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Take Note: Notebooks!

We were in Los Angeles last week to revel in new grandmotherhood, and revel I did. Well, with a grandchild as lovely as mine wouldn’t you throw an impromptu rave too? Here’s Naomi reading “I Can Fly” with her reader/writer Mama.

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I’ll stop with the Proud Nana stuff now, because this sweet tiny tyrant isn’t my topic tonight. I want to talk about my flat sweating panic my first day in LA when I reached into my purse for my travelling notebook, which, incidentally  I’d bought at a Papyrus shop in Glendale a few years ago. Son-of-a-bitch shit! No notebook.

You have to understand my pathetic dependence on notebooks. I’ve never been a reliable diarist because I’m too lazy to pour out my heart and soul into a cool journal at bedtime. And I’m not that interesting. And if I’m going to knuckle down and write, I figger I might as well save my efforts for true writing projects. Humble notebooks of every size, shape and price point save the scrambled record of my life, whether they’re used for To-Do lists, shopping lists, recipes copied from the internet (my printer sucks ass,) story ideas, cool website addresses, books I want to read, and doodles. A notebook sits on my coffee table next to my laptop. Another abides in my bag, always, especially when I travel. How else would I remember the name of that Peruvian restaurant, the email address of a cool new acquaintance or  the name of that stunning Malbec? I’d be SOL.

What ticked me off when I found myself notebookless in LA is that I’m a notebook junkie. Check out all these beauties, which I’ve accumulated over the years, mostly from the fab bookstore in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo, Kinokuniya Book Store. Here’s a Mondrian-like arrangement of the virgin notebooks that were waiting me at home in the ‘Ville.

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So what did I do when I had a spare half hour when I got home? Well, I made some more notebooks. ( Truly, I know I might have a teeny addiction problem.) I don’t remember where I saw this cool idea, but I love it in so many ways: paper, thread, cheap, cheerful, fast. You cut some paper to size and run it through a sewing machine. I recommend you use a sewing machine needle made for sewing leather, but I didn’t have one and punted. Here are the funky yet practical results:

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Left to right: I used a two subscription cards as covers and played around with satin stitching. In the middle, just some printer paper folded in half, stitched and stamped. Right, a notebook with a cloth cover. Man, I had fun, and I’m considering cutting up brown paper bags for my next notebook.

Except I don’t need one.

 

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Dinner Sans Souci — Thursday Night Dinner Chez Nous

Sans souci has that certain Gallic je ne sais quoi– “carefree” is the English equivalent, a fine word too.

Please don’t confuse ourThursday night dinner ritual with anything going on at Frederick the Greats’s summer palace in Potsdam with the same name.

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The reason dinner is a carefree walk in the park on Thursday night is because we cook for a family of two.Sooner or later, no matter how faithful we are at heating up last dinner’s meal for lunch, buying the tiniest package of meat, or proactively cooking for the freezer, the refrigerator compartment has too much food lounging around. About the freezer: at last check, I have two trays of stuffed shells, two quarts of minestrone, a gallon and a half of chicken stock, twelve individually frozen patties of homemade breakfast sausage and a tub of moussaka. Severe thunderstorms are blasting their way through tonight; pray God the power doesn’t go out!

We try, we really do. But, every single damn week as Thursday rolls around, there’s enough First World guilt lying in the fridge to shame me into Thursday Leftover Night. Here’s tonight’s dinner:

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That Italian free-form meatloaf, cooked Italian-style with red peppers and onions was some kind of delicious five days and two lunches ago. By now, it’s mostly meh. I made the guacamole tonight because I found some avocados I’d forgotten about, half a lime , some parsley and a lone Roma tomato. I wasn’t crazy about the chicken legs first time around, but hey — pulled off the bone and stuffed into some revivified (wrap in damp paper towel and zap for ten seconds) pita bread, topped with guac… maybe.

Maybe I’ll heat up the meatloaf, top it with some tzisiki made with that aging tub of Greek yoghurt in the fridge, stuff it in a pita, and hope.

Tomorrow will be even more sans souci, because the rule is: whatever doesn’t get consumed on Thursday gets tossed. Guilt-free.

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Apron of the Day — Carmen Miranda

Because I’ve been suffering Blogger’s Block since New Year’s Day, doesn’t mean I haven’t been making aprons. Hellz, no! But because my beloved camera died — since replaced by my daughter and son-in-law (Honor and John, you are the best!,) I haven’t kept out with the photographic record.

Truth is, I’ve been experimenting . Everything from shashiko embroidery on handkerchief linen: because I love handwork

 

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To flouncy little items like this, my “Carmen Miranda” which used up some cheery scraps, is adorable, and was a PIA to sew.

My supermodel, Lou Zoolander, has been a Drama King. “Not until I get a haircut!” “You want to shoot me outside, and it’s 48 degrees?” “Call my agent — I don’t roll out of bed for anything less than first crack at the “Times” crossword puzzle!.” So, he got a haircut, I shot him inside, and he got the puzzle.

 

The fabric:

 

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Below,The Apron, which is a bad fit for Loulander’s shape. This is a girlie apron, which would be improved with defined waist and hips, lipstick, and kitten heels. The talent wasn’t buying it.

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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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I Have Measured Out My Life With Coffee Mugs

I have more mugs than I’ll ever need unless I get religion and host the weekly Ladies’ Prayer Breakfast.

Still, I’m down to a thirty year low. Through attrition and my once- a- decade “I’m gonna toss every item in this kitchen I don’t use” campaign (that last took place January 2, 2005) all my mugs fit on one shelf. As I dried dishes yesterday I mused on my collection of cups and realized that it’s an eloquent journal of my last twenty-five years.

The Tulip Trio

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It was originally a Tulip Quartet,  Whenever I pour some Joe into these mugs I think of Marilyn — Marilyn Leyland McArthur.

Wham! Elmo.Sean and Madonna. Back to the Future. Diet Coke

It was August, and my parents had driven Honor back from Montreal, where she’d summered with them. In retrospect I’m sure that Mummy was appalled at my ragtag collection of breakfast beverage containers, because on the second day of her visit she gifted me with the tulip mugs.

She’d bought them at a shop she called Warrenville Drug and Pastry because you could yes, fill a prescription and buy a croissant there. Also a fifth of Jack, a lace hanky, a Dove bar, and the stand mirror on display on my dressing table as I type this. Pure retail awesomeness in  a space the size of your dining room. Its actual name was straightforward and informational: Warrenville Drug and Liquor.

The Abyssinian Years

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Joshua Tree and Bad. Iran-Contra and Robert Bork. Fatal Attraction and Lethal Weapon. I’m pretty sure I was sporting a shag, which was surprisingly flattering

Honor asked for a cat for her birthday, and we’d just read a laudatory article about the Abyssinian cat breed in Connoisseur  Magazine.(RIP) Like any good parents who could barely make their mortgage, we drove an hour to a breeder and handed her four hundred dollars for “pet quality” Persephone. (Honor was doing an Ancient Greek unit at school.) We bought her an Aby sister, Calliope, at a cat show the following year and those cleverest and loveliest of cats represented for their breed and ruled us mercilessly for about eight years. Our dog, Willa, knew where she stood on the animal hierarchy – according to the kitties, lower than a worm.

Spring Break 1996

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Blur and the Spice Girls, Jerry Macguire and Pokemon, the Motorola StarTAC  — it’s coming back to you, right?  The IRA was enjoying a renaissance of sorts, and blew up a London bus in February. So what does the caring parent say when her senior- in- high- school daughter announces that she’s decided to go to London over spring break with a friend?

“Oh wow! You’re going to love London!” She did. She also paid for it all, got her own passport and booked her lodging. She went to a Francis Bacon exhibition and drank beer legally — and that’s all I remember.

Oh! She went to Harrods and brought me back a mug, and a lunch bag. It was a happy, happy time.

The eGullet Era

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I joined the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts and Letters back in 2002, and it changed my life. It was a very good thing in a year that included such doubtful events as Graham Coxon leaving Blur and No Child Left Behind.

I’ll probably write a whole post about eG sometime, so I’ll keep this short: I made new friends, I learned a ton about food and I started to write. Here’s a collection of the mugs I received for volunteering.

I’m pretty sure that anyone reading this knows about eGullet, but if you don’t head to http://www.egullet.org.

The Evil Boss

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This, along with a couple of bags of coffee, came as the result of a Christmas grab bag at work. My boss, who shall remain nameless, had pulled my name, and her gift is the single positive thing I can say about her. I’ve had many, many bosses of mixed value , but not one of them can approach this young woman for malice, ignorance, and cruelty.Don’t take my word for it– ask any unfortunate who worked on my team.So why do I hang onto the mug? It’s huge, heavy and perfect for soup. It reminds me to count my blessings — that woman is out of my life.

WBEZ 91.5 FM

We’re NPR geeks, members,and  disciples. Our local station is a particular source of pride to Chicago peeps — I mean, This American Life and Wait Wait! are WBEZ’s brainstorms. For a few years I ran their payroll, and the lovely Dorse Kelly was my favorite client. I took Lou with me to Navy Pier on a client visit, and Dorse gave me these historic mugs.

The Wait Wait!  writers’ table was completely covered with takeout food boxes — every other department gleamed with high architectural gloss. (And no, Peter Sagal and Ira Glass don’t make THAT much money.)

There it is: the story of most of my adult life sittin’ on a shelf. Why journal before bedtime when all I need to do is grab a cuppa java?

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A Blast from the Past: Salisbury Steak

If you were to pin down the spot on my culinary being’s map from which every journey extends it’s the thriving burg of Meat and Potatoes. Yes, my culinary GSM has led me down highways and dirt roads, across lakes and oceans to oysters, sea urchins, and caponata, but this woman knows her roots.

 

My mother became an adventurous cook the year Lulu and Maurice Gibbs got married – none of her kids will forget the first Beouf Bourgignon – but before that milestone year she was all about the spaghetti and meatballs, the meatloaf, and the Salisbury Steak. She didn’t like hamburgers, which may be why I can’t now make it through a week without three — one great, one so-so and one off the 99 cent menu at Burger King, no fries.  (I can be a slut for chain hamburgers but I’m as pure as a novice when it comes to fries; only the “holy crap good!” need apply.) Salisbury steak night provided a happy combination of a giant patty, sans bun, with enough onion gravy to fill up a sauceboat and mashed potatoes a sure thing.  Carrots were a shoo-in too, because she adapted her Swiss Steak technique — vegetables braised in the sauce – when she made Salisbury Steak.

 

I don’t have her recipe, and she’s dining in the celestial halls off bijou servings of Peking duck, sole meuniere and savarins so I can’t spend forty minutes talking food with her on Sunday night, as I did for thirty years. (My sister-in-law Hilary, a caterer called her chats with my mother as “Marilyn’s Recipe 911.”) But I don’t need her recipe, because I made it often enough for family dinners in my teens that its elegance. Five ingredients, if your include the carrots, a bowl, a spatula and a frying pan with a lid – a twelve year old could, and did, make it.

 

Mix together a pound and a half of ground round, a half cup of breadcrumbs and a quarter of a package of Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix. Pat it out into a dinner-plate sized patty in the frying pan. Turn the pan on to commence the browning, then slice an onion.

 

The only tricky part is turning that disk without breaking it – I used two spatulas. Add a teaspoon of vegetable oil and sautee the onions until almost tender. Peel a few carrots and cut them into fine julienne; my mother had an immutable distaste for circle-cut carrots. Toss in the carrots, the rest of the package of Lipton’s and a cup and a half of water. Here, my mother would add the occasional heel of a bottle of Gamay. Cover, and cook for the length of the first act of the Callas/Gobbi recording of “Rigoletto,” which measured my parents’ cocktail hour. My brother Ian was the mashed potato prodigy of the family – he focused that early testosterone into pounding potatoes and pushing the dairy .

 

If you tried this today your kids would like it a lot. You’d rise above the  steak’s depressing bad rap of college cafeterias and  frozen dinners – loser food – and appreciate it in a hip mid-century modern groove. Enjoy it, while you put Blind Faith on the turntable, pull your hippe aunt’s granny square afghan over your knees, and consider melding packaged onion soup mix and sous vide.

 

My father always pronounced it “Sallsiburry,” not because he didn’t know the pronunciation of the great cathedral town, but because he’d met someone who didn’t, and that lady’s take on the name tickled him. I’d assumed that the dish was the product of post-war rationing, English mince and mashed and the coming of age of cooking from a box, can or envelope.

 

  

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I’m Still Here

I have massive Blogger’s Guilt, right now, the kind you get with not keeping up. The Number One Rule of successful blogging, as enunciated by successful bloggers, is to be faithful, dependable and industrious. My daughter gave me that advice months ago, and she should know. Her blog, http://www.gototennis.com received its ten millionth hit this month and has 37000 Twitter followers. Congratulations, Honor and John! (They manage this around challenging real world jobs. Shame on me.)

It’s not just literary lassitude, mes amis, I have an actual deadline for a piece for The Daily Gullet over at http://www.egullet.org. When I pitched the piece I thought it would be a piece of cake. Ah, the time-wasting seductions of research, which can stop you short when it turns your theme on its head because you learned something that turned your thesis on its ass. Rethinking rewriting fighting the block. Pray for me.

I hate to reference the Sperminator, that sacko slime, but: “I’ll be back!” Soon.

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