Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Two Noodles Diverged in a Yellow Cheese Sauce

This morning I had not yet hiked to the road to get the paper so I was looking over an interesting Chirpstory from @dvnix.   This link summarizes a Twitter exchange between the writer Jeremy Duns and the journalist Glenn Greenwald about whether the journalist’s coverage of Julian Assange was truly impartial anymore, and I had what seemed like an important thought about it, but I was interrupted by my finishing my coffee and actually needing  to get going.  Most of the time, my ideas fly away like dry leaves in a gust of sudden wind, but this one flew back to me this evening while I was making macaroni and cheese.
First of all, I would like to say that Jeremy Duns makes some pretty strong points, and Glenn Greenwald, a busy journalist, initially tries to give him a perfunctory brush-off. It is difficult to take pointed criticism, every professional knows, and I sympathize with Greenwald in so far as he is obviously trying to just do his job.  Second of all, I would like to say that I think Julian Assange’s refusal to return to Sweden to face charges of sexual assault is dishonorable and disgusting. Hero of free speech or no, no man should be above the law. Thirdly, I would like to say that watching two smart, opinionated people argue on Twitter is pretty entertaining.
But all of these are beside the point, which is this: when someone takes the time to offer you thoughtful, but pointed criticism, they are doing you a favor. I am not saying that I personally enjoy being called out, because I do not. What I am saying is that careful readers who drill into the details you offer and reach different conclusions and then tell you about it are helping you do your job better as a journalist. Even if you do not agree with the criticism, what does it tell you that you are doing wrong? You failed to meet someone's expectations. Why?
This question blows the dry leaves of my ideas back to homemade macaroni and cheese.
The last time I made macaroni and cheese I made it the same way I have made it every time since I was about 20, which was a very long time ago. I had grown up watching my mother make it, and I needed neither to measure nor to wonder about the process. The last time I made it, I was vaguely dissatisfied with the results. It just seemed too cheesy, and yet a bit too dry. Today, I consulted a recipe, and followed it, and even measured all the ingredients. The result was much better.  The recipe appears below. If you have improvements to suggest, I would love to hear them. 

Improvable Macaroni and Cheese
Preheat oven to 400F. Boil salted water in a large pot.
When water boils, add 1 pound pasta (elbows, shells, rigatoni, or ziti). Cook for approximately 2 minutes fewer than the instructions on package. Drain pasta, and return to pot.
While pasta is cooking, melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a large saucepan.   Add 1/4 cup all-purpose flour and 1 teaspoon dry mustard to saucepan. Cook, whisking, for 1 minute. Whisk in 1 quart whole milk. Bring to a boil and immediately reduce heat to low, simmering until sauce is thickened, 3 to 5 minutes.
Remove sauce from heat. Whisk in 3 cups grated cheese (I used Cabot sharp cheddar and Kerrygold Dubliner); add 1 teaspoon Worcestershire, and salt and pepper to taste.
Stir cheese sauce into pasta, and transfer to a buttered 9”-by-13” baking dish.
Melt 2 tablespoons of butter and stir into about 2 cups of breadcrumbs. Scatter crumb mixture over pasta in baking dish. Follow with a sprinkling of paprika.
Bake 15 to 20 minutes. Allow to cool a few minutes before serving.

My mother liked to tell the story of a dinner guest who got a whole chunk of unmixed dry mustard in his mouth when he ate her mac and cheese at our house; he was too polite to say anything, but she could tell her mistake by the look on his face.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Cat Panic 3: Revenge of the Bureaucrats

Yesterday I made my (almost) daily visit to the local post office.  I found a letter in my box that was intended for the box next door, and stood in line for a while, waiting to hand it to a staff member.  I am always alarmed by mis-delivered mail, viewing it as a sign that things just aren’t as reliable as they should be. The woman ahead of me in line was trying to mail a greeting card in a square envelope. It was carefully addressed in her large, loopy cursive, and she had chosen a decorative stamp and applied it in the corner. Because of its unusual dimensions, it was going to require 20¢ extra postage. The customer produced a plastic bag full of a large number and variety of carefully organized postage stamps from her purse and explained to the clerk that she had 5¢ stamps, but felt there was not enough room for them on the envelope.
The clerk looked in the stamp drawer (which is no longer at the counter but is instead somewhere in the back and off to the side) for a 20¢ stamp to sell her, but they had none. They also had no 10¢ stamps, so four 5¢ stamps was her only choice. Together, the clerk and the customer placed the stamps in the remaining space in the upper left hand corner of the envelope. Then, the clerk hand-cancelled the envelope with two rubber-stamps.
Next, I drove over to the local UPS store to send my youngest son’s clothes to summer camp. I was greeted cheerfully by a staff member as I walked in.  The cheerful clerk took my heavy boxes from me and struck up a conversation with me about the retailers whose boxes I had used and about summer camp and about how long it might take the packages to get there.  Customers are listed within UPS’s database by their phone number, and the process is so quick and confidence-inspiring that it was not until I was driving away that I had time to reflect on the contrast to the post office.
Right before we moved in to the Big Red Barn, I was strong-armed told by the belligerent detail-oriented listing agent to apply for a post office box instead of using the mailbox at the top of our drive way. Her argument was, “Yes, you need to.”
The post office in this community is staffed by grouchy detail-oriented people who send back any mail addressed to our street address rather than the post office box number. In large grease pencil they write: NO RECEPTICLE (or sometimes NO RECEPTACLE). The post office is approximately two miles away from our house, which makes it just far enough away not to be a walking destination. It also has a lot of signage about allowing no dogs except service dogs, about the special penalty for robbing a post office, about their brief hours of operation, and about their rates for various sizes of boxes for their state-of-the-art slow shipping.
The mailbox that is/isn't at the top of the driveway
If you come to visit the Big Red Barn, you can find our driveway between our trash hutch and our non-existent mailbox. If you open our non-existent mailbox, you will find a single letter to a former tenant and several receipts for filling the propane tanks last December. I look in there all the time, just to see if anything happened. If I had a large rubber spider I might want to put it in there when we move out in September.
Within 24 hours of my cat-bite, I had been contacted by Beth at the Westchester County Health Department, who left me a message saying she wanted me to know that they have a process she wanted to explain to me.  We then played phone tag for about a day. When we did have a conversation, Beth told me that as the pet owner I was going to be receiving a letter from the health department which I needed to fill out and return after a 10 day quarantine. She may have described the letter as “harsh,” or even “threatening,” and she assured me it was for public safety.
 There is really nothing funny about rabies, or the possibility of people getting rabies. Even though my cat is now and has always been an "indoor-only" pet, I have always kept him current on all of the recommended vaccines, including rabies.  I am aware of various educated and otherwise law-abiding people in this country who do not vaccinate their pets and/or children based on some sort of logic that common vaccines cause bad things to happen to them.  I don’t know what to say about that kind of thinking other than to wonder about how science is taught in this country.
I do marvel at Beth’s job: she gets to send out a letter to people that is so threatening that she needs to pre-empt it with a friendly phone call. In my case, the post office never delivered my letter, because it was addressed to our physical address and not our post office box. I had the forms emailed to me.
Here are the three emails I received:

Just print out the attached documents. I will call you on 5/31 to check on Schwartz's health status. Beth

Maggie…was able to print out. I am closing this case..Beth

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Peony of Coincidence

Before my parents put a pool in the backyard of the house I grew up in, there was a peony in the yard. I think the flowers were dark red. It was memorable for being a plant that emerged from the dead dirt like a miracle, and most especially because of the large black ants that were to be found crawling all over the buds.  
I have read that if you want ant-free peonies, you can cut them when the buds are “marshmallow soft.” You brush off the ants outside and can let them bloom inside in a vase.  The ants are irrelevant and do not facilitate the blooming; they are simply tasting the sugar on the flowers.
Ants were part of my childhood. Our house had the small kind of black ant, the ones that would find a bit of food on the counter and march in a dense line to dismantle it and carry home the crumbs. I watched them often. Despite being afraid of many interesting things as a child (my grandparents, bees, throwing and catching, swimming, dogs, crows), I have no specific memory of being afraid of ants. My younger brother would lie on the pavement on his belly and squish them with his finger, saying, “Gee-um! Gee-um!” I can also recall a couple of experiments on ant hills involving water or hot wax, but I wielded no magnifying glass on them.  
As an adult, I take a keen interest in most of the things I was fearful of as a child (my grandparents, bees, dogs, crows), and I can recommend a book about ants that I read a number of years ago called, “The EarthDwellers: Adventures in the Land of Ants,” by Erich Hoyt. Ants, like bees and termites, live in colonies which function as a single organism.
As for peonies, they are always blooming on my birthday in early June, and in the past I always asked for some. A few years back, Schwartz developed a taste for the peony petals and heartily consumed a number of them. This produced in the cat some projectile vomiting of a surprisingly violent and comical nature. After I did some superficial research online, I was able to find peonies listed as “toxic to cats” on an ASPCA web site and “mildly toxic to cats” in most other forums. I also observed that there are other resources that consider red peony root to be a traditional herbal remedy for people for “clearing the blood.”
Today is my birthday, but it is also the anniversary of the massacre of Chinese citizens in Tiananmen Square.   The powers that be in China seem to believe that censoring the Internet by banning search terms will contain or erase or alter the memories of its people. The Shanghai Composite Index managed to provide its own random reminder by closing down by 64.89 points and so had to be added to the list of banned terms.  
Of course, peonies are said to have magical properties, containing nymphs inside their petals which escape when they bloom. Everyone knows that the peony nymphs are freed to call to the snapping turtles to tell them to come to shore and lay their eggs, but perhaps they also wish to promote democracy for the 1.2 billion people who live in China.