Thursday, November 26, 2009

Is it Proper or Tacky?

My mother tended to use the term "tacky" when she commented on something not being proper. For example, a young lady calling a young man on the phone would be "tacky". Having gnomes in your yard would qualify as "ticky tacky". Her sister, preferred the terms "correct" and "proper". Of course you need to keep in mind that my mother still has her southern accent while my aunt lost hers somewhere between Boston and Colorado on her academic road to professional unemployment.(See Sept 21.)

My aunt would comment that an invitation she just received was not addressed correctly, therefore it was not "proper". In one particular humorous case, the invitation was from her former roommate, Liddy Hanford to Senator Dole. She was offended that the envelope was addressed to "Miss" instead of "Ms". "She always was so plain," my aunt said. The family thought this whole affair was hilarious, given my aunt was a life long liberal democrat who was always competitive with her former roommate. Now we had to listen about how poor Liddy was giving up her life and any future to marry this "Mr. Dole." My grandmother called Liddy's family to offer congratulations. I then pointed out to my aunt that it wasn't an invitation, but actually just a formal announcement of the nuptials. She had no comment to that.

While my aunt was concerned with maintaining the policies of Amy Vanderbilt and Robert's Rules of English, my mother's concerns were more with the thin line between us and white trash. I think she felt if she didn't point out the differences we might just cross the line and it would all be over. Growing up, I found this all fairly amusing. Like I was going to put pink flamingos in my yard, move my appliances onto the front porch, or marry my cousin. I had my standards.

So the question was: Did I aspire to an educated view of the proper and correct or just stay the course and hopefully avoid anything tacky. I chose to walk the line.

(Note: Although she is known as "Libby" Dole, when she was young, her family and friends called her "Liddy". She was raised on a farm in NC and my grandparents and her parents, the Handfords, came to know each other when their daughters were roommates at Duke and later lived together in Boston.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A True Measure

How precise do we need to be? When I was little, I would sit on a tall stool and carefully watch every move Grandmama made as she baked. She always told me the secret to baking was chemistry - you had to measure your ingredients precisely. Then I noticed that her cups of flour (always Redband) were heaping cups. That is the cup was full with a mound on top. When she added the vanilla, she always used the bottle cap to measure it. When I asked why, she said it measured out to be a 1/2 teaspoon. When it came to salt - she just sprinkled some in her palm, pinched it between her thumb and forefinger, and threw it in. I asked her if that was "a pinch". She replied, "No, a dash." I was confused. Whatever - the magic worked and the cake came out perfect, every time.

When I started baking and really paying attention to techniques, two things struck me as odd. First, everything I read emphatically said to level off your dry ingredients to ensure that you have the exact amount. (Heaping was nowhere to be found.) Second, I could never find the definition of a "pinch" or a "dash". I followed the directions in recipes precisely, but my baked goods just never were quite as good as Grandmama's. (Aunt Kat would have told me I wasn't holding my nose right - her answer when anything went wrong.)

The position of my nose aside, there had to be more to this. I pulled down my book of recipes hand written by Grandmama, certainly this would reveal all. To no avail - they were loaded with pinches and dashes and a new one - "smidgens". Word to the wise, don't ask too many questions. I started doing research. Seems a "dash" equals 1/8 of a teaspoon - who knew? But a "pinch" equals 1/16 of a teaspoon. (I want to know who measured that one.) Bottom line - a "smidgen" is 1/32 of a teaspoon. (I think the Princeton dictionary had it correct when they described it as "a scarcely detectable amount.")

One day I found measuring spoons that actually measured out a dash, a pinch, and a smidgen. I knew I was set. No recipe could get ahead of me now. Everything was going well until the afternoon I was baking and saw that the next ingredient was a "dab" of butter. When I went to look this one up the only definition I could find was "a small quantity of something moist." Gee whiz - thanks. I think it is a conspiracy.


A Sterling Adventure

In looking for a salt spoon to give me 8 and a complete set, I found myself lost in the myriad of place and serving pieces of sterling silver. I had no idea there were so many and not a clue as to what to do with most of them. (And, as for my salt spoons, I only have them because I found 7 in an antique store and if you have ever seen salt spoons that go with salt cellars, you would know why I could not resist them.) Anyway, I decided that I would do some research and every day add a very short blog entry (to my usual one) devoted to one of these interesting, but rather obscure pieces of silver. You may have these pieces and use them daily. If so, I envy you because I so love sterling flatware. But, if you are like me, we'll find the journey a little interesting, and who knows, you may recognize that bizarre piece of sterling you found while cleaning out Great Aunt Sara Jane's house after her unfortunate passing at the age of 97.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Decorating Concepts

As I have mentioned before, our garden club has various programs. This month, the program was on holiday decorating and was presented by Daryl, who happens to be the florist I use. It was a good thing I was there because, boy am I behind the times. I had no idea that lime is the new neutral. (I am still recovering from the lady on "What not to Wear" telling me that purple is the new black.) He went on to say that some of the new trends in holiday colors are silver and black, but did admit he associated those colors more with New Years. (Am I supposed to be decorating for New Years also?)

He said that yes, lime green was everywhere this year because it matched everything. (With the exception of the teal green walls of my den, I thought.) And, the retro colors of the 70's - avocado, yellow, and orange were back, as were aqua and pink. Purple never went out. Silver and platinum were big as well as the old standby gold. By the time he finished he had named every color with the exception of red and green. We move on.

As he went through his most entertaining spiel I made some mental notes. Yes, I liked the large green wreath with the wide metallic ribbon wound through it with gaily wrapped packages hot glued on it. However, if I were to use it as a center piece on my table, there would be no room for the plates. This could be a problem.

He talked about the new concept of "re-purposing". News flash! I'm ahead of the game for once. I have been "re-purposing" for years. Are there really folks out there who get new decorations every year? If so, can I hang around their trash after the holidays? I had no idea. And, I thought adding a dozen or so new colored glass balls or a roll or two of a different color ribbon was a big deal. (Sometimes I live on the edge - you know outside the box.)

But I felt down right smug when he went on about his Christmas tree with feathers on it. I "did" feathers two or three years ago. (Peacock feathers - found them on a clearance sale for almost nothing.) I'll never do it again. I caught so much grief from my family. "Why are there feathers in the Christmas tree?" "Are these supposed to be in here?" "Who killed the bird?" "Did you get this idea off of TV?" I just suffered in silence - I really liked the tree.

Given the feather experience, I best not experiment with lime green glass balls, or black and silver. I'll just pull out our trusty box, we'll just re-purpose, and enjoy it as much as always. Who knows, I might push the envelope and stick a feather or two in there just to see if they are paying attention.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sweet Mash and the Mountains

If you don't know the difference between sweet mash and sour mash you may want to move on. (For the curious sorts - they are two different types of moonshine whiskey made in the NC mountains.) I know about these two libations thanks to a very colorful character my father hired to help him oversee our family farm in the mountains. The "gentleman's" name was Stanbury Franklin. He was one of those who would do anything for you if you could understand what he was saying. (And he didn't say much.) He was extremely loyal to my father and my father relied heavily on him.

Our farm, High Acres, had cows and horses, and especially during the winters, the animals needed to be fed daily. Stanbury helped Dad build the horse barn, the hay barn, and other assorted outbuildings.

Dad loved the farm. It was his stress outlet. He could go up on the weekends, do physical work, and get immediate gratification. He loved being a "weekend" mountain rancher and besides it was a great tax write off - there was no way to make money on the operation.

Stanbury was always bringing Dad local "gifts". Sometimes they were archaic tools that turned out to be very practical and helpful. There were the goats he thought would be a good idea - they weren't. There were his wife's preserves and apple butter that were incredibly good. One day he showed up with this iron bed with brass rails he picked up at "the sale" for $25 - I claimed that one. But there was always the moonshine. He would bring Dad a quart jar every time we came up (and an extra jar if he knew we were having company.) And, Dad always wanted sweet mash because he said it was "smoother".

Over the years, there were always incidents on the farm - the cows would get out and eat the neighbors' apples, we would not have water at the house (that happened more often than not), the farm jeep would be out of gas, etc. But when the hay barn burned Dad was perplexed. The barn wasn't full of hay, it was a misty morning, and the volunteer fire department was able to get there fairly quickly. They said they had never seen a building burn that fast. The next weekend Dad went up to survey the damage. As he stood looking at the burnt ruins, Stanbury stood next to him and finally asked, "You don't think the gallons of mash I had stored in the back had anything to do with it, do yah?" This being news to Dad, he said later, he did not want to know where the still was.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Clean Fleeces

What is so cathartic about clean sheets? My daddy used to call clean sheets "clean fleeces". That was what his Scottish grandmother always called them. I thought that was the coolest thing until I shared it with one of my classmates in school. In third grade some things get lost in translation. This was one of them. It was a long time before I brought up that subject again.

Maybe this is one of the luxuries of staying in fine hotels - the clean towels and sheets, as well as those snazzy tiny shampoo bottles (and the mini-bar - but we won't go there.) Now the big deal is the thread count and the type of cotton used in sheets. And, I will admit, it matters to me. Let's face it, if I'm going to spend a third of my life wrapped in something, I want to be comfortable.

I knew I had truly ruined my children when I found my youngest daughter going through the linen closet throwing things on the floor in disgust. When I asked her what the problem was, she replied (in a not too friendly tone) that there were no clean sheets for her bed with more than a 300 thread count. Now this is spoken from the child who has never done well with math concepts. Perhaps the school should try a linen curriculum.

For the longest time, I thought that folding a fitted sheet was an impossible task. Every time I tried, I got frustrated attempting the seemingly impossible. I seriously considered going and buying a fitted sheet just to be able to bring it home, carefully open it up and photograph each step as I unfolded it to reveal its secrets. I am proud to say, however, I finally learned how to correctly fold a fitted sheet (Full disclosure here: Martha showed me how - It's a good thing)

This is the one Saturday morning chore that gives me great gratification. I know that evening when I crawl into bed, no matter what happened that day, I will have the satisfaction of clean fleeces.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Note to Everyone

One thing all southern women should know is how to write a note, be it a thank you note, sympathy note, or just thinking about you (these come in handy for those socially awkward times when a phone call would be difficult - some one's child has been arrested, their husband has been caught in a rather compromising position with his assistant, etc) I digress.

From the time we are able to write, we are given note cards with our names or initials on them. I never was sure if this was for decoration, to remind you what your name was, or to impress others (knowing southern mothers, I feel sure it is most likely the later.) Then we were taught the correct wording. "Thank you so very much." "It was so nice for you to have me." "What a lovely surprise." "I was delighted." Or for young boys "I apologize for . . . and promise I have learned my lesson."

As we grew up, it was just ingrained in us to write a note, something as natural as setting a table. I had one friend who was so obsessive she would write a note thanking someone for writing her a note. I never went that far. My handwriting is atrocious, so in my case, it is the thought that counts - and thank God for engraved note cards - at least they know who it is from.

Sending greeting cards is thoughtful and appreciative. That requires more effort than a personal note card. One has to actually go to the store, purchase the card, write a note in it, and mail it. That makes us, who just use our notes, look lazy. Both my mother and my mother-in-law had a regular Hallmark repository and stamps. (That is my downfall - I always have the note cards but sometimes lack the stamps). They kept cards for every occasion - they were prepared.

My mother has a talent for knowing when to mail a birthday card to anyone, anywhere in the United States so it will always arrive on their birthday. I never mastered that part of the postal system. My goal is to get past the "It's the thought that counts" part and actually write the note and get it mailed.

Now Christmas cards is a whole different ball game. I am thoroughly entertained by my friends who send their annual epistle informing everyone, whether they want to know or not, of little Mary Ellen and John Robert's school grades, athletic prowess, teachers' comments, and the family vacation. Please - spare me. And, the family pictures. We could never get the four of us together in one place, dressed decently, when we were all speaking to each other, long enough to have a picture taken. My girls were teenagers before I actually sent pictures of them with my Christmas cards. One sorority sister of mine replied that she had wondered if they really existed until she saw the pictures and the family resemblance was too much for them to be "borrowed" for the shot.

Yes, it is old fashioned, and email is certainly easier, but writing a note or sending a card is the proper thing to do. After all, it is ingrained in me, and I still have all those boxes of notes to use. Now, if I can just remember to buy stamps.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


As I've said before, traveling doesn't bother me, especially flying. I've never had a fear of flying. Well, there have been a few instances, like when I was on the last flight out of Washington Reagan before they closed the airport one February afternoon due to a severe winter storm. Now when your plane is on the runway long enough for them to have to de-ice it twice, you have time to think. "Do folks in the south really know how to de-ice a plane? Did they pay attention in their last re-education class on winter maintenance? How old are these chemicals - after all it has been a while since they have had to use them?" I digress.

One of my daughters never knows where I am. One day while I was in the Philadelphia airport, she called me and frantically asked where I was. When I told her Philadelphia, she calmed down. I asked her why and she said that a plane had crashed in New York and she knew I was flying was concerned I was on it. I wasn't sure if she really cared or wanted to know if she needed to rush home to get ahead of her sister in line for any of my jewelry.

My mama tells her friends that my travelling doesn't bother her because it gives us time to talk. I usually call her between flights. Talk about a guilt trip. Yes, I live less than 2 miles from my mother, but to hear her tell it, the only time I have time to call her is when I am travelling. (I think this gets lost in translation.)

I don't need much, but the lowest grade of preferred status is nice. You know enough not to have to pay baggage fees, to get to board early, chance for possible free upgrades. At Sky Harbor (the Phoenix Airport) Terminal 4 is notorious for extremely long security lines. You can wait up to an hour and a half. In July I arrived early, got to the security and saw 2 lines. One said "Passengers". The second said, "Elite Status". I stood there for a moment. The "Passenger" line had, probably, a hundred people in it. There was no one in the "Elite" line, but no one there I could speak to.

Now different airlines, use different terms. USAir uses Silver, Gold, Platinum for their status ranks, American has Advantage, Gold and Platinum, Delta, Gold, Platinum and Diamond. What the heck was "Elite"? Not seeing anyone I could ask, to be safe, I joined the others in the "Passenger" line.

An hour later, as I gave my boarding pass and ID to the TSA agent, she looked at me and smiled. "You know, you have 'Elite' status and did not have to wait in this line?" I smiled and told her, I was not sure what levels "Elite" covered.

Two months later, I was at Sky Harbor again and knew that I could avoid the long security line. As I came around the corner to the security section - sure enough, they still had the two lines. However, this time, no one was waiting in line - in either line. Status will get you only so far ahead.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


The way I look at it, the holidays officially start the day the Christmas Tree arrives at Rockefeller Center in New York. Not is lit - but arrives - horizontal on a truck. Watching it being erected and decorated, to me, is part of the magic of the season. Religion aside, the holidays are all about anticipation. Looking forward to seeing friends and family, to those wonderful meals - oh the food. You may have missed it, but down here, we are all about the food.

And, yes, the hustle and bustle. Let's face it, we'd miss it if we finished our shopping in September, had our cooking and baking done and frozen by October, and had all the halls decked and trimmed by early November. You can only sit around and drink so much eggnog watching everyone else in the spirit.

But it's a tricky dance. The tree in NY arrives in mid-November and we still have Thanksgiving to go. So while you are trying to find Aunt Mary Martha's oyster dressing recipe you promised you'd make this year, you are starting to make your lists. And yes, that is plural. Cookie list - how many good souls deserve a dozen or so of your homemade sugar cookies. Decorations list - what needs to be replaced in your collection of well worn ribbons and balls that adorn the house. (Or, is this the year you spring for a new theme? Hum, have to think about that one.) The Christmas card list - make sure you have everyone's correct address, etc. (And, God knows that dreaded family picture.) And last, but not least, THE LIST - the gift list. Since I am not one organized enough to buy gifts through out the year, this is the time, the rubber hits the road.

I anxiously await the first sound of a Christmas carol on the radio, actually now it is when XM radio launches their Holiday Channels, not when you hear the obnoxious sound of "Frosty" coming from the aisle in Lowes. It is when the child in all of us comes out - when that truck turns the corner at Rockefeller Plaza and we are off and running.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Lessons Starting at Six

When I was growing up there were several things all little girls from "good families" were expected to endure. They included dance, piano, manners, and ballroom dancing. I'm don't think I got the exact skills these lessons were intended to instill but along the way, some life lessons were picked up.

My dance lessons were in ballet and I think I may have taken for a year or two. I know nothing about ballet. Piano was even more tragic. I took lessons, every week September through May for five years and still cannot play. Of course, I think if I had practiced, the time may have been more productive, but I was not interested and I could not get that across to my mother. Just because she was a talented musician with a minor in music in college, didn't mean it was a genetic quality.

Now manners got interesting. We were lucky to have "Betty Lane Gramling's School of Charm" in my home town. Miss Betty Lane was a Miss USA in 1956 and 1st runner up in Miss World - a regular home town celebrity. She took etiquette seriously - white gloves seriously. So from age six, I learned how to stand, walk, and sit. I could set a table and knew how to use all those convoluted forks and spoons (a good skill to go along with that silver). I learned that ladies walked on the inside on a side walk, ahead of the gentleman going up the stairs (in case she fell), and behind him going down. And, never ever open a car door yourself. If it were up to her, we would have never known how the door opened. (This worked well when I was dating - however, these days I would just get left in the car.)

Then there was ballroom dancing. This was where the boys could sink or swim - and it wasn't pretty - Miss Sloan's Ballroom Dancing School - in 6th grade, every Monday night for 8 weeks. The best you could hope for was that there were as many boys as girls, or even better - more boys than girls (if you were a girl). You were paired up to learn the waltz, the fox trot, and the shag. If you survived the 8 week ordeal with your dignity in tact, you did have basic dancing skills, Miss Sloan made sure of that.

And, some things don't change, Miss Betty Lane Gramling and Miss Sloan were still around for both my daughters. Looking back, some may say these lessons were quaint, but I have used all these skills (at least the ones I was able to learn) through out my life. So when all else fails, I can still set a one heck of a table, waltz (with practice), and know how to walk down stairs in a lady like manner. I guess Mama wanted me prepared for that day I planned an 8 course meal for 125, was invited to an inaugural ball, and had to descend some grand stairway in front of thousands. I may never need the skills, but hey - I'm prepared, you never know.