Cooking My Books Project

Posted December 4, 2009 by Abby
Categories: Uncategorized

A few nights ago I had friends over for dinner. I love cooking, especially when it’s for other people. I cooked this dish I tried recently on my own. It came from a Penzeys Spices catalog. They have these great customer-submitted recipes that are really delicious. So this one was called “Broccolicious Salad”. I made that for the second time to serve to my friends, and then I tried this rice recipe from a cookbook that I have that’s devoted to rice. It’s a Mexican rice recipe, “red rice”, or “arroz a la Mexicana”. For dessert (which I don’t always make, but I wanted a third dish) I made what another Penzeys customer from a different catalog calls “Cinnamon Supper Cupcakes”. They taste more like muffins to me but whatever they are topped with butter and powdered sugar and cinnamon, so I don’t care what you call them. When I find my camera cable I will post a picture of the food here too.

So I’ve been thinking about how I get most of my recipes from only a few places: online on recipe sites or blogs, or magazines/catalogs that I leaf through upon arrival, or I just go back to the few cookbooks I’ve used once or twice and re-make those same few recipes that I already know. Which is fine I guess but I have a lot of cookbooks. In my kitchen I have these white wire racks that I’m currently using to store my cookbook (and other related literature) collection. There are 31 books there. Yet most of them I’ve used once or never. Like the rice cookbook – I’d never used it before the other night. So I’ve decided to do something about it. I love cooking, and I love my cookbooks, but I want to really know my cookbooks and know a lot more recipes. 

So I’ve decided to cook one recipe from each book every month, for the indefinite future. I figured maybe this will halt my acquiring of books, or at least weed out some of the ones I won’t really use to make room for new ones. I can cook more than one recipe from a book, but I will cook at least one from every book. At least this month. Then if there’s a book I don’t like enough to cook from I will re-evaluate its role on my shelf. And it only counts if I haven’t cooked that recipe from that book before. So the other night counted because I’d never made those dishes until this month. I will pick them based on what sounds good to me, what ingredients I can afford or have on hand, or the name of the dish. I will also reserve the right to make some alterations to the recipes as needed – more or less as suits the situation, substitutions if the ingredients are unavailable, too expensive, or unappetizing to me. Things like that, while still preserving the spirit and the integrity of the dish. I already have some ideas coming together for my next non-leftover meal.

Now back to watching Rudolph and leafing through my cookbooks…


My Mystery Fruit Tree

Posted June 29, 2009 by Abby
Categories: Uncategorized

The other day I made an exciting discovery! A tree on the very back edge of my property line, right beside my compost pile and some mulberry trees, is growing a small, so far green, pitted fruit. And I think it could be edible! So then the next day it was nice out, and dry, so I decided it was finally time to take pictures of my garden and flowers and some other plants in my yard to post here. I’ll put them up soon, when I have a little more time (I’m on my lunch break right now) but for now I thought I’d post the pictures of my mystery tree, including close-ups of the leaves and fruit. Maybe somebody out there has an idea for me.


Mystery Tree fruit (not ripe yet)

Mystery Tree fruit (not ripe yet)

The next picture is an even better one, because you can see the leaves a little clearer and the evidence of caterpillar enjoyment. 


Does anyone know what kind of fruit I will have soon and if it will be edible? 

My best guess? Some kind of cherries. They have what seem like cherry stems and shape and pits. They grow in groups on the tree. And check out this picture I found of cherry tree leaves as compared to my photos.


Internet photo of cherry tree leaves

Internet photo of cherry tree leaves

Guardian’s 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read: Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women

Posted June 27, 2009 by Abby
Categories: Uncategorized

So it was way back in February when I posted my only other review according to the decrees of the reading challenge I’ve decided to participate in. Since it’s almost July, I’ve decided to write this second review, of the book I read (twice) in June. I actually read two books off the list in June, but since they’re both by the same author I thought I’d go back to that one later in an attempt to differentiate them (and because I want to read it again anyway). I chose another book off the list I’d never heard of before, the novel Excellent Women by English novelist Barbara Pym. The first book I reviewed was an autobiography that was published in 2006, so Pym’s novel, published in 1952 with a narrative that took place in London in the 50s, was a bit of a departure. And I loved it. I’m surprised that Pym isn’t better known, and grateful that someone at the Guardian had the good sense to add two of her novels to the list so I could begin my journey into the world of Barbara Pym’s female protagonists.

The title of the book refers to single women who volunteer in church work and organizations like the one our protagonist, Mildred Lathbury, works for, which aids impoverished gentlewomen. Besides these organized good works, the unwritten social code dictates that excellent women are there to serve all those who know them, making cups of tea when it is needed or requested, mediating conflict, and providing counseling for those who are troubled. Mildred expresses surprise at the idea of a man thinking of marrying an excellent woman: “But they are not for marrying… They are for being unmarried, and by that I mean a positive rather than a negative state.” Indeed, though the men in Mildred’s life feel “we ought to do something” to get her a man, or assume she’s always planned to marry the local vicar, there is a certain silence on this subject from almost all of the women she interacts with, and it seems likely Mildred might not like to be married. She expresses a desire to live alone, and seems to enjoy her routine and independence. You really get to know Mildred when she is alone, trying to write a letter, or observing people at a restaurant or in church, and reading cookery or devotional books before bed.

Mildred’s relationships, if they can be called that, tend towards an unequal nature, and this becomes a particular problem while living above and sharing a bathroom with her new neighbors, the Napiers. Helena, an anthropologist who has quite a liking for her partner in the field, Everard Bone (when she sees him in church early in the novel, Mildred wonders about “his friendship or whatever it was with Helena Napier”, though it is implied later that nothing happens between them as a result of her affection). Rockingham Napier (“How the bearer of such a name would hate sharing a bathroom!”, Mildred muses) arrives shortly after Helena, fresh from the Navy in Italy, where he charmed WREN officers in “ill-fitting uniforms”. Mildred often reminds herself of these WREN officers when thinking about Rocky, and how charming and likable he is, in attempts to keep herself from loving him.

I can’t do justice to this book in this review. A summary of the plot wouldn’t make it quite appealing enough, and many of the quotes I could pull out are so much better in context. Though Mildred enjoys much of her life and many of the people in it, there are unpleasant parts of her life, when she is asked by a third party to live with a friend who is about to be displaced, or when repeated demands pile up, taking away her time and energy and resulting in countless pots of tea. The story is about Mildred and all excellent women, it’s about Helena and Rocky’s relationship, it’s about the way people project their desires onto others and the consequences and bad feelings and many awkward occasions. It is a delight to get to know Mildred and to be witness to her thoughts and ideas about those around her.

Before I wrap up my rambling review, I want to tell you about one of my favorite parts of the book, towards the end, which takes place before the start of a church meeting “to decide about the Christmas bazaar” (we never get to see the bazaar, but you do learn about jumble sales in this novel, which I greatly enjoyed). Part contemplation, part dialogue with another excellent woman who is preparing tea for the meeting, the subject is, very suitably, tea, and whether you can ever have too much of it. Mildred asks Miss Statham if they really need tea, which distresses the poor woman. Mildred’s final reflection on the topic: “I began to realize that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind”, is as good as any example of the way Pym excels at taking everyday activities and objects and making them part of something bigger, using them to illuminate many relationships, almost all of which lack love, comfort, or honesty. Think Pride and Prejudice without the conventional coupling and easy ending, Pym revels in uncomfortable truths and lies, as well as a strong belief in the equality (or more) of women. Go and read something by her today!

I’m hoping these reviews will be coming more quickly these days – I have several novels lined up to read – The House on Mango Street, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre. I’m also reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, so maybe I’ll give a review of that here too. And I’m due to take photos of my garden and post them here. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts on Pym and her works, if you’ve read her. 

Excellent news

Posted April 3, 2009 by Abby
Categories: Uncategorized

Gay marriage is legal in Iowa! The Iowa Supreme Court announced their unanimous decision this morning!

You can read about it at The Iowa Independent

or the Des Moines Register

or the New York Times

or here

or here

or a bunch of other places but I should get back to work.

I am so excited! Don’t know how I’m going to get any work done today!

Hayley Mills or Lindsay Lohan – Pick your poison

Posted March 23, 2009 by Abby
Categories: Uncategorized

In memory of Natasha Richardson, Chad and I watched both of the Parent Trap movies over the last two days. Though Richardson was only in the second of the films, Chad has been living in a cave for a while, and so hadn’t seen either film, resulting in the obviously required viewing of both movies. We watched them in order, the 1961 Hayley Mills original Sunday night, and the 1998 Lindsay Lohan remake tonight. From my post-movie perusing of IMBD I have found out that there are three sequels to the original, all having in common Hayley Mills, at least one set of multiples, and some sort of romantic parental “trap”. I think we’ll stay away from those for now though.

I don’t have a lot to say about the two films; I’d seen them both before, and still find them both enjoyable. I love the song and dance performed by the twins in the original and the character of the minister, and in the remake I especially enjoy the soundtrack, the appearance of the actor who played the original young gold digger as the new gold digger’s mother, and the cute if trite secondary love story between the housekeeper and butler. I’m just grateful some things changed between ’61 and ’98, at least in the movies.

For example, I’d never noticed before how the mother in the original begins desperate attempts to get her ex back almost as soon as she arrives in CA, even though she showed no interest in this while back home. She seems to relish her ex’s embarrassment and his fiance’s discomfort at her presence, attire, etc. He resists her overtures until after he gets dumped, and he’s watching his ex-wife prepare dinner in the kitchen, going so far as to mention that he likes her in her bare feet, when he becomes interested in re-kindling the romance.

The second film is a bit more progressive, thank god. The father even offers to cook dinner for his ex! Richardson’s character is just as resistant to making up as Dennis Quaid’s character, if not more so. She doesn’t go out of her way to be hold back her poor opinion of her ex’s new wife, but she’s not shamelessly flirting either, and hardly domestic. Sadly there are still instances of domestic violence – in the original, the woman punches her ex-husband in the eye during an argument; in the remake, there are allusions to both his ex-wife throwing a hair dryer at him and his ex-fiance throwing her engagement ring at him. The fact that these events occurred at the end of the relationships hardly justifies their happening and being taken lightly.

The premise of the movies in general is fairly absurd and certainly sad – the estranged couple are so bitter from their break-up that they keep their children from knowing each other and their other parent; on viewing the movies once more, it seems hard to believe that such devoted parents wouldn’t think twice over 11 years about getting to meet their other daughter themselves. At any rate, the idea is contrived but the execution is primarily fun and harmless. And I absolutely love Natasha Richardson and am sad for her family that she is gone. Back to watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer!

What’s My Age Again?

Posted March 19, 2009 by Abby
Categories: Uncategorized

Recently while running errands in Des Moines, my boyfriend Chad and I found a new bookstore in an old strip mall, a Half Price Books. We were forced to browse until we had exhausted all the areas we could possibly be interested in browsing. Besides books, magazines, comics, movies, and records they had used CDs, so we picked up a couple for our collection in Chad’s car. I got one of the Drive-By Truckers albums because I really like one of their songs so I wanted to hear some more. And then I picked up Now 3, from the Now That’s What I Call Music series. I’ve been reading about this series, and it turns out that it originates in the UK, and later the series came to the US. While it started in the UK way back in 1983, the year my parents were married, the first Now CD in the U.S. was released in October 1998, when I was a month or so into 7th grade.

Amidst my friends’ imaginary rivalries over Sean or Joey (the “hot” boys in our class), and the Backstreet Boys and N’Sync, but a couple years after discussion of our favorite Power Rangers (did you know the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers only lasted for three seasons?), the Now series began in this country. Most of the songs were ones you’d heard on the radio, and already knew the lyrics by heart through sheer osmosis. It’s like listening to the radio without the ads or the obnoxious DJ. My sister collected them more than I did, but I certainly remember listening to them. We probably owned the third one, maybe it is somewhere in a box in my sister’s room at home. Now 3 came out in December 1999, the winter before I graduated from 8th grade – I was 14, Elián González was in Miami, and Y2K was looming. The CD contains a song from Britney’s first (and at the time only) album, though it was her second time being featured on a Now CD.

Chad and I rocked out to our new treasure on our trips to different stores in the city, and then on the hour drive back to Grinnell. We sang along to hits like Smash Mouth’s “All Star”, Blessed Union of Souls’ “Hey Leonardo (She Likes Me for Me)”, and the Backstreet Boys’ “All I Have to Give”. The most startling hit of the 90s for me was track 3, Blink 182’s “What’s My Age Again?”. This is one of those songs that I knew most of the lyrics to back in the day, and came back right away when we heard it again in 2009. That’s right, 10 years later.

Do you remember the song? The protagonist is a jerk with ADD, or something. He turns on the TV while making out with his girlfriend, and then prank calls her mom from a pay phone. It’s about people telling him to act his age. The part that caught my attention when we heard it again in the car was what age he actually is in the song. The guy is 23. That’s right, my current age. Hearing this made me a little crazy in the head for a portion of our drive a few Saturdays ago.

The thing is, when we first started listening to the song, I remembered that the guy was fairly old, even though I didn’t specifically remember the age until it came up in the song. I was barely a teenager when the song came out, so of course 23 probably sounded impossibly far away. In a way, it was – I still had high school and college to experience before I would be 23. It’s funny though, how part of my memory of hearing this song was about how he didn’t act his age, and his age is old, but he acts young, and now I kinda get it, but also feel like I have no idea how to act like I am 23. Maybe because I’ve never prank called anyone, I don’t know how old people are when they do that, and any time I’ve had someone making out with me, I’m usually far to involved in this activity to give a damn about TV- maybe if we’d had cable when I was growing up. And because I’m used to being “old” now, and even though I am acting responsibly when I show up at work and pay my rent and feed my cats, I still feel so immature sometimes, and at home, when it’s just me and Chad and our fuzzy pet friends, we don’t seem to know what age we are – we just watch Buffy when we feel like it, sleep in when we have nowhere to go, and dance like crazy to our favorite songs on the radio.

All of this to say, it’s gonna take me a while yet to adjust to being old by my 14 year old self’s standards. And also, regardless of how old I might feel or how young I may seem, I don’t envy young Abby her position – I’d much rather act immature than be it, and I’d rather have fuzzy friends than boy-crazy ones, and I’m much happier listening to hits from the 90’s now than when they first airwaves.

Last thought: One of my favorite lines in this song is: “What the hell is caller ID?”, which comes after he talks about calling his girlfriend’s mom from a pay phone while claiming to be the police. I love it because I enjoy being reminded of the advent of technology that we now take for granted. I remember the time before caller ID, closely followed by my being unable to function without it. And now I know less then 10 phone numbers by heart thanks to the ubiquitous cell phone. Anyway, good times, and that’s all I’ve got for the day.

hate/love: poetry

Posted March 6, 2009 by Abby
Categories: Uncategorized

I have a lot of love/hate or maybe actually hate/love relationships. Like one of the fast food restaurants in town – Chad and I call it by different names depending on if we like it or not at the time. It’s a combined KFC and Taco Bell, and we both like Taco Bell but not really KFC, so when we’re showing disdain for it we call it KFC, and when we want to go there for lunch, we call it Taco Bell.

It’s a little more subtle with poetry. When I was younger I wrote some poetry -sappy, overly simplistic pieces, with some form – in high school they were for classes so they had a little structure. In my first year in college I took an English class focused on poetry – I was not sure what I would major in and I had done well in English in high school. I never grew to develop a skill at analyzing poetry. I hadn’t even liked reading it before then, but writing it doesn’t really require that. In that poetry class I learned that every poem was about sex, and as soon as I started reading sex into an assigned poem, it was one of a few exceptions to the rule. For a naive Catholic school student like me, it was near impossible to come up with the right answers in time for class discussion. I did the assignments and listened closely but it was too subjective for me, and seemed to require that I be much more well-read than I was. I’d abandoned any interest in the reading or writing of poetry, until I stumbled upon this mindfulness thing I’ve been working on. Independent of any program or meditation or recommended reading, I have started to come up with tools that will help me to be more mindful. And I’ve found that memorizing poetry has actually been a useful framework for the work. First there’s the whole memorization process – it requires repetition that I think increases focus and forces one’s focus away from stray thoughts to the task at hand. Then, any time you want to take yourself away from your thoughts and focus on neutral territory and just think and hear yourself breathe, you have these words you can recite, slowing you down and taking you away from the day. I started with a speech actually, since I used to have it memorized – The Gettysburg Address. It worked okay. It was long though. And not the right tone or something. Then I picked a nice simple poem a friend of mine introduced me to: Charles Bukowski’s The Laughing Heart. I like this one a lot. It is slightly chopping when reciting, and also a bit pessimistic, which can be good and bad. 

My latest to memorize was Wild Geese by Mary Oliver. It’s another light, brief poem. Oliver’s work appeals to me – maybe because I’m pretty sure a lot of it is just about nature, not allusion after allusion to sex, and it seems charmingly simple without being naive and sappy. The tempo of this poem is an improvement on the last one. It has another trait that really works for me. It feels like the opposite of a prayer. When I first started using memorized lines for mindfulness, I used old prayers I will probably never forget from years of Catholic school and church. The Hail Mary is pretty harmless: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen. 

Yeah, mostly the prayer is about how great Mary is, but it also has that “pray for us sinners” part, that has to be present in all prayers and Catholic literature, in order to amplify one’s Catholic Guilt. Oliver, on the other hand, seems to be directly dismissing pleas of this sort, or a feeling of needing to be saintly and full of repentance. She starts the piece off with:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. 

You only have to let the small animal of your body

love what it loves. 

I find that beautifully anti-guilt, anti-preachy. And simple enough for my anti-poetry mind. It seems to me that when Oliver talks about the “clear pebbles of the rain” and the “deep trees”, she is talking about actual nature, and that the title refers to real birds. At least that’s what I choose to believe.

If I ever find the best poem I wrote for my college poetry class, I am going to post it here to show just how simple I like my poetry. And sometime maybe I will elaborate on the topic of Catholic Guilt. Boy do I have a lot to say on that topic.