Friday, July 20, 2012

The evening progressed from phase to phase with the sheer nervous dread of the moment itself.

This is one of my favorite lines in literature.  It is from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The narrator, Nick, uses it to describe Gatsby's "I'm the man"grand party but the line could have described any upper middle class dinner party in the seventies and eighties.

When I was a young wife and mother and even when I was an older wife and mother, the way we socialized and showed the neighborhood that we had some social grace, money and know how was to have a big stiff, dumb dinner party.   I had three energetic children and had to work very hard when we had people to dinner.  I would prop up the Gourmet Cook Book and make sea food au gratin from scratch with every one of the fourteen damn ingredients  and serve it in a fluted au gratin dish.  We used Dansk serving pieces and flatware to show we had taste.

We had two distinct sets of friends:  smart friends who were quirky, over educated and knew what Ford Maddox Ford did and rich under educated friends who only knew what Henry Ford did. Either way, the evening progressed from phase to phase with the sheer nervous dread of the moment itself.   Wine helped and a lot of wine helped more.

We were invited to dinner parties much like ours and I would save up things to say and try to be a good guest but it didn't matter.  We were like George Segal's white plaster situation figures  that I used to stare at in the Jewish Museum on 92nd and Fifth.   

I think of those parties these days because one of my sons loves what he calls our "Friday night sit-arounds."  The sit arounds began several years ago when everyone would arrive at their week-end house on Friday night and come over to my house for dinner. The menu was always spaghetti and meatballs.  I used to tell them that  there was a different dish every night and that if they arrived on Thursday, they could have had filet mignon. In the early years, the guests were good friends and work colleagues mixed with family but recently it's mostly family.  The Friday night sit-arounds are exactly what we all wish for:  camaraderie, reminiscence, humor, familiarity, generosity and stimulation.  Nobody wants to end the evening.

It took a while, but I think now we got it right.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Goodnight Moon for Grandma (again)

(whenever a visitor to the blog looks up an old post, I re-read it and give it another shot.  Is this a lazy way to run a blog.? Yes but it's been over ninety degrees for far too long in East Hampton.)

In a small white room
There was a queen bed
And a cream Panama hat
And a picture of vegetables from a farmer that’s fat
And a Wonder Pets song stuck in a head
And a slippery quilt too small for the bed
And two ponytail bands and Burt’s Salve for the hands
And two socks on the floor, and Crocs by the door
And some Tylenol gels and some lavender smells
And some thoughts of the heart
And some thoughts of not smart
And creaks in the wall where mice like to crawl
And a drawer that’s a mess and a voice whispering “less.”

Goodnight room. Goodnight moon
Goodnight hat and the farmer that’s fat
Goodnight song that’s stuck so long
Goodnight socks and goodnight Crocs
Goodnight chapped hands and ponytail bands
Goodnight gels and goodnight smells
Goodnight fears and goodnight tears
Goodnight heart and woman not smart
Goodnight creaks and goodnight mess
Goodnight all voices whispering “less.”

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

He IIometbte cebe Bro!

Unlikely people view my blog.  Some Russians visit me regularly and at times translate the blog  using the Cyrillic alphabet. One of the posts they translated was about those pesky little tags that are on clothing and make your neck itch.   The title of the blog was "Don't Tag Me Bro"  Here's how it looks in Russian:

Thanks, Russian strangers!  (click on the image to make bigger)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Oopsies or "Did I just say that?"

Sometimes the things we blurt out are surprise Oopsies.  This happens when we have been thinking thoughts inside that don’t match the thoughts we express on the outside.  This used to be called being two-faced.  Inside we are saying “Muffie, you are one singular ignorant twit.” On the outside we say, “You are so fun. Way fun.” Those inner baddie prisoners are just waiting to spring to liberty and cause a fireworks display in love and casual or business relationships. 

If you want to stop all unintentional conversational oopsies, you have to stop thinking them. Any thought that begins with “Are you really going to sniff the wine, you clueless fat...” needs to be vaporized before it reaches maturity.  That’s right.  It sounds hard to do and has a tinge of goody-two-shoes and self-righteousness but it is the only practical way to live if you don’t want a verbal bomb to ruin an otherwise pleasant Thanksgiving when someone in a caloric overdrive coma is sure to blurt out:  “This turkey is dry and tastes like *%$*” when he meant to say, “You are so generous to make this effort every year.”   Once you get the hang of sabotaging internal badmouthing, it becomes a habit.  Just distract yourself with a different thought the way you distract a crying toddler.

In the film War of the Roses, during what appeared to be just another married breakfast, Barbara Rose says to Oliver Rose "When I watch you eat, when I see you asleep, when I look at you lately, I just want to smash your face in." Those words did not come out of nowhere.  Barbara had given them permission to play in her head for many, many weeks.  That morning, she thought she was going to say, “Pass the salt, please.”  Hoo ha!  All that other stuff came out.  If you saw the film you know those words began what was to become a disastrous journey.

My advice:  don’t befriend a thought unless you are willing to say it out loud because your smart-ass mouth will betray you every time.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Kill Fee

One day when we still received mail from the mailman, I received a letter from The New York Times and inside was a note from James Greenfield, the managing editor, (and the man who gave the go ahead to publish The Pentagon Papers) telling me that the paper of record was going to give me a “kill fee” for an article of mine that they had rejected.  On first reading it sounded as if they were hiring me to off myself so I would stop bothering them with my annoying ambition.   Here, take this money and go shoot yourself.

That wasn’t it but it may as well have been because when I found out what a “kill fee” was, I wanted to kill myself. “The writing is nice but this is not right for us,” said the note.  “Attached is a kill fee.”

I have never writhed physically, spiritually and mentally as much as I did as I read that note. It was as if I was wearing a scratchy wool turtleneck two sizes too small.  I remember standing on the second floor of my house and looking down at a giant Schefflera tree that was growing through the house and feeling desolate.  This is how I interpreted the kill fee:  “We don’t like your writing.  We don’t much like your thinking or your topics or anything about you.  To forestall any pleading or whining and to thwart any attempt on your part to contact us again, we are paying you to go away.”

This happened a long time ago and since then I’ve had several pieces on the Times’ Op Ed page but I still remember the “kill fee.” We all feel stupid when we trip or fall.  We feel inconsolable when there’s a break up and ghastly when we inadvertently hurt someone we love but the “kill fee” letter was a singular moment of humiliation.  I thought about it when I saw Ann Curry on her last day of the Today Show. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Tabouli smackdown (again)

 (It's tabouli time!  All the ingredients are easily available and fresh.  Thought it was a good time to re-post this recipe.)
There have been two great Middle Eastern restaurants in my family both in Washington, D.C. and both run by my favorite Uncle Charlie. Everyone in that huge family was a great cook, even the men. I am not talented in that department but I did learn to make better than average hummus, baba ghanoush and tabouli that kicks you know what.

Good tabouli is almost impossible to buy although the gross, soggy almost fermented kind sold in plastic cups is easily had.

Fresh ingredients are important for good tabouli but technique is crucial.

What you will need:
A big bunch of fresh perky curly parsley
4 thin kirby cucumbers
four or five firm plum tomatoes
3/4 cup of medium coarse bulgur wheat.
half a bunch of scallions (optional)

If you’ve seen recipes on the internet, a word of caution.
Does my list include mint? NO! So don’t put mint in it. Ever!
Does this recipe talk about regular onions? NO. So don’t put regular onions in it.
I’ve even seen soy sauce in an internet recipe. This would destroy the tabouli; it’s the opposite of the crisp, tangy, chewy, mélange that we are trying to achieve. My Aunt Mary (the best cook in the world) who would feed anyone who wandered into her house, would be disappointed.

Juice of one and a half lemons
1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil
(no pepper, no garlic, no additional herbs.)
Let me say this again: lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil and salt.

The technique needed with all of the vegetables is to dice them by hand into infinitesimally small pieces. You can’t use machines for this because you will get watery mush instead of recognizable tiny cubes. The parsley is the only ingredient that can be processed in a machine and the only machine that has worked to my satisfaction is the Oskar. Unfortunately, they don’t make the Oskar anymore, possibly because it is a great little workhorse. Whenever something is good, they stop making it. St. Ives stopped making cucumber elastin. (it really tightened your skin), Kiehl’s stopped making their great A and D cream and Sunbeam stopped making the Oskar. My friend Naomi wrote a prize-winning poem about this. It’s called “The Item You Ordered Is No Longer Being Produced.” It’s one of my favorite poems.

The secret at the core of great tabouli is to have all of the ingredients as fresh as possible and more important as dry as possible. If the parsley has been washed put it through a spinner before chopping. For the tomatoes, scoop out the watery part. I choose Kirby cucumbers because their seeds are tiny and their cores have less gelatinous flesh. Remember, we are going for dry.

Place the bulgur wheat in a bowl and cover with tap water. Let stand for about an hour, drain the water. Take small portions of the wheat into the palm of your hand and squeeze the remaining water out then place the wheat in a bowl. Do this until all of the wheat has been “wrung” out. Add the minced parsley, the cubed tomatoes and cucumbers and (optional) add a few stalks of minced scallions (use both the bulb and the green) Mix gently.

The wheat will continue to expand siphoning off any liquid from the vegetables. Because the tabouli is dry, you can store part of it in an airtight plastic container for up to four days.

The dressing: Do not be tempted to put anything but lemon, olive oil and salt in your dressing. The reason we wrung out that wheat and dried the vegetables was so they could soak up the lemon and oil and salt which creates an incredibly fresh tangy taste. The wheat especially will continue to expand getting fatter with the lemon and oil. The vegetables will also rehydrate and glisten with the dressing.

This tabouli is addictively good but it is also good for you. If you pair it with a few home made grape leaves or a sandwich of baba ghanoush in fresh hot artisan pita bread Yum.
**I’ve seen recipes that call for putting fine bulgur and soaking in boiling water. You want medium coarse so it soaks up more dressing. If you use boiling water, the wheat will expand too much and again, won’t siphon off some of the moisture of the veggies and the dressing.

I hope you like this.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Where the heck is the shut off valve?

Last week the outdoor spigot would not turn off and water was shooting out. I was so horrified, I dragged a stranger walking on my street and made him find the turn off valve. When I reached my plumber and screamed emergency he told me to turn the water back on and use the hose sprayer as a valve until he could get there.   It was not an emergency, he added.  

A week went by. My plumber came by this Sunday afternoon. He came unannounced, knocking on the back door.
“I realized that I forgot all about you and hadn’t fixed the outdoor faucet,” he said.
“Huh?”  I was the deer caught in headlights times two.
“I’m going to turn the water off to the house,” he said.
“Okay.”  Next to my agent, the person that turns me into a catatonic 12 year old is my plumber.  I never feel I deserve the plumber.  I’m not good enough. 
“But it’s Sunday,” I said.  “How can I buy the new part?”
“I’m going to fix the one you have,” he said.

It was a pleasant afternoon and there was a breeze on the deck so I sat and watched him and we chatted about things going on in our town.  He showed me what was wrong with the faucet.  It was the little rubber thing, the washer. He said, “I’m going to give you a beveled washer so it will last longer.”

 When he was done, he was in no hurry to leave and we continued to chat.  I offered him a beer and he accepted.  He wanted to amuse me with plumbing horror stories and began to tell me about basements flooding the way they do in cartoons - all the way to the top.  He even went and got his computer and showed me what I can only describe as plumbing porn - horrid things that had happened with do-it-yourselfers.

He also showed me how he could control entire state of the art plumbing systems in far away houses right from his computer. He said, “Look, this guy is taking a shower.”  I said, “Could you turn off his water in the middle of it?”
“Yes,” he said, “I could.  Right here from my computer.”
It was such a wacky turn of events that he could have told me Chateauneuf du Pape, 2008 would come out of my hose spigot and I would have believed him.

We talked about what we would do with a couple of million dollars and both decided we wouldn’t change much in our lives - maybe take a leisurely trip across the United States in a camper.  Finally, I went to get money to pay him and we said our good-byes.  A plumber on Sunday afternoon?  Arriving on his own and fretting that he had forgotten about me? I’m going to try the faucet and see if it works. Maybe I dreamt the whole thing.