Friday, June 27, 2014

Icebox Revisited


Photo courtesy Flickr

A friend mentioned the Japanese housewares outlet in Westlake Square’s elegant mini-mall. I popped in and discovered their featherweight insulated shopping bag. At first sight it looks like an evening bag. It's designed to protect delicate food until it reaches the kitchen.

This handy Mylar tote is the pedestrian equivalent of the picnic cooler a friend kept in the back of her station wagon on shopping runs in the blazing heat of a Puerto Rican summer. Refrigeration in transit eases deadlines on the road.

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More after the jump.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Parch


Photo courtesy Flickr

So much of housekeeping is dedicated to keeping things clean and dry I tend to overlook one area where keeping things greasy and hydrated is the key to the mint- leather care. Editing the contents of the prime bookcase turned up a very old hymnal.

The art of the book is an art indeed. I know barely enough of it to know when to stay my clumsy hand. Sidney Cockerell's guide to binding and Edward Johnston's primer, "Writing and Illuminating and Lettering", known in the writing game simply as "Johnston", lay out the basics. I pretty much know what I've got, but a Special Collections librarian will have been trained in what to look for in a volume. Early books can look like little more than driftwood if their covers have been neglected. Incidentally, Johnston points out that a simple flexible vellum cover is a good way to protect a text, since it is not likely to attract thieves. The whole point of bookbinding is to protect the message.

A totalitarian housekeeper is likely to toss anything in less than bright and shiny condition. I took a second look at the hymnal after recovering from the neck-snapping whiff of sick paper it emitted. The leather half-binding looked nearly like construction paper. 

Forty years ago, when the general public was first hearing from English libraries about how to manage real books (as opposed to the ones known as bucks), the local academic book store began to carry binder’s dressing. It’s the most prudent product I know to apply to any leather. My first jar is only half gone. I should label it for posterity. Even the in-house riding jacket has been dosed with this product, as have all relevant shoes, belts, bags, and gloves. A disposable nitrile glove and a square of dead t-shirt made short and gratifying work of anointing the old cover. In two minutes it was dry enough to burnish and look new, but deeper.

Thirty years ago, I bit the bullet and had a couple of semi-ancient chairs recovered in leather. The decision was cost-effective-they still look very good. I credit that dressing. The chairs are due another dose, and I’ll calendar the chore for the Week It Gets Hot, in July. The leather is secured with rows of brass nails. When it’s time to start working, I’ll set up nitrile gloves, a small vacuum cleaner, a photographer’s equipment dusting brush (that looks like a shaving brush on steroids), a microfiber cloth for damp wiping, the jar of dressing with gooey applicator rag inside, a couple of very clean disposable wipers, and a fresh piece of soft wool for final polishing.

Holding the vacuum hose in one hand, I’ll brush the crevices around the brass fasteners, then wipe the leather and let it dry for a minute, paying particular attention to folds. Leather deteriorates in the areas that are hardest to maintain. One coat of the dressing should protect the chairs for another ten years. In a couple of minutes it will have dried enough to polish, and that will be that.

The key to doing this kind of maintenance effectively is to be well-rested.

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More after the jump.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Precious But Not Valuable, Valuable But Not Precious


Photo courtesy Flickr

A mentor advised me that the things I value most would not be the things a thief would take. She was privileged to own many works of art that would presumably light up the eyes of any competent burglar, so I took her words to heart.

Years of daily service have turned up a list of domestic all-stars: a nickel-steel skillet that’s been turning out eggs and chops since around 1870, a Replete Brush Company nail brush made of the first wave of industrial nylon that’s been cleaning grubby fingers since 1947, a 1912 desk lamp, a fifty cent thrift store pepper grinder, and an irreplaceable single-layer terry cloth potholder from Fancy. The list is far from inclusive. No doubt every household has its version. When I’m downsizing in place, the energy sumps are things with a market value too large to ignore that take more than they give.

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More after the jump.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Dishwasher Aesthetics


Photo courtesy Flickr

Buying a first set of classic 1912 fluted French bistro glasses taught me the wisdom of the hand that is designed into pre-World War Two tabletop and kitchen technology. The tempered glasses are fast and safe to handle in the dishpan. Even low-end pre-war flatware fosters skill and grace at the table. It’s all in the wrist.

Decently designed forks are carefully finished between the tines, so the scullion can get them clean without wasting time. Industry has been expanding the borders of the design envelope since the turn of the twentieth century. In the last five or ten years, table and kitchen ware are appearing that can only be cleaned effectively, or safely, in a machine. Many contemporary fork tines are too rough for anything but the active spray and heat of an appliance to get them sanitary. Many carelessly finished edges on utensils and cookware threaten to wound the user in a public health environment that is losing the battle to bacteria. At the least, and this particular least is not minimal, handling a tool with hostile projections maims the working spirit of the user.

Last winter, a local appliance dealer produced a commercial that showed a young man panicking because his dishwasher died. The ad illustrates the fragility of domestic culture. Culture it is. Like the proper management of fire, the low-tech food safety of hand dishwashing is a basic skill. In housekeeping, it is often true that a low-tech solution saves capital, space, time, utilities, and noise pollution. To my mother’s running commentary, and with her grandmother supervising, I learned how to wash dinner china a la 1880. Traditionally, the “lady of the house” did this work, leaving cooking pots to unskilled help in the kitchen while she laid oilcloth on the dining table and filled two dishpans with boiling water, adding soap to one. A daughter or other assistant stood by, dishtowel in hand, to dry and chat. Glass, silver, and china are the washing sequence of a process based on natural soap. A matron of the old school was a needlewoman with the fine motor skills to appreciate and conserve the lovely, fragile, tabletop artifacts that make the most of light generated by combustion and reinforced fine motor skills. Clean tableware went straight back into the china cupboard set to one side of the dining room. I revived this procedure briefly in my own 1890 “back parlor” and found it both convenient and a constant, practical dress rehearsal for housekeeping in the field.

It’s a pity when mechanical assistance degrades the essentially human process of producing and consuming a meal. Countries that do not use knives, forks, and plates produce tableware that reinforces graceless eating. There is no better way to sustain one’s self, family, and friends than at a simple table focussed on carefully prepared quality ingredients presented in a way that fosters personal dignity. Now and then when the pace of life gets to be too much, I think of Van Gogh’s “Potato Eaters” and remind myself that living like an animal is not just a joke.

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More after the jump.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Tabletop Politics


Photo courtesy Flickr

Christmas brought minor fallout about how to set and enjoy a holiday table. I like to set one with the works. Only recently I learned that the scullions had been rebelling. Careful negotiations with the scullion representative committee did not resolve differences over style.

Next winter, the scullions can cook. I’ll set the table, present the food, wash the dishes, and hope they enjoy the low-tech light show. Upgrading the wine selection will probably help, as will loading dessert toward chocolate.

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More after the jump.