Friday, October 7, 2011


Photo courtesy Flickr

When I started gardening, I soon realized that if I had a rigorous structure in the underlying design, evergreen plants in key locations, clearly delineated paths, and a focal point or two, growth would become an ornament rather than a thicket. It helps to structure interior space the same way.

A wise woman visited my six hundred square foot cottage and commented, “Leave room for people.” That’s hard to remember and easy to live with. Yesterday I chatted with a senior friend about her trials in caring for two ancient parents: managing the ordinary workload of a comfortable establishment is proving too much on top of elder care. She liked my guest room scheme: a bedroom in daily use is just a shell: small personal and wardrobe items are stored in a little space that’s used for dressing and storage. When visitors arrive, it’s simple for the occupant to decamp temporarily to another room.

Storing inventory independent of spaces that are in active use makes it easy to clean, secures valuables from unfamiliar helpers, and frees attention for the more important work of tending people rather than things. Separate storage also makes it easy to comprehend just how much stuff one has accumulated.

The daughter of an old friend told me about helping her grandmother move to retirement quarters. She was in awe that only six cartons of office papers were left in the family home of fifty years-everything else had been distributed or disposed of. Concentrating storage of small artifacts is the key to riding herd on them effectively.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Apple Glaze

Photo courtesy Flickr

This recipe is an unintended consequence of furnishing the kitchen with a very small refrigerator.

Friends recently gave us a huge jar of home-pressed cider. Cox’s Orange Pippin was in the mix of fruit. The jar was taxing the capacity of the shelf on the refrigerator door, so I decided to try reducing the juice, as I sometimes reduce stock to a glaze that keeps well.

Reducing a volume of liquid is one of the messiest procedures in a kitchen, since it generates masses of steam over a long period of time. Residue ends up on the ceiling, walls, and, usually, inside the cupboards, even if the fan is running. As it happens, there’s a table on the back porch that’s a convenient place to use small appliances when I want to keep the kitchen clean without using electricity for the fan.

I set up the electronic pressure cooker outside, poured in the cider, and set the cooker, sans lid, on saute’. Long minutes later when the liquid was an inch deep, I set the cooker on much lower heat and went back to what I’d been doing. When the glaze was less than a quarter of an inch deep, I set the pot on warm, found a convenient time to deal with the hot residue, and decanted it into a glass storage dish.

Usually, reducing a liquid takes a long time and requires constant attention. The cooker didn’t work any faster, but the process was nearly automatic. It could have been completely automatic, but I didn’t bother to think the timing mechanism through. I could safely ignore the pot while I puttered with housekeeping.

The glaze turned out to be thrillingly tart and intense. My first thought was that the reduction would be nearly as good with frozen apple concentrate, perhaps even with other juices. We cook without salt, and I think the glaze will be a nifty substitute or supplement for the vinegar that keeps the palate amused in the absence of sodium.

Piecrust avoidance has led me along the path of ever-simpler apple desserts. From crisp to stewed fruit is a simple step, and last night we had stewed apples seasoned with the usual plus cayenne pepper and a wee spoon of the glaze. They were sensational, and a cinch to prepare. I served them with Swedish gingersnaps and a dollop of sour cream.

The old dishes of the open hearth, the really archaic recipes in obscure chapters of early twentieth century cookbooks, are simple to prepare and require little tending. With good ingredients and some sly work with seasonings, they’re as satisfying as aggressive commercial food but much less expensive and considerably healthier.

-30- More after the jump.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Garden Magic

Dog in sheep's clothing photo courtesy Flickr

I seldom buy furniture, but in its strong early years, the late lamented Smith and Hawken offered a couple of teak garden benches. One with Chippendale fretwork looked just right for my purposes, and I sent away for the six footer.

For several years it served as a European-style dining bench in the front parlor. Germany, Greece, and Sweden all use a high, firm sofa at a round table, flanked by chairs. It’s a canny way to combine living and dining space. I enjoy a sofa that can be washed with a hose.

Later the bench migrated to the sunporch, where it has happily been growing gray with its back to the west windows. It’s a good spot to get my ankles up for a ten-minute nap.

In our climate, the sunporch is nearly a three and a half season room. At the Great Big Northern European Furnishers recently, I ran across a good buy on a traditional flokati rug. I’ve been cushioning the bench with lamb skins during the ten cool months, and the flokati takes the move to the next step. It covers the back and seat. Lying on it is like cuddling up to a large, low-maintenance dog.

Between the flokati and the bench itself I set a self-inflating air mattress and use a sleeping bag to stay comfortable. Only passive solar gain heats the porch.

A couple of housekeeping theorae produced the new arrangement: first, acquire something that’s just exactly right for your purposes (the bench) and it’s likely to be just exactly right for other purposes. Second, make basic hiking gear the core of the household inventory and then use it at home to reduce the cost per use of first-quality lightweight field equipment.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

West of All Industry, At the Time

Photo courtesy Flickr

Dorothy’s place was set near the deeply cut bank of a short local river that tumbles from the Olympic mountains to the Straits of Juan de Fuca. Close to a major highway, it was out of sight, upwind, and the river masked traffic sounds. It had been built around the turn of the twentieth century, when the road may have been only one lane and access to the highway was a treasure.

I did not photograph the cabin, and the historic image does not do justice to the fresh, rational, and deeply intelligent atmosphere of the rare old cabin in this post. It was easily four times the size of the one in the picture.

A friend told me the cabin was for sale, and I went for a look. I never saw a purer piece of Northwest architecture. Built of two-foot diameter peeled logs, it had the typical cabin’s notched corners and roof of long, hand-riven shakes split from six hundred year old cedar trees.

One entered through the cooking room, a white framed lean-to set against the log wall. It had the irresistible combination of a very pretty old-fashioned factory-made front door (with the kind of surface-mounted lock that won’t keep out a mouse with a hairpin) and a forthright enameled cast-iron stove. The cooking room was probably a later addition to the main body of the cabin. I have a hazy recollection of a field stone hearth.

Straight ahead was the original Dutch door. To the right was a row of coat hooks and a pile of footgear. The stove was to the left, and there must have been a sink beyond, although I don’t recall it. Behind the stove was an interior window that looked on the main room.

The arrangement was brilliant: without electricity, it kept cooking smells out of the house and, in a climate where damp death by hypothermia is a constant reality, it concentrated the heat of the stove in a small space to greet, welcome, and dry arrivals. One could show up chilled to the bone in an empty house, light the stove, and warm up in a fraction of the time it would take to thaw out by the hearth. In summer, the separate cooking room kept the place cool. The interior window allowed the warmth of the stove into the main room if it was desired.

The main room was a lofty, lovely, and honest expression of peeled poles and beams, with none of the self-consciousness of today’s luxury cabin. It was unusually large, telling of the quality of the timber that was available when it was new and of the skill and woods experience of the people who put it together. I retain the impression of an immaculate, honey-colored, sweet-smelling interior untouched by fumes or foul air. Unfinished wood is as vulnerable to grease and soil as a sheet of paper: the room was an essay in gentle management.

The floor was worn boards, porous and grey from a hundred years of traffic, but clean and free of signs of rough usage. I don’t remember the rugs, but there were some. Braided wool rags, hooked, tribal, or cowhide would have been in keeping.

The room was furnished with late Forties blocky looped mohair sofa and chairs in a faded, immaculate green. Curtains were irrelevant.

I was sad to learn that the structure needed major repairs and that the title was compromised. To buy it was not realistic, but I’m grateful to have had a brief tour of a rare, unspoiled expression of local values. The cabin was set in an area where it was not unusual for a boy to land a three-hundred pound halibut when fishing from a rowboat. It had been on the front lines of World War Two, when tens of thousands of soldiers camped on Clallam County beaches waiting for the Japanese fleet to sail into Puget Sound after Pearl Harbor.

More after the jump.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Point Source Pollution Control

Photo courtesy Flickr

I’ve been looking over Mildred Maddocks Bentley’s 1924 Good Housekeeping’s Book on the Business of Housekeeping. It’s an interesting book, and probably rare: printed during a technically diminished period, it’s a house title from a magazine publisher on even thicker pulp than the usual popular novel of the time. I doubt that many copies have been deemed worth archiving. Somehow the little book survived in nearly mint condition. It must have belonged to a very good housekeeper.

Bentley lays out the ordinary cleaning regimens of an early twentieth century household of privilege. Their rigor is breathtaking and not very different from the schedule Amy Vanderbilt lays out in her 1960s Book of Etiquette (don’t miss Andy Warhol’s illustrations-you’ll never forget those table settings).

The routines are familiar, but I perform them at much greater intervals. Like all good books on housekeeping, Bentley’s is food for thought. My first one was that perhaps my eyes are going: my place looks all right, and I don’t dust every room every day.

On a break, I realized that the soft coal fuel Bentley mentions filled the air with smuts. The dust in her rooms was essentially powdered ink. A school friend told me when she was growing up in Chicago, everyone wore black in the winter because that was the only color that remained clean-looking. (Black dye was the most expensive, so there was status involved, too.) I’ve been told that Seattle’s air was filthy until oil replaced coal as the heating fuel of choice after World War Two, a good argument for energy conservation. The train from Seattle to Portland runs through Boeing’s back yard, and as late as the 1980s, every structure on both sides of the track was flat black from generations of pollution. The landscape was so grim and gritty that I couldn't look at it without shuddering.

Vanderbilt ran a household in New York City before regulations altered the content of the air. The crunchy grit that accumulated on windowsills was called urban moss.

Early in the environmental movement, beat poet Gary Snyder published a book called Earth House Hold. Having grown up in the pristine forest environment of Puget Sound country, both he and I know in our bones that all of the outdoors can be a comforting and supportive envelope, a ready source of relief from the stresses of daily life.

Environmentalists refer to “point source pollution control” as an efficient way of maintaining livable circumstances. That’s why industrial and automotive emissions are regulated and why the housekeeper gets nervous when a toddler eats chocolate ice cream indoors.

A number of miracles have allowed the responsible housekeeper to extend the intervals between regular cleanings: environmental regulation, computer industry clean room technology, and the key cultural change of removing street shoes at the entrance. That may be our greatest prize from World War Two.

The old housekeeping routines required one or two full-time workers to keep a house “decent, safe, and sanitary” at a time when home cleanliness was the foundation of public health. Antibiotics freed women of their grinding concern about infection, but drug-resistant strains of bacteria make earlier practice just as relevant as ever. Contemporary law and technology free a good forty hours a week for the home labor force to use to other productive ends.

-30- More after the jump.