Some bragging

This weekend A and I traveled to Chicago to hear B give his capstone paper in cultural studies at Columbia College.  The title of the paper is “Going Where the Action Is:  The Action Film Hero in the Era of Neo-Liberalism.” I’m not going to give a synopsis here.  It’s too complicated.  Those of you who know him can ask him yourselves.

Of course the parents are always biased, but his presentation was the best out of eight.  Really!  B has always been an excellent public speaker, and is very comfortable in front of a crowd.  He breathed in the right places, looked at the audience, and generally made his research understandable and interesting.

His professors spoke about him in glowing terms.  One of them said he was the best student he’d ever had.  They love him and are very proud of him, just like us.

Here’s a question:  What’s the right way to respond to praise of your child, particularly your adult child?  It’s weird to say “Thank you,” as though we are totally responsible.  We probably are responsible for a bit of who he is, but not too much.  You can’t make someone intelligent or funny.  I think you can make someone misanthropic but I’m not sure you can make someone charming, thoughtful, and pleasant to be around.  He pretty much came into the world with the brains and personality he has now.

When a professor says “B is the cream of our crop.  We think he is just wonderful,” I said “Thank you, we think so too.” Sometimes I said “I’m so glad you think so.”

I’m happy to brag about him, because I think he is wonderful too.  I just want to brag in an aren’t-we-lucky kind of way rather than an aren’t-we great-parents way.  We are lucky.

Eccles cakes

I’m making Eccles cakes today.  I first had these when I worked at a dry cleaner’s in Providence in my late teens.  My boss brought them in from a Portuguese bakery near her house.  I always thought they were Portuguese in spite of the English-sounding name, but they’re not.

A and B love these sweet and flaky little currant pies. A high school friend of B’s came in the house when the Eccles cakes were cooling one afternoon.  B offered him one.  He took it, examined it closely, asked what was in it, and then took a tentative bite. Then he handed it back to B.  “You can have the rest, dude.” Fine, more for us.

After you make the dough, you’re supposed to wrap it in plastic and put it in the fridge for a while, like pie dough. I ran out of plastic wrap some time ago and haven’t bought more, and goodness knows I don’t want to waste a plastic bag on something that makes the inside buttery, so I put the dough in a Pyrex container with a lid. Well! That works just fine.

Eccles Cakes


4 c. flour
1 t. salt
2 sticks butter
1/2 c. cold water


2 boxes currants (more or less 28 oz. of currants total)
1 t. ground allspice
1/2 c. sugar (Original recipe, wherever it came from, called for 1 cup sugar.  Do what you like.)

  1. Combine flour and salt.
  2. Cut in butter until mixture is crumbly and resembles coarse cornmeal.
  3. Add water slowly until mixture clings together.
  4. Divide dough in half, and shape each half into a roll about 12 inches long.  Chill rolls for 30 minutes.
  5. Mix filling ingredients together, adding only enough water to help the mixture hold together somewhat, about 1/3 cup.
  6. Cut each roll into 12 pieces.
  7. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F, and butter a cookie sheet or line it with parchment paper.

For each cake:

  1. Roll a piece of dough into a 6 inch round.
  2. Place a heaping spoonful of filling (or two) on the round.
  3. Gather up the dough and pinch together on top securely.
  4. Place on cookie sheet gathered side down. Gently press down with your palm until the filling begins to show through the pastry.
  5. Make 2 cross cuts through the top with a sharp knife.

Bake at 425 degrees for 25 minutes or until golden brown.

Eccles cakes.  Yum yum.

Eccles cakes. Yum yum.

Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman produces one post a month on the blog she does for the New York Times.  I can’t say she “writes” it, because it’s a combination of drawings, photos (sometimes) and writing. She has written children’s books that I remember reading to B when he was little.

I’m delighted when she puts up a new post, and you will be too.  Check it out.

Tonight’s plastic

Oh, we had a great dinner tonight, a repeat I had with my friend Egghead Jr. on Sunday.  Fresh pasta with the last batch of cherry tomatoes from the garden, olives, garlic (also from the garden), olive oil, and parmesan.  AND one giant shiitake mushroom from the log I gave A for Christmas last year.  In about March we got 4 mushrooms from it, and then none until now.  I made a salad of arugula, peppers, and cuke, all from our garden or our neighbors.  Bread from Wheatfields, our spectacular local bakery.  Wine. Homemade brownies

I am very happy the meal was largely local.  Is it possible to have a plastic-free meal?

  • The bread comes in a plastic bag. I reuse these over and over.
  • The pasta comes in a non-recyclable, non-reusable plastic box. This is the most annoying item.
  • I put the leftovers in a plastic Glad container.  I have had these for years, but someday they’ll break and be thrown away.
  • I made the brownies yesterday and froze half of them in plastic bags.  The remainder are stored in a Rubbermaid container.

It’s going to get harder as we move into winter.  I froze lots of garden produce in various forms.  All stored in plastic.

I wonder how many plastic bags have ever been made.  Wouldn’t it be good if that number were made public, along with the information that they are all still around and will be for thousands of years?

The mushroom was my favorite part.

Fall day

Last night I got up at midnight and looked out the window.  A big fat skunk was out in the side yard whuffling around.  I got up again at 3:00, and he was still there!  At 5:20, when I got up for my walk, he was STILL poking his nose into the grass.  Fortunately, he was gone when I came home and let Buster out.  According to Wikipedia, skunks eat insects and larvae, earthworms, small rodents, lizards, salamanders, frogs, snakes, birds, moles, eggs, berries, roots, leaves, grasses, fungi, and nuts. This is what the ground looked like where he’d been.

Skunk holes (boot shows scale, even though it was a mistake when I took the photo)

Skunk holes (boot shows scale, even though it was a mistake when I took the photo)

It was a classic fall day today.  I yanked out a bunch of dead plant material from our driveway island, where we’re trying to establish prairie flowers and grasses.  It was windy, so I threw around various seeds I’d collected – butterfly milkweed, gray-headed coneflower, New England aster, indigo, and gayfeather.  The butterfly milkweed in the back of the house is poised to release thousands of seeds.

The Osage orange trees, also known as hedge trees, are dropping their fruit now.  We have hundreds of these trees.  They are not native to Kansas, but were planted in the thirties as windbreaks.  When they’re planted close together they form a dense hedge.  Every day when we take Buster for a walk, we take along tennis balls for him to chase and then carry in his mouth.  (He won’t bring them back.)  After a while he drops the ball.  Hedge apples and tennis balls are the same color.  We lose many tennis balls.

Up close you can tell the difference between hedge apples and tennis balls, but not from far away.

Up close you can tell the difference between hedge apples and tennis balls because hedge apples have a bumpy brain-like exterior. The hedge apple is the one on the left.

I know this is sort of a lame post.  I need to get back in the habit of posting here.  This is a start.

Great food

I read a lot of blogs, especially food blogs.  Oh, I do like good food, can you tell?  Hate plastic, love food, love dogs.  Could that be the theme of this blog?

In any case, the blog I use the most is The Apartment Kitchen.  There’s the link, sitting over there in the right sidebar, not making a big fuss.  I think it deserves a plug, especially because the author, Erin McDowell, is giving away a free cookbook in honor of her 100th post. Maybe one of my readers would like to win that book.  I certainly would.

Erin is a friend of ours, a recent graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, an excellent cook and an excellent writer.  She posts frequently, but not so often that I get overwhelmed by posts.  I’ve made quite a few of her dinners, the most recent being the Thai-flavored burgers with peanut sauce, which was eye-rollingly good.  Oh, and the salmon with yogurt sauce and Asian cole slaw is another fave. The recipes are generally quite easy to make but never boring.

Really, go over there.  Look around.  Try out some of the recipes. Click the link in the sidebar to win the book. And if you try something you like, let me know.  And let Erin know too, of course.

Note:  Erin also writes Appetite for Adventure, about food and her travels.  Go there too.

I'm testing out this compostable picnic flatware.  The Ultra Home package came in its own tray made of the same material.  I don't know what the cellophane is made of, and I'd like to know.

I'm testing out this compostable picnic flatware. The Ultra Home package came in its own tray made of the same material. I don't know what the cellophane is made of, and I'd like to know.

I can understand why they serve beer in plastic bottles at the ball park - glass is breakable and can be a more effective weapon - but I was nonetheless shocked.  I didn't realize they were plastic until after I bought them.  On the plus side, they're recyclable plastic, and the open beer cups aren't.

I can understand why they serve beer in plastic bottles at the ball park - glass is breakable and can be a more effective weapon - but I was nonetheless shocked. I didn't realize they were plastic until after I bought them. On the plus side, they're recyclable plastic, and the open beer cups aren't.

In my last post about photo editing, I talked about cropping.  I often try cropping a photo several different ways.  The Reset function on Picnik is great for this.  Crop, reset, crop, reset, crop – oh yeah, this one looks good.

And that led me to add this reminder:  The best keystroke combination in Windows is Ctrl-z, or Undo.  I believe on the Mac it’s Option-z. You can pick it off the toolbar or menu of most programs, but once you get in the habit of using the keys you’re much more likely to take advantage of the command. You will love it.

Alas, Undo generally doesn’t work in web browsers (Internet Explorer, Safari, Firefox, etc.). It does work in email programs, but generally not webmail. (If you use webmail – gmail and Yahoo, for example – you should experiment to see if it works.)

I’ve been playing around with Picnik, a web-based photo editor, at picnik.com. There’s no download or installation required, it’s free, and it’s really easy to use.  You can pay more for some fancy stuff, but for basic photo editing the free version is dandy.  I used it while we were on vacation because I didn’t have all my software with me, and it was very slick.

First, a little general information for photo editing:

  1. Cropping photos almost always makes them look better.  When you crop people pictures, go close.  You may not need the person’s shoulders, for example, and you can crop almost to the top of a person’s head.  Women often look better cropped above breast level, unless they’re quite slender.  Ditto for men above pot bellies.
  2. Don’t use photos that are wider than the column you’re placing them in on the web page.  For this blog, I make my photos no wider than 500px.
  3. File size is important.  You should try to keep the file size under about 40KB, less if possible.   Note that dimensions in pixels and file size are different!  Often an uploaded photo will be resized to fit in the browser window, but it will retain the original file size.  That’s the reason you sometimes see online photos taking for…ev…er to load.

The three main things you’ll do are cropping, resizing, and saving compressed versions (in that order).


  1. Upload the photo by following the instructions on the Picnik site.
  2. Select Crop from the top menu.  A crop box appears over the photo.
  3. Drag the edges of the crop box as needed.
  4. Click OK.


  1. After cropping, select Resize from the top menu.
  2. Enter the width you want to resize to, and make sure the Keep Proportions box is checked.
  3. Click OK.

Compressing and saving

  1. Click the Save and Share tab.
  2. Enter a file name.
  3. Leave the dimensions and format alone.
  4. Move the slider on JPG Compression Quality so that the file size shown under the slider changes.  Smaller than about 40 KB is better, and because these are displayed on the very low-resolution web, don’t worry too much about the description under the slider.  If you were saving these to print it would be important, but here it isn’t so much.
  5. Save the photo on your hard drive.  Now it’s ready to be uploaded (for example, to a blog page).

I just learned that searchers looking for Air France flight 447 off the coast of Brazil kept finding what they thought was debris from the plane but was instead plastic garbage.   Read the CNN article.

The 24th International Coastal Cleanup is set for September 19, 2009.  It’s sponsored by the Ocean Conservancy.  Sign up! It doesn’ t matter if you don’t live near an ocean.  Here in Kansas I can go to Clinton Lake, about 5 miles away, and work on shoreline cleanup there so that trash doesn’t go out the spillway and into the Wakarusa River, and ultimately into the ocean.

From the Ocean Conservancy site:

How You Can Help

Marine debris doesn’t just fall from the sky, it falls from human hands. From urban trash to abandoned fishing gear, marine debris is one of the world’s most pervasive marine pollution problems. We can all make a difference.

  • Volunteer for the International Coastal Cleanup every year on the third Saturday in September.
  • Join Ocean Conservancy’s online community to learn more and stay up-to-date on ocean issues.
  • Take your commitment year-round: don’t litter, and pick up litter you see. Keep the ocean clean, and save the life of a marine mammal or bird.
  • Use reusable cloth bags for groceries and shopping instead of disposable plastic bags (including mesh bags for produce).
  • Use reusable beverage containers.
  • Bring reusable or biodegradable food packaging to work or on day trips rather than using styrofoam or plastic containers.

Hawaiian beach strewn with trash, Kamilo, HI. Photo courtesy of Ocean Conservancy.