January 2, 2012

New Year's Eve Blowout on a Budget

Back in late summer we were talking about what kind of party we should throw to 'break in' the new bar. Ben came up with a Prohibition theme, since the bar is hidden at the back of the house. We've been working on the logistics since then and for New Year's Eve 2011 we celebrated in 1920's style! The plan was for some 'illegal' gambling of blackjack and roulette, illegal drinking, entertainment by a torch singer followed by a raid at midnight. I wanted prizes for the gambling winners and a real speakeasy vibe.

Although we love to throw theme parties, I don't have the kind of disposable income that would afford buying or renting lots of cool decorations or entertainment or props. I have to be creative and it's sort of a personal challenge for me to do what I want to do with as little money spent as possible. First, the invitations. I use www.Evite.com. It's simple and it's free. This is what I wrote:

Dress as a gangster or a silent film star,
Come as a flapper in a Model T car!

Drinking and gambling are on the QT
If we get caught, the trouble we'll see!
Bring a fist full of dollar bills for the bookie
so you can make a wager or two or three.

Look for the password on Craigslist.org
without it you might need a bribe at the door.
Find a clue in the section called "community"
The word you're looking for you will then see.

A bottle of wine, a tub full of gin,
a plate of cannoli would fit right in.
Bring a bottle of hootch to round out the bar
Contributions of food will make you a star!

Discretion a must as coppers abound
we'll all go to jail if this club is found!

Drinking and driving is very uncool
A designated driver is always the rule.
Flop on the sofa or a bed on the floor
as long as you're sober when you get to the door.

Let us know if you're going to show
by saying YES in the section below.
Can't wait to see you and bring on the cheer
as we celebrate the coming of a Happy New Year!

I posted the password - JUICE JOINT - on www.craigslist.org, also free and easy, and updated it several times so that my guests could find it pretty easily. While they were busy putting their costumes together I was busy compiling the music. Of course I wanted the popular songs from the '20's but I didn't necessarily want original recordings so I spent a considerable amount of time on www.itunes.com and Google looking for songs from the 20's that had been re-recorded by more contemporary artists. What I found were some real gems, the prize of the collection being a recording of "Tonight You Belong To Me" by Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam on the ukulele. I also included a few songs that were about the 20's like Aerosmith's Rag Doll and Paper Lace's The Night Chicago Died. Rounding out the soundtrack with songs from the musical "Chicago" and a bunch of blues songs I already had by Boz Skaggs and we had an 8 hour playlist. The cost of purchasing the songs I wanted off ITunes was about $20.

Our house is over 50 years old and was one of the first tract-style homes in Phoenix. The original floor plan was a rectangle box with the front door smack in the middle and a tiny entryway that opens onto the dining room. I wanted our guests to have the experience of 'sneaking' into a forbidden speakeasy upon arrival. In order to do that we had to figure out how to block off one half of the house from the front but be able to access it from the back. After much discussion on how to do it, we ended up taking an old wooden room divider and extending it from the short wall at the front door to as far as it would go toward the other wall. We added a tall fake ficus tree to fill in the gap. It worked great! Guests had to go down the hall, enter the bar/speakeasy, and then go out the door to the patio in order to return back inside where the food/kitchen was.

Ben agreed to be the doorman. We have one of those old chain locks which he used to crack the door open when each person arrived. If they had the password they were allowed in. If not, he slammed the door and got "The Boss" who came to the door and allowed our friends in if they offered a bribe. Most of them showed The Boss the plate of food they had brought, which was ample payment for entry. Once inside they were given a pack of candy cigarettes ($6 for a box of 24 from www.candywarehouse.com) a roll of poker chips (more on that later) and two 1920's slang words on a slip of paper. The words were downloaded from the internet with their meanings. I enlarged the paper, cut them out into strips two by two and handed them out to our guests. It was very fun to see people read and then try to use their words in their conversations. Once they got through the door they were escorted back to the bar. As they went down the hall they passed the hall bathroom where I placed a sign for "Guys" and our master bedroom/bathroom combo where I placed the sign "Dolls". The girls made good use of our bedroom for their coats and purses and to adjust their costumes at the mirror.

Since we were expecting about 50 guests I'd have to utilize every inch of our downstairs space including our covered patio. It does get chilly at night in the winter and the patio would be too exposed for anyone to be comfortable without a coat. I planned on putting the gaming tables out there as there would be no room for them inside. After pondering this dilemma for a week or so, I came up with what I thought would be a great idea. Scouring just about every Goodwilll Thrift Store in Phoenix I purchased a dozen old-fashioned pleated, lined draperies that were at least six foot long. I didn't care much if they matched, in fact that was going to be impossible anyway, so all they needed to be was thick and/or lined. Starting at one end we used a staple gun and adhered the panels to the inside of the patio cover. Our patio is slanted with the taller side at the house end so as I worked the drapes up the side and toward the house I bunched them at intervals so they hung relatively straight. The total effect was such that it appeared we had a room added on to the back with wall to wall windows! A space heater in the corner was all that was needed to keep the entire room warm. At less than $10 per panel I spent not quite $75 on the enclosure. We strung Christmas lights at the top of the drapes and across the underside of the patio cover. Not too bright, not too dim.

I decorated the food table with a black, white, silver and gold theme. Since it was New Year's Eve those colors were abundant and easy to find just about everywhere. I also soaked the labels off a half dozen dark colored wine bottles and affixed my own label to them. I used the bottles as props for the table and could have, but didn't think of it until after, used them as candle holders. I purchased a very cheap plastic backdrop of a New York City street scene (about $5 at Party City) and taped it to an empty wall in the bar. We used it as a photo backdrop throughout the night. Other than that, I didn't decorate. Paul downloaded about a hundred old pictures from the '20s to play a continuous loop on the TV in the bar.

(Buffet table before the food was brought out. Notice the wooden screen blocking the entrance; the box of candy cigarettes and the re-labeled wine bottles in a crate.)

A friend of ours heard about our party and gifted us with two huge poker tables that he got for free from the VFW. They were home made jobs with PVC pipe legs and strange little trays bolted to the bottom that pulled out (I guess for their sandwiches or chips?) They had a padded edge just like a 'real' poker table and even had cup holders drilled in to the top. Paul took one of the tables and sawed that sucker right in half. He cut the felt in half and fit it back into the two separated pieces. He then took the legs and trays off, propped the table tops onto an old wooden cabinet and the legs of a broken glass outdoor patio table, respectively. The cabinet was the perfect height for standing but we did have to use blocks to raise the other one up. Now we had two gaming tables that would function but looked - well - crappy.

I had two brown curtain panels left over and with my now trusty side arm, the staple gun, I went to work stapling the curtains to the edge of the tables. What I couldn't cover with the curtains I filled in with a dark blue bed sheet I had previously used as a tablecloth. The result could have looked better if I wasn't under the gun (we finished this project mere hours before the party was to start) but it worked well enough for one night. Along with the tables our friend presented us with a big box of poker chips, also free from the VFW. There were 40 plastic sleeves of brand new, never used chips in all the pretty colors. We were in business!

(Patio with curtain enclosure and gaming tables)

I looked high and low for a roulette set that would be in my budget and found lots of them but they were so chintzy and small (the wheel on all the sets measured 10 inches) that I wasn't sure how I was going to pull off this portion of the gambling. Eventually I gave up trying to find one on Craigslist and started looking for new ones online. I finally found what I was looking for at www.ozonebilliards.com. A roulette set with a bigger wheel (16 inches) that was within my budget ($29.99) With shipping the whole thing came to about $35. It was still chintzy plastic but it came with chips, cards, dice, the wagering mat and a rake to pull the chips off the table. I set this up on my outdoor patio table with a dark green tablecloth under it to go with the wagering mat and also to stabilize the wheel when we spun it (or else it would spin itself onto the floor.) I had no dealers lined up and just left it up to my friends to take turns. After a very short time my nephew stepped in and tried his hand at dealing blackjack. He loved it, the guests won gobs of chips and a good time was had by all.

Our last game was to be a bookie sheet. The plan was for our friends to purchase squares on the sheet, similar to a football pool, and make bets on when certain party-related events would transpire. For instance, will a glass be broken - yes or no? How many bottles of tequila would be consumed - more or less than 5? When will the first taxi show up? Etc. The winners would split the take from the losers as the house was not willing to fork over any cash. It seemed like a good idea, but it didn't really take off at the party. I think we had four bets and, honestly, I never even paid out the winnings. (Yes, a glass got broken. Two, in fact but the second was when I did the dishes the next day so it didn't count.)

Now that we had the speakeasy set up, we concentrated on our costumes. Paul was "The Boss" and wore a green suit, button down dress shirt, grey fedora and cashmere scarf. He found his suit at Savers for $7. He found a 'real' tommy gun on EBay that was actually a BB gun but it didn't work. It was huge, real looking and a great prop. I had to be mindful of the fact that my ankle, fresh from recent surgery, was not going to support me in heels of any height. I opted for a gangster moll outfit and found a black suit with hot pink stripes at Goodwill. Paired with a flimsy black top and black cloche hat I had my outfit. The suit was less than $10, the hat on sale at Target for $14 and the top was $6. I splurged on a flower/rhinestone/feather clip for the hat; $4 at the Party Store. Oh, and I had a tiny little tommy gun that cost me about $12.

(Paul holding court at the bar)

(me, dealing blackjack)

Ben, as the doorman, wanted to look gangster-ish. He found a pair of dark pinstriped slacks, a sort-of matching pinstriped vest, a dark blue shirt and a tie, all at Goodwill. He splurged on a fedora that he loved and will probably wear on a regular basis. His girlfriend Ashley had a high waist black skirt, a white shirt with puffy sleeves, black and white striped suspenders and a white fedora. She disappeared for two hours and when she came downstairs she had transformed herself into someone who appeared to step off the page of a fashion magazine. Oh, to be 21 again.....

(Ben the Bouncer and Ashley the Barmaid)

I made a ham, some salads and a few assorted dips. I did not spend a lot on food. For one thing, the party started at 8 which is after the dinner hour in Phoenix. I simply assumed people would eat something before arriving. Second, I anticipated that a number of people would fill in the gaps and I was right - there was lots of food supplemented by my friends. I bought a case of Verde prosecco which goes on sale regularly for $3.99 a bottle. Cheap stuff and everybody loves it, especially the raspberry flavored one. We were ready for the party! As the day wore on our friends were posting pictures to Facebook as each one got their costumes on and prepared to leave for the party. Guests started arriving at 8, we were at the gaming tables by 10 and by midnight it was wall to wall people. The singer canceled so we never did have any entertainment but not one person seemed to mind. My brother was to raid the party at midnight with loud sirens but he also canceled. Again, nobody noticed. My plan to award prizes to those who scored the most chips also fell flat - so many people didn't even gamble that they had their original sleeve of chips unopened. We ended up making random suggestions for the 8 gifts I had set up as give aways. (The gifts were not expensive either. A DVD of the movie Bonnie and Clyde; a cocktail shaker; two glass 'boots' filled with cosmopolitan mixers; a texas hold-em card game set; a jewelry stand in the shape of a woman and two bags of chocolate candies. Not one item cost over $8.) The next morning I found three of the gifts still at the bar! Yeah, me!

The party was a smashing success with people all over the place eating, gambling, drinking and making merry. We had tons of flappers and gangsters but also Charlie Chaplin, an old-tyme golfer and a newspaper boy (that was really a girl but she looked fabulous!) Some of our ideas didn't work out but with better planning (by you, perhaps?) would make a great addition to the party. The raid in particular started out as a plan to have two "G Men" charge in just after midnight with a siren and herd everyone outside to a waiting bus where we would take them to the local Denny's right up the street for breakfast. I loved the idea but we just couldn't get it to work out. The biggest problem was the transportation. Renting a bus for 50 people on New Year's Eve would have cost me a fortune. Plus who and how were we going to pay for the breakfast? We ditched that idea in favor of a raid where we just bribed the G Men by 'giving' them one of our flapper party guests. That would have been fun except the G Men canceled at the last minute. The torch singer also didn't show, so our entertainment was missing but, like I said, nobody seemed to notice.

A happy new year was had by all, a slew of guests stayed the night and we toasted the morning together with coffee, champagne and orange juice!

November 9, 2011

Can I can?

Well, my canning story continues. It appears that canning supplies are difficult, if not impossible, to find in Phoenix if I want to do something more ambitious than jam. I can get the jars all right, but the modified food starch that's USDA approved is not available except by mail order. I went to www.canabys.com and for $15 I got the 'canning starter kit' consisting of a 16 oz container of Ultra Gel and a canning cook book. When it arrived, I carved out a few hours to begin my test run.

Of course, as it always happens in my kitchen, I was missing a couple of ingredients for the apple pie filling. I didn't have enough white sugar to make up 3 cups so I used 2 cups white and 1 cup dark brown. I also didn't have enough bottled lemon juice so I squeezed a few lemons to make up the difference. The former substitution was an improvement, in my opinion. The latter, however, I didn't realize until later may have caused the USDA a bit of heartburn had they known. Seems that fresh lemon juice is a no-no in the canning process. Why, I don't know. But I read about it after I had already used it, so all my test jars were going to have to be kept at home for personal use.

Using my big-ass pot I set the water on to boil for sterilizing the jars. As the water heated, I peeled and sliced apples, 6 for each quart. So far, so good. I decided the apples should be blanched first, so I had another pot on for boiling the apples and a bowl of ice water for plunging.
Lining up all the rest of my ingredients, I was ready to make my mark on the home cooking world.

I submerged the quart jars in the boiling water to be germ free when time to fill. I also threw in the lids. My instructions said to cook the apple pie syrup for a few minutes until shiny and thick. I added all the ingredients to a medium sized pot - sugars, spices, liquid. Then the three cups of Ultra Gel on top, which comes in a powdery form not unlike the silica gel that comes in new boxes of shoes. I looked over at the stove, there was no room for the pot of syrup. No worries, I thought, I'd blanch the apples and then make the syrup.

I didn't want my apples to turn brown before getting in the jars so I periodically squirted what was left of the lemon juice onto them. When I was ready to blanch, there were too many apples for the pot of water! Quickly, I scooped the first batch out with a slotted spoon and immersed them in the cold water. I did this several times until the cold water bowl was overflowing. I read the directions again. It said keep the blanched apples warm until mixed with the syrup. CRAP! I dumped the ice out and continued blanching the rest of the raw fruit.

I fished the boiling hot jars out of the water with the special tongs. Each jar was filled to the brim with a quart of boiling water. Pouring the water back into the pot was a challenge and I splashed and/or dropped the jars back into the pot a few times before gaining a healthy respect for how far a drop of hot water can fly. That done I divided the blanched fruit evenly among the jars.

Turning back to the apple syrup I felt my heart skip a beat. The Ultra Gel thickened itself with what little moisture I had put into the pot and formed a grayish white ooze across the top of the saucepan! Crap, crap, crap! I got the potato masher and tried to smush it all together and break up what I thought would be powdery filled little pods. Nothing doing. I got the hand mixer out and stuck that in the pot turned on high. The gel broke apart, but just small enough to slide through the beaters like mucus. Meanwhile, the apples and the jars were cooling off. I put the whole mess on the stove and heated it to boil in the desperate hope the gel would react to the heat and smooth itself out. That particular science experiment was a failure. Not only did the gel remain a gel, the heat under the syrup caused a small eruption similar to a volcano. My stove was never going to be the same after this. I gave the pot a few more stabs with the potato masher but I knew it was futile. Moving ahead, I spooned the hot syrup into the fruit filled jars. Each lump of Ultra Gel slimed it's way into the jars like nasty amoeba. I pretended not to notice.

Having no funnel I used a lipped spoon to add the syrup, but wasn't too successful in keeping the goo from sliding down the sides of the jars. Once I filled them, leaving what I estimated to be the one inch headroom at the top of each I noticed that the syrup didn't go all the way down to the bottom, leaving air pockets and bare fruit. Back to the instructions, which said run a knife through each jar to release any air bubbles. Grabbing a butter knife I gently stirred the fruit and syrup together in the jars. After doing this with each jar I read the instructions for the next step. Somehow I missed the part where it said to use a plastic knife, not metal. Oh for craps sake! I could only imagine what kind of ailment we were going to get because I used stainless steel.

The lids were still perking in the pot and were much more difficult to remove from the bottom. (Tall pot + short arm + short tongs = fingers that were dangerously close to the water.) I finally fished them out and set them on the tops of the jars, after wiping all the syrup off, of course. Giving the rings a light turn, the jars went back into the pot. Now, recall that when I took the jars out of the water I carefully dumped the water BACK into the pot. Any physics major will tell you what is about to happen, but I majored in Art and barely passed algebra. As I put the fruit filled jars into the hot, boiling water, the water level rose. Higher and higher until even I could see there was going to be a problem. Using a measuring cup I started to bail the water out before I added the rest of the jars. The water was pretty much up to the rim of the pot, but I couldn't take out any more without compromising the two inches of water needed to cover the jars. Slamming the lid on and setting the timer, I hid in the living room while the pot hissed, sizzled and steamed for 25 minutes.

When the buzzer went off, I surveyed my kitchen. Water had flooded my stove and turned a sickly brown around the burner. Apple peels, cores and seeds were stuck to all the counters. Sugar syrup was stuck to everything else and had even glued a kitchen towel to the sink. I made room on the counter and carefully pulled the jars out of the water. They looked pretty good, actually. I surveyed them to see if I could identify what was an apple and what was the lump of gel and determined that you couldn't tell the difference. I hoped the 25 minutes in the water bath dissolved the gel lumps but had no real expectations on that. The jars had to sit undisturbed for 24 hours. During that time I heard all seven quarts make a funny pop and knew that the canning process was successful.

The next day, all the jars were covered with a weird white film. I scraped it a bit with my fingernail, it seemed pretty permanent. I had no idea what it was or how it got on there but obviously it was some sort of reaction from the pot. I wondered what kind of metal the pot was made out of and had flashbacks to warnings not to heat things up in tin pots or you'd get Alzheimer's when you were 80. I took a risk and ran one of the jars under water. The film rinsed right off.

Nowhere in all the recipes for preserved apple pie filling did I find how many quarts or pints it would take to make one pie. It seemed as if one full quart would do it, but when I used one jar in an 8 inch pie shell it wasn't enough. One and one half filled the pie nicely, but left me with a problem. Since these jars would be sold at a farmer's market I couldn't tell my customers that the jar they just bought wouldn't actually make a full pie. I'd have to make a dozen quarts and at least that many pints. I checked the pie filling for the dreaded slimy gel but miraculously, there was none. We baked and ate that pie and at least two others plus used a quart as the base for an apple crisp. All were delicious, none had any funky lumps in them.

So the answer to my question Can I can, is YES I CAN! This Sunday I will be having a marathon canning session with one or two girlfriends to help out. And I'm already getting 'orders' from colleagues who plan on attending the market in order to buy the apples!


October 7, 2011

Don't know much about canning

Farmer's Markets delight me, when I go. Which is not very often although there are quite a few in Phoenix and several not too far from my house. I don't know why I never make the effort since I'm all about the organic, locally grown movement in our city. There is one Farmer's Market that I do attend though, and last year I even had my own booth. It's the annual fundraiser sponsored by Gentiva's Rehab Without Walls and benefits both the Brain Injury Association and the Spinal Cord Injury Association. This November I and several of my colleagues will again team together to provide home-made products for sale at the event.

This year I don't have a large garden to supply the market with herbs or home-made pesto so I decided to try my hand at home canning. I want to make apple pie filling in anticipation of Thanksgiving just a week after the event. I also plan on baking pumpkin pies with a walnut and brown sugar topping. Along with the same hummus I made last year we should have lots of good, interesting products at our table. Except, I don't know how to can anything. Yet.

I began by looking up lots of home canning recipes for apples. I was surprised to see that you don't actually cook the apples, just stuff them in the jar with the syrup. I was also having a hard time finding out how many quarts of apple pie filling it takes to make one pie. As I was doing my research I got a little scared about the dangers of home canning and particularly the use of cornstarch, even though I saw it as an ingredient in a lot of recipes. I decided to skip any recipe that called for it. The best website I found for my needs was http://www.ourbestbites.com

I didn't have any canning jars but remembered I saw lots of them at Goodwill. As an experiment I bought two of the flip top type (made in Italy) to try them out. Unfortunately, I couldn't find the rubber rings for them. I went to a couple stores in my neighborhood for quart sized canning jars and found some at Ace Hardware. I picked up a jar lifter thingy too. When I got home, I dug out my stock pot and placed the jar in the pot to see if it would fit. It would not. Really? I now needed to buy a larger stock pot for the sole purpose of boiling jars. Not wanting to pay a fortune I tried to locate a large pot at one of the many thrift shops in my area. No go. A friend suggested I go to a Mexican Food Store so off I went, and sure enough, they had great pots lining the entire back wall in all sizes! I settled on a 20 quart model with a steam tray, for $19.00. Here's what I have so far:


Tomorrow, I will go hunt down something called "Ultra-Gel".

October 3, 2011

The Great Vacation Wine Tour Party

We had a wine tasting party this past weekend at our house. The title of the party was "The Great Vacation Wine Tour" and guests were asked to bring a bottle of wine that represented their vacation this summer. Since our friends traveled as far away as Germany, Greece, Italy and London, we were anticipating a wide variety of wines from around the world. Our party was such a success I thought it would be fun to include a blog about how we planned and executed the event so if you ever wanted to stage something like it at your house you'd have some guidelines.

The party takes a little advance planning. At the beginning of summer we created an event on Facebook and posted our intent to have a wine tasting. We asked our friends to bring back a bottle of wine from their travels, regardless of where they may have roamed. Throughout the summer, as each person returned with his or her wine it was posted to the event page so everyone could follow along and anticipate the kinds of wine we'd be sampling in the fall.

As soon as the weather cooled a bit (which means, in Phoenix, that it only reached 100 degrees for a night time low) we sent out an invite, again through Facebook (but also followed up with email) with the party details. Usually I enjoy hosting and cooking for the crowd but with my ankle freshly out of the cast I knew I'd be unable to do much this time. I asked that everyone bring a pot luck dish to share along with their wine selection. My contribution would be a thinly sliced roast beef platter and rolls. (It was fabulous, too. Before roasting I patted the entire piece of meat with coarse sea salt, course ground pepper, garlic salt, minced thyme and olive oil. After slicing and arranging the beef on the platter I sprinkled a mixture of chopped fresh parsley, oregano, thyme and some spiny sprigs of greenery I picked out of the 'field greens' salad bag.)

Part of our home remodel was to take a poorly planned addition to the back of the house and convert it into a home bar. Paul tiled the floor with beautiful slate tiles and then constructed a fully functional wet bar in one corner. We re-purposed my glass and wood china cabinet into a bar back. Paul even designed the bar so that it incorporated our small but awkwardly shaped wine fridge. He poured concrete to form the counters and used a metalic stain and epoxy to finish. The end result, although not completely finished, is impressive.

Our new bar has a door that opens to the back patio. We set up tables and chairs outside for guests to sit, which they did, but mostly they hung out at the bar - 3 deep sometimes - even thought it was hotter than hell in the room. We have not perfected the air flow, apparently, and sometime during the evening my friend Diana was heard in my bathroom using the blow dryer to fix her hair. It was misery yet, nobody seemed to mind too much. It was just the way it way and we all adapted in order to pretend we had a usable bar in our house! (We propped an oscillating fan on the fireplace mantle which fell off a few minutes later to much noise and screaming.) The patio also connects back to the living room so you could simply walk in a circle the entire night and hit all the main party areas. I know that was MY routine, anyway.

As our guests arrived I asked them to write on two poster boards the wine they brought and decide whether it was for tasting or drinking. Although nobody really followed through with the drinking poster (we just opened the wines and let 'er rip) everyone who had a special wine with a story behind it wrote it down on the tasting poster. Now, what surprised and delighted me was that even those who didn't travel this year wanted a chance to showcase his/her purchase, so their wine was featured on the tasting poster too. After about an hour or so of mingling, we got down to the business of tasting.

I went first with my story, which I thought was pretty awesome. I stood behind the bar and in my loudest bar voice told my guests that on a substandard cruise to the nothing town of Ensenada, Mexico I found a winery that was using grapes from vines brought over from Italy 30 odd years ago. When I asked what type of grape I was told "Nebbiolo". I almost fell over. Nebbiolo grapes produce the finest Barolo wines in Italy. I couldn't wait to taste it and found the wine to be beautifully complex and interesting. When I found out the winery couldn't ship any of their wines I bought a case and had found my contribution to the party. After I told my guests the story behind my wine, each party-goer, in turn, told his/her story. After we tasted the wines we crossed them off the list. We had wine from Germany, Greece and Italy. We also had a lovely champagne from France even though our guest Elaine didn't go to France. She was in England but since the champagne was served at the fancy hotel she stayed at, she felt it counted. I couldn't argue, myself. Our artist friend Cindy brought a wine that featured a color wheel; Diana brought wine from her weekly travels to Costco. All in all, we tasted more than 20 wines and drank too much to count.

Although we entertain large groups at our house, all the time, this party we barely had enough wine glasses to go around. This became a problem as full glasses were being poured in between the tastings. Linda resolved it by passing out shot glasses to everyone (of which, in comparison to wine glasses, we had more than enough. Go figure.)

We played a game too. As guests mingled I placed a removable sticker on everyone's left back shoulder and told them they had to guess who they were by asking yes or no questions. The 'person' could be living or dead, fictional or real. What they didn't know until later was the names all had a common theme, which I threw out as a surprise trivia question toward the end of the party. Although the first person guessed his 'name' within minutes of starting, we continued playing until the last few people still had a sticker stuck to them. Hilarity ensued as we serenaded Scott with "Rinestone Cowboy" and he STILL couldn't figure out that he was Glenn Campbell!

My last detail of the party was the playlist. I downloaded about 25 songs that featured wine in the title or as part of the lyrics. Everything from "Elderberry Wine" by Elton John to "Friends In Low Places" by Garth Brooks. Again I threw out the trivia question asking what the theme to the music was. One person guessed it; her prize was a copy of the CD. I found it on the fireplace the next morning. Maybe she'd heard "Red, Red Wine" once too many times?

If you decide to host a wine tasting like this, be prepared. You could be considered the host/ess with the mostest and every party thereafter will be at your house and you'll have to build a bar. Like this one:

September 20, 2011

The Dish on Dishes

Two and one half months is a long time to be off your feet. It doesn't seem long, at the beginning, because we all know how fast two months can race by when you're waiting for something good to happen like a vacation or Christmas. But when the mechanism of your household is wound tightly around your 'go' button, two months of watching your family bravely try to keep up with chores they were previously unfamiliar with is a long, painful process. For instance, although my family is not totally unacquainted with how the recyclable can gets to the curb, the 'when' portion of that chore seems more elusive. Chlorine for the pool is easy enough to do but for some reason nobody can do the math when it comes to how the pool turned green. Still, they have soldiered on, finally understanding the consequences of not wiping the dog hair off the furniture or what a toilet bowl can become if left to it's own devices.

There is one chore, however, that not one individual in my household (of which now number five humans and three dogs) will lower him/herself to take on a regular basis. Or even an occasional one. That would be loading and unloading the dishwasher. Regardless of how precarious the pile in the sink or how fetid the odor, dishwashing will continue to be mine and mine alone. I offered to show Paul what the sleek white box under the counter does but no amount of coaxing could get him to take a peek inside. He prefers to wash (most of) his own dishes after use if in fact he remembers to get said dish to the kitchen at all. Ben made his own declaration about dishes early on; since he took over the lions share of cooking duties he flatly refused to do any dish, pot or pan that came in contact with any of his cooking. Ben is not, as you might surmise, a clean-as-you-go kind of cook. Just to give you a visual on what our kitchen looks like after a meal.

The no-dish-washing moratorium even extended to my friends. Gratefully, I accepted several offers to come to my house and prepare meals for me and my family. I got to sit at the kitchen table with a chopping board and a glass of wine while Karen meticulously followed my instructions on sauteing, braising and reducing. The results were marvelous and we had a number of delicious dinners and wine, followed by a morning of not-so-delicious hangovers and a trashed kitchen. Karen does NOT clean. Kristy's cooking episode was even worse - we had more wine than food and the number of glasses that littered every available surface including the front porch where I never even ventured out on indicated that for every person in attendance we used at least three glasses apiece.

As I stood at the sink this morning, one leg lifted in a flamingo-like pose, I pondered my situation. In the two months since my ankle surgery there has been rarely a morning when I did not wheel myself into the kitchen to make coffee (park, stand on one leg, get the coffee, sit, wheel the chair to the sink, stand, wash out the carafe, sit, wheel back, finish making the coffee) when I did not also survey the kitchen in horror and attempt to restore order before my head exploded.

On the one hand, it was apparent that nothing short of a coma will absolve me from dish duty. On the other, I do have some leverage should my loving family ever threaten me with placement in a retirement home. Since those with Alzheimer's usually retain the motor skills and memory of the tasks that are ingrained in them from years of repetition, I may well lose my ability to speak coherently (Paul will no doubt be pleased about that possibility) but I'm pretty sure I will still remember how to stack dishes. My usefulness to the household by virtue of that one task will ensure me a place at home for a long, long time. It's a comfort, actually.

August 30, 2011

A Depressing Story

I tried a little experiment this week. It wasn't actually a plan, but circumstances presented me an opportunity, if you call it that, to see if I needed to take my antidepressants any longer. I've been on them for over a year and although I felt they were a welcome and necessary part of my daily life I have received quite a bit of negativity from friends who encouraged me to try other, more organic, methods of navigating through menopause. Right now, I'd be happy to slap the crap out of any one of them.

About a week ago I called my gyn for an appointment to discuss permanently removing the source of a monthly ordeal that's causing all kinds of problems for me. Depression, anxiety, debilitating cramps, fatigue, night sweats, short temper, weight gain, you name it. I'm a textbook case of menopause-gone-batshit. This appointment would not have been the first; he and I have discussed at length my options. I've hesitated to follow through for several reasons. One was the down-time. A complete removal of my womanly parts would require six weeks of recuperation. At the time (this was pre-broken ankle) I didn't think I could be out of work that long. My second reason was the cost. In my recent years I've not had medical issues severe enough to put even a small dent in my $2000.00 deductible, so all that cost would be out-of-pocket. The third reason might be a little harder to explain. I just wanted this to be done with. Naturally. No surgery, no setting fire to my insides. Each month I'd buy the least amount of feminine protection in anticipation of it being the LAST MONTH I'd ever need them. Which, of course, necessitated a mad dash to the drug store when the disappointing reality showed its bright pink self. So, at any rate, after my slip and fall the first two reasons for putting off a hysterectomy or ablation were removed. (My deductible was satisfied in 2.3 seconds with all the medical bills and I have been chained to a wheelchair for eight weeks due to my inability to put any weight on the busted ankle.)

I rang up the doctor with the intent of putting in motion the solutions we discussed previously. He called me back and after a brief conversation asked me to come in to see him (again) and passed me off to the scheduler. The scheduler then informed me that they had dropped my insurance carrier. I was taken aback. "Really? So, like, I can't see the doctor I've had for 25 years?" I was mad. She was indifferent. I hung up and immediately scheduled the first available appointment I could with the womens clinic around the corner from my house (after first confirming they took my insurance.) Problem was, my former GYN was my antidepressant pusher. And I needed a new script. Crap. I ran out on Saturday and it would be almost a full week before my appointment with my new doc. Crap.

I swallowed my last pink pill on Saturday night. By this morning (Tuesday) I was experiencing a tidal wave of mood swings and body aches that I vaguely recall being my normal MO pre-Effexor. Hobbling out to the kitchen I checked my Facebook page for any overnight updates and immediately began crying over the happy adoption of an abandoned pit bull. Sheesh. I then read that our son's girlfriend, who is living with us at the moment, is planning to return to my family's machine shop for part time employment. This news set off skyrockets of anger and frustration in my head (my family, which I often refer to as Jerry Springerland, is another blog post. Maybe a book even.) Her dismal employment experience with them wasn't enough punishment for her, apparently. I worked up the entire conversation I was planning on having with my parents about never wanting to see or hear from them again if they couldn't control the way their employees were being treated at the hands of my siblings. Particularly employees who were living in MY HOUSE. And I did this all in the time it took for me to fix and eat a bowl of raisin bran. This was going to get ugly, I could tell.

By mid morning I started getting an unusual sensation in my head every time I refocused my eyes on something. Sort of a swishing feeling, accompanied by an internal sound in my ears that recalled the way the ocean sucks at sand. I headed for the internet and Google rewarded me with a long list of hits when I queried "Effexor Withdrawl." Sure enough, what I was feeling was pretty common, although the official drug sites didn't mention it at all. I had to dig deeper into forums and sites with names like "crazy drugs". The shifting sand sound/feeling was normal, albiet disconcerting.

I called the pharmacy to see if I could get another month on my script. Surprisingly, they didn't even question the refill, just said it would be ready this afternoon. Huh. Perhaps I calculated the dates wrong and had another month left. With luck, my new bottle of baby pink pills will arrive soon and all will be right with my world. My science experiment will be over, just give me the drugs and I will never question their necessity in my life again. Amen.

July 21, 2011

Cruising aboard Carnival's Paradise part 2

Cruises are about two things; entertainment and food. Yes, you get to stop at lots of great, exotic locations but considering that most of your time is going to be spent aboard ship, the cruise line has to excel in both those areas. If I had to rate Carnival on it's food, it would be a sorry C-.

There was food, and plenty of it. It just didn't meet my expectations in quality. Breakfast, in particular, was a let down. Choosing to eat in the dining room meant being seated at tables with strangers if you came alone or with a small-ish party. That in itself would not be a problem for me but on one day I was seated with people who were clearly not getting along and another time with a family of five - three children under the age of 4. Not that the kids were a problem, but I wanted a bloody mary with breakfast and didn't want to make the little family uncomfortable. The food was bland, presented poorly and, if Mrs.Unhappy was to be believed, the pancakes were previously frozen and then thawed in the steam tray. Most laughable were the hash browns - small disks deep fried into what I thereafter referred to as "potato pucks." One morning I asked for nuts with my oatmeal and was told there were none. Yet when I dumped my raisins into my bowl I could see small pieces of pecans. That's not only lazy but dangerous. Later, I saw bowls of pecans on the breakfast buffet. My large family was routinely frowned upon as we all arrived in the dining room without planning ahead. That's obviously a no-no.

Lunches were offered at the buffet or outdoor grill only, so the day I spent aboard while we were in port at Catalina I had to do the buffet. Did I mention that the worst dining option on a ship is the buffet? I honestly can't think of a single item I had that was worth writing about.

I tried the sushi bar one afternoon. After locating it in the corner of the casino I stood (wheeled) in line with everyone and got my order. It was awkward trying to get condiments and the little dishes for wasabi while scooting/hopping/dragging myself along the counter. The girl behind me was too impatient to wait or help me, so she cut me off by reaching around, helping herself to condiments and causing my wheelchair to block everyone else from ordering. I hope she got sick. The sushi was fine but unremarkable.

I did not spend a lot of time attending the onboard entertainment. My sister and I wanted to play one of the trivia games but when we arrived it was clear we were the only two participating so we left. My aunts and mom said the shows were wonderful. We spent most of our time on the Lido deck. Even though I couldn't walk, with assistance I could get into the pool. Imagine my surprise when I was lowered in by my brother - the water was ice cold and salty! We later found out it was ocean water, pumped in through a filter. I noticed not many adults swimming in the pool and that might have been why. It was too uncomfortable. Since I wasn't going to use the pool there was no reason to have a lounge chair in the sun either. Two things I was looking forward to the most, sunning and swimming, were huge disappointments.

The casino was one of the deciding factors in selecting this ship because my dad loves to go to the tables. Unfortunately, it wasn't open all the time and the one game we all wanted to play - Texas Holdem - was computerized. No dealer. Took the enjoyment right out of having a casino on board plus no free drinks! With the price of alcohol aboard ship so high I was hoping to score a drink or two if I played the slots a bit. No chance.

The two pre-teens in our party had a ball at the childrens parties and activities. The lone teenager, Amy, tried to make friends at the teens club but found it hard to infiltrate the small cliques of girls and boys so she gave up and entertained herself by reading and swimming. My four year old niece didn't want to spend any time at the youngsters area; consequently it was very difficult to keep her occupied. (She loved pushing me around in my wheelchair though, so we did that a lot.)

My two aunts and my mom made good use of the on board shows and entertainment and loved it all. I went to a comedy night which was fun but skipped the rest of the nighttime shows.My brother Bob and his friend Hans reported that somewhere on the ship they stumbled upon a band playing music and during the show all the drinks were free! We looked but never found it again.

The cruise newsletter could have done a better job of promoting the different activities on board. I think we may have attempted to go to more if we had more information on where, what and when. For instance, I really wanted to hit the library first thing and get a few books for the cruise. I went several times but all the cases were locked. It was only on the second day that I found out the short one-hour time that the library would be staffed.

I took advantage of the spa several times during our cruise, in spite of (or maybe because of) my limitations. On my first visit I booked a pedicure, explaining up front that I had a severely swollen foot and sprained ankle. To my surprise, they were more than willing to accommodate me and the technician took extra care to rub my foot with an anti-inflammatory cream. The next morning my foot was much improved and the purple bruising on all my toes didn't clash too much with my new pink toenails! On our last day at sea the spa greatly reduced their prices and offered packages at deep discounts. I went back for a massage, exfoliation and facial. Again, the therapist took a lot of time to work on my foot. One sour note - they tried to sell me very pricey items from the salon that I felt were way out of my budget and made me uncomfortable to try and deflect their sales tactics. My sister in law and niece both went to the spa for services and reported good experiences.

The activities aboard ship were available if we wanted them, but ultimately all we really wanted to do was sit together and talk. On one such evening we parked ourselves on the Lido deck and proceeded to play a game Paul and I devised some years back. Starting with the letter "A" the challenge is to recall a song that features a girls name corresponding to the letter. Once you come up with one, you must sing it - or at least as much as you can remember. By then everyone else joins in and you have a small chorus. The game was such a hoot and my family so enthusiastic about it that eventually all the other cruisers sitting near us were playing along. Imagine the surprise of the couple seated behind us who were secretly playing along and came up with a song we hadn't thought of yet. My entire family turned and pointed, shouting, "SING IT" to the hapless man, with the rest of the Lido deck erupting into gales of laughter. Oh, and woe was the person who shouted out a name with no song, because we then chanted "chug, chug, chug" until he or she drained (or at least, gulped) a drink. Good times!

About Me

My name is Debbie and I live in Central Phoenix in a new-old house we are renovating. I blog at random on subjects such as travel, food, cooking, wine and life in Arizona. Join Me! Read more

April 2012

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