Thursday, June 30, 2011

Eat and Eatability

My favorite Food Channel personality is Ina Garten, “The Barefoot Contessa.” Wikipedia tells us that the name, “Barefoot Contessa” came from a gourmet store she owned for many years, which apparently was named after the 1954 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner. Still, I find the name intriguing. Ina Garten does not appear on camera to be “barefoot in the kitchen.” Wikipedia contains no reference to her lineage to say if she is descended from nobility. Frankly, I don’t care, because for me she is culinary royalty. Watching her show is the televisual equivalent of reading a Jane Austen novel in which you are transported to a romantic world where everything is beautiful and all turns out well in the end.

If you haven’t seen the show, it is set in Ina’s (I like to think that I can call her Ina) own home in East Hampton, New York. The house is a classic cottage, surrounded by lovely gardens. Ina cooks in a dream kitchen, sparkling clean and filled with light. Her steel pans and copper pots are spotless. She is self taught! This is amazing considering that she cooks mostly from the French repertoire, making each dish seem so simple to prepare. Luscious and flavorful. She picks fresh herbs from her garden. She takes us on little trips to the local bakery or butcher shop to buy the freshest ingredients selected especially for the meal she is preparing.  She usually stops at the local florist to carefully pick out a gorgeous bouquet for the table. Her table setting will be perfect and she will choose every little detail with love.

She clearly loves to cook. This is evident from her happy, unflustered demeanor and soothing voice as well as her pleasant, plump face and generous figure. She wears crisp, oversized shirts that are very flattering for a bigger girl – I think they are the no-iron variety – she always looks so polished. This alone makes her my hero. Ken said to me once when I was whining about having difficulty finding clothes that fit my expanding figure that he thought I would look good in Ina Garten-esque garb. I agreed, but try to find those shirts! My shirts are always rumpled. The ones I buy have more of a Lands End quality than the more Parisian flair that Ina accomplishes.

Anyway, what I especially love is the warmth with which she talks about the guests who “will really enjoy” what she plans to serve them. Her friend, Edwina, will be coming over and Edwina really loves some ingredient that Ina will cook with such affection for her friend. And too, her shows frequently revolve around a special dinner she is preparing — something wonderful for Jeffrey, her husband. Lucky Jeffrey, he will sit down with her at the end of the show to a meal set on a table with glowing candles, a perfectly selected wine and a beautiful floral centerpiece (a tip Ina shares is to put together several different varieties all in the same color, just simply arranged in Parisian style in a glass bowl.) They will lean toward each other, grasp hands and have a smoochy kiss. The food will remind them both of their last romantic trip to Paris. The perfect end to another Jane Austen-ish episode.

Yes, it’s true. I aspire to emulate Ina Garten. I love the way she cooks because I’m convinced it’s close to the way I cook.  In my mind, it seems that she doesn’t really follow recipes. Sure, she uses measuring cups and refers to “a cup of this” or a “tablespoon of that” but I can tell that this is only for TV and really she does most of it by sense and memory. I often take notes about what Ina does while I watch and then try it out.

Actually I get into trouble with recipes. I have never been good with numbers or following instructions, so mostly I cook like I think Ina does – by my senses. Occasionally, I’ll see something appealing in a magazine or the newspaper food section and give a new recipe a whirl.

This is where my Barefoot Contessa fantasy ends. A good example is the Baked Ziti with Summer Vegetables recipe I tried last week. Ken (my very own “Jeffrey”) and I sat down in the dining room (we always eat in the dining room) but I hadn’t lit any candles and there was no fresh bouquet of flowers. The lap top and a few bills occupied the far end of the table. The napkins matched, but that’s about all you could say about the table setting. Still, I was optimistic about this new dish with ricotta and low fat mozzarella, pasta and summer squashes. I found it in “Cooking Light” magazine and thought, “Wow! Two types of cheese and it still makes it into “Cooking Light!?” That’s got to be a good recipe!”

Ken’s reaction told me differently.

“Don’t like it?” I asked.

“It’s o.k. Not as good as what you usually make.”

“But I got it from a recipe.”

“That explains it.”

“Aw, c’mon. It’s not that bad.”

“It’s not that good either. Do you like it?”

“Well, no, not that much I guess.”

“I didn’t think so.”

That meal ended with a ceremonial ripping up of the recipe. This ritual has been performed a few times over the years. It usually follows a meal disaster – although I am proud to say there have been very few of these.

The lesson here is – well, let’s see. There are several: stick to what you do best the way that you do it. Buy no-iron shirts. And maybe things aren’t so perfect at Ina and Jeffrey’s EVERY night either, but it’s worth trying. Always serve food with love, even if you follow recipes. And let your watching of The Barefoot Contessa be a guilty pleasure of the Jane Austen novel variety.  

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Do you DIY or HAP?

Ken and I spent part of a rainy Saturday this weekend washing windows indoors. We discussed whether we should hire someone to wash the outdoor sides or if Ken would be the one to shinny up the ladder to do it. That got us talking about DIY (Do-It-Yourself) families vs. HAP (Hire-a-Pro) families.

As it turns out, ours is a blended family.

Ken comes from a DIY family. His Mom painted and wallpapered like a decorating pro. Ken and his brother fixed dryers and lawn mowers and toilets. They spent their youth in theatres working as stage hands and technicians which taught them electrical and carpentry skills. Today, Ken only shies away from projects that require advanced, technical expertise or tools that we don’t own. Then, we’ll call in an expert. In other words, it’s nice to have a man around the house who fixes things!

That’s because I’m the opposite. I hate home projects. My M.O. is the temporary fix. I did a stint in the 80s in a major retail store working as a display person –  the job was a perfect fit for me.  I excel at projects that require a staple gun or push pins. I have cushion covers on the porch chairs that are merely tucked under.

I think this all stems from my family – a definite HAP group. They hired somebody for every job. Dad mostly brought in people that he knew. The furnace guy was Uncle Bob’s brother-in-law. The electrician (Dad called him “Alec Tricity”) was a friend of a friend. The Industrial Arts teacher (“Sprocket Lockett”) was from my brother’s school. He came in to build our basement rec-room. Freddie, the one-toothed elevator operator from my Dad’s office building, came in spring and fall to wash and install storm and screen windows. All of these people were provided with lunch on their work day and ate with our family at the kitchen table.

My Mum had a cleaning lady all the years that I lived with my parents. The first one we had was Gladys. Mum called her “Gladie” and was very fond of her – and protective as well, as Gladys had told Mum about her abusive husband. She was a stocky woman of European descent whose accent was so pronounced that I could not understand her. She wore her hair in long braids that were wrapped around her head. When Gladys passed away suddenly, Mum heard that she had stuffed her mattress with $5,000 worth of the five dollar bills her customers paid her – an attempt to hide her earnings from her husband. That sounded to me, a kid of seven, to be a lot of money and it struck me as a shame that Gladys never got to spend any. Mum thought it a shame that the husband got it.

Our next lady was Frances, who was also stocky and who wore “house dresses,” men’s slippers and stockings rolled down to just below her knees. She got on my mother’s nerves because she whistled all day with a hollow, breathing-in-instead-of-out sound.  It might have been the whistling that got her fired.

Next was Marie, who came from the French Canadian section of town, which did not necessarily endear her to my mother who was herself half French Canadian.  Marie’s particular vexation for my mother was that she had to have soup AND a sandwich for her lunch. And being a short individual, Marie sat side-saddle on the kitchen chair and swung her feet as she ate lunch. Why that irked my mother so much I will never know.

I inherited Marie when Ken and I got married. We lived in a smallish one bedroom apartment, but I was working full time and Mum thought I should start married life off right by having hired help. I would leave a sandwich in the fridge for Marie and a can of soup on the counter with a pot and a can opener laid out beside it.

It has been a slippery slope ever since. I have hired bi-weekly cleaning services for most of our married life and am not the least bit ashamed of it. I learned at the age of eight (between Gladys and Frances) to hate dusting. Oh, sure, I’ve DIY’d the house cleaning when one or the other of us has been unemployed or when we’ve been expecting company on a non-cleaning-lady week. But otherwise, I really prefer the HAP.

On Saturday, I was in favor of doing an HAP and calling a window washing company on Monday to come on out. But as soon as it stopped raining, Ken was up the ladder before you could say “DIY!”  As I said, we are a blended family.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


It started with a bag of birdseed I left on a ledge in the garage. Soon the bag had a hole nibbled into it and a scattering of seed went trailing away to a secret location. I figured it must be a mouse or maybe ants - wasn’t sure. So I moved the bag into the house and left it on the ledge that runs beside the basement stair. You’ve already guessed where this is going, so I won’t go into detail. Suffice to say this was a Rookie mistake and I was on the phone with ORKIN in a flash.

Now, in case you have never needed the services of an exterminator, here’s what happens. You enter into a year’s contract for exterminating services, which can include bugs of all sorts, although not necessarily termites, rodents, bats, larger mammals, whatever might be deemed a pest in your house – but NOT including husbands or kids (Ha Ha – just kidding.)

The initial visit from your Pest Control Technician – ours is named Jason – includes a full-sweep inspection of your property with special attention paid to your particular “problem.” You pay a service fee for this first visit and a fee every two or three months after that depending on your Pest Control Plan going forward. It sounds like a scam, but who’s going to argue when you have, well, a pest.

Jason’s analysis on the first visit: “Yup. You have mice. The Evidence (for this is what “it” is called, “The Evidence”) shows me that it isn’t many mice. Maybe only one that got in somehow. They can get in through a hole as small as a dime.  But they’re not smart enough to get out again.”

And why would they go out again when the nice lady is leaving bird seed and a bag of dog food out for them. It’s a smorgasbord at the Neufelds!

Jason couldn’t find the hole that allowed our mouse to gain entry but suspected it’s somewhere between the kitchen and the garage – we’re guessing where the conduit for the stove comes in. The solution is to plug the holes with steel wool to prevent the mouse from moving his or her family in and then set traps in the Hot Spots where you find the most Evidence. (I’m learning the technical terms.)

Here’s where it gets interesting. Today’s modern mousetrap takes a slightly more humane approach to mouse catching. No poison for it to trail all over your house for your pets or children to get into. No death throes behind your baseboards. No snapping mechanisms where you’ve placed the mouse’s last meal of tasty, tempting cheddar. Instead, today’s better mousetrap is a flat piece of cardboard that folds into a little open ended box that has a mega-sticky adhesive surface on the inside. Curious mouse steps on adhesive surface. Voila! Caught.

“Then what, Jason?” I ask.

“Well, you can throw the box in a bag and toss it in the trash.”

“That’s horrible. How long does it take for the mouse to die?”

“They eventually dehydrate. Takes a couple of days.”

“Oh, no, I can’t do that. How awful!”

“Well, I could come out and pick up your mouse and get rid of it for you.”

“You’ll make it a quick death, won’t you, Jason?”

“Yes, Ma’am.” 

“O.K., but you aren’t likely to come out on a weekend, are you?”

“Ma’am, I will come whenever you call. Night or Day.”

Now that’s customer service.

So we strategically set some traps in Hot Spots. Garage and basement steps. And then we waited. For days as it turned out. The mouse was elusive. We did catch a log of bugs in the garage. And one poor little bird who popped in to get some easy bugs when I had the garage door open. It was stuck by its feet and head to the inside of the box. I was almost as upset as it was. I tore the box away carefully and lifted each little claw off the adhesive. No injury. Then I put my fingers around its head as gently as I could and began to pry it away, saying, “It’s only feathers! It’s only feathers! It’s only feathers!” to assure the bird – and myself – that I wasn’t going to break anything. It flew away as fast as it could, much to my relief, but will no doubt wonder why it is now bald and its feet are sticky. I went inside to wash and try to get the feathers off my fingers.

After this incident, we decided to forget about making the little boxes and just laid the cardboards out flat to maximize the adhesive surface.

With the adhesive surfaces exposed the traps were a lot more difficult to handle. Remember those comedy routines where somebody can’t get anything unstuck?  That was us.  Ken and I were like Clark and Ellen Griswold in “Christmas Vacation” after Clark cuts the tree and has resin all over his hands. The traps stuck to our fingers, our fingers stuck to everything else. 

The dog ran down the basement stairs and got a trap stuck to his tail. Then he scrambled through the house frantic that something was trailing him – with me screaming right behind to try and prevent him for getting hold of it in his mouth. A good chunk of tail fur came out when I ripped it off. (Sorry, Riley!)

Regardless, I wanted action. I laid a raceway of death along the basement ledge and baited it with dog food. The traps were set. We went to bed. Next morning, there was our mouse. I called Jason.

R.I.P. mouse.

We now wait to see if he had any friends or family. A cat might be a good idea.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Lifelong Learning

My mother passed away on Monday, May 30th. She was 92. Those of you who have lost your mothers, you know it takes some time to process the sadness of this event, regardless of whether it was sudden or had been expected. My Mum had been sick in the final year of her life, so her passing was at last a blessing.

A day or two afterward, I was making the bed and had a thought about Mum. As I pulled the flat top sheet all the way up to the edge of the mattress I thought, “Mother showed me how to do this.”  It got me thinking about the things I’ve learned from her.

I learned to bake from my Mum. On Sunday afternoons she would make a dessert for Sunday dinner, plus some cookies, or brownies or one of her famous “slices” (aka cookie bars.) As a kid, I would kneel on a kitchen chair beside the counter and watch her to observe the method of measuring and mixing.

We cooked together as I got older.  When I got home after school during my high school years, we’d watch The Galloping Gourmet on TV. He seemed so exotic – chopping garlic and onions, sautéing them in clarified butter, quaffing wine between chopping ingredients. We began to experiment with dishes that contained green peppers and other things we had never used before in our plain Prairie palate. Dad loved it. Thus began my lifelong love of cooking.

She loved to watch birds, especially the finches and warblers that braved the Manitoba spring and we’d look up their names in a Roger Tory Peterson guide. I still love to do this and maintain an impressive Life List. I got my love of having windows open on warm, breezy days from her. She taught me that laundry hung outdoors to dry smelled wonderful, although I have only rarely done this since moving from our family home. These are all little things that will remind me of her. The larger lessons are there as well.

Certainly I carry my parents’ values and traits, as we all do. There are some that I am proud to own and others that I have endeavored to move beyond – with variable success. Some characteristics emerge at unguarded moments and Ken will tell me that I sounded like my mother just then.

On my second to last trip to Winnipeg to see Mum, which was in April, I picked up a book at the Dayton airport by Maya Angelou, called “Letters to my Daughter.” Being authored by such a prestigious American poet, writer and lecturer, Angelou’s words, I felt sure, would have some meaning for me.

One of her essays is about the loss of loved ones. She asks, “What legacy was left that can help me in the art of living a good life?” I’m certain that there will be many legacies from my Mum that I will realize as time goes along.  One of the lessons of her dying, however, was kindness. It was demonstrated by the wonderfully caring nurses, aides and doctors in the hospital’s palliative care unit, and Mum, being so grateful to them, was kind in return. She asked an aide one day what she could do for her.

Kindness came from those around me: my husband, Ken who steadfastly supported me and never flinched when I traveled to Winnipeg so frequently. My sister-in-law Donna, who shared her experience as a home-care and palliative care nurse to talk me through all the stages to expect in the journey. Her caring helped enormously and gave me courage and hope. And my dear friend, Brenda, who is also a nurse, visited Mum all through the last year and even acted as a home care giver, who gave me safe haven and home-cooked meals when I traveled to Winnipeg, was always willing to help in whatever way she could, and who finally sat with my mother on the morning she died because I was not there. Such kindness and friendship is a blessing from God.

Maya Angelou’s poem on the death of a loved one moves me. I will probably read it at Mum’s memorial service.

Did I learn to be kinder,
To be more patient,
And more generous,
More loving,
More ready to laugh,
And more easy to accept honest tears?
If I accept these legacies of my departed beloveds, I am able to
say, Thank You to them for their love, and Thank You to
God for their lives.

I’m going to dry some laundry outdoors today.