Living in history

This is how it happens: people, places, or simply the tide of current events sweep by and my innate geekiness about history and American government go into overdrive. This week it’s the passing of Senator John McCain.

I first visited the U.S. Senate on a family vacation to Washington, D.C. in 1963. Back then when you took the Capital tour, you got to spend several minutes sitting in the visitor’s galleries of the Senate and the House. The Senate was in session the day of our tour. As President of the Senate, Vice President Lyndon Johnson was presiding, and as one Senator (I have no idea who) was holding forth on the floor, Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois (who was Senate Minority Leader and represented our own state of Illinois) approached Johnson for what appeared to be a congenial conversation. Were they trading D.C. gossip or negotiating the advance of the president’s agenda? I have no idea.

What we saw was a Republican (Dirksen) and a Democrat (Johnson) deep in conversation. I have never forgotten that picture.

Fast forward to 1970, when I was spending the third term of my junior year in college (along with 24 other classmates) in Washington D.C. Nixon was president. The war in Vietnam raged on, as did the protests, including Kent State. It was an exciting time to be a student in D.C.

As part of our political science seminar, we had passes to the House and Senate Galleries. My roommate sister Danielle and I were unabashed government geeks. We had agreed that if we were near the Capitol and saw the flag flying over the House or Senate (indicating that body was in session), we would always stop. We saw some interesting speeches and began to comprehend how those bodies worked on and off the floor. One day we visited the Senate and found the chamber to be relatively quiet. We sat briefly and were thinking of leaving when Danielle noticed the Press Gallery suddenly filling. Then senators started coming in and Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine asked for the floor, where she firmly but politely (as only the Senate can do) chastised President Nixon for publicly claiming her support for Supreme Court nominee George Harold Carswell. She had not offered her support, Nixon was being presumptuous, and she was voting against Carswell.

When the Senator concluded her comments, the press rushed out as quickly as they had rushed in. We knew we had witnessed a bit of Senate drama. Senator Smith was a Republican (and a woman) who stood up to the Republican president. Her position was not partisan, it was what she thought was right for the country.

Which takes me back to John McCain. I think he might be irreplaceable. Who else can step into McCain’s role of courageous, maverick conscience in the Senate? Who else is going to weigh what’s “right” over political expediency?

Let me be clear. I never voted for McCain, and I had issues with some of of his politics. But I deeply respect his lifetime of service to the country. His willingness to work across the aisle, to listen to the other side, to move graciously forward whether winning or losing, are characteristics we sorely need but seldom see.

The realist in me understands that this is part of the ebb and flow of our history. My friend Nancy wrote a great post here on Jon Meacham’s book, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. Meacham’s point is that our country has weathered incredible low points, then our “better angels” help us pull together.

I hope those angels arrive soon. In the meantime, I’ll add Meacham’s book to my growing must-read list.

I’m so glad you stopped by. See you next time!

 

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August, tomato capers, and a good book

The corn was delicious. We shared what we could with friends and neighbors. And we have basil, so much basil.

Do we still call these the dog days of summer? It’s hot and dry. Our lawn looks a little crisp. My geraniums are big and blooming, but the day-lilies have more spent blooms than buds and the coneflowers seem “bleached.” There is a back-to-school buzz in the air.

August is a season all its own.

My husband’s vegetable garden has been producing some delicious corn (a first for us) and tomatoes. Then the park district called. (His vegetable plot is in a larger community garden.) It seems someone took a drive thru the garden plots. All of the remaining corn and half of Steve’s tomato plants were wrecked. What a mean-spirited stunt.

Other plots were damaged, no one will go hungry because of this, and there are far more heinous acts committed daily. But does it seem to you that there’s a mean streak in the air? Perhaps it’s time to go back and read “What I learned while standing in line.” It’s time for the better demons to strike back.

But, there are still tomatoes!

Decades ago Steve and I were presented with a few bushels of tomatoes from one of his co-workers who had a ridiculously prolific garden on his multi-acre property. We didn’t know any better, so we canned them the old-fashioned way (per my grandmother’s instructions) in a water bath in glass jars. It was a long, hot, messy process in a small kitchen without air conditioning.

I went on tomato strike for quite a while after that.

I ret to contain the tomato skins, seeds, etc but working out of a few sheet pans.

But then the gardening bug bit and we had to come up with a plan (beyond salads, bruschetta, and salsa), which has been tweaked and continuously simplified. I cut a small X in the bottom of each tomato and drop them (usually in batches) into a pot of boiling water. It only takes a minute or two to loosen the skins. I scoop out the hot tomatoes and spread them out on a cooling rack that I’ve set in a sheet pan. (This corrals hot drips, errant bits of tomato, etc.)

After a few minutes the tomatoes are cool enough to handle and I move them to another sheet pan lined with a flexible cutting mat. I remove the skins and the cores, and squeeze out as many of the seeds as reasonable. (I pretty much use my hands for the latter. As Ina Garden says, clean hands are a cook’s best tool.) What I’m really after is the “meat” of the tomato, which I drop into another pot. This is a messy job, but remember, I’m corralling all the tomato juice, seeds, etc. into a sheet pan which I periodically empty.

The tomato “meat” simmers for 20-30 minutes.

This really doesn’t take that long. After I’ve gathered the best of the tomatoes into the pot, I simmer them for maybe 20 minutes, just to get rid of more of the juice. You can also pour off excess juice. (Hint #1: Too much juice in the container makes the tomatoes watery.) Then I ladle the simmered tomatoes into quart containers and freeze. (Hint #2: This year I’m cooling them first in the fridge, uncovered, to try to eliminate frost in the containers. We’ll see.) I use them in recipes that call for crushed tomatoes.

A book I can’t put down

When I’m not putting up tomatoes, I have had my nose in a new book, Varina: A Novel by Charles Frazier. You may have read Cold Mountain, set in the back country of the Civil War, for which Frazier won the National Book Award. This novel returns to the Civil War era with the story of Varina Howell Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America.

Frazier begins in 1906, telling Varina’s story, largely in her own voice, in flashbacks. At first I found this point of view a bit cumbersome. But as I became better acquainted with Varina, who was a writer in her own right long after her husband died, I began to better appreciate the sum of her life.

Varina Howell married Jefferson Davis when she was 19. He was 36, a widower, a war hero, and destined to leave behind the plantation life she expected for politics. Especially well-educated for a woman of her time, including a term in Philadelphia at a prestigious female academy, Varina grew up with slaves, even owned slaves, but never fully embraced the Confederate Cause. She was often the object of criticism while presiding over the Gray House in Richmond. When the Confederacy fell, she and her children were forced to run for their lives. Although she worked hard for her husband’s prison release, theirs was a less than ideal match. They often lived separately; however after he died, Varina completed his memoirs and eventually embarked on a writing career of her own.

Does she sound interesting to you?

Without her place in history, Varina Davis would still be pretty interesting. With it, she’s compelling. This is not the first book written about her. I’m sometimes suspicious of “historic fiction.” I think it’s often light on the history and/or the fiction, but that’s certainly not the case here. Frazier does a masterful job.

What about you? What are you reading or cooking these days? Whatever it is, I hope you’re enjoying these last weeks of summer.

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

Behind the kitchen that works

One of two deep drawers under my cook top to hold pots, pans and lids right where I use them.

We remodeled our kitchen four years ago, but people sometimes ask if I still like it.

What?

Are you kidding?

Do I still like it?

I thought long and hard about every choice we made. I had more than one folder of photos and ideas I had torn from magazines. I had a growing Pinterest board.

Yes, I still like it. I like it more all the time.

The kitchen turned out better than I ever thought possible. I love it. I’m crazy about it. It is my happy place.

We live in a thirty-odd year old house in a suburban subdivision. The kitchen layout is pretty much the same as every other house here, and although we did change the footprint a bit, getting rid of a peninsula in favor of an island, what really makes my kitchen great is that it works really well. I have a professional kitchen designer to thank for that.

This wasn’t just a cosmetic update (although it certainly needed it). We thought about and planned for function. Katherine asked us a lot of questions about how our old kitchen functioned: what we liked about it and what we didn’t like (for starters, the back door opened into the refrigerator); are we avid cooks (yes); do we entertain (yes, large and small groups, often). She helped us solve some key issues.

It started with the microwave.

This is true. It needed to be replaced. Our old kitchen had a microwave/fan unit installed above the stove. In fact, we put it in. It’s a great, space-saving option. But when push came to shove, it wasn’t that great for me. I’m pretty short (less than five feet) and (1) I really couldn’t see what was going on in the microwave and (2) I was reaching high to get hot food & dishes out of there. Add to that my husband’s observation that the fan unit did next to nothing. So, better microwave placement and a functional fan were at the top of our list.

Locating the ovens for comfort and accessibility took some planning, but that was worth it. I also love the vertical storage above and the cubbies to the left. That drop zone has kept the rest of the counters much clearer.

We could have put the microwave in the lower cabinets. After we chose an island layout, we gave serious consideration to that. But I just wasn’t sold on the idea. So then Katherine suggested a built-in microwave and oven unit that could be installed at a comfortable height. We would also then trade a stove for a cooktop. A bonus for this option was that we would have an electric oven, which is more precise for baking, and a gas cooktop, which we both prefer for stovetop cooking.

That decision was a win, win, win. The microwave is at eye level for me. The oven is just below it, making it much more comfortable to access than one below a cooking surface. And, can I just say I love the cooktop. It’s wider than my stove was and has a fifth burner. That sounds like overkill to some, but it’s great for us. It’s larger for big pots and, if anything, I needed to learn to dial down the heat on it. Finally, we got a great fan that really pulls cooking fumes, smoke and heat out. It’s actually a little larger than the cook top for better efficiency.

I don’t consider any of these to be glamorous choices, but they truly improved the function of the kitchen. We made other conscious choices that I appreciate daily.

I traded off shelf space for drawers in most of my lower cabinets and I love them. I keep my pots in two deep drawers below the cooktop. They pull all the way out, so I’m never fumbling in the back of a cabinet for a pot. I keep everyday dishes, serving and mixing bowls, measuring cups, and other prep and serving tools in drawers in the island. Again, I’m not fumbling in cabinets and I can see everything in the drawer at a glance. I’m not a hugely organized person. In fact, my friends will tell you I’m a messy cook. Drawers have helped me “clean up my act.”

I also asked for — and got — vertical storage for trays, cookie sheets, sheet pans, etc. Again, it makes these kitchen go-to’s so much more accessible.

Including the kitchen sink

The sink choice was the source of much debate. There are almost too many sink options out there. I have had porcelain, stainless, and, in our pre-renovation kitchen, a solid surface sink integral to the countertop. Steve was insistent on going back to stainless, which was fine by me. I was more concerned with the size of the sink. I wanted one big enough to hold my largest pots. After lots of measuring, we settled on an oversize bowl that actually holds 12-in. by 18-in. sheet pans. (There is a smaller bowl to the left with the garbage disposal. ) I absolutely love this sink! It’s big, extra deep, and holds a big dirty pan so you can really clean it. At the designer’s suggestion, I also got a stainless steel rack that fits the bottom of the sink and protects the surface from scratches.

Is it silly to say you love your sink? Probably, but I do. When you aren’t cooking in a kitchen, you’re cleaning up. Make it easy!

We also enlarged the window over our sink. It was really dead space that we leveraged to bring in more light. Here, again, the designer hit a homerun. She enlarged the window all the way around and had casements installed instead of the traditional double-hung windows we had. The casements have the same divided lights as our existing windows, but are much easier for me to reach across the sink and crank open. Even if we’d asked a contractor for a larger window, I’m not sure we would have gotten easier access.

The renovation gave us plenty of “pretty,” including some glass-fronted cabinets to show off dishes and collectibles, a stove mantle that camouflages the fan and shows off some of my transferware, quartz countertops that work really hard and still look like new, pretty moldings, and a lot more.

The nice thing about pretty, of course, is that it comes in a range of price points. Cabinets, countertops, hardware and light fixtures come at all price points to keep you on budget. The same is true for appliances. It would have been fun to go “top of the line” but the budget just wasn’t there. In fact, we re-installed our dishwasher because it was just a year old.

Pretty is easy to add. You can readily replace light fixtures or upgrade cabinet hardware to refresh the look. It’s possible to replace solid cabinet doors with glass and upgrade countertops. We’ve all seen the gorgeous before & after’s that result from (re)painting cabinets. But making the bones work was more challenging, and I don’t think we could have done it without a professional designer.

That said, when all else fails, wipe down the countertops, add a big vase of flowers and a bunch of candles, and dim the lights. Ta da!

(I know this works because I have done it!)

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time.