Remembering another Miss Austin

No, not Austen. And not Jane. But they have books and writing in common.

It was a verdant Central Pennsylvania summer, and I was in my last term, anxious for graduation. Summer terms were rapid-fire in those days, eight weeks as opposed to the usual ten. Classes met four times a week and, as I recall, were about half an hour longer than during the regular academic year. In retrospect, a truncated term probably wasn’t the best to take on the Victorian novel. None of the stars of the period could be considered an easy or quick read, and coupled with my other classes, I easily had about 300 pages of reading a night. I won’t swear that I read every single page for my other classes, but I didn’t miss a single word of the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope, and—of course—Charles Dickens.

Deborah Austin was a Kathryn Hepburn type with a sturdy Yankee demeanor and sparkling eyes. She pulled her salt-and-pepper hair back in a twist, always with a few stray strands framing her face. She was born in Boston (like me!) and raised in  Maine, not  far from the tiny paper mill town where my father grew up. I suppose I loved her even more for that, and for that sweet whisper of Maine in her voice… not an accent, mind you, just a whisper. I could have listened to her all day long. My experience in her class shaped my reading habits forever. I learned to love, appreciate, prefer a believable, gimmick-free story masterfully told, with complicated characters, complex relationships, and revealing dialogue.

Miss Austin* was an accomplished poet whose work appeared in such worthy publications as The Atlantic Monthly and the collection The Paradise of the WorldOne of my great regrets is that I didn’t get to know her better. We had several spirited conversations about Dickens and our dogs when the term ended, but then, like hundreds of her other students, I graduated and went on to my grown-up life elsewhere. I wish I’d kept in touch.

Miss Austin loved Dickens and taught me to love him, too. Not necessarily more than Hardy, Eliot, or the others, but for his own sake and in his own right as a master storyteller. To this day I haven’t found any description to equal the aborted wedding celebration scene in Great Expectations, the heart-rending exchange between the dying Paul Dombey and his sister Floy  (which is reported to have set all of England weeping), or, of course, the lasting lessons of A Christmas Carol.

I don’t know what kids in college read today, but I do know that there are plenty of good lessons about right and wrong and managing the ebb and flow of life in the thousands of pages that Dickens turned out during the course of his writing career. If you’re casting about for something to read, I highly recommend almost anything in the Charles Dickens oeuvre.

*At my alma mater, it was considered gauche to refer to those along the “professor” continuum as anything but Mr., Mrs., or Miss, and Ms. hadn’t come along yet.

Cover photo:  Old Main lawn, Penn State iGEM 2008 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


I hit the ground running early this morning when inspiration struck. Move the love seat from the den back to the living room, and move the wingback to the den.

There is nothing unusual about this urge, as most women know. When the kids were itty bitty, I was always moving furniture around. In those days, though, upholstered furniture was big and heavy and hulking. Like that little engine that could, I would push and pull and edge until the room had yet another new look—not always, I fully admit, a better one.

Whenever those very same itty bitty ones would lock horns over nothing,  this only child, who had always longed for a sibling, would cry out in exasperation, “Why on earth would you fight over that? You should love each other. Why would you fight at all?” Once, in response, my daughter, who was seven or eight at the time, looked up at me and said simply, “Because it’s not boring.”

Which is precisely why we rearrange the furniture.

Today, I knew I had to break this news to Hubby, who, like every other husband on the planet, doesn’t get it. I did so gently, but this time I added, “Every woman likes to rearrange the furniture. It’s just what we do.” Remarkably, he agreed. I was stunned. Not one to push my luck, I decided to tell him about the new pillow plan–for color, of course—some other time.

A few hours later, he advised me to check the “to do” list on the counter. This is what I found:

Move TV room furniture. 
Move 2nd floor to 1st floor in June.
Move basement to 1st floor.

I’m not sure what happens to the first or second floor in this scenario. Oh well. Neither is he.

‘Drug store skin care’ revisited

Yesterday I found myself cleaning out what I referred to in one of my early posts as “the graveyard under the sink”—that Netherland in the vanity where all of the once-tried and subsequently rejected hair care products, body lotions, nail polish, and so forth find their home.

I purge the vanity every three months or so, when the impulse strikes, even if it happens to be midnight. If I don’t act then, the job won’t get done till the next wave of motivation hits. I pitch the expired product samples, wash and repack the bin that contains my travel-size stash, and drain any expired bottles of hair product that hadn’t lived up to my expectations.

Just as I had when I cleaned out the pantry after Christmas, I felt virtuous. Such “cleansing” chores that make sense when the sky is gray and the wind is howling. Who wants to clean out a cabinet  when the air is balmy, the sky is bright blue, and the daffodils are poking through the mulch? Which, now that it’s February, is not really that far away.

By the way, last year around this time, I wrote a post that I called “Drug Store Skin Care.” I’ve been with the L’Oréal products since then and have to say that I find them every bit as good as all of the significantly higher priced brands I’ve tried. I used the Revitalift line first, then switched to Age Perfect. I confess that I can’t see a huge difference in effectiveness between the two. My face feels soft and supple, and my daughter, who can always be counted on for directness in matters of hair, make-up, and apparel (“Don’t get too matchy-matchy!”), has said several times that my skin looks great. Perhaps the greatest advantage, though, is the economy of these products. I usually buy cosmetics at Ulta* and often find that both of these lines are full-price for the first item and 50% off the second. Since the line’s top price point is around $25, that’s a steal any way you look at it. Compare that to Philosophy or Lançome (which, incidentally, is owned by L’Oréal) or Clarins. I’ve also bought the products at the drug store and the grocery store—if I see a deep discount, I take advantage of it.

This sounds like a commercial endorsement, which it really isn’t. I’d heard so many friends complaining about the price of high-end skin care that I thought I’d experiment myself and share the results. So far, so good.

*One GREAT thing about Ulta… if you buy something, try it, and don’t like it, you can return it within 60 days—opened and used—without a fuss. I don’t do so often but always appreciate the fact that I can if I want to. The last thing I returned was a green (yes, green) tube of Lipstick Queen that was supposed to become that elusive perfect shade once applied. It was awful, but thanks to Ulta’s policy, it cost me nothing. Sephora has a similar policy.




Au revoir, Monsieur Mayle

I teared up, almost as if I’d lost a friend, when I saw that Peter Mayle had passed.  After all, he had given me Provence—first on the printed pages of his charming, insightful trilogy—A Year in Provence, Encore Provence, Toujours Provence—and thereafter the engaging, lighthearted novels he set there, irresistible confections all. Hotel Pastis and A Good Year were my personal favorites.

When we traveled in Provence, I confess to looking for Peter Mayle on the cobbled streets of Menerbes and Lourmarin and Gordes. There were no sightings, but I have seen many online comments from folks who did run into him there, and found him ever gracious and engaging. I hoped they thanked him for all the pleasure his pen provided; I surely would have.

If you haven’t read A Year in Provence, please do, then watch the British TV adaptation with the great John Thaw, whom you might know as the original Inspector Morse, as Peter, and Lindsay Duncan as his wife.



The urge to organize

My friend Teresa always used to say that December 26—Boxing Day—was her favorite of the year, since she was able to enjoy all the pleasures of Christmas with none of the pressure. I’ve kept her counsel for many years; the lazy day after Christmas is one of my favorites as well. This year, with the company gone, I announced early on that I planned to do absolutely nothing, which I did successfully… for a few hours. I watched an episode of Love, Lies, and Records on Acorn (it’s wonderful!) and read a bit (Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore—I like it). I munched on leftovers. But by the time Hubby decided to watch a Jack Reacher* movie, I was ready for something more active.

The urge to organize that always hits me when the season or the year changes coaxed me into the kitchen. I emptied, then cleaned and reorganized, the pantry shelves and purged all some odd foodstuffs acquired impulsively in the international aisle. I know it’s stupid to waste money and worse to waste food, so from now on, with you, readers, as my witness, here’s my pledge: I promise never to buy a semi-exotic ingredient without a recipe and a commitment to use it immediately.  The days of keeping such things on the shelf “just in case I feel like making Chinese” are long gone.

A month or so ago, while recuperating, I was looking for productive things to do that didn’t require much effort. We were deep into fall and though the weather was still balmy,  scarf season was upon us. I’ve never been satisfied with scarves folded in a drawer or on a shelf. They wrinkle and slide and inevitably, you have to go through the whole pile for the one you want. Furthermore, I am nuts about scarves and even wear them inside when it’s cold. I remembered seeing a Real Simple  hanger expressly suited to scarves, so—while I hand washed every one and hung them on almost every towel rack in the bathroom to dry— I sent Hubby on a mission to Bed Bath and Beyond, armed with a photo from the BB&B website. He came back with three of these nifty hangers, per my request, and then sweetly went out a second time for the fourth when it became clear that I have quite a few scarves. This little project just thrilled me, and still does. Every day, I get to admire my scarves hanging in plain sight, organized by weight and color and wrinkle-free. Little things mean a lot.

A similar organizing adventure was the $10 shirt-folder I bought from Amazon three years ago. This piece of cheap plastic—which is literally duct-taped together in one spot—remains one of my favorite gadgets. Tee shirts  and most sweaters fold flat and line up beautifully on the shelf.
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Slightly obsessive? Perhaps, but there’s absolutely nothing “concrete sequential” about me when it comes to thought processes or conversation (ask Hubby), so these little islands of  “hyper” organization are something of an anomaly. Still, like a Hallmark movie, such projects give momentary order to chaos and more or less immediate gratification. Which is not a bad way to start a new year, right?


*Matthew Bourne meets the Liam Neeson character in Taken, except it’s Tom Cruise. Definitely not my cup of tea.






A tisket, a brisket…

All right, that reversion to a childhood nursery rhyme was silly, but it came to me in the middle of the night, as Miss Puppy was inching me closer to the edge of the bed. I’d been lulled into a stupor too early by whatever silliness was on the tube at the time. Now I was awake and thinking of  brisket.

We first had brisket at my dear friend Marionlee’s. Her late husband, Gerry, was a veritable brisket master. On the odd chance you’ve never had it, brisket can be a disaster if it isn’t done correctly. Gerry’s best advice on the matter was this: “Cook it till you think it’s done, then cook it three hours longer.” Gerry never shared a recipe—I’m pretty sure he didn’t have one—but his brisket was always perfect, surrounded with tender potatoes and carrots, totally without artifice, utterly comforting and delicious.

Eventually, I decided to try brisket on my own.

My first effort was definitely in a category I’ll call “Everything but the kitchen sink,” from a hugely entertaining cookbook, Lora Brody’s* Cooking with Memories. Brody’s brisket recipe is the only reason I keep  bottled chili sauce on the pantry shelf. Note that it also contains beer. This brisket has a sweet-and-sour tang and always turns out tender and tasty. Here it is:

5-6 pound brisket
1/4 C water
2 large onions, peeled and sliced
4 stalks celery, cut into 1/2-inch slices
18-ounce bottle chili sauce
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 bay leaves
1/2 C brown sugar, firmly packed
1/3 C Dijon mustard
1/4 C red wine vinegar
3 T molasses
1/4 C soy sauce
1 can beer
1/2 tsp. paprika
Salt and pepper to taste
4 potatoes, peeled and sliced

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees with the rack in the lower third, but not bottom, position. Sear the meat, fat side down first, in the bottom of a heavy-duty ovenproof casserole. Turn the meat over and sear the other side. Add to the casserole the water, onions, celery, chili sauce, garlic, bay leaves, brown sugar, mustard, soy sauce, vinegar, and molasses. Cover and cook for 3 hours.

Add the beer, cover and cook 1 more hour, checking occasionally to make sure there is liquid in the pot. Add more water if necessary. Remove the meat from the pot and pour the sauce into a metal bowl. Discard the bay leaves. Cool broth. Slice the meat when cold. Skim the fat off the sauce, then return the sauce to the casserole or heat-proof serving dish, add the paprika and meat, and reheat on top of the stove, covered. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Parboil the potatoes, then add to the brisket dish to finish cooking. [Note: But you can skip this and make mashed or, better yet, latkes instead.]

Somewhere along the brisket continuum, I decided to branch out. Barbara Kafka’s Roasting: A Simple Art is an important cookbook. From its pages came the delicious dictum, “When in doubt, roast a chicken. ” Some of the recipes in Roasting are off-the-chart fabulous. “Wholesome Brisket with Roasted Vegetables”  is one of them. It will knock your socks off if, and only if, you are patient enough to wade through her copious directions, which I have always found murky and frustrating—15 minutes more here, 15 minutes more there, turn halfway this, turn halfway that. But if you do have the time and the patience, this brisket recipe is definitely worth the trouble. My recommendation: Follow it to a “T” and, like any brisket, make it the day before. You won’t be rushed, and it will taste better. For the sake of brevity—there are almost two full pages of single-spaced type—I’m not reproducing the recipe, but you can find it here, on the Food Network site. 

A good friend once said that she’s always used the same brisket recipe, that it contains Lipton onion soup mix, and that it never fails. I don’t doubt that, but I no longer use processed foods**.  The recipe that has now stolen my heart is definitely minimalist compared to the first two. Slow-Cooked Brisket and Onions comes from the Kitchn website. If you’re lucky enough to have an All-Clad Slow Cooker like mine, you can save yourself some trouble and sear the meat right in it. I’m providing the recipe below, with the author’s notes, but you will also find helpful visuals on the website.

1 T olive oil
1-1/2 pounds  yellow or red onions (about 2 large onions), sliced into half moons
3-1/2 pounds beef brisket
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 C beef broth [Note: I use Pacific low-sodium organic]
2 T Worcestershire sauce
1 T soy sauce (or tamari, if gluten-free)

Heat a deep sauté pan or cast iron skillet over medium heat with the olive oil. Add the onions and cook on medium-low to medium heat, stirring frequently, for about 20 minutes or until the onions have caramelized lightly.

While the onions are cooking, take the brisket out of its packaging and pat it dry. Season the meat generously with salt and pepper. Heat a large skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat and turn on your vent or fan, if you have one. Sear the brisket until a golden brown crust appears on both sides of the meat. Remove and place in a slow-cooker insert, fatty side up.

Sprinkle the minced garlic over the meat. When the onions are lightly browned, pile them on top and around the meat. Mix the broth, Worcestershire sauce, and soy sauce, and pour into the slow-cooker insert.

Cover and cook in the slow cooker on LOW for 6 to 8 hours or until the brisket is very tender. Let rest for at least 20 minutes before serving in the slow cooker set on WARM. (If your slow cooker doesn’t have a WARM setting, transfer to a baking dish and cover tightly with foil while resting.)

The brisket can be sliced or shredded immediately and served with the onions and juices. Or let the meat cool then refrigerate overnight. Before reheating, scrape away and discard the layer of fat that has formed around the meat.

To reheat: Heat the oven to 300°F. Transfer the brisket and all its juices to a baking dish and cover tightly with a lid or two layers of foil. Warm in the oven for 1 hour or until warmed through (time will depend greatly on the size and shape of the brisket; cut into smaller pieces for faster reheating).

Recipe Notes

  • Cooking time: Personally I like brisket very tender and shredded, almost like pulled beef. But if you prefer to slice the meat for a more formal presentation, aim for the shorter end of the recommended cooking time. Final cooking time will depend on the size and shape of the meat.
  • Oven instructions: No slow cooker? Cook in the oven instead, in a baking dish covered tightly with foil or in a Dutch oven, covered with a lid. Cook at 325°F for 3 to 4 hours or until very tender

*I love Lora Brody. You might recall her name from a post I did last winter on the blueberry muffins in her Cape Cod Table cookbook. I also recommend Growing Up on the Chocolate Diet, which, like Cooking with Memories, is filled not only with recipes, but also with stories guaranteed to make you laugh.

**Yes, you can make your own “onion soup” mix, and it will be pretty decent. I will help you with that another time.