Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Great Pumpkin - Episode 1

For the first time in my adult life I have a yard big enough to grow giant pumpkins. Why? Because I want to have a giant jack-o-lantern on the front porch at Halloween.

I tried growing them last year. But my efforts were half-baked and woefully uninformed. As a result, no giant, candle-lit face adorned the stoop of the tiny bungalow.

This year things will be different.

The first thing I learned in my giant pumpkin odyssey (part 2) is that the pumpkins need a lot of space to grow. So I rototilled a 25' x 6' plot in the back yard just for the pumpkins.

Two weeks ago I started giant pumpkin seeds indoors and had 19 giant pumpkin plants with their second sets of leaves baking in the dining room window. I've thinned the plants and now have only 15 plants baking in the window. It is possible I did not start them early enough. We'll see.

I have a book on order and a website bookmarked to take me through my pumpkin growing odyssey. I know I'll need to fertilize my soil and my plants nearly constantly. Am I up to the meticulous challenge? Do I want a 500 pound jack-o-lantern so badly?

I'll keep you posted here on my blog.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Where does my time go?

I spend an average of 8 hours a night sleeping.

My work schedule is the equivalent of 7 hours a day working every day of the week.

My commuting hours are the equivalent of 1.5 hours a day, every day, driving to and from work.

That's 56 hours a week sleeping, and nearly 60 hours a week working or going to work.

That leaves 7.5 hours a day or 52.5 hours a week for cooking, grocery shopping, cleaning, playing, relaxing, gardening, running errands, parenting my cats, and having fun with Jeff.

Something isn't right here.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Tilting at Pistachios

So I'm at the fancy new supermarket that opened 9 days ago, waiting at the fish counter to get a 1/2 pound of shrimp. A very well coiffed, older woman appears next to me. She is a walking stereotype of the moneyed class - you know the type with Louise Vuitton (or was it Gucci - I can't tell) purse hanging off her forearm, uberbranded sunglasses on her face (she was indoors and it was raining outside), riding jodhpurs, and very shiny gold hanging off whatever body part could accommodate the expensive hardware.

I glance at her briefly, turn back to the fish case, and then hear a small ping. I look back at the woman, see her staring at the ground, and realize she has dropped a pistachio shell. I can see it plainly, resting on the brand new floors maybe 1.5 feet from her own well clad feet. "Can she see it?" I wonder. "Well of course she can see it! It's right there!" I mentally point.

The woman looks up from the ground and begins staring straight ahead.

"Oh my god! She's going to leave her trash on the ground. I can't believe it. She knows she dropped it. She knows it couldn't have gone too far. What the heck?" I'm in a state of irritated disbelief.

The internal dialogue continues.

"Should I say something? Should I pick it up? Do I just leave it for the staff to find when they clean up after the store closes? If I dropped it and KNEW that I dropped it I'd pick it up. I mean, this is a BRAND new store - it isn't like we're at an outdoor market or something. Picking up your trash is respectful of the people who have to clean up after me. But she must not be respectful of the "peons" who work here, who wait on her. I mean, look at her, she is obviously accustomed to people taking care of her. Oh my god, she is such a bitch."

The rant goes on while I continue to wait.

"I really have to say something to her, to hold her accountable for her actions, to let her know people are watching and judging her behavior. I won' forgive myself if I don't say something. This is what it means to believe in something, and I believe in respect, and beauty. I cannot let this type of behavior slide without commenting. If I do what else will I be silent about. I CANNOT BELIEVE she did that!"

I turn to her and say haltingly, "Uhm excuse me, I think you dropped something." I point to the shell on the floor, "You surely weren't going to leave that there, were you?"

The woman looks at me and then to the ground. She leans over, picks up the shell, and places it in her palm, which then slowly closes around the once discarded object. All without saying a word.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Kids say the darndest things

I had the privilege of reading to a group a second graders today, as part of a local celebration of "National Library Week." I was reading an interpretation of the classic Hans Christan Anderson tale The Ugly Duckling. You know the story - where a swan is accidentally born into a family of ducks. Until the swan grows up he feels ugly and unloved because he looks different.

Early on in the story I paused and asked the question "Has anyone here ever felt like they were being made fun of? Raise your hands if you have ever been made fun of in your life." My goal was to have a brief conversation about how everyone has felt like they didn't belong at some point in their life.

Of course, all of the adults, being good role models who were familiar with the lessons embedded in the story story, raised their hands. About 2/3rd of the children raised their hands too.

One of the little people sitting in the front row declared loudly, "I've never been made fun of."

"Well you are a lucky boy," I replied emphatically.

"Yeah!" he said. "Sometimes my cousin and I play this game where he hits my head like a bongo. That's a really fun game!"

I'm thinking, "Well that's apropos of nothing."

The little buddy on his right spun his head around and accusingly said, "You told me you didn't like that at all!"

I looked at Mr. Bongo Head with my eyebrows slightly raised.

"Well, sometimes I don't like it when my cousin hits me," Bongo Boy conceded.

"Yes," I said, my own head spinning, "Sometimes life is confusing."

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Grocery Wars

How did you pick the grocery store you shop at? I'm curious because I am currently rich in grocery stores. As of Wednesday a third supermarket opened up within 2 miles of my home here in the picturesque seaside suburb. We now have the standard big box store, a local market with fresh meat and seafood counters, and a grocery opened as a direct competitor to the Whole Paycheck eight or so miles away in the tony outdoor shopping mall.

I was raised by a fierce woman who did whatever it took to make her meager income work for her and her five kids. This meant clipping coupons and strategically planning the Saturday shopping to ensure she got the best deals for her dollars. If ground beef was $0.03/pound less expensive at Price Chopper than it was at Wegmans my mom would make the special trip to Price Chopper to get the cheaper meat. Marketing was tedious with my mom, often taking hours as we went from one store to the next snapping up the best deals, regardless of cost to one's time or psyche. Once a month or so one or more of us kids were given the task of going through mom's voluminous coupon files and weeding out the expired ones, and putting those that were just about to expire in a special file to be used right away. My mom's pantry, to this day, is filled with canned goods bought on sale because she had a coupon or the sale was too good to pass up.

Growing up relatively poor I've developed a cautious attitude towards money. However, I tend to believe coupons are a waste of time because store brands are almost always cheaper. I don't have the energy to clip, store, and sort coupons. I don't have the space to store mounds of "good deals." I zealously believe that if something is on sale once, it is likely to be on sale again when I need or want it. The net effect is that I tend to favor expedience in my grocery shopping over bargain hunting. That means I'd rather spend $1/pound more for pate' because I like the pate' at Store X and I'd rather not spend 30 minutes driving to the store with the cheaper pate' looking for parking and wasting time and gas.

Now with three grocery stores in such close proximity I find myself reconsidering my shopping attitudes. I'll always go to the big box market - deli-sliced American cheese, yogurt, bread, canned vegetables, cat food, toilet paper, and ice cream will always be cheaper at the big box store.

But what about the two boutique markets? Both are beautiful on the inside - think open market style fruit displays, aromas of fresh roasted coffee, enticing bulk food bins, and beautifully displayed prepared foods. And how do their prices compare? Well, today I went to both and compared prices for the ingredients for cheese fondue. Here is now it stacked up:

Local market - $24.13
1/2 pound of emmenthaler cheese - $8.98
1/2 pound of gruyere cheese - $6.48
1 bottle of white cooking wine - $4.49
1 loaf of French bread - $2.19
1 head of cauliflower - $1.99

Fancy new market - $26.43
1/2 pound of emmenthaler cheese - $8.98
1/2 pound of gruyere cheese - $7.48
1 bottle of white cooking wine - $3.49
1 loaf of French bread - $2.49
1 head of cauliflower - $3.99

By price alone, the local market is the winner. However, if cauliflower hadn't been on sale at the local market ($2 under both the new boutique market and the big box store), the grocery bill for the cheese fondue would have been roughly even.

So how do I decide? The new store has more varieties and sizes of bread than the local market. The new market has bourbon praline pecans in bulk, beautiful flowers, and a more robust wine, craft beer, and organic and international foods section. The new market doesn't require, like the local one does, that I pay for meat and seafood separately (and cash only please). In the local market's favor they have the best snacking prosciutto sliced to order, terrific Italian foods, are a reseller of locally produced candies, cookies and other delicacies. They also have the best salad bar on either side of the Mississippi.

(Have I mentioned that I love going to beautiful grocery stores? It is one of the things I do to relax. A trip to NYC without going to Zabars or Citarellas is beyond me. Whenever I travel grocery stores always make their way to my tourist itinerary. I routinely stop at Wegmans when visiting my family in Central New York - even before I see my mother.)

If I'm to stay true to my "keeping it simple" grocery shopping philosophy how do I pick which store to patron? Even thinking about bopping between three grocery stores to do my weekly-ish shopping gives me hives for its high maintenance implications. Do I abandon the locally owned business in favor of the new, slightly more convenient but globally owned market? Do I plan to price veggies each week online and pick whichever store has the lowest prices, and just trust that the other things I need will come out in the wash?

The values I'm balancing include value, quality, business loyalty, beauty, convenience, and adventure. Which of these do you value most highly in your marketing? In your life?

The new store has been open five days. I think I'm going to wait to decide until the low prices intended to hook consumers go up as I'm told they will. In the meantime, you can find me shuffling between three suburban grocery stores, stalking the aisles for bargains and interesting foods.

How will you celebrate National Cheese Fondue Day?

Thanks to the magic of Twitter I learned that today is National Cheese Fondue Day. Now accepting facts in one's Twitter stream as the gospel truth is like believing everything in Wikipedia is true, so I went to the Web to verify.

And I got distracted by the first web page I found, titled "American Food Holidays." While it also had no references, I became entranced by the more than 600 alleged food holidays. Things like "Lobster Thermidor Day" (January 24), "Crab Stuffed Flounder Day" (February 18), "National Turkey Neck Soup Day" (March 30), "Lima Bean Respect Day" (April 20), "National Spumoni Day" (August 22), "Biscuit and Gray Week" (second week in September - which apparently and not without some philosophical conflict is also "National Vegetarian Awareness Week), "Eat a Cranberry Day (just one, really?) (November 23), and of course, "National Chocolate Covered Anything Day" (December 16). Every day of every year there is food that calls out to be eaten in celebration.

Of course I checked my birthday to make sure the acclaimed foods were good ones; cheese, frozen yogurt and cognac are all honored along with me on the fourth of June. En route to June 4 I noticed that May 28th is National Brisket Day. I have a cat named Brisket. "Awesome!" I thought. We can make May 28th his special day. Now I also have a cat named Ducky. So I searched for celebrations of duck too. I found Peking Duck Day (January 18). "Perfect!" I thought, "There is balance in the food and cat universe."

It has been more than one hour since I started to poke around on this website. My mind is reeling with the possibilities. Do I pick the weirdest ones and put them in my calendar to celebrate? How about I strategically select my favorites from the list of celebrated foods and plan parties that feature them? Do I go all "Julie and Julia" and plan a year of eating the foods and write an blog about my adventures? Who would play me in the movie when my blog attracts the attention of Hollywood and they option the rights to my year-long, albeit derivative, laudatory feasting? I've been craving a hobby lately - maybe this is it?

In the short term, I was planning on making a nice dinner tonight. Cheese fondue as part of the repast in the Tiny Bungalow is an inevitable part of our menu. If you will be in our picturesque seaside suburb give a holler; we'll be eating cheese fondue later.

If you aren't tooling around our town, I invite you to check out the list of unsubstantiated American Food Holidays online, and share your favorites with me.