Speak of the Devil

December 15, 2011

photo of menu board at the cafe at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

Spotted by one of my daughters: A devilishly good shake, at the cafe at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

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Me Likey

December 4, 2011

photo of menu board at the cafe at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

Spotted by one of my daughters: A devilishly good shake, at the cafe at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

So it’s Christmas again, and as always I find myself slightly depressed by the emphasis everywhere on Christmas commerce. The other day, however, while slicing a tomato with a particularly effective knife, I found myself musing about products that I’ve been given, or bought, or otherwise encountered over the years that have won my admiration. So I thought I’d present a few here, as a kind of retroactive Christmas list.

Cutco 5-inch Trimming Knife Model 1721

Image of trimming knife

My Cutco trimmer

This knife came into my home in the early 1990s, when I and my then young family were living in Baltimore. One afternoon a young man came to the door selling knives on behalf of Cutco, a company that until then I had never heard of. Ordinarily my inclination is to shoo all door-people away without a hearing, but this guy seemed earnest and was dressed in a manner that vaguely evoked the apparel of a Mormon missionary. So, we invited him in. Actually, to be precise, my wife invited him in. All you fans of The Wire and The Corner and Homicide, all set in Baltimore, will wonder at the idea of a Baltimore family inviting a knife seller into their home. He proposed a demonstration. He pulled out a Model 1721 Trimmer with a five-inch serrated blade, and proceeded to use it to cut a penny in half. This was surprisingly persuasive, so we bought one, and we’ve had it ever since. Twenty-plus years later it remains our favorite close-duty knife, and shows little sign of wear and remains sharp. I have never myself tried to cut a penny with it, however, though certainly that is the kind of thing I ordinarily would be inclined to do, since I have been known in recent years to blow up eggs in microwave ovens and to drive my car repeatedly over a can of shaving cream in order to learn what kind of mechanism resided within. I draw the line, however, at cutting Abe Lincoln’s face in half.  

Casio LC-827 Electronic Calculator

Image of small old pocket calculator

Still going, after decades

You can’t buy these anymore, and frankly, that’s a shame. My little Casio is simple and compact, and has operated flawlessly for about forty years. It couldn’t calculate graphing coordinates or plot the course of a scraft in the way my daughter’s Texas Instruments “scientific” calculator can, but it works great for bills and percentages and calculating how many books I would have to sell to buy the car that John Steed drove in the TV series The Avengers. I’ve had this calculator for decades. I can’t remember exactly when I got it, but I do remember it was a gift from my mother, most likely a stocking stuffer. Good lord, but the thing has stamina. It’s kept going for forty years. What in heaven’s name powers it?

Cuisinart Food Processor Model DLC-10E

Image of controls on old Cuisnart food processor

A gift for Jet Blue

My sisters and I got this for my mother soon after Cuisinart introduced the thing to America in 1973 and thereby revolutionized certain facets of cooking and baking. Julia Child was an early adopter. This particular processor came into my life after my mother’s death, when we cleaned out the family homestead to get it ready for sale. The machine still works beautifully, although the plastic “work bowl” attachment has begun shedding bits of plastic. But that motor—I swear, it could tow a jetliner off the tarmac (and this might be something Jet Blue ought to consider looking into). There is something so satisfying about hitting the “Pulse” button, and watching whatever is inside the plastic container disintegrate, although just this past Thanksgiving we inadvertently wound up using the metal blade to puree the plastic dough blade, which someone had placed within for storage. The new Cuisinart processors are fine, I’m sure, but they look and feel cheap in comparison. If you launched my old one from a catapult you could take out your neighbor’s car.

The Bic “Crystal” Pen

Two classic Bic pens, with clear shafts and black caps

And, they're chewable

It is hard to decide whether to classify this product as a writing implement or a food, because as all Bic Crystal afficionados know, the removable black top is a delight to chew. I own many pens, mostly accumulated during book-signings when invariably I walk off with one or more bookstore pens, but the only pen I use in my writing life is the Bic Crystal medium point, with black ink. The Crystal is the pen equivalent of the girl your mother always wanted you to marry. It even has the same name. With a Crystal you always know where you stand—you can see the ink level through the clear plastic shaft. And the company’s slogan happens to be dead-on correct, “Writes first time, every time.” You buy them by the bag-full, but they can be hard to find, since apparently there’s a lot more profit in pens like the Uni-Ball Vision Elite and the Pilot G-2. So I always keep an eye out, and when I spot a package dangling from a hook, I grab it. I also pay for it.  

Revere Ware pots

Several pots hanging in my kitchen with distinctive steel and copper look of Revere Ware

My "vintage" Revere pots

These, too, I inherited after my mother’s death. You’ve probably got one or two, or far more, of these in your home right now—shiny steel tops, red-gold copper bottoms, and shiny smooth black handles. They were sold initially with a twenty-five-year guarantee. Mine are at least fifty years old—I think. All I know is that there’s been at least one Revere Ware pot in every apartment, house, even tent I’ve ever occupied. We even have a Revere Ware coffee pot, the kind that percolates, and every half-decade or so we dust it off thinking okay, now we’re going to make some real coffee. You can drop these pots, heat them until their bottoms glow, encrust their interiors with charred milk, and they keep coming back for more—and if you shine up those bottoms with a copper cleaner, they gleam. If you check online, you’ll find that a small industry has grown up to supply things like handle screws, even complete handle assemblies, and sets of parts to replace that little steel dangly thing at the end. And by the way, I know from experience that the tops to the saucepans make terrific toys for toddlers.

Le Creuset 11-inch crepe pan Model 0170

I bought this crepe pan mainly so that my youngest daughter, an expert baker, could make crepes, but I quickly discovered that it is a superb tool for making omelets. Now, in fact, on most Sunday mornings you will hear me exclaim at some point, “Oh god I love this pan.” Until it came into my life, I rarely made omelets, because my omelets invariably came out of the skillet looking like something that tried to crawl across a highway at rush hour. This pan, with its truly non-stick coating and low rim, yields perfect omelets. And yes it’s good for crepes too.

12.5-inch cast-iron skillet

I’ve had my big cast-iron skillet for thirty years. It is easily one of the most cost-effective investments I’ve ever made—I bought it at a yard sale for 25 cents. What I love most about it is that it lets me cook big, and it lets me cook hot. Surface-of-Mars hot. You can sear a steak at a million degrees, and the skillet will forgive you. Just fill it with water and leave it in the sink overnight, and by morning all gunk and char is easily removed. I have no idea who made mine, but the Lodge Manufacturing Company makes some very nice equivalents, like the 9-inch skillet that my middle-daughter got me for a past Christmas. Lodge also makes a cast-iron skillet in the shape of a guitar.  

 “Peel Away” apple peeler and corer

Finally, I salute my “Peel Away” apple peeler. I love apple pie, but I despise peeling and coring apples by hand, and as a consequence I have in past years made few apple pies, my go-to pie being pumpkin (from the original Silver Palate cookbook, not the one that caused the authors to start bitching at each other and go their separate ways). My peeler has made apple pie almost easy, with the added benefit of appealing (pause, please—that’s a pun) to the little boy in me. It’s a wonderful contraption, with springs and threaded rods and an adjustable blade and a suction bottom that actually works and holds the apparatus tightly to the counter. I do wish I’d had one of these when I was a boy. I’m certain I would have tried using the suction qualities to try climbing up the exterior glass of my childhood home.  Sadly the U.S. has renounced torture, because these peelers could certainly have a secondary use in the war against terror, a use moreover that could be readily disavowed. “What torture? We were making pie.”    

Apple peeler and corer

Based on a Spanish Inquisition patent



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Chicken Lit

October 18, 2011

Maria Dahvana Headley

Our Cleo: Maria Dahvana Headley, author of Queen of Kings, in a quiet pre-show moment with friend

The “Up Late Reading” variety show organized by the Seattle-7 writers, which took place Saturday night, Oct. 15, proved to be a raging success, and came off without serious glitches. No one fell off the stage; no one’s garments malfunctioned. Garth “Racing in the Rain” Stein and I were co-emcees. We had a fine old time trying to be debonair, energetic and glib, while attempting with mostly great aplomb to avoid introducing the wrong acts at the wrong time. High point: A Garth and Erik tango.

The show provided a marvelous opportunity for writers to humiliate themselves. We had a poet in a chicken suit, charmingly leading us deep into the ways of chickenhood; we had a visit from Cleopatra, who brought along a rather large rubber snake; and we listened in awe as our own Jennie Shortridge belted out a wonderful rendition of “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” adapted to the writing life. Her hub backed her on guitar (and pulled off the opening descending riff with absolute perfection), along with the Jose “Juicy” Gonzales Trio, who did heroic work throughout the show helping fill awkward pauses with some truly lovely jazz lines. I urge jazz fans to pay a visit to Juicy’s website, and listen to a few songs—it’s good stuff, the kind of music you want playing on your stereo when you kick back with a good glass of bourbon on a cold Seattle night.

Importantly, the show and its associated silent auction brought in about $10,000 in charitable contributions to further the cause of literacy.

And may I just say in closing, the whole thing was terrifying. The last time I’d been in a stage performance of any kind (other than giving talks about books) was in sixth grade, and I still remember the unalloyed fear I felt when I peeked out through the curtains and saw the packed auditorium. That moment often comes back to me in nightmares, as does the classic dream where I’m supposed to take the SATs, but cannot find the right room.

I was terrified all day Saturday, anticipating the further terror I would feel that night. I kept muttering, “Thank god I’m not a Broadway actor. How do those people live?” To occupy myself and keep my mind off my coming doom, I baked an elaborate French apple pie, home-made crust and all, which used up every pan and utensil in the kitchen. I destroyed at least one saucepan when I incinerated a cup of milk that was supposed to be brought to a gentle boil. I was a culinary black hole. Gordon Ramsay would have had a field day. Although I suppose to him it would be a field-greens day.

What also helped was repeating over and over to myself that it’s good to step out of your comfort zone now and then. It’s a good thing. A good thing.

I survived. And the pie was great.

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