Kitchenware · Pandemic

beautiful, beautiful

You may not know this about me, but I have very strong feelings about coffee mugs. I rail against generic mugs that can be owned by anyone. I am a firm believer in Mug Individuality. A coffee mug is like the sticker collection of every child of the ’90’s (like myself.) It’s a place to show off your chosen weirdness, nerd-dom, and inside joke in a socially acceptable context that still allows you to be cool (’90’s, sticker-collecting me)/recognized as a responsible adult (grown-up me.) I love people rocking all their dorky TV show mugs, the sarcastic witticism mugs, and the weird, unicorn glitter mugs used by macho daddies because they were gifts lovingly chosen by four-year-old-daughters.

Second in the Mug Consideration (and sometimes squeaking into first place, depending on the day), is Holdiness Factor, pronounced HOLD-ee-nehss. (That’s not a word you say? Au contraire. It is. I made it up. You know who else made up words? Shakespeare). Holdiness is an absolute must. Mugs need to be able to cradle cold fingers and make you feel safe and comfortable. All mugs must be tested for Holdiness Factor before being allowed into my kitchen cabinet. (I have finite space, so competition is fierce.)

Then there are a few other, less exciting considerations, such as mug size (I don’t like giant mugs because the coffee gets cold before I can drink it and then I feel cheated), thickness of the ceramic for optimal coffee cooling ratio given the temperature of our house, and finally, day of the week. Yes, I have certain mugs that are designated in my mind as “work day mugs,” and other mugs that are “weekend mugs.” Some even skirt that “it’s a work day but I’m not at work/I’m on vacation” mug line.

I bring this up because tomorrow, my co-teacher and I will have our first digital “coffee hour” with our students–just a time for them to drop in and talk and for us to talk to them. An opportunity for us to do what high school music directors do best–be the emotional supports. We are the de facto grown-up ears and eyes to give advice when it’s uncool to ask your parents, and to tell you that the right thing that you know you should do, even though it’s hard, really is the right thing to do. It’s the nature of music, really. In such an intensely personal discipline, the success of which is fundamentally dependent on your ability to express the wordless places of the human experience, you connect with your students in a really personal place.

So tomorrow, I step back into this part of my job that is more important now than ever. And I’ve given a lot of thought to which mug I’m going to pick for coffee tomorrow. (If I hadn’t just dedicated three paragraphs to the importance of coffee mugs, this may have even come as a surprise to you.) Every time I open my cabinet, I toss around which mug I want to be holding when I talk to my kiddos–what message I will send, even if no one know it but me.

I think I’ve settled on my choice, and it’s kind of surprising to me. If you’d asked me a year ago, “It’s a pandemic. You need to have a coffee cup to represent yourself. What do you choose?” I would not have chosen the one that I’m choosing today. The mug I picked is not an old, thrift store gem. It’s not my hygge favorite. It’s not a pithy Golden Girls homage. It’s a random mug I won in a drawing a college friend did on Facebook that arrived in a USPS box on my doorstep on what turned out to be the last day of Old Normal. At the time, I threw it in my cabinet on probation, because I didn’t think it was going to make the cut to stay in my mug collection.

But then the world fell apart, and I have found myself drawn to its clean white lines and simple message: “Beautiful, Beautiful.” At the risk of being cliché, it’s kind of true. The world is suddenly a really scary, dangerous place for everyone–not just people in the developing world, or people who are poor, or people who are old, or people who are on the fringes–for everyone.

There are lots of stories about terrible things happening–people not listening to sound but unpopular advice, people putting financial gain before what is right–but these people have always and will always exist. The crisis just makes their true colors apparent. But more than that, greater than that, are the stories of the thousands and thousands of people who are stepping up and standing in the gap–crafters taking up their sewing machines and turning their fabric stashes into cloth face masks for hospitals and care centers all over the country. Companies that make vacuums, cars, and jet engines suddenly turning all their research and production power to developing and mass producing ventilators and respirators. Churches and convention centers opening their doors and becoming field hospitals. And then there are the true heroes–doctors, nurses, grocery store workers, truckers, delivery drivers, and mailmen and -women–the people who walk into the storm for us all. It is overwhelming sometimes when you reflect on all the good that is happening in this sea of danger.

As that great philosopher of our time, and my personal hero, Mr. Rogers once said,

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are so many helpers–so many caring people in the world.”

Because there are. Our present crisis proves it. There are so many helpers. And it is:

See you tomorrow!


Baking · Kitchen Culture · Kitchenware

Bake it off

There’s always that one person.  You know–the one who insists  on doing it the long way.  You know them, because they’re the one who would rather spend twenty minutes trolling around the grocery store looking for something rather than ask someone who works there where to find pizza sauce.  Or the one who spends twenty-five minutes doing math longhand because it’s “just too much trouble” to get out a calculator.  The person who still has a Rand McNally Road Atlas.  Like I said.  You know the one.  And I’m here to tell you…

…I’m that one person.

I’m sure there’s some really smart, psychological reason probably linked to when I learned to walk or the fact that I refused to eat peas until I was 20, but I prefer to think it’s because I’m a rebel.  I have to go my own way–march to the beat of my own drummer.  Put the wind in my sails and sail off toward the horizon.  It’s all very romantic and much more dramatic than, say, potty-training.

So, tonight my old, Watch-Me-Be-Difficult self did it again.  I decided to bake this peanut butter, chocolate chip bread I found on Pinterest to take into work tomorrow.  I got the stuff, pulled up the recipe tonight and it told me to use…an electric mixer.  Now, I do (somewhat begrudgingly) own this pretty hip, 1949 handheld mixer that weighs about a ton, but I will be honest with you.  The prospect of cleaning the darn beaters means I avoid using it for anything short of meringue.

So when this recipe suggested I use a mixer for a quick bread, I instantly decided that a spoon would be fine.  I have this one wooden spoon I got at a garage sale when I was fresh out college.  It’s a great spoon–it looks like it’s about a million years old, it has a nice long handle–and it is my official “baking spoon.”  So I got out the Baking Spoon, laughed in the face of this recipe, and stubbornly insisted on blending peanut butter, brown sugar, and two eggs by hand.

Well, I can tell you it worked just fine.  It took maybe three extra minutes, but I don’t care.  My friend, Kelly, has this spoof on the Taylor Swift song “Shake If Off” hanging in her kitchen, that popped into my head as I was mixing this batter.  I’ll be diplomatic and say that T. Swift is not exactly in my top ten favorite artists of all time…or any time…but tonight, after successfully defeating a “mixer only” recipe, I found myself literally dancing around my kitchen singing,

“Players gonna play, play, play, play, play…And haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate…but I just bake it off, bake it off!


Behold! The Spoon of Victory!

Culture · Kitchenware

Childhood in a time of peace

IMG_0510These are my salt and pepper shakers.  I will be honest and say that, most of the time, I only get them out when I have other people over.  On my own, it’s easier to stick with the pepper grind and the salt ramkin…or salt pig…or salt cellar…or whatever you call it.

These were an impulse buy at a thrift store when I was actually looking for something completely different (but the whole thing cost less than a dollar, I think, so why not?)  I actually bought them because of the tray.  I had never seen S&P shakers on their own special plastic tray, so I bought them.

Later on, when I was trying to figure out how to get their seasonings into them, I flipped them over and saw the “Product of W. Germany” written in relief on the bottom…back when West Germany was still a “thing.”  That made them cooler to me–because I have a product from a place that technically doesn’t exist anymore.

I was only in kindergarten when the Berlin Wall fell, and I remember being in first grade when the U.S.S.R. officially dissolved.  I remember sitting at my grandparents house–all the grown-ups watching the news.  I remember how shocked and amazed they all were.  I also remember not understanding why, but my six year old self sensed that this was important.

I was thinking about that the other day, when I was putting out my salt and pepper shakers for my friends.  I am probably among some of the youngest people who actually remember those events taking place.

I lived my whole childhood in a way not many Americans have had the opportunity in the 20th and 21st centuries.  My memories start with the fall of the Wall, the Communist threat a thing of the past.  I played and went to softball practice and sang in school concerts in a time of peace.  I was safe.  There were no “bad guys” lying in wait.  (This also made generic bad guys for action movies hard to come by…) I grew up doing fire drills and never worrying about something bad happening to me.  My childhood and our country’s sense of security ended at the same time.  My senior year of high school was defined by September 11, 2001.  The world changed, and we were not the same.

I think about my childhood compared to that of my parents, that of my students–how different my world was from either of them.

My parents grew up in the shadow of the Cold War.  They had to do nuclear attack drills in school (precious little good, though, that these drills could have done.)  There was always the unspoken danger of Soviets, speaking eerily in Russian, lurking in America’s corners.

In many ways, it is the same for my students.  None of them know a world before the threats of al Qaeda and ISIS.  None of them know that there was a time you could get onto a plane without having to take off your shoes first.  They have grown up doing intruder drills.  For them, there is always the vague and unspoken threat of terrorists.


It makes childhood seem a lot more scary.  It makes me thankful for my time of peace.

Kitchen Culture · Kitchenware

Heartbeats and Memories

IMG_0496Kitchens are the heartbeat of any family.  It is where you pour another cup of tea to fend of an impending cold.  It is where you pour another cup of coffee and sit down to listen as the people dearest to you cry at the kitchen table.  It is where Grandmas and Grandpas cement their place as better than parents (because every kid knows there is always dessert at Grandma’s), countless hours of homework are done, important talks happen, grievances are aired, people laugh and cry and fight and make-up.

Show me a family that has issues, and I’ll show you an empty kitchen.

So it is fitting to me that the only memory I have of great-grandparents’ house is of the kitchen.  My great-grandma died when I was a baby, and my Great-Papa died when I was only four.  They lived far away from my family, and so we didn’t often make the trip.  The only memory I have of my Great-Papa is actually a memory of the house.  They had this classic, farmhouse-style white kitchen and there was this plastic, daisy “thing” in the window by the sink.  I believe in my soul it was a sun-catcher, however pictorial evidence proves otherwise.  Most of my memories of my Papa are really my mom’s memories, passed down to me.  But that one memory–that flower thing–is mine.

When I was wandering a vintage shop near my house last winter, I saw a plastic daisy IMG_0499“thing.”  It’s not exactly the same, but I saw it and The Memory summoned itself up.  I remembered that big, airy, white, old-fashioned kitchen.  I remember looking up and seeing my mom and grandma talking about something–I’m sure it was probably the funeral.  I remember the world seeming a lot bigger.

My mom is one of five siblings, four of whom had kids.  I know whatever heirlooms my great-grandparents had, I will not probably inherit any of them.  It is just as well.  For me, most of them would just be “things.”  But those plastic daisies, sitting in that vintage shop was a memory, and one that I wanted to lay claim to.

I bought those daisies, and they had a place of honor in my kitchen.  So when people ask me why I have them, I can show them the picture of four generations of my family–my great-grandfather, my grandmother, my mother, and a tiny, baby me–and say, “Do you see that little orange blurry thing in the background?  It was this daisy thing that’s just like this one, and I remember that…”

Kitchenware · Misadventures

The Saga of the Wine-Holder-Thingy

A couple of months ago, I went over to a friend’s house for dinner.  It was the first time I’d actually spent any time at her place, so I got the nickel tour: bedroom, living room, bathroom, dining room, kitchen.  She’s a big baker (unlike me.  Please see my post from a few days ago…) so I admired her new, fancy KitchenAid standing mixer and agreed that it was the best color.  (I have learned that KitchenAid owners are sort of like new parents–every mixer is the prettiest and the best.)  I also admired her wine rack.  The rack was actually a series of wine-bottle-sized, wrought iron corkscrews that are suspended from the ceiling.  I told her several times what a cool piece it was, and how great it was in the space and forgot about it.

Well, I forgot about it until I saw my friend again this weekend and she gave me an early birthday present, which was (you guessed it) an identical suspended-corkscrew wine holder-thing.

And I was horrified.

When I was recovering from the shock of what was actually in the box with a big, toothy “thank you” (thank goodness I am a better actress than I am a baker…) my friend said, “I was going to get you this other thing [read: something I actually, really wanted], but then you said how much you liked my wine bottle holder so I thought I’d get you that instead.”

Me and my big mouth.  I did admire the wine rack–in her space.  The thing fits in with my friend’s style and is an interesting conversation piece.  It is cool.  I do love it in her kitchen. I just didn’t ever expect it to end up in mine.

I feel a deeply personal attachment to my culinary space–the way many women feel attached to their wardrobes.  You know, that attachment that prompts comments like, “I love that top, but it just really doesn’t fit with the style I’m going for,” or “I know everyone always says I look great in this dress, but I just don’t feel comfortable in it.”

You have to understand.  My kitchen is a series of rummage sale finds and Goodwill treasures that have combined into a vintage bacchanalia that is essentially an homage to the days when homemade cookies were the norm and kids had to talk on the phone in front of their parents because the phone was still attached to an outlet in the kitchen wall.  I mean, I paid actual, real money for a painted plaster wall-hanging of a bunch of bananas and cherries.  On purpose.  I also (though I love wine) seldom have more than one bottle of it in my house at any given time.

But now, I’ve got this giant, super modern-y, suspended, corkscrew, wine-bottle holder-thingy.  And I have to figure out what to do with it, because my friend was so excited to give it to me and so I know the next time she comes over to my house ,she’s going to expect to see it.  I can’t tell her the truth (i.e. “I don’t want to put it up because it doesn’t match anything and I’m just going to keep bashing my head on it and then getting hit on the back since I’ve only got that one bottle of Cab and the thing swings…”) I’ve bought myself a little time, because I’m moving soon, so I’ll claim I “don’t want to hang it up just to take it down again,” but in the interim, I need to come up with a way to use it that won’t annoy me or offend her.

Right now, I’m thinking maybe an herb drying rack?  Possibly storage for my extra dish towels?  (If any of you, dear readers, have some genius, out-of-the-box ideas, I’m all ears…)

Meanwhile, I’ve learned my lesson.  I cannot overemphasize the importance of word choice when praising other people’s belongings.  And let’s just say I’m planning on phrasing my compliments like this from now on:

“This is so different from my style, but I love this Fill-In-The-Blank-Here in this space!”

China · Cooking · Kitchen Culture · Kitchenware

Rock the Retro

FullSizeRenderWhen I moved back to the United States three years ago, I had to make some tough choices about what was going to go into the three suitcases I got to bring with me.  Though I love cooking and the “food” experience, very few of my kitchen items made the cut.  I left behind, among others, my Aeropress coffeemaker and beloved immersion blender.  Only four cookbooks made it back Stateside intact.  The rest were ruthlessly rooted through by my roommate and I as we cut out any recipes we thought we may ever make and tossed the dross.  (When you’re trying to get four profoundly formative years of your life down to 150 pounds, you can’t afford to be kind.)

An often overlooked side effect of spending your late twenties having this life-changing experience in the developing world is that you get back to the U.S. with like $600 in your bank account–a bunch of money for China, not a bunch of money for the States.  So I had to go about rebuilding my life on a shoestring.

You don’t think about how all the stuff you’ve amassed in your kitchen cost an accumulative bundle because most people’s kitchens are slowly populated with every spoon on the planet over a course of months or years.  (Lots of people also get cool things called “wedding showers,” of which I didn’t have the benefit, but I digress…)

So what does a poor, at the time only partially-employed teacher do?  She becomes best friends with her friendly neighborhood Goodwill, that’s what.

This is the way I got my dishes, silverware, mixing bowls, casserole dishes, pans, pots, mixing spoons, storage containers and measuring spoons–in fact, as I catalogue my kitchen in my head, I can think of only three or four things that were actually new when I bought them.

It means I saved a bunch of money.

It also means my kitchen paraphernalia has a strongly ’70’s gold vibe about it.

I’m now in a much more stable financial place, and could probably afford to upgrade a lot of my Poor Girl Kitchen.  I could replace my mismatched kitsch-fest with something chic.  But I realize I’ve grown attached.

Nobody else has my old, white-with-royal-blue-trim Correllware.  I never have to worry about anyone “accidentally” taking my aqua-blue Pyrex bowl home from a potluck by mistake.  I am the only person I know under 60 who can claim her kitchen counter is graced by a vintage, 1980 CrockPot with orange flowers on it and a bread making canister.  (Yes.  I can, in fact, make bread from scratch in my CrockPot.  You can be jealous.  It’s okay. I understand.)  I also don’t know anyone else who can claim her salt and pepper shakers were made in West Germany (back when West Germany was still a thing…)

My kitchen has history.  Generations of cooks and bakers are represented in my kitchenware–my 1950’s Pyrex, my 1960’s flour and sugar canisters, my 1970’s Tupperware, my 1980’s CrockPot, my 1990’s lemon-shaped egg timer–all the cooking fads, all the kitchen disasters, all the families who gathered around tables and stood around  while people washed dishes, are all represented and remembered my little kitchen.  I like the one-of-a-kind uniqueness of it.  My kitchen has the “be your own person” personality we always tell kids is important but so often shy away from in our adult lives.  And I think that counts for something.

So you can keep your fancy-shmancy, polished silver coffee storage containers.  I like the green pepper and squash design on my old glass one just fine.