$5, $10: Does it really matter?

December 23, 2006

5.jpgI went to Barnes and Noble this morning. On my way out of the parking garage, I passed an old man who had just found a discarded fast food container in the trash can and was eating the leftovers. I waited until I was past him then looked in my wallet for some money, hoping I had a $5 bill or some singles. I had a $10 bill and a $20.

Ten dollars seemed too much and the small amount of change I had–less than $1–would have been an insult. I hurried to Barnes and Noble, close to tears at the thought of how desperate you’ve got to be to eat someone else’s leftovers out of a trash can. The quickest way to get change was to buy a cup of coffee. There was one person ahead of me, so it should have been quick, but he had mistakenly proffered a Starbucks gift card, and the barrista had mistakenly tried to ring it up, and all this had to be sorted out while I stood there impatiently shifting from one foot to the other. When I’d bought my coffee, I dumped the cup on a table and ran back to the garage with a $5 bill in my hand. I was too late. The man had gone.

I keep thinking about him and wishing I’d given him the $10 bill. I have never in my life been hungry because I didn’t have enough money for food. And it’s not that I couldn’t afford to give him $10. Tomorrow I am going to give $50 each as Christmas presents to three young people, the grown-up children of a friend. They will be glad to have the money but they won’t want for food without it.

I don’t know why $5 seemed right and $10 seemed too much. What I do know, though, is this: It’s not the thought that counts, it’s the act. I’m pretty unhappy with myself at the moment.

Christmas cake

December 22, 2006

“Would you make us a traditional English Christmas cake?” asked my very dear friend, with whose family I will spend Christmas Eve.

“Yes, of course,” I said, even though the request came in early December and if a Christmas fruitcake is to be good, if should be made no later than September.

When I first came to live in the United States, I couldn’t understand why fruitcake was such a joke. It was something I loved. Then I tasted the local version, and (all apologies to my adopted country), I understood why. The American version is extremely sweet, glutinous, overloaded with glace cherries, angelica, citron, and so on; and the bought version has a chemical taste.

An English fruitcake contains raisins, currants, sultanas (unobtainable in my region of the U.S., and no, golden raisins are not the same thing), a small amount of candied cherries and lemon and orange peel; and rum and brandy. By the time it’s aged, with the help of regular drinks of rum and brandy poured over it, it’s rich but not over-sweet. A week before Christmas, it’s coated with a layer of marzipan, and a few days later, it is frosted with Royal icing (powdered sugar, egg white, and lemon juice) and decorated with tiny figurines of snowmen, Father Christmas, and so on. It is placed on a cake board, something you can buy easily in England at this time of year but not in the United States; then it’s surrounded by a paper cake frill, something else unobtainable here, so I made a reusable fabric one many years ago.

When I was little, I’d carefully separate the marzipan from the cake and the white icing, give the marzipan to my father, and eat the cake and white icing. Since I’ve (sort of) grown up, I scrape off the white icing and eat the cake and the marzipan.

My cake hasn’t had enough time to grow into its role. It’ll be okay but not stellar. And it’s been many years since I made and iced a Christmas cake; the icing, which I did last night, is way too sweet. I should have put in fewer egg whites and more lemon juice. However, it looks pretty and brings back childhood memories, and since mine were happy, scraping off the frosting won’t make a difference.

No entry

December 15, 2006

This evening on my way home, I stopped in at CompUSA and bought a standalone numeric keypad and a USB hub. Like just about everything these days, each of my two new devices came enclosed in an almost-impenetrable bubble of very tough plastic. I am accident prone (that’s the PC way of saying “I pay the price for being clumsy and often impatient”) so hacking my way into this packaging is not something I approach with confidence.

I started with the USB hub. It took scissors and an Exacto knife, and I cut myself on the plastic container. Then there was an interior plastic enclosure that had to be pried apart. That done, I figured I deserved a break, a BAND-AID, and a glass of wine, after which, I attacked the keypad package. That one was easier (just as well, given the glass of wine). I could insinuate the scissors around the edge of the bubble and it opened. Out came the keypad, a cable, a battery, and a user guide.

“Remove the battery cover from the back of the keypad,” says the user guide, giving no further hints as to how this is to be accomplished. I’ve tried every which way, and I can’t do it. I’ve pressed the front of the battery cover and tried to slide it backwards, pressed the back and tried to slide it forwards, tried to open it with my fingernails, and tried to pry it up with a knife.

Tomorrow I’ll go back to CompUSA and ask them to show me how to open it.

Technology transfer and partnerships with industry are big in the federal government these days, so I have a suggestion for the Department of Homeland Security: Get together with the manufacturers of consumer electronics and between you I am sure you can come up with a foolproof way to keep terrorists out of the country. It will undoubtedly involve plastic bubble packs.

Ready to sip

December 13, 2006

Back in October, I told you I was making Limoncello, a traditional drink of Italy’s Amalfi coastal area, but adapting the recipe. The traditional recipe calls for soaking lemon peel in 100% proof alcohol and after a period of time, adding a syrup of sugar and water. I find the real thing sickly sweet and so I squeezed the lemons I’d peeled and reserved the juice for the syrup. The resulting liquore isn’t clear, like traditional Limoncello because the juice makes it cloudy, but the taste is so much better.

Limoncello alla Passante

1 pound of lemons
2 cups of 100 proof alcohol (or you can use vodka as I did)
1 cup of sugar
2 cups of lemon juice

Peel the lemons thinly—there should be little or no pith. Steep the peelings in the alcohol at room temperature for 30 days. The alcohol will take on the flavor and color of the lemons. At the end of the steeping period, strain the alcohol into another bottle. Make a syrup from the sugar and strained lemon juice. Add to the alcohol. Store in the fridge for at least 30 days. The longer it’s kept, the mellower it will be.

Serve chilled but not over ice in small liqueur glasses (it’s very potent) after a meal as a digestivo.


Life imitates art

December 10, 2006

fellini_simage01.jpgYesterday afternoon, I was at the intersection of 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue on my way to visit friends who live near Dupont Circle. As I waited at the red light, a person wearing reindeer horns crossed, followed by someone in red with a pointed red hat and long pointed shoes, who was surely one of Santa’s elves. Then came Santa himself, and finally someone who–inexplicably–seemed to be one of the three Magi. On they walked, one behind the other and apparently in their own world, a fantastical little troop. The light changed and I had to drive on.

A truly Fellini-esque moment, which I long to have been able to capture in a photograph. But perhaps it’s in keeping that I couldn’t.

Best friends

December 4, 2006

12_04.jpgThis post was inspired by Elisabeth, who posted on her blog, As My World Turns, about her favorite childhood toys and asked her readers what theirs were.

A favorite Christmas present was my teddy bear, given to me by my maternal grandmother when I was three. Teddy slept with me every night until I was around 10 years old, during which time, I loved all the hair off his chest, so my mother made him a very smart tailored suit and knitted him a primrose yellow pullover.

Another favorite was my first bicycle. I was six. My father went through the usual process of trying to teach me to ride a two-wheeler (no training wheels in those days) by holding onto the saddle and letting go when he thought I was doing okay. I always, somehow, realized he’d let go and wobbled precariously then capsized. One morning, five or six days into the learning experience, no one was watching and I took my bicycle into the back garden, which had what was, to me, a very long path to the back gate. “I can do this,” I said to myself firmly (I clearly remember that). I got on and rode down the path.

For many years of my adult life, one of my most-loved possessions has been Gretchen, the doll my mother made for me when I was very small. She was my first doll. My mother named her because I was still too young to name toys, and she is dressed in Dutch national dress, or my mother’s best guess at it based on pictures. My mother made both the doll and her clothes, down to embroidered cuffs and an embroidered apron. Gretchen’s face was starched to give a base on which my father could paint the features with watercolors.

I was a careful child and kept (and still have) many of my most loved toys and books. Years later, when I was already an adult and, little by little, was bringing those special things from England over to the U.S., it was Gretchen’s turn to be put in my suitcase. My mother, by then in very comfortable circumstances, said—and I feel my throat tighten and tears behind my eyes as I write this—”It makes me sad that I had to make you a doll because we couldn’t afford to buy you a real one.”

“But that’s why I love her so much,” I said. “Because you made her for me.”