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.

 

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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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It’s a Corker!

I’ll just say it flat out: I Iove screw top wine bottles. No corkscrew? No problem. No wine stopper? No problem. Expense to have your cellar full of decades old Romanee-Conti  recorked every fifteen years or so? By some French artisan you’ve flow in first class on Air France? Zero.

Not that we have such a swanky cellar — in fact you’ll be lucky to find three bottles lurking around in various levels of fullness. But geez, trying to recork a bottle is such a pain in it! It doesn’t matter how hard I force. Chipping away at a cork with a pairing knife simply ensures that I’ll need to use a tea strainer to remove chips when when I pour the next glass.I’ve never dared lay a recorked bottle on its side in the fridge, for fear of dribbling onto the english muffins.

A screw top bottle fixes all that. Problem is: where I live the selection of drinkable wine that come with a screw top bottle fits on a space at the liquor store the size of a postcard. This wasn’t true in Canada — all through January the Liquor Control Board of Ontario supplied me with very drinkable plonk in recloseable bottles.

Thank heavens I returned home to this gadget, yet another cool thingie my daughter introduced me to last time I was in LA. I picked up three @ $1.95 apiece at Surfas in Culver City. I stole the pic from the Crate and Barrel site because it seems my camera has gone walkies. (Yes, C&B sells it for a buck ninety five too.)

Nuts, I can’ t upload the photo so check out the link:

http://www.crateandbarrel.com/dining-and-entertaining/bar-accessories/wine-bottle-stopper/s268704#reviews

And read the glowing reviews! I believe they’re all five stars. I give it six stars — talk about cheap and cheerful!

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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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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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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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