Sunday, August 28, 2011

Let There Be Light

As I write, Hurricane Irene is “churning up the eastern seaboard.” I borrow the phrase from the Weather Channel personnel, who have been talking at me from the television atop my refrigerator. The media have done a fine job of churning up our anxiety over the past few days. Usually an impending blizzard has them blustering, and usually they miss the forecast by such a wide margin that this could be a case of the boy who cried wolf. I think, though, that this time some wild weather really is threatening. So we have followed instructions and stocked up on bottled water and batteries for flashlights. And this activity has led me to contemplate light.

In a world of curtailed carbon footprints and careful energy consumption, and in my specific world of daughter Annie, who is co-president of a student organization known as Greening Princeton, turning on a lamp is a direct hit against Mother Nature. But I love to turn on lamps. Turning on the first lamp of the evening is the moment of transition from day, with its phones and errands and meetings, to evening. Time for a glass of wine or a martini. Time to pick up The Elephant’s Journey by José Saramago. Time to enjoy the slanty light sifting through the copper beech leaves as the sun starts its descent.

But that’s not really why I like to turn on lights. I just like light. To me, nothing speaks more strongly of safe shelter than the glow, warm and golden, of lighted windows. The house I grew up in was always fully illuminated, in spite of my father’s imprecations to turn off the lights when we left a room. Once, when I was 16 and had had my driver’s license for about six months, I had gotten disoriented in a snow squall while driving our battered VW aimlessly around the outskirts of Altoona and environs on a late winter’s afternoon. When I finally turned onto Cypress Street, Hollidaysburg, and saw the windows of our solid brick house shining like beacons from a lighthouse, I was so relieved that I didn’t mind (much) the solid scolding I got from my mother.

On another occasion, when I was a graduate student making ends meet by serving as a resident advisor at a local boarding school and deeply unhappy about a number of things, I was charged with ferrying the girls' field hockey team to an alumna’s home for an InterAc championship celebration. It was a miserable autumn day. A cold, penetrating rain made the streets slick and sullen. I drove up an obscure Main Line lane and pulled into a courtyard. In the dusk, the fieldstone house, with its many-paned windows all lit up, radiated warmth and welcome. I wanted to hop out and follow the girls into the gathering.

Of all the houses that I have lived in, however, the one that excelled at beautifully beaming light was the farmhouse we lived in when our children were growing up.  I confess that, if I left the house in broad daylight but knew I would not be returning until after dark, I would go around and turn on all the lights. Few things made me happier than driving up our dirt road and seeing our house all aglow. I was home.

We are in a different house now and, with those energy-efficient light bulbs that Annie insists on, the glow is a sickly green. And that is why as soon as Annie goes back to school I replace all the “good energy” light bulbs with good old Sylvania 50-100-150 light bulbs.

(Former) home sweet home...

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Bon Voyage, "Bon Appetit"

I am pretty good at saying “good-bye,” with a handful of notable exceptions, but I am very bad at throwing anything out. Not that I’m in danger of being a hoarder. I don’t go out of my way to collect things that then pile up in hallways eventually to fall on top of me, leaving my cats to circle around wondering why they aren’t getting dinner. With some things, though, I just have a hard time letting go.

This is a fault, and I am not wild about admitting to faults. (Just ask my husband and children.) So I have tried to counter my tendency. Let’s take magazines. And let’s start with the New Yorker. Like every other New Yorker subscriber I have ever known, I had innumerable back issues of the magazine accumulating in a lovely wicker basket, waiting for that day (or days) when I would get around to catching up on the literate world. What if I missed a classic Updike story? What if I missed the seminal essay on civil disobedience in Kurdistan? And what if I missed a great cartoon? But I came to my senses. I now keep only three months of back issues, and that’s only to have them handy if someone says, “Did you see the piece in the New Yorker about the turmoil over the new Archbishop of Canterbury? It was sometime last month…”

I’ve become more draconian with other magazines. Out they go when a new one comes in. If I haven’t clipped a decorating tip from Traditional Home in June, then I didn’t want a decorating tip from Tradition Home in June. And after reading Runner’s World for decades, I know that there are cycles to topics. If I toss out the issue on training for your first marathon, no matter. Marathon training will come around again. Same charts, different graphics. The trickiest, though, was my Bon Appetit collection.

Years of Bon Appetit issues filled shelves in my kitchen bookcase. In the waning days of the 20th century, I came up with a plan. I grouped the issues by month: 10 years of January, 10 years of February, 10 years of March, and so on. I then went through each group to see what to save. Features did not make the cut. Only recipes that sounded yummy, that would not be rejected by my family, and that were within my culinary skill set survived. I clipped those recipes, put them in folders labeled by month, and tossed the tattered remains of the magazines. I even entered each recipe into an Excel file by name of dish and category (appetizer, beef, chicken, and on down the alphabet). Plugging away at this while keeping an eye on several Masterpiece Theatre series got me through all the old magazines in a matter of months. I then had 12 folders of recipes just right for each month of the year. In the front of each file is a list of that month’s recipes, culled by using the filter function on the Excel file. When pondering what to cook in October, I had plenty of ideas just right for that month sitting tidily organized in a folder. I was way ahead of the “eat seasonal” movement.

The results were mixed. While my family was usually delighted with my reinvigorated attention to delivering delicious dinners, they sometimes got tired of Indian Lamb Chops with Curried Cauliflower in December, Short Ribs Provencale with Crème Fraiche in January, Spring Lamb with Tomato and Herb Vinaigrette in April. Once, my son said wistfully, “Couldn’t we just have chicken in mayo and Italian dressing like the old days?” And when old friends were with new friends in my kitchen, the old friends invariably said, “Kathy, show Linda all your recipe folders!” Sometimes I got the feeling that maybe the fame of my recipe folders bordered on notoriety.

Nevertheless, I have followed this system religiously for more than ten years now, and I have no back issues of Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, or the late, lamented Gourmet cluttering up my kitchen shelves.

What I do have is 12 very fat and frayed folders, each with hundreds of recipes that I will never get to if I live to be 112 and cook something new every night.

Some August recipes, typos and all

Sunday, August 14, 2011

On the Occasion of My Cousin Nancy’s 75th Birthday

While as adults we have always kept in contact through Christmas cards, my cousin Nancy and I have crossed paths in person only a handful of times that I can remember. This was a result of the unusual age differences on my mother’s side of the family. My mother Jane was 16 years (or so) younger than Nancy’s mother, Kathryn (after whom I am named). When my baby brain was not even conscious of a cousin, Nancy would already have been in college. My first memory of that side of the family features only my aunt and uncle. My parents had taken my younger sister and me on a very long car ride out of Pennsylvania and into strange lands. I remember a great gray building in Washington, DC, which housed the offices of my uncle--certainly a grander building than any in Altoona or Hollidaysburg, so I knew he must be a very important man. And then we drove to an area with tree-lined streets and cozy houses and it was named Something Park. What fun it would be to live in a park! Best of all, in her house my aunt had a dog named Skipper who could play the piano! It was a wonderful trip, filled with marvels--but I don’t remember a cousin being among them.

The next memory I have was a time when Nancy’s family visited with the Taylor family at the little place we called “the cottage,” about 40 miles south of our house in Hollidaysburg. I think I have the story right: that the cottage had been owned as a fishing retreat by Uncle Roy, Nancy’s and my great uncle, from whom my father had bought it. By the time of this visit I was in elementary school and Nancy was not only married to a very tall man named Gene but she also had two little girls of her own. This made things even more complicated, with the lines of relationship very blurred. The little girls were younger than my sister and I, but not by that much. Yet they weren’t our first cousins. They weren’t really our second cousins either. But we definitely were related to them! And the person who was my cousin was a grown-up, sitting in the rustic little living room with her husband and chatting away as equals with my parents while the four little girls played Po-Kee-No and Go Fish out on the porch. Not much of a real connection there.

Jane and Nancy in the center (5/29/93)
It was decades later that the real connection was made. In late May of 1993, the Taylor family threw a big weekend party to celebrate the 75th birthday of my mother, by then a widow for 23 years. At the time, my husband and I lived on an old farm property of his family. We were able to house all of the guests for the birthday celebration between our place (which had been a livestock barn) and what we called “the main house.” The four children of Jane Taylor were there, with their spouses and offspring--and Nancy was there, too. To have a whole weekend for cousins of all ages to get acquainted and reacquainted was a wonderful luxury. At that point, I was 40 and Nancy was 57 – and miraculously the intervening decades had demolished the age barrier. We found our connection: writing. Specifically, writing from memory. I remember sitting around the green wrought-iron table under a tree, talking through the afternoon and evening about writing and writing classes. Nancy later sent me a lovely gift: a book entitled “Court of Memory” by James McConkey.

Now it is Nancy who is celebrating her 75th birthday, and I am about the same age she was when we last were together. So much has happened, and so many are no longer with us--including my mother, who had tied us together. Following my mother’s death, Nancy again gave me a lovely gift: a letter in which she shared her memory of my mother as a young woman, barely more than a girl. A glimpse of a side of my mother I could not otherwise have known. And I am so grateful.

Happy 75th birthday, Cousin Nancy.