Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Awful Archive

I have started working on my scrapbook again. I have 28 years of accrued stuff to go in: shopping bags full of ticket stubs, photos, kids’ drawings and school work sheets, pictures of wonderful Halloween costumes, cards….

I contemplated sending a note to Martha Stewart, asking how I might go about tackling this project. Most of the questions she gets are along the lines of how one goes about ironing tablecloths-- not the most challenging queries, in my view.

But I reconsidered. Reading some of those near miraculous looking de-cluttering articles, I realized that if one of those professional organizers got hold of me, even a really nice one, the bulk of my memorabilia would be in the garbage. Period. This has served as the first catalyst to plow into my project, because no one else in her right mind will, for me.

For anyone into cautionary tales, here’s how this situation got so terribly out of hand. In late ’83, I was working on a page of Amsterdam photos from a trip my husband and I took earlier that year. I was missing one great shot of a poffertjes* stall, and the photo was so good, and so lost, I just stopped. That was my excuse: I had to find the photo in order to proceed. But it couldn’t be found.

I then went on to do interesting work, stay happily married, find delightful friends, travel, have two great kids, move into a house we fixed up (documenting every step of the process), make stuff, move again, continue to travel a bit, make more friends, all of whom are photogenic. The kids (also photogenic) grew up, bringing home papers and drawings, having the usual milestones to celebrate and document--all of which I wanted to keep, and did—but in shopping bags.

The one thing I did keep up with, kind of, was my kids’ scrapbooks. They were--and are-- pretty good. The irony--laughable, even quite horrible--is that my children think of me as their archivist. My husband knows better, but he’s being very tactful. When my eldest graduated from college, he made some remark about making sure we got enough programs so I could put together his scrapbook. The dear, misguided innocent. This is the second catalyst: what if I got hit by a diaper truck tomorrow and they discovered the true nature of these so-called archives? They would be very disappointed, and I don’t want to let my munchkins down.

I’ve made numerous attempts to get on with my project. From time to time, I’d buy scrapbooks and a few extra leaves, thinking that I was going to actually saddle up and do something on my scrapbook, but I didn’t. I carefully stashed the books and leaves, even contemplated the fun it would be to join a scrapbooking group. No more lonesome trawling through old photos, trying to organize by making piles which very soon smush into each other alarmingly, inevitably....

But really: what an entrance that would make: everyone else with their neat little boxes and me with my wheelbarrow brimming, teetering with stuff, only to spread out over two, three tables and not be anywhere near cleaning up and going at closing time.

Needless to say, planning how to go about it has been something of a stumper.

There may be a better way to go about it, but I finally decided to use loose leaf notebooks with plastic page covers, so if (when) I find a stash of memorabilia pertaining to a section I’ve already finished, I won’t despair, but could easily insert pages as needed.

I have always kept a scrapbook— except for this unfortunate 28 year lapse-- since the age of five. My father was a great scrapbooker, and passed his enthusiasm on to me. He had beautiful big green books specially made that had spines which could expand to accommodate the bulk of memorabilia. I loved looking in them, particularly the sections pertaining to me.

The first thing I did with my own scrapbook was to paste in pictures of my cousin’s trip to the Black Forest-- the notion that the book should be about my experiences having somehow eluded me. This may be the seed of my problem—having high standards I sometimes can’t meet. Or it could have been my first successful piece of fiction: my little friends were quite impressed.

But never mind—even the most uneventful life can be dressed up with good design. It is all in the presentation. The scrapbooking industry is onto this: scalloping scissors, stickers, fancy papers can make taking out the garbage seem interesting. Which, actually, it can be: very.

I have made a small but decisive dent in this project, not by starting with that fateful picture from 1983, but with the recent past, which is fresher in my mind, a little more accessible, being better organized, in packets--and a little more exciting.

I made a scrapbook of the trip my younger son and I took to Mexico in 2010. There are only a few gaps, which I can quickly fill in with easily found digital photos. I organized the rest of the year in an accordion fie, and it should be a snap to put it together.

Famous last words, eh? It should be a snap?

In fact, I got carried away enough to organize a decade in a portable hanging file: I’ve got 2000-2011, hanging there at the ready.

And here it is, more organized than it looks.

Here also is the Poffertjes recipe, acquired years ago from Gourmet Magazine, perhaps as a way of keeping the memory alive:

1 envelope active dry yeast

1 1/2 C milk scalded

1 1/2 T butter

11/2 C flour

1 t sugar

1/4 t salt

1 egg

3/4 C dried currants

confectioners’ sugar for dusting

Dissolve yeast in 1/4 warm water with a pinch of sugar for 5 minutes.

Stir butter into scalded milk and allow to cool to lukewarm.

Sift together flour sugar and salt. Add half the milk and one egg. Beat until smooth. Add yeast and remaining milk. Again stir until smooth. Mix in the currants. Cover the bowl with a tea towel, allow to rise for 45 minutes.

When ready to cook, heat a poffertjes pan over medium heat. Brush indentations with melted butter. Put 1 T of batter into each indentation. Cook about 3 minutes per side, until they are golden. Serve immediately sprinkled with Confectioners’ sugar. Makes about 36 pancakes.

  • These are amazingly delicious little Dutch pancakes, much like Danish ebelskiver.
  • Also a kitten update-- 3 weeks old and walking, teeteringly.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Cat Farm

As a child, I wanted to run a cat farm. It seemed plausible to my nine year old self. People had tree farms and dairy farms, truck farms (I think I did know that they didn’t grow trucks, but vegetables), why not a cat farm? Of course I overestimated the demand, a recurrent problem for the optimistic. I now see that a cat farm is about as likely as a dandelion farm.

But wait. Don’t I see dandelion roots selling for absurd prices dried, at the health food store? Didn’t Plains Indians value the root as a master curative and liver purifier, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles to find them? Don’t we eat the greens in salads and congratulate ourselves on our healthy eating? Yes to all.

The day of the dandelion may be here, but cats could have a longer wait.

I’m not interested in purebreds, beautiful though they are. Human fiddling has done great damage to dog breeds, creating a host of problems along with the supposedly perfect specimens of poodle and Doberman.

I like regular old cats: sculptural, elegant and grotty, utterly unrepentant about napping through a workday. Admittedly independent, they can be won over with years of kindness, and then become subtle and beguiling friends to humans.

Last summer we found ourselves without cats. Our ginger tomcat, Zeus, had had an extraordinarily lucky life. As a kitten, he gnawed through mouse cords of computers and never once hit a live wire. He slept casually in the woods when he felt like it, eluding all predators for ten years.

He was a menace to rodents and birds alike, however. When we got tired of picking up feathers and beaks off the porch, we finally got him a bell, sure that he’d slip its collar in a matter of minutes. He wore it like a medal, and made a point of jingling importantly through the house. After all, did any of us rate a bell? No sir. My son even swears that he saw Zeus in the garden stalking a bird--silently. I can only hope the last minute jingle gave the bird time enough to fly.

In the garden, Zeus was companionable, curled up in a dry fountain, he’d watch me weed with amusement. He enjoyed lounging in our bush of Persian catnip, nibbling, then sleeping off his high. He had a great time, that cat.

One night I called him in. He yowled, pitched over, righted himself, strolled over to his food dish, ate, purred, curled up on a chair, and was stone cold by morning.

We buried him with his bell, cleaned out the litter box, picked up the dish, mourned and gave the dog extra attention. This went on for months. We were aware that rodents would sooner or later decide to move into our cat-free house. Winter was coming.

Then a friend allowed as how she had some youngish cats who might need homes. I went over eagerly and met her cats, part Maine coon. They were very friendly, but resistant to being held. I fell for the mother cat, who was clearly still nursing. I was assured this cat was a mouser, and advised to get her spayed pretty soon.

We named her Minnie Mauser, and for the first couple of days, she found hidey holes in the back of closets, coming out to eat and purr. I detected a certain roll to her gait. She ate like a stevedore (though not mice—not even a raw egg) and we all suspected she was pregnant. She grew huge. We took bets on when she’d deliver.

Yesterday morning at 4:30, she came to get me in bed. I brought a box lined with an old mattress pad and put it into the nest she’d made at the back of my son’s closet. She kept climbing into my lap, purring in between pushes. I kept putting her back in the box and patting her. After lots of purring and some yelling, out popped a huge kitten, followed by another. I left her nursing and purring, wondering if that was it.

It wasn’t. My husband came down to announce that there were four living kittens and one off to the side that didn’t make it. We took out the cold kitten, gave it a quickie funeral and burial, brought a dish of milk up to Minnie, changed the mattress pad.

Here they are—all black and white, like miniature Holsteins. Could this be the beginning of my cat farm after all?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Winter Sanity Guide, Part 2

Some friends came up from Massachusetts for the weekend and commented, quite tactfully I thought, on how cozy it must feel to not be able to see out our windows, since many of them are buried by snow. Our house reminded them of an igloo, only warm.

Being very creative people themselves, they were just the tonic I needed, bringing news, great new websites to check out, vermouth and delicious homemade kimchee.

As a result of their visit, there’s one thing I’d like add to my Winter Sanity Guide-- besides playing in the snow: Creating stuff for Show and Tell.

The igloo comment reminded me of a tradition among the Canadian Inuit. Every spring Inuit artists come south from Hudson Bay, Baker Lake and other isolated points up north with the artwork they’ve made over the winter. They bring sculptures and prints to art galleries in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa.

I’ve always loved the idea of having something to show for the challenge that is winter in the north, besides, that is, your own more or less intact self.

There must be something about being thrown back on your own resources without a lot of distraction that makes for an almost perfect creative environment. I wanted something new to show our friends.

Our friends impending visit inspired me to get going on a needle felting project I’d been considering for weeks, and to decoupage some old clogs whose first pass at decoupage had come off. (I used paper the first time, which wasn’t flexible enough to not tear where the shoe bent. This time I used cloth).

It would be nice if you could use winter as a sort of sabbatical in which to finish projects that tend to languish during the gardening months. But life doesn’t stop for a little snow and sleet. There is still work to do, school functions to attend, groceries to buy, appointments to keep. Anyway, it’s been good to elbow some of my pet projects onto my to-do list.

A recipe:

Here is a marmalade that is very easy, in-season and delicious. I got the recipe from Nigella Lawson’s How To Be A Domestic Goddess.

Pink Grapefruit Marmalade

2 pink grapefruits

juice of 2 lemons

5 C sugar

Boil the grapefruits, completely covered in water, for 2 hours. Drain, then chop as finely as you can. Try to get as many seeds out as possible (I did a couple of pulses in the food processor). The grapefruits will be very soft and juicy, the food processor captures the juices very well. Return to the pan and add the lemon juice and sugar. Boil for ten to twelve minutes, or until the mixture looks sort of flat with bubbles on the top. Nigella calls for 15 full minutes of boiling, but I’ve found that to be a little too much, resulting in a very stiff marmalade.You can test the readiness of the marmalade by dipping a cold spoon into the mixture and observing how thickly the marmalade coats the spoon. When ready, pour the mixture into 4 sterilized half pint jars.

I have not sealed my marmalade, because it gets eaten so fast, but you could pop them into a boiling water bath for 12 minutes to seal the lids for posterity.

Next to try: lemon marmalade. What if you boiled 4 lemons for 1-2 hours, checking on softness, and added, say, 4 C sugar? Wouldn’t that be interesting?