Sunday, March 28, 2010

Coffee, cheese and the dangers of grocery shopping without a list

About a week ago, I received a small cash bonus at work.  Not enough to radically change my life, send me on vacation or buy a new car, but enough to make me want to do something specific with it rather than simply tossing it into the bank account with the rest.  I debated responsible versus frivolous and consumable versus collectible.

In the end, it came down to a wish to experiment with coffee and ended up with breaking the rules of pragmatic grocery shopping and a rather expensive piece of cheese.

First the coffee.

I have never been much of a coffee drinker.  My caffeine fix has always come from Coca Cola (affectionately known as the Red Can of Death in my world).  Somewhat amazingly, I gave it up about three weeks ago.  It might even be three weeks ago today now that I think about it.

I have known for quite a while that this particular bad habit had to go, especially since I now sit for a living and three hundred or so extra empty calories just can't be good for a person, no matter how good they taste or what sort of energy boost they offer.  Even though I strongly suspected that I was at least as addicted to the sugar as the caffeine, if not more so, I have read enough about the horrible things that caffeine can do to a person's bones to realize that it had to go as well.

The key was always going to be finding a reasonable alternative, and no, caffeine free diet Coke is not a reasonable alternative.  It's just trading one set of bad chemicals for another, and I can't stand the taste of artificial sweeteners.  Plain water was also not a reasonable alternative.  It might be good for me, but it's just not satisfying.

When someone introduced me to sparkling water with fruit essence, I was suspicious at first, but it has turned out to be a fairly convincing decoy.  Water, CO2 and fruit essence.  No calories and no artificial sweeteners.  When chilled, it almost tastes like soda, and if it goes flat, it's just slightly flavored water, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Other caffeinated and sugar-laden vices lurk in the shadows, however.  The grande mocha frappuccino with whipped cream is a not uncommon indulgence, and I have developed something of a taste for hazelnut coffee with a dash of Jameson's and a swirl of whipped cream.  Between those two items and driving past what looks to be a lovely new little coffee house in town yesterday morning I got to thinking about the possibilities of decaffeinated coffee.  After doing some research into taste and method, I decided that part of my small financial windfall would fund an experiment in decaffeinated hazelnut coffee (giving me the opportunity to use the long neglected French press coffee pot in my possession).

Off I went to the grocery store with thoughts of coming home with coffee and a gallon of milk (and possibly a dvd or two from the rental shop next to the grocery store).

At this point, the trouble started.  I was hungry, and I had no shopping list to stick to.  I definitely came home with coffee (three different kinds even though only two were decaffeinated) and a gallon of milk, but it seemed that everywhere I looked, there were tempting things which made my stomach grumble, so I soon had a shopping basket laden with two everything bagels, crusty Italian bread, a medley of olives (why just Kalamata, I thought, when I could try all of these others), a few mozzarella balls, a bag of Sun chips, raw almonds, frozen chicken strips and crinkly fries, toasted ravioli (which turned out to be quite tasty despite coming from the freezer section, a small jar of black olive tapenade (which I have wanted to try but never got around to), and a rather expensive wedge of cheese.

This wedge of cheese can be blamed for the purchase of the olive medley and the tapenade because the sign claimed that the cheese flavor would be complemented with olives.  (The sign turned out to be quite right.  A bit of cheese on a dab of tapenade on a hunk of crusty Italian bread is a grand and glorious thing indeed.)

I'm usually a mild or medium cheddar sort of a girl, with mozzarella (especially if fresh), occasionally Swiss, muenster, Havarti and Brie, and a nice blend of the harder cheeses like Parmesan, Asiago and Romano thrown in for good measure.  (Please excuse the seemingly random capitalization if it is incorrect.  I decided to trust this program's spell checker.)  Lately, however, what with the more cooking and reading about food -- especially food in France where they make all sorts of wonderful cheese and even have shops devoted entirely to the sale of cheese, which I imagine to be expanded versions of the cheese counter at the small Italian I remember frequently as a child with my mother -- I have felt the inclination to broaden my horizons, and decided that this was the opportunity to do so.  As a result, I decided to try Manchego, a Spanish cheese which is somewhat crumbly and has a tang similar to Asiago, though perhaps a bit sharper.  Delicious!

Meanwhile, I am so taken with the black olive tapenade that I am inclined to try to make my own.  But not today.  Today I am making creamy leek potato soup with crispy leek rings to ward off the spring chill.

As a somewhat related aside, while I do love to cook, one distinct challenge I have found is dealing with the cravings.  I don't just get hungry; I crave.  Sometimes it is a particular taste -- salty, sweet, chocolatey -- and sometimes it is a particular food or dish -- lasagna, hummus, potato chips, fried rice, potato leek soup.  When a craving for ravioli kicks in, I certainly could make them myself, but it is so tantalizingly easy to just pick up a package at the grocery store which is two minutes away from the house, especially now that more gourmet fresh varieties are as easy to come by as frozen standards and taste so much better.

Since I know that what I make usually tastes better than what I buy in the store (and I am a lot more aware of what is in it), the trick becomes finding those extra hours in the day for cooking and sensible grocery shopping.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Wendy Werris' Alphabetical Life

An Alphabetical Life: Living It Up in the World of Books by Wendy Werris was interesting enough to hold my attention because it is fun to read about the book business -- and a part of the book business beyond the retail world with which I am familiar -- but more than once, the author's style was off putting enough to make me want to put the book down and not pick it up again.  She is a bit of a drama queen and comes across as rather self absorbed and narcissistic even for a memoir, which is by nature pretty much I, I, I from beginning to end.

Once I reached chapter five in which the author chronicles the heartbreaking story of her friend and colleague's battle with kidney failure, however, I felt better about devoting time to reading this woman's story.

Chapter five is brilliant, but until that point the rest read like a gossipy, name dropping, guilty confession in which the author doesn't get around to confessing her most egregious sins, even though she is clearly dying to talk about them -- most notably her substance abuse, which gets mentioned and referred to but not detailed because -- as her editor or agent probably told her, or as she told herself, this is a memoir about the book business rather than dependence on one or more psychotropic substances.

There are moments when she sounds like an egomaniacal loon (to the point that it makes me wonder if she might have been high or stoned while she was writing the book).

She makes all sorts of references which I don't understand, so I am not sure if they are literary or cultural or both.  Some of them don't even register as references until I am well into the next paragraph, or at all.  Is it just another form of name dropping or trying to prove her depth of knowledge of ... I'm not sure what since I don't understand the references in the first place and don't don't find them intriguing enough to research.  It's tempting to have somone else or even several someone elses read the book for me and tell me what I am missing and whether or not it adds anything to the story she is telling or the picture she is trying to paint.

Perhaps because of these references, I found myself wishing for clearer cultural, social and historical context, but instead she assumes that her readers were there too and have a lot of the same shared context that she does.  The problem with that situation is that if I lived her life in her time, I might not have any interest in reading her story.

She mentions smoking pot several times, and maybe I am naive in letting myself think that meant that the smoking was also occasional, rather than an ingrained and regular habit -- like the smoking of tobacco cigaretts as everyone in the book seems to do.  When she finds the Book of Mormon in the drawer of her night stand in search of a place to stash her pot, I found the drug reference almost superfluous, as if she felt the need to work it in somewhere, when I didn't think that she needed to mention it at all in the midst of her discussion of religious ambivalence in a Salt Lake City hotel.

Her mention of a "fondness" for cocaine was surprising, almost startling, but again it's at most a passing reference used to explain why she was able to bond with a co-worker who had participated in an addiction recovery program.  She doens't go anywhere with it or do anything with it.  It doesn't provide context or add to the story.  She just brings up this major issue in her life and then drops it.  She would have been better off to say something along the lines of "We bonded over mutual addiction recovery stories."

She has a reverence for books -- don't use dust jackets as book marks, don't put the book face down -- and a flagrant disregard for the treatment of her own body.

All that is missing is for her to tell me what books she read and what literary luminaries she met at Betty Ford or whatever rehab center or program she chose.

By contrast, the story about her friend and colleague's battle with kidney failure didn't have any more to do with her career or the book business, but it was treated in depth and added to the overall story.  She's brilliant when she isn't talking about herself.

She doesn't seem interested in telling a whole lot of success stories about herself.  The embarrassments and humiliations and self doubts, meanwhile, are chronicled in excruciating detail.  She barely gives herself any credit for being a success in a male dominated industry when they were all male dominated.

"I didn't see the sense in hating men and never would. ... I could deal with the 'chauvinism' of those early days in my career, perhaps because I had the good fortune to not take it personally. ...  So I acquiesced to all of these gender-specific regulations, be they innuendos or direct instructions, and rarely felt that by doing so I was chipping away at my own soul.  It was fairly easy for me to distinguish between what was business and what wasn't."  (Page 99)

On the one hand, I love her self assurance, but on the other, I wanted her to recognize more clearly that she was helping shatter glass ceilings in her own way.

She has so many potentially fascinating things to say and stories to tell, and she keeps talking about drugs and alcohol (and cigarettes).  I know.  First I complained that she didn't talk about the drugs and alcohol enough, and now I am saying that it is too much.  That's my point -- all or nothing.  Pick what you really want to talk about, what story you really want to tell, and write it.  Don't keep jumping around and telling parts and pieces of different stories.

The book lacks a central theme or cohesive timeline.  If it had one or the other, I could forgive or understand the otherwise fractured nature of the memoir.  Realizing that it is a story built on memory, however, I wonder how realistic an expectation is cohesion.  Life, after all, tends to not happen in an orderly fashion, no matter how organized the participants, and recalling events from memory only encourages the chaos.

If the book becomes a bit less coherent towards the end as far as choice of material, it becomes better as far as the quality of writing and story telling.  She writes about her parents, her move toward representing (I can't bring myself to take seriously a word like "repping" which she insists on using as her job description.) university presses rather than more mainstream publishing houses.  Her story about the publication and promotion of The World According to Garp makes me want to read it.  Her profiles of the booksellers she worked with and got to know personally over the years make me want to meet these people.

"We never know what may happen when we pick up a book to read.  The turning of a page might actually change the course of our existence.  There is something miraculous about this.  Truth strikes at the very heart of books and the readers who turn themselves over with great trust to finding the essence of themselves." (Page 237-238)

Amen, sister.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Schizophrenic Knitting

My knitting is in danger of becoming as schizophrenic as my reading.

Although I have tried to become a bit more disciplined in recent years, I have a tendency to start reading a book only to be distracted by the possibilities offered by another book, and I simply can't wait to finish one before starting another.  I might repeat the process several times before settling down and making it all the way through a book.  I also have a tendency to decide that I need something new to read long before I have finished reading the titles on my To Read and my To Read Soon lists and shelves.

Unless I am doing research on a specific subject, my reading is far more emotionally and circumstantially motivated than methodical and organized.

So it seems to be with my knitting projects these days.

Several months ago, I fell in love with the fabulous sweater coat on the cover of the fall issue of Interweave Knits.  Purchasing the fabulous yarn practically put me in the poor house, but I was so excited about the project that I didn't care.  After I worked on it for a while, I decided that I needed a smaller project for those times when I didn't want to knit lengthy rows of stitches.

I became obsessed with lace patterns for scarves for a while, but none of them really took, so for a while the only project I had on needles was the sweater.  I have knitted some simple scarves with funky yarn, but those are done and were given away as Christmas gifts.

Projects get started and the yarn doesn't behave the way I expected, or I don't have enough, or I have too much, or the needles aren't the right size, and I end up ripping it out and rolling the yarn back up and putting it away.

The other day I decided that legwarmers were just the thing to make, so I found a free pattern that I liked online, and on my way home from work, I stopped at a local yarn shop and selected yarn and needles.  Given that the project calls for fine gauge yarn and is knitted on fairly small needles, getting the project started was a bit frustrating.  My hope that a small project wouldn't require quite so much concentration as the larger project dissipated quickly.  It's also slightly discouraging because one of the reasons I wanted to learn to knit in the first place was so that I could make my own socks, and the process is similar to that of making leg warmers.

It is quite possible that all I really need is practice to get the hang of working with fine yarn on small needles, but in the meantime, I am in danger of being distracted by the Jellyfish Bag.  Doesn't that look like fun?

I know.  I know.  I need to stick with the legwarmers.  And I will.  Perhaps the bag project can be my reward for completing the snuggly legwarmers.  That sounds like a reasonable plan, don't you think?


Author's Note: In case there is anyone out there reading who might take issue with my capricious use of "schizophrenic," while it may be unfortunate for you, these scribblings are my own which you may choose to read or not in an equally capricious manner as you see fit.  The workings of my mind are certainly not for everyone.