10 July, 2009

Home Improvement 101

What luxury, on the one hand, this week has been with no more pressing responsibilities than to settle in to Red Gate Farm, fix the little bits and pieces that have gone astray in our six months' absence. But how lonely on the other hand, with no Avery! We're looking forward to getting her back tomorrow, and then Monday we'll have her partners in crime as well, Anna and Ellie, to wreak havoc and eat us out of house and home, I hope.

We have turned quite the Home Improvement Team, with John waking up super early filled with ideas on how we can try to stem the tide of disintegration here, and generally make things more livable. To that end, we spent all of Monday switching the dining room and entrance halls with each other. Why have we spent all these years with the dining table and all its many chairs (and therefore guests) crammed into the smallest room in the house, just because it was presented to us as the "dining room"? And equally, why did we leave the largest room in the house as the entry way, used only for the Christmas tree, since everyone who comes over comes in the back door? It was but the work of a moment (well, a back-breaking day) to swap them around, pure and simple.

But as Oscar Wilde said, things are never pure, and rarely simple, so in point of fact it was a massive undertaking. The dining table would not, of course, fit through the doorway between the dining room and the entrance hall and so had to be carried out the back door, down the terrace steps and all the way around the house. Keep in mind, now, that I'm 5'6", my stalwart husband is 6'2". We are not, therefore, the best of partners to be carrying enormously heavy furniture around half of the state of Connecticut. "Keep your end up! Don't let the leg scratch the doorway! Come around the corner a bit faster!" he adjured me, and I was well tempted to point out that the world was filled with many wives who would refuse point-blank to play Happy Movers, but I held my tongue, and we got it done.

Equally, howsomever, the Shaker desk that we thought would look so much nicer in the dining-room-turned-library would not... fit through the doorway, so around the house we went again. We decided that in order to count as a library, the room needed more bookshelves, and if there is one thing this crazy house has, it's bookshelves and the books to go in them, so back to the nasty room off the kitchen that we've always euphemistically referred to as the "pantry," containing as it does the mice-eaten remnants of packets of wild rice, flour and crackers from previous seasons. In that room were languishing a gorgeous bookshelf from Scott Jordan, furniture purveyor to our newlywed days in SoHo, and a Victorian shelf from much the same period in our lives, dusty and neglected both of them.

Out they came, we managed to throw away nearly everything that had lived on their surfaces, I wiped them down with furniture polish (and a toothbrush for the curlicued carved ornamentation on the Victorian piece!), and we carried them (through the doorway, bless their legless hearts!) through to the newly-arranged rooms. And then, my friends, the real work began.

Because guess what's in the big red barn? In addition to bats and Rollie's second-hand tractor parts and the shutters that should adorn our house? Books, my dears, hundreds and hundreds of books that for some reason we left here during the big move to London. I made the executive decision to leave my art historical past behind me, and so I marked out dozens of boxes, imperfectly labelled to be sure, as "art history books," and the long-suffering movers simply dumped them in the barn, whereupon we covered them with big blue tarps and looked upon them no more.

Well, Monday was their big comeback day. I dug into box after box after box, discovering many treasures of fiction, Avery's picture books that somehow hadn't made it to cousin Jane's bookshelf, cookbooks and biographies, and finally, yes, some art history. All told, I carried in about 300 books, distributing them in that Quixotic way all book collectors will understand: not according to subject but according to how tall they are. For this reason "Great Paintings From the Hermitage" rubs shoulders with "Morrocan Barbecue" and "Amelia Earhart's Adventures." No Dewey Decimal System for me, that's for sure. But it's all colorful and pretty and there's nothing to bring back memories like shelves full of beloved books. I even found my undergraduate thesis, "Michelangel's Neoplatonic Sculpture and Poetry"! What on earth was it doing in my big red barn?

Well, that was the early part of our week. Everything has taken on that newish feeling, as objects do when you move them out of their accustomed places. Art from my old gallery that we had just propped up on flat surfaces got hung on the walls, mercury glass candlesticks that had become invisible on a desk here or mantelpiece there were put in new places and suddenly shone. It's all really lovely, and I have the sore muscles and bruises marching up and down my inner arms to show for it. And guess what: the barn is STILL full of books. I didn't even scratch the surface. We found one more bookshelf out there, but without the shelves or the pegs to lay them on. Hmmm. Food for thought.

This project completely exceeded my interest in home decorating, so we moved on to other things, like greeting our dear neighbors Konnie and Mark, here to deal with the horses they board in our back meadow. At some point they'll mosey over with their nearly four-year-old daughter Stephanie, so I'd better get some cookies and be ready. And just as I was getting my baby-back ribs under some barbecue sauce and the corn on the cob OFF the cob and under some cream and garlic, Jill, Joel, Jane and Molly arrived! Jill and Joel were as handsome and chipper as ever, Jane as full of conversation and bounce, but little Molly has been completely transformed from slightly wobbly Christmas baby to a bundle of real person: bright eyes and placid gurgling, completely happy and content. She allowed me to carry her around, but she saved her real enthusiasm for John, who always looks much taller and bigger all around when he holds a baby.

Jane entertained us all with the recounting of several intricate picture book plots, we all tucked into barbecued ribs and scalloped corn, and generally basked in the luxury of being reunited. It's always the same, every summer: standing the children up carefully in the doorway to the laundry room to put the latest measuring marks up: this summer Avery has grown two inches since Christmas, and Jane nearly as much. I suggested we prop Molly up for her first measuring, but I don't think anyone listened to me.

The next day brought us the first visit and rambling account of local events from Farmer Rollie, pulling up in his battered blue Ford truck, smiling on us benevolently, declining to shake hands because he'd got his fingernail torn off the night before by a "cow who'd gone down." "She whipped her head around and caught me, just like that, so it was off to the emergency room..." We are now completely caught up on Southbury gossip, of the sort, that is, that interests Rollie, namely second-hand farm equipment and its pricing methods. He reported gleefully to John, "Got some really good milking equipment last week, didn't cost me more than 10 cents on the dollar, because I got it from a local guy who got arrested for running a crystal meth lab."

Life has not been without its typical Connecticut encounters, to be sure. It's hard to define, but there is such a thing as a Typical Connecticut Encounter, especially with a member of the sales community. Finally exasperated beyond tolerance by our dripping kitchen tap, we took ourselves off to the venerable Allen's Plumbing in nearby Seymour. Defective cylinder in hand, Pete behind the counter turned the pages of the cylinder handbook with a well-licked thumb and motioned to a pile of fluorescent papers to his right. "Fill one of those out, if you have a mind to," and we picked up the "Entry for Free and Discount Propane Contest." Hmm. "What if I didn't want any propane, but I won the contest. What else would you give me?" John asks. "But you DO want propane, we have a propane grill," I object on the grounds of truthfulness, and John replies placidly, "I'm just asking. What else could I have? How about this Disney keychain?" "Don't know as we could do that, Disney's my nickname," says Pete equally placidly. "Now, we could do you for some of this here Natural All-Purpose Cleaner." "How about Squidge-Free Drain Unclogger?" John persists. Pete considers, then shakes his head. "Don't think that's included."

As we drove home along the old Oxford Road, John laughed suddenly. "Lookee over there, there's a cop parked by the side of the road, with an actual Dunkin Donut and a cup of coffee. That's what we come home for."

And then there are the inevitable strip malls lining the road, countless nail salons and package liquor stores, pizzerias and mortgage brokers, piano tuners and day-care centers. But my favorite is the little series of shops with "Internal Medicine" sandwiched between "Grand Prix Cigars" and "Pets 'n More." I just don't think I'd be comfortable having my kidneys examined in between people pricing out stogies and clumping cat litter, call me a snob.

Being home for the summer always arouses in me a latent junk-foodie. I fill the cupboard with Doritos and Cheetos, the freezer with some sort of shredded potatoes that I am convinced, each summer, will be just as good as the hashed browns at the nearby Laurel Diner (but they never are, probably because I don't cook them with a pound of butter each time). But this summer I drew the line at one of my childhood favorites, because it's always so disappointing: Rice Pilaf, in a boil-in-the-bag. Things boiled in bags were a staple of my mother's kitchen when I was a child, and the sight of the little Birds-Eye boxes in the freezer section always sends me into a mild nostalgic frenzy. But somehow the Shoepeg White Corn in Butter Sauce and yes, the Rice Pilaf With Mushrooms and Green Beans never taste as yummy as I remember them. So this summer I decided to make my own. And you know what? It's just as good as I remembered.

Rice Pilaf with Mushrooms, Green Beans and Garlic
(serves 4 as a side dish)

1 cup mixed white grain and wild rice
2 cups chicken broth
3 tbsps butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
6 white mushrooms, chopped roughly
1 cup green beans, sliced roughly
seasoning to taste

Simply steam the rice carefully (do not boil dry!) in the broth in a covered saucepan for 50 minutes. Then take off the heat, still with the lid on, and leave aside while you saute the garlic, mushrooms and green beans in the butter. Then toss all together, salt and pepper to taste. LOVELY.


With this we grilled some marvellously fresh tuna steaks, marinated as I've described before in everything under the sun: chives, garlic, cilantro, sesame oil, lime zest, you name it. I couldn't find any lemongrass here, so I substituted even more lime zest than my original recipe called for. And for lunch the next day? The tuna salad of your life, quite simply the most luxurious tuna salad you will ever have.

Grilled Tuna Salad
(serves 4 as a luncheon dish)

2 grilled (leftover!) tuna steaks
2 tbsps mayonnaise
1 tbsp chili sauce
2 stalks celery, split in three and minced
1 small cucumber, deseeded and sliced thin
1/2 red onion, minced
juice if 1/2 lime or lemon
fresh ground pepper

Pull the tuna apart into bite-size pieces with your hands, or I suppose you could cut it with a knife if you were feeling all neat and tidy. Then gently mix all the other ingredients with the tuna, and serve with toast or Triscuits or Ryvita, and a sliced avocado on the side.


Well, our terrace has been enlivened with several flowering plants in baskets, delivered by Rollie, along with a blueberry pound cake from his wife Judy, which I promptly put in the freezer to be part of the menu at Camp Avery next week, when we have three little girls to feed. John was taking a nap when Rollie arrived, so we sat together on the stones of the terrace, looking out over the peaceful afternoon landscape, sometimes chatting, sometimes silent. I enquired sternly if he had been taking proper care of his injured finger and he allowed as how he'd soaked it the night before and taken off all the dressings, which I'm sure the hospital staff did not intend him to do. Finally he said, "Well, I'd better mosey along, although if the boys catch sight of me they'll have a whole list of stuff I should do, so maybe I'd better not go home..."

This afternoon will bring, we hope, the delivery of a whole batch of tennis rackets from an internet scheme: you get to try out a whole lot of them, and just send back the ones you don't want! Since I've become rather a better tennis player than I was last summer (as in, I don't completely suck all the time), John feels I deserve a better racket than the one I've currently got, which has a nasty habit of sort of grabbing at the ball and sending it all over kingdom come. Yesterday we actually played twice, feeling ambitious! We arrived in the early evening for our second game and there, slightly awkwardly for me, was Val, my teacher of last summer, who in comparison with Wacky Rocco in London simply did not teach me anything. I had wondered what I would say when I saw Val, since I haven't signed up for lessons this summer, but I soon saw I had no reason for qualms. Fully the entire female population under 45 of my little town lined themselves up for an enormous group lesson! All highlighted blondes of a certain age, dressed in fancy little outfits (I simply must rise above my boring shorts and t-shirts!), brandishing fancy rackets and tossing their hair: Val won't miss me at all!


Foxi Rosie said...

What a glorious Sunday read... better than any papers, delivered with your own unique style and class... my dear... you are in a class of your own, exceptional...

Kristen In London said...

Oh my dear, you are FAR too kind. But I am selfishly so very glad you have enjoyed the latest instalment... Camp Curran begins tomorrow with three girls for the week, so wish me luck!