snob, because I think our home-made version is at least as good as Mozza’s. But! Al’s makes a damn fine thin crust pizza.

We didn’t party into the wee hours: a couple of brews apiece, a pizza, two hours. But when I’m hanging with these two amazing women , even when the conversation turns sad, I’m happy. I’m lucky.



Filed under Drink, Food, The 'Ville, Twenty bucks, Worth it anyway

Royal Silver

For someone who grew up in the Dominion of Canada, with one set of grandparents who emigrated from England, I grew up in an antimonarchist family. My parents loathed  the idea of the constitutional monarchy,Britain’s pseudo-official presence in Canada, and the damn corgis. My grandmother, Margaret Banister Leyland, the pride of Burnley, Lancs.,  had particular scorn for the late Queen Mum – “Silly bitch.” Take that Helena Bonham Carter!

My school handed us tiny Union Jacks and trucked us to the track of the Semenaire St-Joseph to watch the newly crowned, young and lovely Elizabeth II drive around the playing field in an open car, the dashing Prince Phillip beside her. So strange: I can remember the experience clearly, but it replays in my mind in black and white. I have seen the Queen, and I didn’t need to go to Buckingham Palace with Alice.

I agree in principle with my parents: The British can keep their monarchy, but Canada should tell them to bug out.

So I’m embarrassed by my fondness for Royalty kitsch. I want William and Kate tea towels, tea cups, egg cups, aprons(!) placemats. Heck, shower caps. Because they seem like an unaffected young couple, and because they’re doing a smashing job at their first official visit, in Canada, I wished I was hitting all the tacky souvenir shops on Sparks Street in Ottawa, hoovering up every trinket.

Have I mentioned that I’m a collector? I have so many rag tag collections that I’ll write about them in other blog posts. But today, watching the charming Duchess of Cambridge aceing her first official walkabout in Ottawa, I remembered a tenth of my sterling silver tea and coffee spoon collection, not those from the Columbian Exposition (another standalone collection) or small towns all over the USA and Canada.

My royal sterling collection! These weren’t dead cheap when I bought them, but I was in a royalty souvenir trance and, besides, I’m crazy about them. Most of them were made by Birks,Canada’s great silversmith, who if it’s smart, will be churning out Will and Kate teaspoons.

Voila!  And be patient with my lousy photography.

I have two sets of George VI/ Queen Mum spoons


It must be swell to have a throne. These are prettier, and heavier than my crappy photography can imply. They’re ice cream spoons.

These are demitasse size, and bear dates. The one on the left:”Crowned May 12 1937.” The one on the right: “George VI and Queen Elizabeth Canada 1939.”

This sugar shell is my favourite because it’s flat out gorgeous from its fluted bowl to the chased handle that celebrates the rose, the thistle, the shamrock and the daffodil, the floral emblems of her dominion in the British Isles. Gee , I wish I could take a decent picture. The writing, down the handle of the spoon, reads: To commenerate the Coronation, June 2nd, 1951.”












But this funky old spoon, coin silver plated ,( which is rotten, because coin silver is pure, soft and likely to be stripped down to its base metal) is old.  As it is here, poor spoon. But, if you can make it out, this spoon honors Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, 1902. Brings out all my “Forsythe Saga” “Duchess of Duke Street” nostalgia.

Hey, I’ll make some of my fab frozen yog and lay in some cheap prosecco. Let’s dig in, with royal spoons. Just show up.


Filed under Cheap and Cheerful Object of the Day, Collections, Twenty bucks

After the Ball

I was noodling around Amazon a few days ago, and my heart stopped. “After the Ball” the collaboration between the American pianist and composer William Bolcum, and his wife the  mezzo soprano Joan Morris is available on CD. It even includes some tracks from their second Nonesuch album “Vaudeville.” I clicked so fast on “Buy Now’ that I got whiplash. 14.99 isn’t chump change in my house, or yours, but go here and buy it. Now. The reason we haven’t ditched our crummy turntable years ago is that I can’t bear to think about being separated from Bolcum and Morris and American music. I think that Nonesuch should be tried for high crimes and misdemeanors for allowing “Wild About Eubie” to slip from their catalogue: Bolcum matches Eubie Blake stride for stride pianistically, and the memory of Morris’s version of ‘Good Night Angeline’ makes the fact that I bought “Wild About Eubie” on cassette tape brands me as FAIL. But, as I said, I’m gonna bug Nonesuch.

They’ve done Kern, Rogers and Hart, Irving Berlin — the whole songbook, but better than anyone. But let me return to “After the Ball”

It’s a four generation favorite. We took the album as a gift to Ottawa in the late 70s, while my parents were in Paris and my grandmothers were babysitting my sisters. When we staggered in the door after ten hours of a miserable drive we beheld two tiny ladies, literally wringing their hands and flinging themselves on our breasts. My sister Megan had been acting up in a bad way, and they were beside themselves. The cure: spinning ‘After the Ball.” Lor lummee, these were the songs of their youth and they sang along to “She’s Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage” and “Waltz Me Around Again Willie” as I might to “Big Yellow Taxi.”

My parents arrived the next day , were entranced by “After the Ball” and bought every single output of Bolcum and Morris.

My daughter was entranced too. Her paternal grandfather was astounded that she Knew the introduction to “Shine on Harvest Moon.”

The night was mighty dark so you could hardly see,
For the moon refused to shine.
Couple sitting underneath a willow tree,
For love they did pine.
Little maid was kinda ‘fraid of darkness
So she said, “I guess I’ll go.”
Boy began to sigh, looked up at the sky,
And told the moon his little tale of woe

So that’s four generations who love this music. Bolcum somehow combines stride piano and Brahms in his accompanying. I wept when I heard “On the Banks of the Wabash” thirty years ago. I wept last night.


Filed under History, Home, Into the Mystic, Music, Twenty bucks

Kir Royale: A Tale of Two Birthdays

I had a lovely birthday yesterday – flowers from my father and sisters, cards, Facebook greetings, emails from buddies, a phone call from my daughter with the news that my present is in the mail. For his part, my husband has volunteered to take me to the local swanky greenhouse for a spending spree on some annuals to fill in the midsummer blanks in my garden, and he turned out a swell Bun Thit Bo Xao for dinner – aka a Rice Noodle Bowl with Beef.

But the fizz in the evening came with bubbles, as it often does, via the bathtub, blown through a plastic gizmo, or my favorite bubble delivery system: a cold bottle of something. Last night it was an inexpensive (but French) blanc de blancs, tinted a mysterious hue by a tiny splash of crème de cassis: a Kir Royale.

Fizz and black currants:two of my favorite things. My fondness for the bubbly shouldn’t need explanation — if it does I mourn for you. Black currants aren’t the fruit fave of the U.S.A. , but they can kick the ass of all those supermarket staples: navel oranges,  strawberries, kiwis, Red Delicious apples — the usual sickly suspects.   Black currants and their deeply delicious byproducts — sirops, creme de cassis, fruit jellies and jam — aren’t exotic or unusual in Europe or even Canada. We need a Black Currant Council here in the States!

That “deeply”  I used before “delicious” wasn’t lame alliteration, though I have a soft spot for lame alliteration. Black currants are all about deep: the color, the flavor, the scent. I suspect they’re bursting with antioxidants and vitamin C, but if they had the food value of Cheetos  I’d still love them. ( Yum —Cheetos! )

Creme de cassis is almost black, sweet, intense and 44 proof. I used up the last of the best cassis I’ve ever tasted last night, cassis I bought from the man who made it, two years ago on my birthday.

Oh, that I could buy a bottle here. I tasted a sample straight from the hands of its maker, a charming French Canadian farmer in the village of St. Pierre on L’Ile D’Orleans, a locovore and gastronomic wonderland about fifteen minutes north of Quebec City. We were there because my fairy godfather, who’s my real father, gave us two nights in the Chateau Frontenac Hotel for my birthday and Quebec City’s 400th anniversaire. Quebec City may be the most beautiful city in North America, but that’s not what I’m writing about today. Back to the farmer in St. Pierre, one of L’Ile D’Orlean’s six enchanted villages.

I could see his black currant bushes where his farm started to slide into the mighty St. Lawrence River. He also did a nice line of his own raspberry and strawberry liqueurs and sirops. Down the road we found the pate lady, the confit duck man, (with actual ducks running to meet our car)the cheese maker, the boulangere, (Who said “Quel bon Papa!” when I told her of Daddy’s gift) and farmstand after farmstand of berries that looked plucked from a medieval tapestry.

The whole island’s magic: eighteenth century churches and houses, every view a river or mountain view, parish graveyards where the stones list the same twenty-odd family names from 1735 to yesterday.

Don’t take my word for it: before the French got there the native Hurons called it The Enchantress.

I bought a new bottle of creme de cassis today because I think I’m going to hook up again with my old boyfriend Kir this summer — he slipped away from my life when I was in my early twenties. But I know for a fact that it’s not going to be as good as it was two years ago with that gentilhomme in St. Pierre.


Filed under Drink, History, Holidays, Into the Mystic, Travel, Twenty bucks

The Cheap Cheerful Grill From Outer Space

How many grills have we owned? Well, there was that notebook-sized hibachi that sat on the floor of the wooden back porch of a Chicago-style six flat; it’s surprising a stray spark didn’t start the Great Chicago Fire of 1977. After moving to the ‘Ville there must have been a couple of journeyman barbecues until the coming of the gas grills in, what, the late eighties? My mother bought us two, which will bring us to the mid nineties. Since then: a cylindrical smoker/grill combo and three Weber knockoffs.  If you don’t cover your grill for a couple of Illinois winters you deserve the rusty gut bucket that emerges from the snowdrifts in late March. This March our grill had lost both feet to, the wheels were creaky and it was time to reequip ourselves for the summer.

The biennial debate began. We don’t smoke (food,) we don’t throw those incredible cookouts for fifty that my friend Dean does, we don’t cook carcasses bigger than a spatchcocked chicken. We don’t cook things long, slow and smoky with much rearrangement of coals. We always think we will, that this year we’ll become Grillmasters, but …

That’s not what happens. We grill a few pizzas a summer, lots of vegetables and little bits of meat and poultry — with the exception of the pizza, pretty much what we cooked on the original hibachi. Our summer entertainments rarely exceed six people. We loathe replacing tanks of propane and never found a gas grill that got hot enough for us. I’m shy about admitting this, but the favorite grill we’ve ever owned was the original hibachi, even though I had to cook on my knees while disco pounded from the neighbor’s radio.

I think this goofy little number might just be my new favorite. I call it The Grill from Outer Space, because with a couple of tinfoil antennas,and my daughter’s Lego spacemen in the garage I think I could video a cheesy sixties Space Opera using it as a prop Sputnik.

It’s fourteen inches in diameter and about twenty inches tall. Cheap: 14.95. Cheerful? I think it’s adorable. It has clips that hold the top to the base, so we can trundle it about to parks and picnics. It uses amusingly little charcoal,gets very hot very fast and stays hot enough to char a rare skirt steak or sizzle up some chicken thighs. It’s big enough to accommodate a pizza, a bunch of burgers a flattened chicken, a few pork tenderloins and variety of vegetables — not at the same time of course.

It’s so cuddly and user-friendly that we’ve grilled more times this week than we did all last summer. And hey — I can pick it up and overwinter it on a shelf in the garage. Grill has met girl, and he’s her hunka burning love.


Filed under Food, Holidays, Home, Machines, The Great Outdoors, Twenty bucks

Blades of Glory, C & C Short Program

I wish I had a buck for every overpriced clunky wedge of Teutonic steel I’ve acquired in over thirty years of working the line in my own kichen. Fifty cents for all the Chinese cleavers, kitchen shears and pricey paring knives. A buck fifty for the assorted steels, stones and electric crap we’ve bought to keep them sharp — I tell you I’d be a hundredaire!

But there’s no use weeping over Wusthoffs, especially as I’m now the happiest I’ve ever been about my knife block. These cheap and cheerful couteaux are made in France in the ancient knife-making town of Thiers, by L’Econome, and sport carbon steel blades with painted wooden handles. If you’ve browsed Sur la Table, Williams-Sonoma or Crate and Barrel in the past few years you’ve seen the paring knife, priced at about eight dollars. Mine set me back five bucks, but that was five years ago.

As you can see in the pic, it’s showing some wear — I suspect someone used it for prying purposes. The paint’s getting battered from five years of washing and the occasional unintended overnight dip in the dishwater. But as one can grow to love a bent battered pet more with every year, so is it with me and my paring knife. Before my thrilling aquisition of L’Econome Marque Deux I used that baby for everything but hacking bones.

(I promise to find a less shiny ruler.)

In her last illness my mother stayed at L’Hopital Elisabeth Bruyere a few blocks from Ottawa’s splendid Byward Market. (Ottawa has the highest number of independent cooking stores, per capita, than any other city I know.) After cruising the produce stands for the dinner’s fruit and vegetables (“Bonjour Madame!.” “Bonjour, Madame!”) I popped into a shop on Dalhousie Street called Ma Cuisine, and pulled out my purse. For twenty bucks CDN there he was, the ten inch utility big bro’ of my red paring knife. The saleslady said: “I had fifty of these in stock yesterday. You’ve bought the last one. As soon as this knife arrives all the chefs from the restaurants around the market wipe me out.”

That knife’s scary-sharp edge got me though that sad spring’s cooking. It pared, sliced, diced and carved fish, fowl, vegetables, fruit — anything that hit the cutting board. When I got back home I realized I’d left it in Ottawa, mourned for a minute and forgot about it.

But my joy knew no bounds when I found it in the knife drawer on my next trip to Ottawa. Me: “Oh, here it is! I was wondering what happened to it!”

Daddy: “I love that knife. It’s my favourite knife.”

So I returned to Ma Cuisine and bought another one. I was lucky — there were only two left.

So why am I so loyal to this cheap cutlery? Well, it’s sharp, it stays sharp forever and it takes a great edge when it’s time for a touch-up. It’s strong, light and flexible. I love the bright wooden handles in French farmhouse colors. These L’Economes are as satisfying as that beech-handled Opinel folding knife we all bought in Europe, and in the same way: functional, sharp and French.

For tasks that require more heft I’ve ditched the cleaver forever. Behold the 1.99 pruners I bought on sale two years ago at –of all places –the gardening aisle at Joanne Fabrics. They’ve cut back shrubbery, deadheaded roses and spatchcocked chicken for two years and show no sign of blunting — rib and shoulders about any pair of kitchen shears I’ve ever owned.  Cheerful too, non?

These three items are on my 5***** highest recommended list. When you find them, buy them.


Filed under Food, Home, Ten bucks or fewer, Twenty bucks