Friday, March 5, 2010

Poverty


Photo courtesy Flickr

Recently, I stumbled upon a WGBH cooking show that was visiting Laos to explore local food. The narrator found surprise after surprise as she followed her host through the bush. He was harvesting ant eggs, among other ingredients for a salad.

Back in the outdoor kitchen, the host held a wide stalk of flavorful woody shrub and cross hatched a couple of inches of it with end-on slashes from what looked like a small cane knife. Then he trimmed across the grain with another rapid series of closely spaced cuts.

The narrator described him as “amazingly resourceful” in “making do” without a grater. To my ear, she sounded culture-bound and blind to the supreme elegance of using just one tool where one tool will do.

The wisdom of cutting towards oneself is another issue. On a visit to Puerto Rico in 1962, my first sight out of the airport was of a toddler herking a machete almost as long as he was tall, while his father kept an eye on what he was doing. I presume the Laotian man had been handling razor-sharp knives since he was old enough to lift one and was as unlikely to slash himself as I am to damage an eye applying mascara.

That said, if I have a woody shrub to process, I’ll go down to the tool chest and look for a rasp, but I’ll try the mincing technique on anything I can safely cut away.

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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Table Threads and The Electric Bulldozer


Photo courtesy Flickr

Recently I chatted housekeeping with a fellow who inherited his mother’s tablecloths. Jack’s legacy is linen, the often unrecognized workhorse of its genre. White linen that looks so vulnerable is the toughest fiber to use at the table. It can be bleached and even boiled. Wash hot, spin gently, and square it off to dry on a line, so that ironing is an option unless the duchess is coming to dinner, as Italian designer Bruno Munari said. See Cheryl Mendelson’s Home Comforts for details.

A cloth transforms a battered or mediocre tabletop that can otherwise support projects. Cloths can be laid across spring-rods to cover windows (remember that sun eats fibers), serve as bedding, and easily be modified into pillow cases. The French make a charming utility lampshade by hemming a hole in the center of an old napkin and draping the fabric over a cone-shaped glass shade. The tubular fibers of linen transmit light that glows.

Linen does not live forever, so if you are fortunate enough to have some, let it serve you. Put it into active rotation. Fold linen in a slightly different place each time you handle it, since the fibers crack. Iron linen flat, and press folds gently by hand.

For long-term storage, put linen in archival boxes from a specialty chain or roll it around a pole covered in muslin. Shelve textiles in the same living conditions you enjoy yourself. Plastic and humidity are their mortal enemies.

Linen finishes beautifully if it is ironed from the back. Doing so raises the grain and shows off the weave to best advantage. If the piece is embroidered, cover the stitching with a colorless cloth to protect handiwork from the pressure and movement of the iron.

Electricity bulldozes the Victorian aesthetic. Many old white cloths are woven with elaborate patterns meant, like the architecture and costume themselves, to show off the play of light and shadow. They were viewed originally by gas and candle light. Flickering illumination softened and animated the restless surface enrichment of the period, producing an interior background of low-tech moving images.

The mothers and grandmothers of our mothers produced our embroidered legacy. Marketed as “art needle” in department stores, embroidery is a deep tradition in women’s culture, originating with the Copts in Egypt. At the turn of the twentieth century in New York, immigrant women pitied the wealthy who had to buy their embroidery. The work that daughters now blithely discard is a proud store of the wealth and love of our elders. Needlework represents leisure and fine motor skills and is the foundation of the textile industry. The sewing needle itself was one of the first products of the industrial revolution.

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More after the jump.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Taking a Closer Look


Photo courtesy Flickr
For the first time in many months, I served a “ladies lunch” to my aunt and her daughter who has lived in Paris for the last twenty years. This particular social occasion requires the same attention to detail as a major holiday meal, but not as much heavy labor. It’s a good way to keep the house in fighting trim. It was fun to build a menu around local food, make chicken gumbo for someone who’d never enjoyed it, and sit at a private table catching up on the family.

My uncle collects antiques, and once dessert had disappeared, my cousin said, “May I look at the bottom of this saucer?” I had forgotten that there are people who really, really care about dishes. I told Ell to go right ahead, and we carried on about the history of English china, smiling at her loving imitation of Uncle Landon handling an interesting piece of porcelain. China was an early product of the industrial revolution. At twenty-two, I unwittingly chose the first pattern produced in England, a frank copy of ware that had previously been imported from Asia. The beautiful, durable decorations of early patterns must have been a visual feast in the eighteenth-century countryside.

Before the ceramic innovations of post war Japan brought decent, inexpensive dishes to American import stores, one had a choice of cheap pottery that cracked, chipped, and often had a poisonous glaze or a much more expensive piece from a reputable maker. My mother trained me to check the back of a dish. If it had no mark, I was to shun it. The advice still holds true and is a good way to stay out of trouble in thrift stores.

Today’s market offers a huge range of safe, affordable, elegant dishes. Ell, who grew up in a living museum, agreed that the children’s tea sets from the big box Northern European chain are truly wonderful pieces of design. The topic of tiny dishes came up as we examined the dessert tray, an assortment of pastries from a killer local shop. I mentioned that I had decided to cut each offering into pieces so that we could sample them all and pretend to diet at the same time. This is the M&M theory of food presentation.

The simplest way to set a table is to choose an open stock pattern from a responsible company and buy the works. Get a design that goes from freezer to microwave, oven to table. Decide how many places you want to set before reverting to paper or a party supplier, get twice as many salad plates, bowls, and coffee cups as place settings, and buy a few extra of each piece. It is convenient to choose identical serving dishes of moderate size and a couple of round platters.

A plain design will mix easily with odd serving pieces and varied linens. It will not impose on attention. Life is saturated with incoming visual information from print, video, and the road. In 2010, I look for serenity at the table rather than stimulation.

Stack dishes with protective mats between them to defend the glaze from the rough foot of the piece above it. I use substantial paper napkins or flimsy paper plates in various sizes.

My set of dishes has been cheaper in the long run than the utilitarian offerings that were available when I chose it. The pattern is durable, elegant, and versatile. When I was feeding kids every day, I set it aside in favor of expendable thrift store finds. From those stray plates and bowls I learned that the surviving pieces of a set are nearly indestructible. In retrospect, I could just as well have used my originals.

My pattern had been in open stock for three hundred years when I chose it, but the company shut down production around 1980. When I discovered a matching service, I bought a few extra pieces in each size to have back-up in case something broke, but there has been so little damage that the spare pieces just remind me what the glaze on the originals looked like before it accumulated its fine haze of minute scratches. I stack the dishes with the most pristine on the bottom, so that when it’s time to set a company table, I know which units to deal out to the family.

It turns out that my deep and enduring love is for classic white coffee-shop stoneware. Forty-five years of service has turned the plates at the top of my stacks into colleagues of Homer Laughlin. I no longer hesitate to put them to work in almost any situation. As a young woman, I opted for high-end stoneware, reasoning that pottery was too fragile and bone china too formal. One set of dishes has carried the house all these years and shows no sign of ever letting us down.

My grandmother bought me a milk mug that had “All gone!” printed on the bottom of the interior. I wish a zany young designer would produce a set of dishes that are decorated only on the back, in the coved area protected by the unglazed foot of the piece, where the manufacturer’s mark is set. Perhaps a maker could apply an extravagant, graffiti-oriented mark to advance ceramics’ subtle history of letter design.

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More after the jump.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Haiti

Photo courtesy Flickr
A friend mentioned that her teen-aged nephew was volunteering in an orphanage in rural Haiti when the earthquake hit. His bottle with a built-in filter provided much-needed water after the disaster.

The family debated calling him home, and concluded that his Eagle scout training was more valuable there than in Virginia.

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