Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Magic Ingredient is Pope

Of all moving around I've done in the past year, the one thing I've been really lucky with is roommates. Through the good graces of Craigslist I've managed to track down people in Rome and NYC that make life not only bearable, but absolutely wonderful. People that like to go to bars at 3am, people that like to watch Mad Men on the weekends, people that like to get coffee in the morning-- people that offer to split the last noce cornetto with you because they KNOW the rest of the pastries at the cafe are horrible and they wouldn't want you to suffer. Good people.

The Rome apartment is home to many professions-- do you know how awesome it is to live with PhD students who are also tour guides? They know EVERYTHING. Only drawback is when you're trying to meet them for drinks and they say "Where are you?" and you say "By that obelisk near the house" and after ten minutes of protesting that there are no obelisks near the house they go "Oh that's not an obelisk that's a COLUMN. Be right there". Sorry, my mistake. Can I have my cell phone minutes back?

So I live with smart, talented people who study and tour AND-- the one profession I love the most (for purely selfish reasons)-- work for the Vatican newspaper. Roommate M works at the Vatican and has access to the Vatican supermarket which I imagine to be very large and bright and full of strange and lovely products and probably a lot of angels and hymns playing over a loudspeaker... And for this reason our fridge is often stocked with things like "Milk from the Pontifical Farms".
Another roommate kindly informed me it was radioactive, but this could have been to keep me from using it in my tea. Either way, I will avoid it. For the most part I was regarding the Vatican products as a cool part of living in Rome... but then M decided to introduce me to ciambelle di vino rosso-- a slightly sweet cookie that is knock-your-socks-off tasty. And the best ones come from the Vatican commissary. And every other place in Italy makes inferior cookies. And M had a month off from the newspaper. And you can only access the supermarket with a special blue Vatican card. And the cookies, we ate them all. It has been a cookie drought in Via Clementina UNTIL TODAY when I received this email:

Annnnd I think we're done with work for the night. Vatican Cookies here I come!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Mayonnaise: Surely One of the Least Attractive Foods

Yesterday I wanted a tuna sandwich. But my mayonnaise was expired. (It is almost always expired. Along with salad dressing, mustard, vegetable oil, shortening, and a surprising number of canned goods, I always have to check the expiration date of mayonnaise before I eat it.) You can't have a tuna sandwich without mayonnaise, not with the quality of tuna these days, so I decided to make it. I had oil. I had eggs. I had lemon juice. I had a recipe titled "Homemade mayonnaise without tears," which I assume was written specifically for me.

Somewhat incredibly, it turned out just fine. Mayonnaise is tricky (apparently) because if it doesn't emulsify properly, it separates into an unpleasant mixture of egg yolk and oil that nobody even wants to look at much less eat. I followed the instructions, however, and added the oil very slowly. Drop by drop. For half an hour. I am not completely sure it was worth half an hour to make mayonnaise when I could have just had peanut butter and jelly, but I am unemployed. I have time.

It tasted slightly too lemony in the end, but at least it tasted like lemony mayonnaise, rather than lemony egg-oil mixture. I was so proud of myself that I put the remainder in a container and saved it, even though I knew I was not going to use it before it went bad, since it goes bad within a couple of days when it's homemade.

I guess I was feeling proactive today, because I hauled it out of the fridge again to chuck it before it had a chance to get foul. And I discovered that even when it's still good, day-old mayonnaise does not appeal.

Blegh. Good thing I satisfied my tuna sandwich craving yesterday.

Monday, September 27, 2010


My first experience with figs was in 2003 when I was presented with a 5 gallon vat of (what I perceived as) foul, wrinkled, pickled, yellowish, mushy, and all together unpleasant fruit. Along with the vat, I was given instructions to slice them into quarters and then go and peel approximately 900 piece of slimy slippery ginger. I was in college and my diet of Annie's Mac and Cheese and Magic Hat #9 had not lent itself to an appreciation of "fig and ginger jam" (goes well with goat cheese!), so I vowed I would never eat figs again.

And then I moved to Italy where they have the most amazing selection of seasonal fruit. The quality of produce here is beyond belief-- tomatoes taste like candy, peaches are mind-bendingly good-- watermelon is consumed for dessert, and the reason-- no one seems to import out of season produce. There are no artichokes in June. Your loquats can only be found in the late spring-- markets and menus change according to what's ripe. How novel!

This summer I fell in love with prosciutto and melone and the end of cantaloupe season was sad-- what sweet fruit could possibly take its place?

Turns out-- figs.
I revise all previous statements on figs-- they're crunchy and sweet and soft and work really well with prosciutto.

They're also filled with wasps... but we'll overlook that for now.

I was so pleased with the fichi, I decided to branch out and try the Fichi d'India-- In English we call these prickly pears-- our name addresses the hazards associated with consuming spined fruit. Their name does not. Naming aside, I was under the impression they clean off all the needles before they sell them in the supermarket-- goring shoppers is never good for business, right? The invisible ones stuck in my thumb speak to my naive American attitudes. And though they are a gorgeous purple color, they a) accosted me and b) do not go well with prosciutto
so farewell Fichi d'India-- the remaining two will stay in this bag, and here's hoping they go out of season very soon.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Women, Men, Reading, and Publishing

About a month ago Jodi Picoult got mad about Jonathan Franzen being fawned over and blamed The New York Times for giving a disproportionate number of reviews to "white male literary darlings." This prompted The New Republic to look at the numbers, and they discovered that 62% of NYT reviews were for books by men, and of the books that got two reviews, 72% were by men. I don't read NYT reviews, but I did notice a disparity at The Complete Review when I went to look for Zadie Smith and found that they had none of her three novels. After the NYT controversy, The Complete Review looked at their review choices and were disturbed to find only one in eight of the books they review are by women. That means 88% of the books they review are by men. From a sample of other publications, they came up with these statistics:

15% of books reviewed in The London Review of Books are by women.
18% of books reviewed in the New York Review of Books are by women.
30% of books reviewed in the New York Times Book Review are by women.
25% of books reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement are by women.

The question everyone asks is this: are there simply more books by men? If the percentage of books published by men is the same as the percentage of reviews men get, then the review choices are fair and publications like the NYT are off the hook. But nobody knows how many books are published by men versus women. So nobody knows whether or not it is valid to ask the question that logically follows: why men are so much more likely to get published than women?

I bring all this up because of an article in Publisher's Weekly that asks whether the disproportionate number of women working in the publishing industry is the reason men aren't reading as much as women. If the majority of the people greenlighting books are women, are they going to accidentally publish more books that appeal to women? And is that why men don't buy as many books? Former editor Jason Pinter thinks this is the case, and makes his argument in an article in the Huffington Post: "Nobody can deny the fact that most editorial meetings tend to be dominated by women. Saying the ratio is 75/25 is not overstating things. So needless to say when a male editor pitches a book aimed at men, there are perilously few men to read it and give their opinions."

Here is what confuses me: whether or not more men get published than women, it is a verifiable fact that a vastly higher percentage of men get more attention for their books than women. This does not suggest to me that men are being underrepresented in the publishing industry. If men aren't reading, it's not because there's nothing for them to read. There may be a myriad of gender-related factors to explain why men think there's nothing for them to read, and some of the blame may fall on marketing departments, but it isn't true that women are standing between men and books. Sure, if more books were marketed specifically to men, men would buy more books, but you can easily turn that around: if men bought more books, more books would be marketed to them. The problem is not one-sided.

Something about this debate is ugly, and I think it's the implication that women are unable to look past the fact that they're women. And that men are by nature fair-minded. It is as if publishing would be better off if it were run by men, because men would be able to recognize a potential big seller no matter who wrote it. Women, of course, will be unable to fathom what market there could possibly be for a book about, for example, pro wrestling, because all that estrogen clouds their judgment and they can only respond to warm, fuzzy books about feelings. That's complete nonsense. All editors realize they have to go where the money is. And the money, statistically, is with women. It's a matter of business, not gender. No one is going to publish a book that won't sell out of the goodness of his or her heart. There's only one conspiracy in the publishing world, and it isn't a secret: they want to make money.

I sincerely doubt Jason Pinter intended to insult women with these implications. They probably didn't even occur to him, which makes me question how well he thought this through. If you're going to impugn the ability of an entire gender to do a specific job, you need to have more than one anecdote and unsubstantiated conventional wisdom to back you up. It may not even be true that men don't read as much. Yes, they make up less than half of fiction sales (45% -- hardly a dismal number), but do they use libraries more? Does anyone know? Has anyone asked? Also, is it possible that men, believing for some inconceivable reason that reading is girly, underreport their own behavior? Is there no other explanation for men's reading habits than the interference of women? I am automatically skeptical when a man blames a frustration he has about his own gender on women, and doubly so when the only available facts suggest he's wrong. If, in the billion books available to us all, any voices are being marginalized, it is emphatically not first-world, English-speaking men.

The articles I referred to are:
The New Republic: The READ: The Franzen Fallout
The Complete Review: How Sexist Are We?
Publisher's Weekly: Where the Boys Are Not
Huffington Post: Why Men Don't Read: How Publishing is Alienating Half the Population

When You Give a Mouse a Water Source

Several weeks ago my sink had a leak. I called my useless landlord's useful son-in-law and he fixed it, but apparently I didn't catch it early enough, and some little family of mice decided it would be a good idea to nest there. And I suppose it was: it's safe, warm, damp, there's a nice big garbage can right there for midnight snackies.

We unwittingly cohabitated for some weeks, I think, before they made the mistake of venturing beyond the cabinet and pooping all over my counter, thereby alerting me to their presence (and flummoxing me so much that I poured my boiling tea water into my cereal). I immediately disinfected the counter, the stove, underneath the stove, and myself with massive amounts of bleach. Although it still feels like it's writhing with hantavirus, it has probably never been cleaner. The only casualty was a muffin tin that I cannot bear to use again after seeing mouse poo all over it. Farewell, muffin tin. We hardly knew ye.

I happened to be chatting with Simon P. when I made the horrifying discovery, and her advice was, "Call your dad." So I did. And as all dads no doubt do, mine possessed a nice, humane trap for little George and Matilda.* This seemed a better option than what my landlord suggested, which was that he sleep in my apartment and keep the mice from gettin' me. This was the useless one**, obviously, not the son-in-law.

Anyway, last night I set the trap, and this morning I heard somebody scrabbling around in it. I don't know whether it's George or Matilda. But I have to admit, the first thing I said was, "Hello, mousie-mousie. Oh, you're so cute!" I do not know why I decided to speak to the mouse in baby talk, nor why I went on to try to comfort it and assure it that everything was going to be fine. But this must be common, because I've read a lot of mouse stories on the internet over the past couple of days, and a large proportion of them included sentences like, "Mickey is very friendly and watches tv with us," and "Houdini is extremely photogenic." They really are sort of sweet. Once they're trapped.

Yes, I use gloves to deal with anything mouse-related. While George (I guess?) is certainly cute, I do not need to cuddle with him or his diseases. He is definitely a house mouse so I am probably not going to die of anything, but who knows what his personal hygiene is like. He could have gingivitis.

I took George a couple of miles down the road to a cycling trail, opened his box, and stood back so he could leap to freedom. But he did not leap to freedom. He hid in the covered entrance to the trap. He did this for at least five minutes and showed no sign of ever wanting to leave (perhaps because I gave him twice his mass in peanut butter and oatmeal and he wasn't finished). Finally I tipped him over and he scampered away. It was overall a much less traumatic experience for both of us than I expected.

I have no idea how many mice there are, and whether I should expect to find Matilda in the trap tomorrow. I am just hoping I will not find Matilda and seventeen of her children. I would find that considerably less cute.

*Childhood picture book George and Matilda Mouse and the Doll's House may account for 50% of the reason I do not have a screaming fear of mice. The other 50% is common sense. I am like 3000x their size.

**The useless landlord is in truth a pretty nice guy and he did offer to buy me traps and remove deceased mice from my apartment. But then he also offered to provide them and me with rum, so the jury remains out. For one thing, mice can't digest alcohol and George and Matilda would die, and that is a terrible way to end a nice story.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Old Westbury Gardens

This is the last stop on our Mansions of Long Island tour. Old Westbury Gardens was built between 1903 and 1906 by John Shaffer Phipps, for his wife. They had four children: John, Hubert, Peggy, and Michael. Unlike the other mansions we visited, this one was not just one of many seasonal homes. This was the house the Phipps family considered their home, and they seem to have been a pretty happy and well-adjusted family. By which I mean there are no reports of gruesome murders, love affairs gone awry, or tragic accidents connected to the house. While I was on Long Island I read a whole book on Gold Coast mansions and the number of premature deaths was frankly shocking. But this house seems to have escaped all that. And, in spite of being enormous, it feels a lot more like a family home than the others do.

Let's not be coy, however. It is extravagant.

That glassed-in room has the best feature ever: when you ring for afternoon tea, a section of the floor sinks down to a lower level, someone puts a tray on it, and it comes back up. It's a magically-appearing tea tray! I want one very badly.

To the right of this, the garden part starts. We saw a lot of really nice gardens that week, and I was really fond of the Planting Fields Arboretum because it was a nice balance of natural landscape and cultivated gardens, but for sheer mind-boggling impressiveness, Old Westbury Gardens wins.

Mrs. Phipps was in charge of the gardens. She was rather good at it.

This is Peggy Phipps's playhouse. Inside there's a rocking horse, a doll tea party, and a cage from which stuffed guinea pigs are in the permanent process of escaping. It is unbearably adorable.

This arbor circles around a rose garden, from which we ended up in a little space with peacock-shaped planters:

and then there was a creepy, fir tree-lined "ghost walk,"

and then there was an enormous walled garden:

Here I learned a new word from my father: espalier. It is the "process of training a tree or shrub so its branches grow in a flat pattern." Or, in my terms, "process by which gardeners torment apple trees into giving up the launch codes." Like so:

From here we wandered up what they called the South Allée, between rows of linden trees, and saw the back of the house.

Just yesterday I was amused to find this view featured in an episode of Pushing Daisies. I forget which one, but there was an explosion inside and all the windows lit up, and it was quite pretty!

Naturally, there is also a pool, to the right of this, and a lake with what looks like a gazebo or rotunda at the other end.

And that is Old Westbury Gardens, in a very expensive nutshell. If you want to see more pictures, in more seasons, their website has a very thorough online tour here.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Scientists have a way with names.

I'm just going to quote directly from Wikipedia:

A barn is a serious unit of area used by nuclear physicists to quantify the scattering cross-section of very small particles, such as atomic nuclei. It is one of the very few units which are accepted to be used with SI units, and one of the most recent units to have been established. One barn is equal to 1.0 × 10-28 m2. The name derives from the folk expression "Couldn't hit the broad side of a barn", used by particle accelerator physicists to refer to the difficulty of achieving a collision between particles. The outhouse (1.0 × 10-6 barns) and shed (1.0 × 10-24 barns) are derived by analogy.

Friday, September 17, 2010


The Vanderbilt Museum

The Vanderbilt mansion is very Italian. It is full of dead animals, stuffed, pinned, or preserved in formaldahyde. It is also full of seashells, mummies, and boat models made of bones. It is weird and awesome.

Our tour was very interesting but at the moment I can only remember one thing: that Mr. Vanderbilt's bed has something to do with Napoleon, and has Josephine's likeness carved into the bedpost. Why does no one ever remember that Josephine cheated on Napoleon, Napoleon cheated on Josephine, and then they got divorced so he could marry someone who was more likely to bear children? Hardly an exemplary romance, Mr. Vanderbilt.

Anyway, the house is rather nice, if a bit, you know, glitzy. This is a man who named each hole on his golf course after one of his yachts. IT WAS AN ELEVEN-HOLE GOLF COURSE. They had a model of the 264-foot yacht Alva in the room with the preserved sea creatures. That's a third the length of the Titanic. For one guy. At least he named it after his mother, and not Napoleon.

Inside the courtyard.

The back, which faces the Long Island Sound.
That balcony is where the "breakfast nook" is, I believe.

The Long Island Sound. Connecticut is faintly visible in the distance.

A garden.

Another garden. (There were a few.)

Some interesting fellows.
Please note that there is a portcullis in the background.
In case the mob comes with pitchforks, I guess.



Bunny rabbit.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Monday, September 13, 2010


I have more mansions to show you, but it is book season now, and I am so delighted with my new acquisition that it cannot wait.

Somehow I got on the mailing list of the Antiquarian Book Fair, and every September I get a card that allows me to get in for $2. So I go. I see it less as a shopping excursion than as an outing to a hands-on museum. I go around and pick things up and say to myself, "I am holding a book signed by Clarence Darrow," and then I put it down and move to the next book and say to myself, "I am holding a book signed by Edward Gorey," and so on. I find this quite satisfying. I have to, because I can't afford to actually buy anything.

You would think I would be really into book collecting, but I am not. It is neat to have first editions of things, and fun to have things signed, and considering the quality of paperbacks these days, a nice hardcover of one of your favorite books is a pleasant thing to own, especially if it's illustrated. But I do not go out of my mind about it. The important thing is the text. Whether the book is signed or not, you really can't get closer to the author than to read the text, whatever form it's in. I still prefer printed books for many good reasons, but collectability isn't one of them. I have some nice copies of books, but more often I am attached to them because they were a gift from someone. If your house burns down, you are much better off that way. As Peter Wimsey says, "'You gave them to me and I loved them' is all right, but 'I loved them and you gave them to me' is irreparable."

Anyway, usually if I want something at the Antiquarian Book Fair, it's because it's a neat book and I've never seen it anywhere else. Half the good of these sorts of things is the random and surprising selection. For example, I did not know that Groucho Marx had written a book called, Many Happy Returns! An Unofficial Guide to Your Income Tax Problems by Groucho Marx, T.P., L.B. (Tax-Payer, Lower Brackets). That is a book I would buy because it is delightful and I might never have another chance to read it. But it was ludicrously expensive and, moreover, the introduction told me not to buy it because adding to Groucho Marx's income would push him into a higher tax bracket and then he would have to pay more taxes. Anyway, that's the kind of thing I'm tempted by. Usually.

This time, quite out of the blue, I got suckered in by a book I already own in Penguin format. Although I am not much of a book collector, I am susceptible to things that are well-designed or at least interestingly-designed. Shiny is a bonus. This one is all three: Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell.

I read it over Christmas, and it was unexpectedly hilarious and charming. This edition has an attractive cover and a terribly nice title page. And, best of all: color illustrations! It is my firm belief that more novels should be illustrated. This is perhaps the one thing that e-books have going for them: illustrations would be cheaper.

It is a sign of a good book when there's tissue paper in front of the title page. Oh, yes.

Possibly the best thing about this book is that it is worth practically nothing. I paid twelve dollars for it. I should not be throwing around twelve dollars like that, honestly, but it was so pretty! Anyway, it's worth so little that one does not have to be afraid to read it, which I would be with a book that was very rare and expensive. I think it is a rather good deal.

In case you are interested, an excerpt from Cranford:

"I saw Miss Matty nerving herself up for a confession; and at last out it came.  She owned that, ever since she had been a girl, she had dreaded being caught by her last leg, just as she was getting into bed, by some one concealed under it.  She said, when she was younger and more active, she used to take a flying leap from a distance, and so bring both her legs up safely into bed at once; but that this had always annoyed Deborah, who piqued herself upon getting into bed gracefully, and she had given it up in consequence.  But now the old terror would often come over her, especially since Miss Pole’s house had been attacked (we had got quite to believe in the fact of the attack having taken place), and yet it was very unpleasant to think of looking under a bed, and seeing a man concealed, with a great, fierce face staring out at you; so she had bethought herself of something - perhaps I had noticed that she had told Martha to buy her a penny ball, such as children play with - and now she rolled this ball under the bed every night: if it came out on the other side, well and good; if not she always took care to have her hand on the bell-rope, and meant to call out John and Harry, just as if she expected men-servants to answer her ring."

As a method of determining whether there is anyone nefarious under your bed, I think this is genius, and I wish I had thought of it when I was about five.

Thursday, September 09, 2010


If you remember, I last left you wandering the greenhouses of Planting Fields Arboretum.

There is a lot of weird stuff in there. These, for example, are called staghorn ferns:

It's nice to have options if you want antlers on your wall, but you don't want to shoot anything. If I ever own a rustic cabin, I'm putting one of these above the mantle.

These two hanging things also struck me as odd, but I don't know what they are.

Tiny bananas? Peas on a rope?

Here is a freak flower my sister discovered in the dahlia garden:

And one she pointed out in the greenhouse just because it was bizarre and beautiful:

I am going to tell you a secret now. This entire post so far has been a way of working up to the subject of Golden Shrimp Plants. They're fascinating, but they do not sound like it, which is why I did not title this post GOLDEN SHRIMP PLANTS ARE AWESOME. It's all about marketing. Why are they so fascinating and awesome? The clue is in this picture?

This flower is not a flower! As that half-yellow, half-green part in the center kindly demonstrated for me, those things that look like petals are actually leaves. LEAVES! Omigosh. The yellow cone is really a "bract," a modified or specialized leaf protecting a blossom. The funny white wings are the flowers:


 AND ANOTHER. They're everywhere! I didn't even realize it when I was taking the pictures.

Once you start seeing them, you can't stop. Even the big white petal on a calla lily isn't a petal, it's a bract.

The tall part sticking out of the middle is called a spadix, and the flowers are on that. They're teeny tiny. When the bract is particularly wide and surrounds a spadix, it's called a spathe.When a flower has no petals and no sepals, like calla lilies, the technical term for them is "naked."

Bracts! Spathes! Spadices! Nakedness! Is this blog exciting or what?

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Planting Fields Arboretum & Coe Hall

Coe Hall is a Tudor Revival mansion built in 1904 for the purpose, I can only assume, of thrilling imaginative little girls. I think I reverted about 15 years when I saw it. It puts one in the mind of Thornfield Hall, particularly if one is ready at all times to put in mind of Thornfield Hall, which I am.

Mr. Coe came from England to America in 1883 when he was 15. He worked his way up through insurance and railway companies and eventually became obscenely rich. It's a shame you are never allowed to take pictures inside of places like this, because the inside of Coe Hall was as magnificent as its grounds. It might not be a place you'd actually want to live in for any period, because the rooms are too big to be friendly, but it was marvelous. It was what you imagine a castle to be like when you are twelve. Dark wood panelling, big tapestries, great dining halls, windows of leaded glass and stained glass, stone floors. You could easily imagine Prince Humperdinck living there, although I don't know why you'd want to.

The end of the inside tour brought us into an exhibit about Natalie Coe's marriage to an Italian count, the social event of 1934. What chiefly interested me about this exhibit was a letter on display from Natalie to her husband-to-be. Previous to reading this letter, I thought F. Scott Fitzgerald just didn't know how to write women and made them all sound like airheads because he thought women were shallow. I now realize he didn't make up that "oh darlingest" style, he copied it directly from real life. I don't know whether I am relieved or more concerned.

But back to business. Coe Hall is surrounded by Planting Fields Arboretum, which would be a marvelous place to explore at length in all seasons. Here are a few pictures of the Italian garden, complete with a tea house at one end that I would happily move into at a moment's notice.

If you turned directly around in the last picture, you'd see this path to the house:

Next, the play house. If you think you've never seen anything so adorable, if perhaps slightly too pink, just wait til Old Westbury Gardens. That's a play house. Still, I'd happily move into this if the tea house was taken. I am a big fan of the curving roof; it gives the impression of a hobbit house.

Here's a walkway covered with hemlock, for the fun of it:

You must have known there would be a greenhouse component to all these mansion posts, and here it is. Great big greenhouses beautifully arranged and filled with fascinating plants. I recommend clicking on them and looking at them full size.

There is so much in here that is supremely cool, I have to save it for the next post. I swear it's interesting, please come back.