Friday, December 19, 2014

The Magic Words

Photo courtesy Flickr user Tom Ipri
Ines de la Fressange’s Parisian Style introduced me to a simple and effective strategy for entertaining friends. I tried it for a party of ten last week. Set-up took fifteen minutes, clean up another twenty. Simply ask the guests “What would you like on your pizza?” After all, as de la Fressange points out, they’re there to visit, not to dine.

More after the jump.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Best Holiday Decorating Shortcut Ever

Photo courtesy Flickr user peddhapati
Cover the pictures with gift-wrap to simplify and focus the walls. (Special thanks to Mrs. BT.)

More after the jump.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Notes On Civil Disorder

Photo courtesy Flickr user Curtis Cron

Wherever one stands on the issues, the following comments are relevant. They represent a few hard-earned info-nuggets from a survivor of the Sixties. Consult your friendly local security expert for informed suggestions about how to behave.

When you are part of a crowd, you become part of a large and unpredictable organism. If a crowd is unavoidable, expect to be photographed. Assume that provocateurs will attempt to escalate a peaceful confrontation and that behaviors will become unstable as fatigue, hunger, and dehydration take effect. NEVER RUN FROM THE POLICE. Move slowly and carefully in the presence of an officer. Keep both your hands in plain sight. The community of the non-violent suggests that if you are attacked, you should drop to the ground, assume the fetal position, and cover the back of your head and neck with both arms.

Push a dumpster out of sight and wet the contents so it cannot be set on fire. Lock the wheels with a bike lock. Remove things that can be thrown, like rocks and bottles. Check your fire extinguisher and hose. To gain an appreciation of what is at stake during a demonstration, read your insurance policy. Do not draw attention to yourself. LEAVE THE LIGHTS OFF when you look out the window. If you hear gunfire, East Bay folk wisdom recommends crawling into the bathtub. Adding water will cushion the impact of a bullet.

Have an exit plan and a safe haven. Park the car at a reasonable distance with the hood pointed in the direction you intend to travel. Sedate pets. If you leave the house, Email a friend with your intentions.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The China Goalie

Photo courtesy Flickr user dbnunley
A witty pal mentioned that when one of her many pieces of vintage restaurant ware is on its way to the floor, she simply blocks the fall with her foot. The food spills all over the place, the dish survives, and presumably her faithful Lab takes  temporary care of the clean-up.

I never earned a merit badge in social engineering, but my friend offered me service for four from her stash, over which I had been quietly salivating. In a case of casting bread upon the waters and receiving sandwiches in return, I find myself the happy owner not only of the usual deep bowls and varied sizes of plate, the names of which I have yet to learn, but of a set of, dig it, clear soup bowls, the kind with two handles from which one is intended to drink. No more living like an animal. It says much about the culture that a ca.1900 utilitarian china pattern included such refinements.

The original pass pantry in this 1890 building connected the production kitchen and the dining room. The two doors in the tiny space created an airlock between the noise and smells of the kitchen and the, presumably, dignified and edifying atmosphere of the formal family table. The cooks in my life have been family, not staff, but I understand from early editions of The Joy of Cooking and various American novels that it was a privilege for children to be permitted in the kitchen. Cook guarded her turf with vigor. I can see the value of the practice: my favorite gumbo recipe from Paul Prudhomme begins with “get all the children out of the kitchen”. That’s step one for producing what Prudhomme calls cajun napalm, or roux.

Surprise is a major element of historic preservation and restoration. The new place settings turn my old production kitchen into a comfortable, efficient leisure area. The room is modeled on local cafes that began in business pre-Mermaid Coffee, when owners could afford to tolerate customers who lingered over coffee during slack hours. Mermaid itself is modeled on Mr. Pete’s legendary Bay area coffee stores with, originally, free coffee bars and all-day student drinkers. 

All the amenities in my kitchen are utilitarian, nothing is built in but the sink, and the floor is simply painted. The quality of the architecture and varnished woodwork communicate respect for domestic advantage. An 1870 drop leaf table from a local garage sale (“Anything can be anywhere.” Cadillac Jack, Larry McMurtry) centers the room, as it was designed to. The new china comes quickly to hand when we are setting out an ordinary feed.

Years ago, I learned about the food industry’s practice of “family meal”, the midday repast a cooking crew produces to nourish themselves. The first example I ran across was a description of the engaging social atmosphere of an old world Italian restaurant. Later, Thomas Keller’s analysis of a successful family meal in his informal venue raised my awareness of acute standards of design and presentation for the table.

One of my grandmothers had old and new world inn-keeping genes. Over many long visits, she trained me in the domestic arts. In writing this I realize the gentle rigor of her approach to the table. When we shared even a simple work night dinner of, say, a small steak, salad, and piece of toast, the table was carefully laid and the service equally careful and deliberate. The first moments of the meal were devoted to a critique of the food. We each discussed how we might have managed our cooking a little better. The process was an automatic, invisible tutorial, a treasure of genuine culture, and a contradiction of behavior at the formal table, where it is assumed that the food is as good as it gets.

My partner is an enthusiastic cook. I have to elbow him out of the way to get in some time at the stove, but he does not have my training in the three squares grind that is the engine of domestic bliss. Surprisingly, the new dishes integrate our approaches and facilitate the focus and planning that make the very most of every critical food dollar and minute.

More after the jump.

Monday, December 15, 2014


Photo courtesy Flickr user cementley
The recent first-class incident on an airliner brings to mind reasonable considerations of table service and traditional responsibility for the well-being of guests. The resignation and apologies from the airline executives who were involved seem to me to be outstanding examples of Confucian virtue, as far as my limited understanding of Korean culture permits.

Presenting food in commercial packaging is a Western as well as an Asian issue. The woman whose objections to being presented with a package of nuts became an international news story was voicing the same concerns as the immigrant mother of an Italian acquaintance who was shocked and angry that her daughter had set a pint of cream on the table.

Casual reading in the history of English domestic architecture brought me a glossy image of the dairy of a stately home, where eighteenth century milk was proudly cooled on a stone table in an elevated stream of running water. An estate was self-sufficient, like many an ordinary farm stead in many a country. Only the diligent efforts of the owners protected the quality of the produce and the family’s standard of living. The rise of specialized food production and commercial distribution generated identifiable commercial packaging. 

Before Pasteur, social custom inhibited the spread of disease by requiring indirect transmission of things and foodstuffs. A tray and a gloved hand stood between the writer of a letter and the reader of the same; a container or paper membrane stood between drink or eat and the consumer. One bacterium could take the wealth of generations and the future of a family.

It cannot be known who handles a package of food between the producer and the diner. Short of washing every cellophane packet that goes on the table or seat tray, the most sanitary way to set out a snack is to pour it into a dish. What happens after that is the diner’s business. Presumably her fingers are clean.

Antibiotics compromised sanitary food handling practice. Viruses and resistant strains of bacteria demand conscious and careful management. With ebola only a flight away, I can appreciate that a bag of nuts is not simply a bag of nuts.

More after the jump.