Monday, April 30, 2012

Retro Matinee Movie Feature: April in Paris

It's April 2012 and I'm in New York City, but I want to be with Doris Day in 1952 headed to Paris. I found a copy of April in Paris, with Day and Ray Bolger (the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz, a movie that frightened me as a child and still does, but I digress...) thrifting as I often do at New York City's Housing Works for $3. I often wonder if I go thrift shopping too much, but I fill my life with these wonderful gems that I discover at these shops. Day is more popularly known for her films with Rock Hudson, which I acquainted myself with this year (an aside, I'm obsessed with the fabulous pink kitchen she had in Pillow Talk!), but as a Francophile I'm partial to April in Paris, about Day as a show girl who gets an invitation mistakenly to go to Paris. We're probably in too cynical an age to make films like this anymore. The sets probably aren't fancy enough for some (no impressive computer graphics), or the plot too simple or campy. Since I take terms like "dated" often as favorable, April in Paris, J'adore! Steve and I were in Paris in September a few years ago, I still remember how it rained on our picnic of lentil salad, a baguette, and apple tarts in front of the Eiffel Tower, the even more pouring rain at Versailles which prevented us from seeing the grounds, and the loud, complaining child behind us on our sunset cruise along the Seine. Sometimes, the wind just blows and blows on your dream bistro meal. Very little takes place in Paris, but it's more that dream of Paris anyway: of romance, of long lunches at cafes, and oh the Eiffel Tower. "April in Paris, this is a feeling." And yes, the bill arrives at the end, but how it is still in my heart. Travel is something Steve and I agree to spend money on and don't do major gifts for birthdays, anniversaries and such so we can indulge in travel, but I do plenty of arm chair traveling too. Doris Day bonus points: she does animal advocacy work with her Doris Day Animal Foundation (a friend of animals is usually a friend of mine), and she released her first album in 17 years in December to benefit the group. Betty White (who I adore!) isn't the only Hollywood senior going strong.

Friday, April 20, 2012

On the Move, With the Ingalls on My Mind

If I was a pioneer crossing the trail, I would surely be one of those cluttering the landscape with my too-many possessions I'd be forced to dispose of along the way. Moving day occurred in our household on April 16, 2012, but with so many possessions to bring to our new "homestead" moving day will be more like moving month. But I've already slept in our lavender colored bedroom, sat in the start of my Southwestern themed library/office, even changed my address for my Vegetarian Times subscription (priorities!), had morning coffee in a royal blue mug on my lady bug table cloth overlooking the patio and garden, and lied on the bed in our prairie-inspired guest bedroom complete with a now cherished calico quilted wall hanging found at an estate sale. That room was my idea of course. I don't think Steve would have dreamt up a Laura Ingalls Wilder-inspired guest bedroom. I kept telling him on our Southwest trip he was "my Almanzo" to which he kept saying, "Who?"

Thank goodness for Wendy McClure for getting me hooked on these Little House books after penning The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie. While I'm sad I did not read the series as a child even though I was an avid fan of the show, reading them as an adult has been just as pleasurable. I've been thinking a lot about the Ingalls family, not just because I recently read Laura Ingalls Wilder's marvelous By the Shores of Silver Lake, which documents their journey to South Dakota, but because the Ingalls family moved so often in their lifetime and as Laura has said the Little House books appeal is that they are about "home, that dream of home we all share."

I've moved very little and across few frontiers in comparison. No childhood displacements and having commuted to my local college, I moved to my first apartment in my early twenties, then moved to another apartment around 30 (both times living alone), then in with Steve (and his roommate! - why I've been extremely eager to move out for privacy and more than one bathroom!) in September when my lease was up until we could find another two family. What was supposed to be a very temporary situation was drawn out for months by the bank. Roommate (thankfully) is staying put at the old homestead, and we have a nice couple living above us and Steve and I have privacy at last with the first floor all to ourselves.

Wherever she went, Ma took out her coveted china shepherdess. You can buy your own china shepherdess on the online gift shop of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society (and even a Charlotte doll!) You can also get a tin cup just like they got on Christmas from the Ingalls Homestead. I can spend (waste?) as much time on these Little House gift sites as I do looking up retro-inspired goods on the Vermont Country Store or looking up key words like, "butterfly," "calico" or "birds" on I've never even purchased anything, I'm just fascinated by beautiful things that make a house a home. I like things that make it all "snug" and "cozy" like Laura always described.

It got me to thinking what is my china shepherdess, and I'm not sure that I have one. I definitely have a host of cherished items: books, wardrobe (much loved vintage), artwork, tea things. I think the calico wall hanging will be a favorite item. Do you have your own version of a china shepherdess?

Laura felt unsettled in the town and longed for the wide open prairie fields. I feel frequently unsettled by the crowded roads in New Jersey, the crowds of people in New York City and the pace of modern life. I do share a bit of Pa's and Laura's urge to wander. Never having lived outside of New Jersey, I long for the Western frontiers. I've talked to Steve about relocating eventually elsewhere (we've talked about upstate New York, Vermont and even somewhere in the West). Ma didn't want to go further west in the books because she wanted a formal school (although with Ma being teacher I always wondered why home schooling wasn't an option). We worry about schools too when the time comes to start a family. I could write a lengthy blog post (possibly an entire blog!) about things I never learned in my public school education.

I think of how different Laura's worries are than mine. She sure never had to ponder things like, when they married, did she or Almanzo have the better healthcare plan? Would she be able to afford to stay home with baby Rose?

Pa enjoyed many aspect of modernizing life, like how train travel could transport the family in one morning what would take a week by wagon. I love how we can communicate across a medium the Ingalls could have never dreamed of, but also want to take my time admiring my prairie, even if that's our humble backyard that looks out into woods. With all the unsettledness of the year, my blog has taken on a slower pace, but I'm enjoying being online less. I will definitely continue blogging, but I'll be puttering around in the garden, cooking more, writing letters (I'm the worst pen pal ever, sorry you know who!) and spending time with Laura and other great writers like her.

"The dishes were done. Laura carried the dishpan some distance from the back door and flung waste water over the grass where tomorrow's sun would dry it. The first stars were pricking through the pale sky. A few lights twinkled yellow in the little town, but the whole great plain of the earth was shadowy. There was hardly a wind, but the air moved and whispered to itself in the grasses. Laura almost knew what it said. Lonely and wild and eternal were land and water and sky and the air blowing."

Lonely and wild and eternal a life I often long for.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Retro Classic Cooking Show: The French Chef

I want to jump into this old food photograph in The New York Times. The scene is a church picnic in Georgia in 1951. People are bowing their heads giving thanks for the food they are about to receive at a potluck feast. No sheet cake from Costco with a mile long list of ingredients (many you can't pronounce) in sight. The author lamented how little home baking there is for bake sales anymore. Interestingly, she notes,

"I have witnessed....the more upscale the community for the bake sale, the fancier the store-bought cookies. (Sprinkles Cupcakes may be the single biggest supplier of bake-sale goods in West Los Angeles.) Lower-income parents, especially first-generation immigrants, often turn up at school parties with the best-tasting homemade treats."

My own lack of cooking has weighed on my mind a lot lately. For someone who once dreamed of culinary school, I now don't cook at all, I simply reheat. Due to personal events I've documented as of late (moving limbo, dog passing away, family illness), I simply can't cope and just do what too many Americans do: throw something mindless in the microwave or stovetop. When we are in our new home and settled, which we hope is really soon, a goal is to cook much more, even if that means frozen food sales at my local Trader Joe's will plummet. Sorry Trader Joe's.

I love having a closet full of clothes, hats, bags (almost all of it secondhand) to play dress-up if I want to be inspired by everyone from Laura Ingalls Wilder to Ginger Rogers to Peggy Olson. But I also want to cook prairie foods like Ma would have made, and great French meals. On my pile to go to the new home: The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Classic Stories, which I asked for from my mother as a birthday gift in November and haven't made anything from yet, and my mom's copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which I suddenly coveted after rewatching one of my favorite food films, Julie and Julia (my others are Babette's Feast and Ratatouille). The "Julie" part follows Julie Powell, a food-obsessed, bored cubicle worker wondering what's more who starts a blog (can't relate to that at all, ahem), and cooks her way through MTAFC in a year, while the "Julia" portion comes from the fantastic memoir Child penned with Alex Prudhomme, My Life in France. I still remember the scene when Julie whips up a raspberry Bavarian cream, and says braised cucumbers are a revelation. I want to do that at home!

While I had a like-hate relationship with Julie Powell's book (the hate from the excessive unneeded cursing and oversharing of her friends' bedroom exploits), I loved this passage the most which she had written from her blog:

"Wealthy Victorians served Strawberries Romanaff in December; now we demonstrate our superiority by serving dewy organic berries only during the two-week period when they can be picked ripe off the vine at the boutique farm down the road from our Hamptons bungalow. People speak of gleaning the green markets for the freshest this, the thinnest that, the greenest or firmest or softest whatever, as if what they're doing is a selfless act of consummate care and good taste, rather than the privileged activity of someone who doesn't have to work for a living.

But Julia Child isn't about that. Julia Child wants you - that's right, you, the one living in the tract house in sprawling suburbia with a dead-end middle management job and nothing but a Stop and Shop for miles around - to know how to make good pastry, and also how to make those canned green beans taste alright. She wants you to remember that you are human, and as such are entitled to that most basic of human rights, the right to eat well and enjoy life."

Eating the amount of canned bean soup and frozen vegetable burritos I have been, even if they are organic, is not really eating well and enjoying life. I recently discovered the cooking show the Jazzy Vegetarian on public television. Really, Laura Theodore's Quick Lasagna Rolls are more my speed than much of Julia Child's fare. Still, I was curious about The French Chef, which aired on public television from 1963 to 1973, and had never seen. Netflix, the library and Youtube are all good options for your Julia fix.

In her show about potatoes, which she gives some interesting food history, she also noted her surprise that people think potatoes are unhealthy since they are only about 70 calories for a cup, but then goes on to use liberal amounts of butter and cheese. This is the same woman who quipped the key to weight management is to choose your grandparents wisely, although there may be some part truth there.

Just the name "Julia Child" invokes fear in many people's heart. Some are intimidated by her recipes, but more often it's the fear of butter. I considered what Child said about our fear relationship with food,

"That's a very dangerous situation that we're in, very dangerous for the state of gastronomy, because people keep being afraid of food and they're not taking food as a pleasure part of civilized life but of medicine...

I think it's been useful that we're much more conscious of sensible eating. It all gets back to moderation and great variety of food and the main thing is knowing what you're doing.

I hope it will steer itself toward good sense and the realization how important food and dining are in our lives because it's the simple pleasures as also being the most nourishing pleasures. I hope we come into a new era of great food and good sense."

Talking point: How many people do I know, especially women, think they are making a "good" food choice by heating up a factory farmed animal and pesticide laden veggies nuked in plastic (with the chemicals from the plastic seeping into the food) cooked in a dirty microwave simply because the package says "Lean Cuisine" or "Weight Watchers." How about bottled water? The public doesn't think much about drinking something that's been lingering in plastic. Isn't it all about fear? Should we believe something is healthy just because a corporation trying to sell us something says it is? This time of year many people begin to fixate on their physical appearance with swimsuit season coming up. Considering factory farms, pesticides and the plastics that seep into our food supply and clutter our landfills, the state of our thighs seem pretty irrelevant. I don't fear Julia's butter. I fear an unquestioning society.

While I can't eat a great deal of what's in Child's cookbooks since I don't eat meat, and don't subscribe to everything she says, I appreciate the doors she broke down for women professional chefs. My boyfriend is part of a French chef's association and it's very much filled with mostly white, older men, but I look around at the young chefs at the culinary program they are involved in and it's a sea of diversity.

I also think dining should be a more civilized affair. At a recent dinner at a restaurant, the younger generation all had their devices in their laps and they were rudely typing away. It clearly sent a message the conversation was unappealing to them and they needed to be entertained elsewhere.

"For me, dinner at a fine restaurant was the ultimate luxury. It was the very height of civilization. For what was civilization but the intellect's ascendancy out of the doldrums of necessity (shelter, sustenance and survival) into the ether of the finely superfluous (poetry, handbags and haute cuisine)? So removed from my daily life was the whole experience that when all was rotten to the core, a fine dinner could revive the spirits. If and when I had twenty dollars left to my name, I was going to invest it right here in an elegant hour that couldn't be hocked." – Katy Kontent in Amor Towels novel Rules of Civility set in New York City in 1938.

Did you watch the French Chef? Have any memories of you or your loved ones cooking anything from MTAFC?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

March Storytellers: A Month of Books

Thank goodness for the escape of a good book. The most trying time of my life was during my job loss and unemployment uncertainty, but 2012 has proven itself continually challenging with the loss of the beloved family dog, my father's heart surgery (he's back at home now from the rehab center) and our ongoing mortgage delay. When the bank decided to cancel the mortgage signing for no particular reason Thursday, I wanted to start wailing like an infant. I was on the bus that day coming home from work and still digesting the news that yet again we weren't moving on the weekend when the bus broke down. I was so grateful Laura Ingalls Wilder was there to tell me a story. I wasn't on the bus, I was witnessing the expansion of the American West. But more about that in April Storytellers.

I read four books in March, but I'll mostly write about two. I found Peter Mayle's The Vintage Caper at Cinema Verite thrift shop in New York City for $2. It was a fairly entertaining tale about an entertainment lawyer from Los Angeles whose wine collection gets stolen and the detective on the case who travels around Paris and Marseilles. I read a lot about the food scenes but they are very meat-centric, and since I'm a vegetarian, I'm not drooling over eating lamb or kidneys. I did get to thinking about the idea of wine as "liquid art," and about the idea of collections and why we start them.

I also read Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a selection from our book group at work which meets sporadically. I purchased it at Shaw's Book Shop in Westwood, New Jersey, my go-to shop for new books. I really wasn't in the mood for a depressing book about the slums in India, especially one with a vague ending. When I told a coworker I guess it makes you grateful, she's said, "Catherine, we're already grateful." She's right. But even if I was in a better frame of mind, I don't think I would have a different opinion. I found virtually no hope in Boo's portrayal of life in the Mumbai slum, in which a garbage collector and his family are accused of a terrible crime. Everyone seems to be corrupting everyone. I should have skipped Boo's book, but I'm so glad I didn't skip...

Abigail, Portia Howe Sperry and Lois Donaldson, $1, estate sale.
Some background on this book from

"When the Great Depression hit in 1929, life changed for millions of families across the United States. The Sperry family of Fort Wayne, Indiana, was one such family whose comfortable life was shattered by the depression. Penniless, the Sperrys pulled up roots and moved to Brown County, Indiana, a vacation place that held happy memories for them. Portia Sperry found work at the Nashville House hotel and became the gift shop manager. In response to requests for locally handcrafted items she designed a rag doll that she named Abigail. The doll was educational, having buttons, snaps, shoelaces, and string hair that could be braided. The doll was so popular it eventually was sold at Marshall Field's department store in Chicago. As a result of the doll's popularity, Mrs. Sperry, along with Lois Donaldson, wrote the fictional tale called Abigail. Their efforts resulted in an educational and entertaining book describing how families in the early 1800s journeyed from Kentucky to Indiana.

This Hoosier classic was written in 1938 and sold at the Brown County Folks shop in Nashville, Indiana, where the Abigail doll was created and sold. Set in the 1830s, the story centers on young Susan Calvin, her doll Abigail, and the adventures they share while traveling by covered wagon from Kentucky to their new home in Brown County, Indiana."

Fans of the Laura Ingalls Wilder series will likely enjoy this book, but with a major word of warning if you're reading it with children that you're in store for the same attitudes of the time: jumping up and down over the killing of a bear, one shocking use of the "n....r" word and disparaging attitudes toward Indians whose lands they were settling on.

"Not so many years ago, the Indians were still warlike, and bitterly resented the white man's coming to take more and more of their territory."

Well no kidding!

I loved a chapter where Susan's grandmother tells her a bedtime story "about a lazy boy who grew to be one of Virginia's finest men, and one of America's great leaders." The tale was not about George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, but of Patrick Henry.

"My father said Patrick Henry's words were the first words of the American Revolution. Not many ever felt the same way after he heard them. We didn't have war for ten years, but this was the first time the colonies had differed from the mother country..."

Grandmother said he was often called the "silver-tongued orator" and her father heard him speak before the House of Burgesses in a "speech - it will go down in American history - never to be forgotten. Some day, Susan, you will learn all of that speech by heart. He closed by saying, "I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death."

I thought about much we have forgotten Patrick Henry, probably a footnote in most of our history classes. I also longed for leaders who are powerful orators. Our governor of New Jersey Chris Christie not long ago called one of his constituents "an idiot" and has called a colleague a "jerk." He does this often, and I wish he would not stoop to these levels as a leader of our state. It's an embarrassment to a state that is ridiculed enough by the nation. Overall, though, I can't think of any leaders now that I consider great orators. I don't think we live in an age that celebrates the power of language and the beauty of the word.

Susan spots "pretty yellow balls" and asks mother what they are. "Those are oranges, Susan. I haven't seen any since I left Virginia," answered Mother. "What do you do with them?"

When I eat oranges (I'm snacking on one as I type this), I often think of our pioneers who found them rare and so coveted them. In the superb and highly recommended PBS documentary Frontier House about three modern families living as if it were 1883 in Montana, I also recall a scene where the modern pioneer children savored oranges.

Favorite March storyteller: The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, 50 cents at the CATS Resale Shop in Westwood, New Jersey, by storyteller extraordinaire, Julie Andrews Edwards. What thrifted luck to find this so soon after reading Mandy! I never would have even picked it up but I recognized the title. She writes in the introduction that she declined the publisher's offer to provide an illustrator, and there are no splendid drawings like in Mandy. She said this tale is about using one's imagination, and what an imagination she has.

"As the years passed, man became involved in technology and agriculture and industry. Of course, it was natural for him to want to learn about his environment and the laws of nature, about the universe and how to get to the moon, and so on. But as he broadened the new part of his mind, so he closed down a beautiful and fascinating part of the old – the area of fantasy. The more knowledge man gained, the more self-conscious he became about believing in fanciful creatures. People began to think that such things didn't exist. The terrible thing is that when man dismissed all the fanciful creatures from his mind, the Wangdoodle disappeared," Professor Savant tells siblings Ben, Tom and Lindy, and travel to Wangdoodleland to find this mythical creature.

This fantasy book is so different from Mandy, about an orphan sprucing up a cottage in the woods and hoping for a family of her own, but it's very similar in that they are both very much about finding your way, the challenges we face on our path, and an appreciation of nature.

There's a scene were the Professor is outdoors with the children asking them what they see. The children hadn't noticed the tree trunks aren't just brown. "The trunk of that one is copper and smooth, and that one is grey and rough. Those dead leaves are a russet color, aren't they?" He told them to look under a hedge, "Can't you see the cluster of red berries hanging under the tree? The children looked closer. Suddenly, as if the focus were being changed on a camera, the red berries came into view."

"There aren't many people in this world who know how to actually look. Usually one glance is enough to register that the grass is green and the sky is blue and so on. They can tell you if the sun is shining or if it looks like rain, but that's about all. It's such a pity, for there is texture to everything we see, and everything we do and hear," the professor tells them.

As a result of reading this book, I have became more observant of colors, textures and what was before my eyes and I have also broadened my definition of "music."

"As each day passed, the children's ability to look, listen, feel, taste and smell improved immeasurably.
The professor taught them the wonders of music; not only instrumental music, but the music of running water and the sighing of the winds, the hum of a city and the song of the birds."

Lessons taught to the children were good reminders at any age: to listen to people, and that what they say might not always be what they mean, and that people we will distract you and taunt you to veer you off your path, but that you should not fall off course from your goals. This book also made me grateful to explore the world of children's and young adult literature (this book is for "Ages 8-12!") and that I'm reading more period. I know too many people who spend a sunny, warm spring day in front of the television.

In a USA Today article about the national parks service trying to get younger people in the parks, they cited a "2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that people ages 8 to 18 spent an average of 7 1/2 hours a day on digital media. Last month, a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that three times as many Millennials — born in the 1980s and '90s — as Baby Boomers said they made no personal effort to help the environment.

A "big concern" of the National Park Service "is maintaining 21st-century relevance," says James Gramann, a Texas A&M professor writing a book on people-park links. Visitors ages 16-24 are most under-represented, he says."

I think as a civilized culture, we should resolve to step away from our devices more often, get out in nature, care about our Mother Earth, and spend time with a good book.

I'm already excited for my April reading list, which will include a Native American storyteller.

What good books have you read lately that you'd like to share? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section.