Tuesday, December 20, 2011

In Which the Grape bakes

Everyone I know has some food item, the presence of which makes or breaks their holidays. For me, it's the buttery pastries, filled with stewed plums, and baked in every home in Finland during the week before Christmas. The Finns are a conformist people in many aspects of domesticity. I wouldn't be surprised to find their Christmas pastry baking to be mandated by national law.

The prune filled pastry clause might appear in a sub-part of the ordinance dictating that all citizens enjoy a sauna bath on Saturdays. The Grape and I fail on that quid pro quo of our Finnish-ness. Though not for lack of effort on my part. When I asked a contractor about procuring a variance to install a wood burning furnace that would feature an open fire and several hundred pounds of volcanic rocks hot enough to burn off your skin, to heat a space the size of the master bath to 200 degrees fahrenheit, the salty, work boot clad fellow from Southie actually blanched.

So, because I only bake the pastries once a year, and I apparently suffer from some form of mild dementia that blocks out what a pain in the butt the whole procedure is, I made a pastry dough the other night. Per my mom's instructions, I set it in the fridge to cool.

6:42 a.m. Grape is still asleep. Pre-heat oven, re-fill coffee, extract dough from fridge and place on freshly scrubbed, gleaming, spotless kitchen counter. Congratulate self on tackling baking project before slumbering toddler wakes. Attack dough with rolling pin.

6:44 Dough does not budge under weight of rolling pin. Discover that dough is a hunk of ice, from being stuffed in back corner of overly cold fridge.

6:47 Take deep breath. Nuke homemade pastry dough.

6:48 Pastry dough emerges from microwave as gooey mess, resembling custard in August. Re-wrap dough in wax paper and return bundle to refrigerator. Grape yells from crib, "Who's awake? Who's awake?" Pause to retrieve child, issue him breakfast, etc.

7:47 Remove pastry dough from refrigerator once again. Grape places the remains of his bagel, complete with cream cheese, between sofa cushions and announces, "All done, bagel!"

7:49 Clean couch, issue Grape more orange juice, re-new assault on pastry dough with rolling pin. When it refuses to budge, hack at it in manner of railroad man working sledgehammer. Call mother to make sure this is the right approach. She says it is not. Grape, in an attempt to mimick my actions in the kitchen, assaults the television with a Tonka truck.

7:50 Save television from destruction. Re-direct Grape to kitchen.

7:56 Grape unpacks all contents of kitchen cabinets onto kitchen floor, demands yogurt. Dough finally yields to my assault. Grape dumps yogurt shake into pot of flour sitting too close to the edge of the counter. "Paste! Yay!" he announces triumphantly. Silently curse pre-school for introducing concept of paste to child.

8:10 Garbage disposal is clogged with remains of yogurt/flour mixture. Grape undergoes wardrobe change. Dough, now rolled out and ready on counter, grows warm, soft and difficult to work with as I wrestle with the sole jar of Scandi-approved Christmas pastry filling I could locate in this or an adjacent zip code.

8:15 Jar will not open with any usual ploys. Dough growing far too gooey. The Grape grabs a corner and smears it into his hair like gel.

8:59 Dough is back in fridge, laid out in a pile of sheets separated by wax paper. Oven is off. I am dressed. Grape and I venture out to find plums to stew. Grape leaves house with dough in hair, but it's alright because he wears his hat. Call gym to cancel Grape's 10 a.m. nursery spot.

9:37 Return to house to stew and pit plums. Read stories to Grape by Christmas tree. Carols play softly in background. Silently congratulate self on lovely holiday tableau. Fail to register that I should be STIRRING THE DAMNED PLUMS.

9:58 Correctly identify stench from stove as hazardous at same moment building fire alarm starts to blare. Grape shrieks in panic. Tears stream down his little face as I stand on kitchen island, next to pastry dough, and smack ineffectually at fire alarm with handle of Swiffer Wet Jet.

10:01 Alarm falls silent, most likely of its own volition. Dump pot of blackened prune brulee into sink, fill with water, contemplate cost of replacing Calphalon. Reassure Grape that this is fun and traditional, and that these will be the best treats ever. Grape demands a Hershey kiss for his troubles. Commence re-washing counter.

10:20 Contemplate opening bottle of wine to help adjust attitude in desirable direction. Decide the Grape might tell on me if I do so before sunset. Give jar of pre-made plum filling one last, frustrated whack with back of knife. Impudent jar pops open on its own.

10:26 Newly energized by victory over prune jar, I roll out the dough and use a knife to cut the proper, prescribed by Finnish law, half circle shapes. Use every last drop of filling, in the hopes that said filling is discontinued, and its absence will mean I never have to bake these stupid confections again. Fold now room temperature dough into decidedly unprofessional-looking lumps. "They're still going to taste great," I assure the Grape, who has affixed his little body to my leg in the manner of a sailor tying himself to a mast in an effort to weather a hurricane in a broken boat.

10:52 Prepare egg glaze to brush onto ugly, unbaked pastries, to ensure they gleam just like my mom's do.

10:59 Open oven door with cookie sheet in hand. Oven is cold. Dump cookie sheet on counter. Commence re-pre-heating of oven.

11:00 Grape tugs precariously positioned cookie sheet of unbaked delicacies off counter onto kitchen floor.

11:01 Spend next fifteen minutes ridding pastries of any pet hair they may have accumulated during brief run-in with kitchen floor. Grape, in desperate attention seeking bid, removes all ornaments from lower half of Christmas tree and stuffs most of them between the sofa cushions.

11:40 Gas oven finally ready. Insert pastries. Pat self on back for remembering to set timer. Commence cleaning kitchen.

11:53 Timer dings. Rush to oven to extract the fruits of five hours of labor: a measly eighteen pastries, two of which might be fit to show company. The rest look like Danishes that got run over by a fleet of the Grape's Tonka trucks.

11:56 Sit down with Grape to spoil lunch. Grape takes one tentative bite, wrinkles his little nose, and requests Parmesan Goldfish.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Behind the holiday eight ball

I don't know why it happens every year. Somehow December 25th arrives with remarkable predictability and yet, I'm never prepared. A season of peace and celebration morphs into a chaos that accelerates with the opening of each tiny flap on the Grape's advent calendar.

Maybe I should pause and be thankful I don't need to keep track of holidays that present as moving targets every year. I don't know how my Jewish and Muslim friends manage it.

Perhaps it's actually easier, in some ways, to be in the minority. No commercial machine tells them when to celebrate their magical season.

We're so bombarded with Christmas from the moment the Halloween candy leaves the shelves that I've conditioned myself to tune it out. I ignore the lights and wreaths in October. There's no amount of money you could pay me to get me to camp outside any store in the wee hours of Thanksgiving night. I refuse to hear carols before December.

But the problem is, by the time I'm ready to feel the holiday magic (sometime around today or tomorrow, and lasting through the traditional twelve days of Christmas), everyone else is winding down. That includes our tree - a Berkeley Street tree lot special that was probably felled in August. Of 2009. I'm sure it'll need an I.V. to make it through the new year.

And I'm not so worried about the annual holiday shopping. I actually don't mind the stores around December 23rd. I experience better clarity and sense of purpose when I know there's no time to kick the tires. Although I could dispense with the annual Christmas Eve dash to the corner store to buy wrapping paper, since I can't find the leftovers from last year. (They inevitably burst from the closet on their own power late in the evening on December 25th.)

I feel like somewhere in the unwritten mommy rules, it says we cannot commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ without at least seven kinds of homemade baked goods on hand. I like to cook. Really.

Baking, on the other hand, is a chore that looms over me in the manner of window washing or closet reorganization.

Yet I can't bring myself to outsource it. I love (and personally consume more than my fair share of) the treats my mother and her mother used to bake every December. And, even if it means making pastry dough in the middle of the night before Christmas, I feel duty bound to pass along the traditional family love of prune filled Finnish confections to the Grape.

Maybe I'll enjoy baking cookies more when the Grape gets big enough to participate. But for now, my attention span doesn't last past the first dozen. I get bored. The cookies end up super-sized because I don't have the patience to make hundreds of tiny treats.

I know I should step up my game. This is the first year that the Grape is old and interactive enough to grasp the concept of a holiday celebration. He loves trotting to the mailbox to check the day's haul of holiday cards. Have I written one seasonal greeting? That would be negative and I blame myself, for having unrealistic ambitions. I thought I'd have all the envelopes addressed during the first week of December. Ha.

The trouble started when, for the first time ever, I endeavored to have cards made featuring the Grape with Lila the Dog. I ordered them in a timely manner, by which I mean the week after Thanksgiving. It turns out I should have been on this season's greetings thing in July.

Early last week, the company delivered our cards to some random woman in Guam (okay, Connecticut, but with less than two weeks to go it's the same end result). She kindly sent them onward. They arrived last night. UPS dumped them on the neighbor's stoop.

Without envelopes.

And of course the cards are some weird custom size, and at least half of them are headed overseas.

I've learned my lesson. Next year I'll beat the system. I'll address my cards from a beach chair on Labor Day weekend. I'll buy wrapping paper half off in January and store it some place I'll actually recall. I'll pace myself with the dreaded baking, and have a freezer stocked with sweets marked "Do not open until Xmas" before Thanksgiving rolls around.

Yeah, right. If you believe that, I've got a winning lotto ticket for your stocking.

One last seasonal thought: Is it too early to break out the egg nog?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The gender politics of book buying

Think fast, guys: If I gave you a recent bestselling novel written by a woman, would you read it?

If you answered yes, would you be inclined to do so on an airplane, on the beach, or in some other public venue?

Or would you feel compelled to peruse the pages while huddled in the privacy of your own bedroom, fearful that showing your face in public shoved between the pages of “women’s fiction” would somehow blunt your manhood?

This summer, Esquire published its list of 75 novels “every man should read.”
One woman author made the list.


Flannery O’Connor.

I know it’s a men’s magazine, and I certainly have nothing against Ms. O’Connor (or any of the men on the list). But still. I have to wonder if her gender neutral name helped her make the editor’s cut. Just as I wonder if J.K. Rowling went by the nickname J.K. before she published the first Harry Potter book.

Consider: Esquire couldn’t even offer a nod to Margaret Atwood, the long-reigning queen of literary dystopia? Or Alice Walker, for the brilliant and unfairly controversial Color Purple? Not a single title by Nobel Winner Toni Morrison?

These women do not write “chick books.”

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I did a quick and utterly unscientific survey, and asked some of my male contemporaries to name the last good book they read by a female writer. Every one of them had to go back to high school, where the most common answers they came up with were To Kill a Mockingbird and Uncle Tom’s Cabin - both brilliant books. Indeed I’ve heard their titles mentioned by English professors as Great American Novels, alongside the work of Steinbeck, Twain, Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

The most interesting part of my inquiry came when I asked the guys to name the best book they’d read recently.

Most popular answer, in a landslide: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a 562-page tome that brashly demands recognition as The Great American Novel of Our Time.

Don’t think the writer had such lofty accolades in mind? Please. You could design a drinking game around the number of Tolstoy references in his book. And his use of the family as a microcosm of society lends the work a certain Shakespearean undertone that will give the novel a certain measure of well-deserved staying power.

But here’s the bottom line: Mr. Franzen, in his signature brash but wordy style, writes about family dysfunction, people and the causes they hold dear, and relationships between those people, especially when their chosen pursuits cause conflict. He’s not working in the traditional male-dominated spheres of war, spy craft and violent crime. Indeed, he’s tackling subjects normally lumped under the overly broad heading “contemporary women’s fiction.”

I have to admire this about Mr. Franzen: the man shoots for the moon and makes no apologies for it. Many women writers I know could learn something from his strident confidence.

Yet Mr. Franzen famously freaked when no less a personage than Oprah endorsed his work, saying he didn’t want his books labeled as “women’s fiction.”

Really? First of all, let’s deal with the gift horse bit. Here’s what you say when Oprah Winfrey announces that she wants to endorse your work: Thank you very, very much. Period.

Women account for the lion’s share of fiction sales, a fact Mr. Franzen’s PR people no doubt internalized, since the author subsequently went out of his way to make nice with Ms. Winfrey. According to Goodreads.com, a book lovers’ site with 6.5 million members, women are twice as likely to read and review work by male writers as men are to do the reverse. So their buying choices matter to writers of both sexes.

Yet among the ranks of professional reviewers, men outnumber women by about 2 to 1. It’s not hard to understand why. Those are plumb jobs. One who aspires to review books for a household name newspaper basically has to wait for a reviewer to croak for a job opening to arise.

Male readers could argue that they just happen to hear about books by men more often. It’s true: male authors get the majority of coverage, particularly from the prestige publications. The New York Times boasts one of the closer gender ratios. Last year it gave about sixty per cent of its review ink to male authors, rendering its books section far more egalitarian than those of many other highly regarded papers.

Of course it’s a feather in any writer’s cap to receive coverage in a major national publication. But I believe women writers face a hurdle their male counterparts aren’t asked to negotiate.

Virtually every woman author I know has been asked, more than occasionally, if her books are “for chicks.” That’s code for: Is your protagonist female, and do you write about families and relationships? I’m not aware of a male writer being asked if his work is appropriate for female readers. (Please, if I’m wrong, gentlemen, write and set me straight.)

Biases in gender take generations to change. Acknowledgement that an issue exists is just the first big step, one that several periodicals and booksellers are tentatively taking.
But I can offer one modest suggestion for the immediate term future.

Ladies, when shopping for the guys on your holiday list, consider stuffing their stockings with the work of your favorite woman novelist. Measure recipients' delight. Report back here.