Friday, August 3, 2012


Photo courtesy Flickr

An aunt had a gift for choosing small furnishings that looked tacky when they were new, but that aged into beautiful forms. Now and then when I feel the urge to kick myself, I regret passing along a pewter tea caddy that she gave me. Her enormous square Imari serving dish, that held coffee-table clutter in a Peninsula living room, looked at first like the cheapest imaginable import schlock. Twenty years mellowed it into an expressive accessory, and I now realize the dish must have been an authentic piece of the sturdy utilitarian restaurant ware that Imari was.
When I was putting tea away the other day, I washed the old spoon I use to measure dry leaves. This spoon has been kicking around for generations, and I always perceived it as a cheesy souvenir of the Oregon myrtle wood industry. The handle was varnished, and the bowl looks almost like pot metal.
Washing the Russian smoke flavor off the spoon, I realized that a gentle pass with a nylon scrubber would remove the last of the handle’s varnish. Instantly it was transformed from the heirloom one can’t quite bring oneself to discard to a timelessly simple and elegant piece of table ware. It was the texture that had been wrong all along. Bare dry wood and good pewter look wonderful in combination. I use the spoon for dry things, because it’s not marked and pewter’s iffy: it could have soluble lead in it.
A neighbor once showed me her new bathrobe, commenting that it should “shab up” nicely. Until I washed that spoon, I hadn’t realized that shabbing can work in reverse.
-30-  More after the jump.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Deadpan Soup

Photo courtesy Flickr

The other night I was throwing a light meal together and opened a can of low-sodium chicken soup. Blazing through the vegetable bin, I pulled out the remains of a head of celery, sliced up the few tender inner stalks, and topped hot bowls of the soup with them.
My partner is an enthusiastic cook, but he knows little of the convenient old school strategies for getting a meal on the table with the least sweat. Any early or mid-twentieth century cookbook will have a section, usually called lunch, brunch, and supper dishes, that discusses how to take a canned staple and refresh the flavor. Presumably a purist will use food preserved in glass.
After he recovered from the shock of realizing that a tablespoon of fresh something or other will transform a predictable dish, my partner listened to a short history of Fifties dinner tables where, like today’s variants of cranberry sauce, not every labored presentation was quite as it seemed. Many kitchen-wise diners must have looked at each other with quiet smiles.
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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Two Jade Masks

Photo courtesy Flickr

In the late Seventies, I visited the Provincial Museum in Victoria, BC. A jade mask was on display. I hadn’t realized there was a jade-working tradition in North America. I learned that it could take generations to finish a piece. The display also showed another mask, identical to the first, that nested into it. The mate had been discovered decades later and hundreds of miles distant. The find was unprecedented, and the museum staff was blown away.
I had quite a lesser, but similar, experience at Goodwill a few years before pickers spoiled the hunting. I found a pair of hand-engraved metal vases of unusual shape. They cost about five dollars and have graced a hall table ever since. Four or five years after the original discovery, I ran across a tray by the same hand, for the same price. 
I don’t know whether the latest incident is even less or quite a bit more significant: last week a mail-order package from BC’s venerable tea merchant arrived. When I was putting things away, I discovered that the sample packets of various blends fit exactly into my great-aunt’s biscuit tin. It’s a Uneeda container that seems obviously to have been made for reuse to hold loose tea. There must be an interesting history of commercial design and manufacture behind the two formats.
-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Good Old Days

Photo courtesy Flickr

Around this time of year, moms would gather the children and give them The Talk about washing their hands because it was polio season. We’d see pictures of iron lungs with smiling little faces extending from them, and suddenly going swimming did not seem like a very good idea.
The Other Talk was about avoiding dogs and other mammals that were behaving erratically. In the South, authorities would announce days to keep one’s pet inside so that all strays could be done away with.
Polio at the time had no vaccine, and surviving a dog bite meant a month of painful injections. English furniture designer David Pye said, “Nostalgia is always lying in wait for us.” That comment and others have informed my choices since the early Sixties.

More after the jump.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Fluff Dry

Photo courtesy Flickr

During Viet Nam, I knew a clutch of second lieutenants, a varied and entertaining group of guys who had trained together. The group looked up, so to speak, to the tallest of them, who simply refused to worry about his uniforms. I was spending every work morning of a Baltimore summer re-ironing a commercially washed, starched, and already ironed set of khakis.
At OCS, Fluff Dry was said to have processed his clothing in machines. He laid out the day’s garments at the foot of his bed like a fireman. Open trousers lay on top of a pair of shoes waiting for Sherman to jump right into them as he got out of the sack dressed in socks and underwear.
No one could figure out why he didn’t get busted.
I learned much about art from touching up uniforms that looked fine to me already.  I learned much about life from Sherman and his nick name. 
More after the jump.