February 21st, 2005

I have never been, nor likely will I be, a paragon of domesticity. Despite my mother’s home ec degree, and her thousands of attempts to teach me to do useful things like sew, when a button falls off in my household it is boy-scout stitched back by my husband or sits in a pile until my mother comes by (this usually takes years). I won’t say I love cooking, either, but I like to eat good food and there’s something about eating a good meal prepared by your own hands that is very satisfying. So our new economic situation has thrown me into a role I’m not used to. Few of our meals are eaten out, as had previously been the case, and many more of our meals are cooked by me. We used to share cooking duties fairly evenly, but now that my husband has no grill and I have no job, almost all the meal preparation falls to me. This isn’t an onerous task. For one thing, our house has a gas oven, which I love and think makes better tasting food. Armed with a great kitchen, I have started to prepare ambitious meals that used to intimidate me. Last week I roasted a whole chicken. I regularly make my own chicken stock. A couple of weeks ago I tried my hand at crockpot chili, with not unsatisfactory results. I have even made several pots of gumbo from scratch.

When I first embarked on the gumbo preparation, I foolishly did not know that I would be making gumbo from scratch. I did not realize that I would have to make my own roux, for example. I’ve always just used a store-bought, cheater roux because making roux is notoriously difficult to do well and amazingly easy to burn and it takes a considerable investment of devoted time. You need a really hot skillet, but too hot and you have disaster, and you burn a single speck of that flour and it’s toss it out, clean the skillet and start again, while your house stinks to high heaven. Yes, I had to do it twice the first time around. But holy cow, who knew that I wouldn’t be able to buy roux at the grocery store? I guess I don’t really live in the South anymore. Also unavailable at the grocery store is any kind of decent andouille, which I sort of expected, but I did not expect to be unable to find any kind of cajun smoked sausage at all. There’s like seven billion different kinds of sausage in the grocery store here, far more varieties than you can find in Jackson, but despite the fact that you can get Italian salsiccia, Polish sausage, seventeen flavors of German brats, forty kinds of hard salami, and on and on and on, none of that is cajun smoked or southern style or suitable for gumbo. So there’s one thing I miss at least from where I used to live. (Some foods and some warmth and some friends and Sophia’s Montessori school would be the whole list of what I miss. Ok, maybe the smell and sight of the wisteria in my yard.) But back to gumbo : I make the chicken and sausage kind, and the first time I had to use some local sausage, which wasn’t quite right. So when I went down to Jackson after Christmas I stocked up. Thank goodness for the deep freezer. So, what I discovered was this : it is hard to make your own roux, but the gumbo tastes way, way better when you do. Best gumbo evar. I’m serious, it was better than any gumbo I’ve ever had in any restaurant or anyone else’s home or any that I had made previously. I’ll repeat myself here : eating something that good that you made yourself is very satisfying.

All this cooking has changed the way I purchase and use food, to much improved efficiency. Today I had the very unusual experience of cutting up the last onion in a bag of onions, without having had to throw a single one away. Ok, I exaggerate, there was one small one at the bottom that I didn’t use and had turned black, but still. Usually, I buy a bag of onions and use maybe half of them. I had taken to buying them in singles instead of by the bag, whenever I knew that I was planning to make something that called for onions. But now I use them all the time, almost every day. There’s also the bags of carrots we eat before they go bad, the stalks of celery we use in everything, the fresh fruit that gets eaten instead of thrown away. Even if I do have to throw out something fresh, I don’t feel guilty about it, because I toss it into the pile for the composter. Granted, I haven’t yet (nor do I even know how to) actually used any of the compost I’m cheerily generating, but I have some grand plans to work on an herb garden. I’m looking forward to snipping herbs to wash and put into things instead of buying them, since they are a pretty high ticket item. Overall, we are saving money. In a way, we should expect to pay a little more in groceries than we were in the past, because we are eating at home more. However, even with the money we save from not eating out, our absolute dollars spent at the grocery store still needs to go down. It’s not because we aren’t being frugal and making good use of what we buy but rather so we don’t exceed our current meager means. I scour the ad pages, now, and make meals based on what’s on sale. This isn’t always a hardship. Lent season in a strongly catholic area has made some great fish reasonably cheap, so that we had delicious fresh salmon filets last week and smoked salmon this week. Yesterday we only spent $95 dollars on our weekly grocery run, which meets my under-$100-a-week goal (but not the ideal of $75-$80 a week). That was with ten dollars worth of food for a food pantry, though, and luxuries like hard cider for my husband at six dollars a six-pack and green tea for me, so it’s really not too bad. There’s places we can continue to cut to meet the ideal, but most of those I’m reluctant to do unless all else fails. I buy a lot of organic produce (though obviously I can’t afford to get everything organic) and prefer it. I can trim the bill by getting conventional produce, but what I really want is to buy more organic instead, so ending that trend will be a last resort. I’m pretty much unwilling to compromise on milk at all, for Sophia’s sake, even though I know the organic is at least twice the cost of regular, and sometimes more than that.

This probably isn’t terribly interesting, and exactly what you could read in a thousand women’s magazines were you so inclined, but it occupies the space in my mind that used to be taken up with php scripting and database design, or library cataloging and reference work, and I find it uses the same sorts of skills, so I share. Specifically, there’s a level of menu organization and shopping planning required to make this work that I never did before, because I just didn’t feel like I had the time to. See, I used to select what to eat from what I had on hand, that is, from what was already bought and available. Instead, now I have a table with ingredients for meals I can fix, and a table with what’s on sale, and I do a join, and that’s my grocery list (plus the things we ran out of). Then, there’s a list of menus which I sort by last used, exact match, and last used, type, and come up with a week’s worth of menu, based on what I have and what I’m buying. Just like database queries, see? Additionally, if I’m stuck for menu ideas, I just use my template, you can picture it like css, so that all the weeks resemble each other. You can expect a big meal on a Monday night (if it’s big enough, like a roast chicken, a repeat on the Wednesday), pasta or pizza or something quick on a Tuesday, something ethnic on either a Wednesday or on the weekend (Indian, Thai, Mexican), and popcorn, oatmeal or leftovers on Friday. The beauty of this is twofold : one, I have the system in place (the database schema all worked out and the data loaded, though I still add rows from time to time with new recipes or whatnot) so that if I should return to work all the heavy lifting is done and I can continue to use the system and two, going to a list to see what’s for dinner is surprisingly mentally freeing. It’s not as if I didn’t choose what I was going to eat, I just chose it earlier in the week. And flipping things around and re-arranging what falls when on an existing menu is far, far easier than coming up with one on a day-to-day basis, so there’s still room for spontaneity. An hour’s planning at the start of the week saves me much panicked decision-making every day. What they say about organization saving time and money is really true, at least in database design and in the kitchen.

I know my readers (all four of you, as my friend Legomancer says of his own blog) are mostly non-gardening types, like myself, but if any of you know anything about herb gardening and can give me some pointers (such as what I need to plant right away and what can wait a couple of months), and maybe even recommend a beginner’s book or (better yet) a step-by-step website that might show me how and where and in what order to proceed, I would greatly appreciate it. I’m really hoping someone can help me with this, as it’s not as esoteric a question as why some YEC’s don’t believe in plate tectonics, which was my last request for help, and went unanswered.

Moving on, we had a truly very pleasant anniversary celebration, proving that money doesn’t necessarily buy happiness, I suppose. We spent $100. I promise to talk less about money in the future. I think it’s kind of gauche, actually, but I’m really talking more about budgeting than actual money and just naming the price so as to be accurate. At any rate for that price we fed the parking meter, saw The House of Flying Daggers at the wonderful old-style theater the Tivoli, ate at Blueberry Hill , had three scrumptious chocolates from Salvato’s Cioccolato and Confections, and paid our babysitter for watching Sophia all afternoon. I love, love, love living in a city (ok, technically just outside a city). The area that we wandered around in for our celebration is called the Loop, and it is full of a variety of little restaurants, an inviting used and new books bookstore (the kind with an art gallery upstairs), and cool shops of a wide, eclectic variety (a pair of tobacconists, a really nice comics place, a piercing/tattoo parlor, a bike shop and more). There’s a walk of fame with brass stars. It’s less than 20 minutes from our house.

The movie was great, it’s exactly the sort of film I like to watch: some thrills, some spills, some struggles, some tears, all charted out with gorgeous cinematography and a fast paced twisting plot. It’s the best movie I’ve seen in a long time. I noted to Kurt after we left the theater that it was the first time in – well, ever – that I’d been in to the movies and thought that all the previews I’d seen were decent and felt that all the films advertised might be worth watching (there were only three, which helped, I’m sure). Usually when I go to the theater the previews are painful to watch, and I find myself continuously horrified that people spent millions of dollars to produce such atrociously bad stuff. I always chalk this up to my being not much of a movie goer and not really getting it, but it turns out there are previews which can garner my interest when I see them. Somebody out there is making movies I wouldn’t mind watching.

The hamburgers at Blueberry Hill are among the best I’ve ever eaten in my life. For my Jackson readers, they compare favorably to the Cherokee Inn’s delicious burgers. The atmosphere was delightful as well.

Walking into Salvato’s Cioccolato and Confections was like going home. I mean that. Assorted bombonesAssorted bombones in heart-shaped boxI love chocolate, and although there are places where one can get seriously good chocolate in the U.S., there aren’t that many, and often the chocolate to be had at these places is imported. Even when good chocolate is available, I’ve never been able to go into a store and see the rows and rows of “bombones” the way you do in most “confiterias” in Argentina. (I have no idea how you’d say confiteria in English. Pastry and sweets shop? Dessert store? Yummolicious goodness? Bakery plus plus?) Bombones are small, beautiful, delicate confections. It’s not a word that translates directly. I’ve never seen a bonbon approach the glory of these little treats. All you can ever find around here are truffles, which may be quite tasty, but have no visual artistic component to complement the gustation, if you know what I mean. So you can imagine my joy when I walked into this shop and saw the glass counter with rows and rows of chocolates that that looked like these things from my childhood :
Assorted bombones in square box I peered and peered at all the different offerings, carefully reading the descriptions below each tray. I finally came up with three pieces to take with me and eat. Mmmmmmmmmmmmm, chocolate. They were gone before we’d gotten all the way home. The perfect end to a perfect anniversary celebration.

Have I mentioned that I love living in this town? Yeah, well, that’s probably its own entry, so it’s just as well I haven’t said anything.

In closing, Hunter S. Thompson was not a cultural touchstone for me. The anniversary of Malcolm X’s death speaks to me more directly than Thompson’s suicide does. I can say nothing about the gonzo journalist, and have never read anything by him. Almost every blog I’ve read today has done some sort of fawning or eulogy or remembrance. This is where my outsider status comes in. It’s not that I don’t know who he was, it’s just that there’s no significance to it for me. I try to blend in, but it’s clear I will never be everyAmerican.

iTunes says I was listening to .38.45 (A Thievery Number) from the album Sounds From The Thievery Hi-Fi by Thievery Corporation when I posted this. I have it rated 4 stars.

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