Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Running behind the DDT truck

or... one more reason Gen X is kind of ..."damaged"

#25 in an occasional series of repressed 70's memories that turn out to be true.

This is most accurately a 50s memory, but even in 1972, the DDT truck was as popular a neighborhood event as the ice-cream man.  Cough if you did this.

I do not know what inspired us to take to the streets and run into the Fog that Thrills, except that this was apparently a ritual established a generation ahead of us. You can google the title of this entry and find many happy memories of this behavior.   You will also have to add your own, because mine are a little....hazy.

Rachel Carson, that killjoy, raised her hand about DDT 10 years before it was banned, but she may have been more concerned about the bald eagle than she was about us.  I am unable to find a 1970s PSA about DDT, but here is an ad fom the 40s that delights me no end.

"The great expectations held for DDT have been realized. During 1946, exhaustive scientific tests have shown that, when properly used, DDT kills a host of destructive insect pests, and is a benefactor of all humanity."

The 70s ruled in blunt delivery, but you can't beat the 40s for sheer American Might and Hyperbole.  I thought for sure it would claim to have "wrangled Tojo" and won the Olympics.

Now get this:
new theory on obesity links pre-natal DDT exposure to increased weight in adulthood.  I find this hard to conclude, since we are all 20 pounds or more heavier than people our age 20-30 years ago, and this brief article does not say these babies are heavier than babies born to mothers who did not ingest contaminated fish.  And no one seems to have factored for corn syrup and the death of the 8 oz soda.  But then it is my job to draw these things in for you.  You can come to your own conclusions.

Unless the lead paint, DDT, Agent Orange, and radon have ruined you.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Thinking outside the tin

Not since Katharine Hepburn attempted waffles in Woman of the Year has a career gal in the kitchen been as hilarious as your Miss Bender committed to a Holiday Cookie Exchange.

There are two key factors in how this scene came about:
1) the lengths I am willing to go to expand my social sphere, and
2) not knowing what a Cookie Exchange was.

That is, I thought I knew what one was, because I have a creative mind and I can visualize a lot of detail based on very little input. I knew that this was a Ladies w/Home Crafts event, and very far outside my element, but I thought it was ladies in holiday sweaters getting together to make cookies and everyone would take home their party favor bag of a share of the cookies. Like Jam Grannies, or a Brunswick Stew.

I know my role in these scenes is of the helper monkey: washing dishes, fawning over the host like her maid of honor, and making witty repartee with strangers who have not yet heard my double album.

You are already laughing because you know what a Cookie Exchange is, and for those reasons have never thought to invite me to one. You know Miss Bender has life skills, not home skills – she does not own a cookie sheet, a microwave, a Kitchen Aid. She never has “extra” flour. She uses her 9 inch cake pans to broil hot dogs. Because who could eat an entire cake?

And if you think I had 12 cookie tins or anything resembling them, you are reading the wrong friend’s blog.

To make 12 dozen cleverly designed and packaged cookies was going to require some real project planning, and I was grateful to be unemployed. I already had a deliverable in 2 days because the recipes were due to the Hostess so she could make a cunning souvenir recipe book memento. So any plan I had for “add Grape Nuts to Toll House batter” was off the table (that is delicious, by the way).

I went for the simplest no-bake recipe I could vouch for, which was the Oreo Balls I discovered just a few days before at Susie’s annual bash (shout out, Callahans!). You can find this recipe easily online. It is Oreos and cream cheese, coated in your choice of fondant (Martha Stewart’s word for melted baking chips).

Also immediately required was a run to Christmas Tree Shops for packaging. This was Tuesday – Delivery -6 days. CTS was pretty well picked over. I toyed with a basket idea for a few minutes, but eventually found enough of the right sized tins for about 50 cents less per piece. 100% complete.

The project manager knows there are 3 elements to weigh: schedule, scope, and resources, but hidden surprise always comes in the form of Level of Effort. This was variable X. So I had a practice run.

Here is the schedule breakdown: Friday – trial batch, Saturday – trial tasting, Sunday – project execution, Monday – delivery. All Finish-to-Start; there is no lag time. In case you would like to follow along.

Scope: There is some algebra involved here:
if (1) test dozen takes X minutes from start to finish, Final batch = 12x with some factor of “learning curve” I do not know how to express. But I need a gross of Oreo Balls in equal numbers white chocolate and peanut butter coating. I do not know how many defects to expect per dozen or what will constitute a defect. Because of course there are limited….

I chose a no-bake recipe so I wouldn’t have to buy cookie sheets. I do have 2 hand-mixers (somewhere…) and I figure I can fake the rest.
Step One: crush 4 bags of Oreos. Oh.
Greatest of All Sisters says put them in a gallon Ziploc bag and crush them with a rolling pin. “Oh,” I say,” with my rolling pin? What else ya got?”
“You have a hammer?” she says. No flies on her. And she knows me so well.

I begin hand-crushing cookies (with my impeccably gloved hands, because of course I have latex gloves but not a Cuisanart) into a bowl that is clearly too shallow for this purpose. Where do I have a less shallow bowl? The biscuit bowl (hell yes, I make biscuit – Bisquik, fork, milk, bowl, same cake pan everything else is cooked on)? Still too shallow. How about the bowl that all the dishtowels sit in? Dump the towels out right where they are and transfer cookie crumbs again. Look for something heavy to crush them with. Consider the smoothie maker for 2 seconds. Go back to what you were doing.

So you mix the cream cheese with Oreos until it is smooth. This takes approximately 19 hours.
If you do not have this kind of time, start planning a shift in resources.

I realize I had forgotten the Crisco last time I made this bizarre grocery run (this is the kind of sudden shift in buying habits that you think would trigger a call from American Express, but not in December, kids) so I have to go back out anyway. The Crisco is for the candy coating, to give it that Entenmanns-style sheen, and probably has a scientific property you can explain in the Comments section.

When I got back to the store, I remembered why I forgot it the first time: who knows why it isn’t with flour, sugar, and those ball-bearing decorations. Crisco is filed under dressings and oils. But you knew that, didn’t you? The smallest possible quantity you can buy are these “sticks,” packaged like butter, but you have to buy 3 of them. You probably knew that too. I don’t get out much.

Did you also know rolling pins are $20? I found a flimsy one for $5 and decided if it lived through the event, it had served its purpose. The $20 pin would just be sad and lonely in the pantry, whispering to the sugar packets, who would reassure it, “Sometimes people come’ll see.” The tea bags snort and roll their eyes.

The recipe doesn’t mention this, but between each step, you’ll want to wipe down the counters, yourself, any family heirlooms which will be covered in cookie dust.

What flavor is Oreo, really? It’s not really chocolate, but a uniquely smoky chocklity Starbucks bean taste they might have used as a password in WWII. “Advance and be recognized! What is this flavor, soldier?” (chews thoughtfully) “Is it… molasses…doc?” BLAM.

Balling the Oreo takes some effort (and is funny to say). You can make them any size you like, but I recommend somewhere between superball and cordial cherry. An entire bag of cookies does not make as many meatball sized cookies as you would like, but if you cut them down about 2/3 that size, you can get about 80 out of a batch (1 bag cookies + 1 tub cream cheese). The whipped cream cheese is easier to work with and makes for a lighter cookie. Not that anyone will notice after they have had 5 too quickly in succession. One Oreo is my limit before I feel sick, so I had no trouble surrounding myself with piles of them. I do not suggest that Yankee Candle consider this as a scent.

If you have little kids, this is a great activity for them, because the oven is not involved, and it is just crushing things and making balls of dough. You are going to make as big a mess as they are, so you have nothing to lose.

Coating them is where things get very tricky and you are glad you are working a practice batch.  Remember the missing N=defects per dozen? Turns out…N= 12, until you figure out what you are doing. There is a tool for this step. It is called a candy dipper, and no there is not one in my house. Or a double boiler, or (as we have established) a microwave. So I am melting white chocolate chips and shortening in a bowl inside a saucepan and working on an acme schema of a Paas egg dipper fashioned from the twist ties that came with the vegetable tongs I bought.

I started with the tongs. But they are vegetable tongs, so they have little teeth like an oyster fork and keep tearing off bits of cookie-ball which is rapidly softening in the hot coating.  When I release the tongs to set down the ball, hunks of cookie come with it, and the coating pools (buckets, really) on the parchment, going to waste.

I have wooden kabob skewers, which I have moved twice and don’t recall the origin of. These work well for dipping, fondue like, but I can’t get the ball deep enough to coat it completely, and the skewer leaves a suspicious-looking hole behind, which the coating does not hide. I need a deeper vessel, as it were, so for a few rounds I try ladling up some melted stuff and using that to dip into. It doesn’t help much.

Ladling extra stuff over the ball like they do at the factory just makes a gloppy horror and wastes more precious choco-chips. I am about to go for the handmade wire dipper, when I open the second silverware drawer and find a pastry bag. New, mint-in-package, with coupler and tip. Only the Lord could have put that there. After I ruined it by clipping the bag too high on the first cut, that went right back into the drawer to be reabsorbed into the Cosmos.

I decide to try a spoon. A spoon. Huh.
And with a little patience, wrist action, and constant chilling of uncoated balls, this works. The peanut butter batch comes out looking much more appetizing than the cream-coated ones, but those have a fat base of dripped coating around each one, so they have their own appeal.

To build cushion into Sunday’s program, I pre-crush the rest of the cookies. This is wonderfully satisfying.

Risk factor introduced:
Heavy snowfall expected Saturday overnight through Sunday, and I need to add a mitigation task of an additional grocery run before the storm. This has to be fit somewhere in a day that already includes 90 mins at the radio station, and a drive to and from Surly Acres for Saturday’s party (3hrs total travel plus 2 hours party time - because the storm is expected to begin around 7 in Massachusetts. Never doubt that I am very very good at program planning).

So I go to the radio gig, grocery on the way back to the house, where I package up the test batches (nothing fancy required – clever plating will occur at the destination) and load a few snow supplies into the trunk in case there has been an uncontrollable miscalculation (this means you, NECN’s Joe Joyce).

At the test-tasting, Dr A and JB’s party, they are declared “evil.” I take this as a good sign.
Did I mention that the Cookie Exchange also has a “best in show” competitive edge? I got advance notice that the judges are our Hostess’ teenaged sons. This bodes well for me.

Sunday. Critical path day with no room for error. The snow is in freefall, so the supplies we have are the supplies we will use. Pot of coffee is made, cream cheese is set to room temp, a few Christmas cards, a phone call, and we are off.

We are almost at 2000 words. Is the suspense killing you?

The mixing and balling did take several hours, but I took it in intervals so things could chill and rest and I could remove CTS price tags from all the tins, eat some chicken soup, sit on hold with DUA.

Now, as far as coating these morsels… get a microwave. Otherwise, dial-up all your unplayed episodes of "Fresh Air" and settle in for a very long night.

Once I can reduce a task like this to its simple mechanics, I can achieve near flawless execution (or cover for them. Never watch me type). I will spare you that post. It identifies too closely the magnifying glass through which I view the world.

Monday night arrives and I have miscalculated the drive time, having forgotten that no one got to shop during Sunday's snowstorm, it is now rush hour, and I may be (horrors) late.  Cooler gods prevail and I arrive within the appropriate 15 minute window, bag of tins at the ready.  The exchange table is already adorned with colorful cellophane and ribbons, square reindeer plates and more charming tins than mine (that actually match each other), and I promise you 12 of these little fabric ornament boxes with "from the kitchen of" labels.

I know that I have lost on presentation, but even the fabric boxes would be defeated moments later by 12 handmade Vera Bradley type quilted bags perfectly sized to house 1 dozen Walnut cookies.

But I got the Oreos....

The judging was undertaken in the dining room with gusto, managed by 3 or 10 teenage boys (I can never count how many teenaged boys are in a room) and 2 husbands.  There were scoresheets, a ranking system, a little bit of recounting.  I was in the kitchen party, with the hostesses college roommates, learning stories she would prefer I hadn't, so I missed learning I had come in 2nd. 

Well, 2nd is pretty good, and the fruit tarts I bowed to were very yummy (I am always more pie than cake myself).  I did score Rookie of the Year and held my own.  There were no prizes anyway.  This is why I love this woman -- mostly for the dismissive way she responded to the question "what is the prize?"

To summarize:  3 ingredients, a thousand tools, a kitchen covered in goo, but a better conversation-starter than hot wings that the fellas like even more.

DrawingIn goes on hiatus again through the holiday.  But don't let that stop you from clicking and commenting.  it is nice to come home to.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Stop making things up

Earlier today I was reminded that I have been meaning to react all out of proportion to something. 

This is the jigsaw puzzle my travelling companion selected from the "library" of our hotel to entertain us through the evening.  She does things like this because she is able to walk away from a puzzle when she is tired or bored.  She is also able to order wine and enter bookstores and know her limits, with only a marginal regard for what any of those does to my brain.

That is not my rant.
My rant is....
who decided that this group of people would hang out together in the Hereafter, and that they belong in paintings together
Most importantly, what in the backyard F^#%$!@ is Bogie doing with these people?

Dean: 1955, aged 24 , car crash
Marilyn:  1962, aged 36, overdose
Elvis: 1977, aged 42, heart attack
Bogart: 1957, aged 58, cancer

They have the entire Other Side to roam around, and they choose to hang out together - in diners, bar rooms, in store?

Bogie was in silent films, for crying out loud. He was born in 1899. Why would he befriend them?

Lauren Bacall is 85.  Widowed at 33.  I don't expect she has waited this long to have to squeeze into seedy master shots with this band of misfits.  (Ha - I said Misfits)

Bacall, whom everyone calls Betty, except her husband, who called her Baby (shudderrr), strolls through the Pearly Gates and spots Tracy and Hepburn on the tennis courts.

Hepburn:  Spence?  Spence, look, it's Betty!
Tracy: What's that, now?  well whadda ya know about that?
Tracy:  Betty!  Over here!  Well look who's here - now we can really get something going.
Bacall:  Well you look tuh-riff-ic.  What a treat.  Do you know where I can find Bogie?

[silence.  fiddle with racquet strings.  Tracy steps apart from 2 women clearly taller than he is.]

Bacall: Spence?  Kate?  [gives The Look]  what's happened?
Tracy:  At the poolhall, sometimes.  Maybe the diner.  After dark.... [trails off]
Hepburn:  [steadies her gaze ] "Diamonds are a girl's best friend....?"
Bacall:  What, Channing?  I just left her.  She really did bury us all.
Hepburn: Take a breath, kid.  He's with Marilyn now.
Bacall: [slow burn]  Is that so.
Tracy: It doesn't mean anything, kid.  He's just been passing the time.
Bacall: Does she know that? 

Come to think of it, why isn't DiMaggio in a puzzle with Marilyn?  Marilyn, DiMaggio, Arthur Miller, and JFK in Yankee Stadium. That's a puzzle I want to see.  Dean, Sal Mineo, and Montgomery Clift, with Elizabeth Taylor stretched out on the pool table.  Or she's still alive, isn't she?  Elvis, Natalie Wood, Nixon, and a leopard.  I don't know why the leopard - it would just be a good puzzle challenge. 

do not buy me this puzzle

Ok, last stupid 4some pic.  If anyone knows the official name of this motif, please enlighten me.

Save a spot at the piano for Lauren Bacall. It is going to be a long afterlife.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

What I am doing instead of updating this blog

You were such a loyal Readership during NaBloPoMo.  I fed you content; you showed up.  At least, I have to believe you did; otherwise, I was being played for a fool during a month when I really didn't have a lot of time to spare.  Then I disappeared for 10 days.  No drama, nothing mysterious.  I have just been doing something else.  And, hello,  I gave you 1700 words on Memphis, which ought to show you how much I care.

As it is, it is 8am on a Saturday morning, and I haven't even gotten out of bed, but I am producing for you.  I did/do have some different plans for this morning, which include lying in bed and reading while the morning sun is still on that side of the house.  How Wamsutta sheets of me. 

I have been doing a lot of stuff in these chilly December days, but none of it makes much bloggening on its own.  Wouldn't you much rather have me list it for you?  Taking Inventory.....

Job Hunting is a crashing bore
And I told my outplacement counselor so.  She was trying to do her job, so I stopped short of "get off my back, woman - if I wanted to be nagged I would get married," but seriously.  Do same and I mean it.  It was our last meeting anyway.  I could have given her a load of what she wanted to hear - that interviews are steady and I had business cards made, that I take strangers to coffee and am having my suits taken in ( apparently rage weighs about 8 pounds).  All of which is true, and would have made for a more staid conversation, but instead I told her I find the whole thing boring and I would like it to stop.

Networking is much more interesting.  I have had some interesting conversations with people doing fascinating things.  I have caught up with some of the greats of my past who inspire me to see me old self as new potential.  I have brainstormed with my fellow (now former) Mill Workers about what has been working for them, and how we can help each other. 

The gym is free
Hooray... Global Fitness.  Something is wrong with my favorie bike, though.  There are 2 and one has "parts on order," and the other needs to be re-calibrated, so you don't have to hold the handlebars in a hard left turn to stay straight on the route.  I started some elliptical thing instead.  Joining the regulars are Pink Pants (self-explanatory) and Is He My Neighbor? (I can no longer tell if I know him from the gym or from the driveway).

The Finishing School is gathering a Readership at last.  Our first call for contributors some years ago yielded little response.  With the help of Facebook (and a lot of you moving up or out of your careers) we have been able to widen our slate of contributors and readers. Bender & Minchin continue to try to up our traffic, improve our standing in search results, and eventually get someone to spend some money on us.  Your clicking there a minute ago helped.  Your writing for us would help more.

Armchair Traveler went on-line.  I don't usually plug the Armchair in this space.  But we are pretty pleased with the live streaming and now podcasting we have been able to get working.  Armchair Traveler completes its year-long salute to the National Park Service next Saturday.  subscribe to and walk around with me in your head.  I have to, so it's only fair.

A day spent not Christmas shopping with one of the Moms was a real delight for both of us.  It is true what they say about how long you can park yourself at a Starbucks holding empty cups.  We gave each other a lot of life advice with the understanding that neither of us is likely to act on any of it.  And we love each other for that.

Man, I love Netflix.  This may be my equivalent of eating frosting out of the can, but I only watch a couple of hours a day, and rarely when the sun is up.  (don't think that so noble - the sun is only up 7a - 4p up here).

I attended the Massachusetts Conference for Women, and I will write more about that later.

I drove the new car in the snow.  We will learn to understand each other.

What do you got?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Like, that totally happened

Working at the library's public computers (because the internet adapter on this machine is finicky) next to 2 high school girls supposedly (supposably) studying but mostly berating each other for, like, being distracting.

Suddenly the one on my right turns to me (without salutation) and says "Do you know what the word subtell means?"

I narrow my eyes, clueless, "Show it?"  I said, because in the textspeak of the young, why use modifiers and other unneccessary baggage?  She does: subtle.  Oh.

I say, "Oh, subtle.  The B is silent, so you say 'suttle.'  It means... "  every word I can think of is a Latinate that is likely beyond the girl in the moment learning "subtle."  "It's like, played down, underhanded -- well, not underhanded, in a sneaky way... But if you say, 'that was subtle,' you mean it was---"

"On the DL," she says.

"Yes!"  I say, actually poking her like some crazy kickball coach.  It occurs to me she knows the word; she's never seen it.

I had that same problem with epitome when I was her age.