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Oh Joy Part II

I woke up on Saturday to the sight of Alec on his iPad being very excited about something. He was exploring the 1940 census records, which the U.S. National Archives just released, and found the data for our block. (Below is the one that lists Albert Einstein.)

You might remember that at the neighborhood’s Oktoberfest party last year, we heard some tantalizing tidbits about our house’s history. In particular, our neighbors told us that the former Oak Park police chief with the surname Joy built the house in 1907 for his four or five unmarried schoolteacher daughters.

According to the 1940 census, there were four Joy family members living here: Margaret, 50, the head of the household; Mae, 42; Hazel, 40; and Harry, 24. Margaret, Mae and Hazel were sisters. Harry is listed as Margaret’s nephew.

The census data also lists their occupations at the time. None is listed for Margaret, but Mae was a stenographer for a “railroad car line” and Hazel also worked as a stenographer, but in advertising. I like to think she aged into an unmarried version of Ida Blankenship on Mad Men. Harry, meanwhile, was a lawyer in private practice.

Looking at the census rolls just inspired more questions about the Joy family. For starters, who are Henry’s parents? Margaret, Mae and Hazel are all single, not divorced or widowed. Mae and Hazel don’t seem quite old enough to be Harry’s mother, although it’s not impossible. Is there a fourth Joy sister who gave birth to Harry as an unmarried lady and left him in the care of her sisters? Why does Harry have “Joy” as his last name and not the name of his father?

My current working theory, which I totally made up using my overactive imagination, is that the milkman sired Harry Joy. There was a guy elsewhere on the block who listed milkman as his occupation, and I think it was him! That scoundrel!

I loved browsing through the census records. It’s a fabulous time capsule for the period, showing contemporary names (Gertrude, Herbert, Horace, Dorothy) and occupations (bacteriologist, milliner, elevator operator).

Of course, the forms have some cringeworthy bits too. For “Color or Race,” these are the options: White, Negro, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Hindu, Korean. (Unsurprisingly, everyone on our block was white in 1940.) The designations remind me of when Alec and I applied for our marriage license and the clerk asked him if he was Chinese or Japanese. When he asked if there was a biracial option, she said no, and poor Alec was forced to choose between Chinese and Caucasian. Ah, Cook County. Some things haven’t changed much since 1940.

 

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Veggie Tales

I used to eat just two kinds of vegetables when cooking for myself: green beans and broccoli. If you count potatoes as a veg, I guess that would be three. I wasn’t anti-vegetable; I was just kind of unimaginative and eating out most of the time anyway. Then, when Alec and I first got married, we cooked mostly meat-and-potatoes type meals and got weirdly addicted to Jewel store brand crescent rolls.

Our eating habits changed for the better when we signed up to get a biweekly box of mystery produce from Irv & Shelly’s Fresh Picks. (This is every two weeks. Did you know that biweekly means both every two weeks and twice a week? So stupid.) We started making vegetables the main focus instead of the protein, and I discovered the joys of Romanesco broccoli and ramps and rainbow chard. I learned how to handle nettles (i.e. not with bare hands) and that I really didn’t like nettles anyway. And as a bonus, we’re supporting a local small business that in turn works with local farmers.

Today Fresh Picks hosted an open house for their customers. We drove out to Niles and found their offices in a drab industrial park. I was pretty excited.

There was a raffle, information about their farmers on display, food samples and beer from Half Acre. (We used to live down the street from Half Acre in Lincoln Square/North Center and never stepped foot in there. Silly.)

The best stuff was from MANA Food Bar in Wicker Park, which made their own ricotta and served squares of it with pesto and pickled radishes. We kept going back for more helpings, pushing old ladies and children out of the way.

The Bleeding Heart Bakery was also there with cake balls and breakfast pastries.

And then there was a tour of the warehouse! I love this stuff. When I was living in New York, a friend who worked at Fresh Direct took me on a tour of the company’s warehouse in Queens and it was awesome. Conveyor belts of groceries, a cavernous room of only bananas…anyway, Fresh Picks’ set-up is like a super miniature version of that. Here’s Irv getting everyone ready to see where the magic happens.

Some more shots of the warehouse:

All in all, a very educational and tasty trip to the ‘burbs!

Dining with Grown-Ups

Ten years ago, my aunt and uncle took me, my parents and my cousin to Trio for dinner. Everything about the meal was new and memorable, from the level of service to the overall fanciness of it all. I tried truffles and foie gras for the first time. I learned what brioche was. And at the end of the meal, the servers let us peek into the kitchen so we could watch Grant Achatz work for a little bit.

It’s crazy to think Achatz was just 29 then, already famous but not the demigod of molecular gastronomy that he is now. I used to lurk on eGullet in the early days and remember when Achatz, using the handle “chefg,” would visit the forums and share tidbits about a new restaurant he was planning called Alinea.

Alec and I made our pilgrimage to Alinea on Saturday to celebrate the launch of his novel. We dressed up and everything – look how good Alec looks in his skinny suit from Hong Kong!

Now, the Internet is overflowing with intricately detailed Alinea reviews that have amazing photography and exhaustive recaps of each course. You’ve probably figured out that I’m not that kind of blogger. I tend to take photos like this:

Yeah, that’s me looking like I’m going to stick the eighth course (orange, fennel, ham, squid on a metal antenna) up my nose instead of eat it like a properly socialized human. This is just one of many reasons why, instead of giving you a sophisticated bite-by-bite recap of Alinea, I will give you a list of Memorable Moments.

  1. We got our choice of three types of sparkling water, and each was described in detail. I went for the Badoit, which has the smallest, most demure bubbles. Alec chose the Vichy Catalan, which our server described as having medium bubbles with a slightly briny aftertaste. It’s funny how just the explanations of the sparkling water choices can sound like an elaborate parody of a fine dining experience. But as someone who loves sparkling water, I will say that there was indeed a difference in carbonation levels and taste between the Badoit and Vichy Catalan.
  2. The first course was arctic char roe with coconut, carrot, yuzu, tarragon, emulsified curry and maybe some other elements I missed. Alec said, “This is maybe the best thing I’ve ever eaten.” And this was just the first course! That’s how we knew things were off to a good start. Also, as the course was finishing, I confessed to Alec that I had to push a bit of food onto my spoon “like an ogre.” He said: “I did that when you weren’t looking.”
  3. I had been taking notes on the meal in my sky blue Moleskine. As we were finishing one of our favorite courses of the night (scallop cooked in soy milk and grapeseed oil to resemble tofu and served with eyes-rolling-back-into-my-head-good dashi broth), the server came out with a piece of Alinea stationery for me! Yay for a bonus souvenir.
  4. The ninth course was a whole porgy (that’s a fish! I’d never heard of it either), served with caponata, chickpea crackers and mint sauce. The server said we weren’t expected to finish the entire fish because the meal is so long. Hahaha! As if 1.5 Chinese kids were going to leave delicious uneaten fish on the table. I even made Alec take apart the head so we could get the good stuff out of the cheeks.
  5. One course was served on a linen pillow filled with the scent of Hollywood Juniper. As the pillow slowly deflated from the weight of the plate resting on it, it released a woodsy aroma. The set-up was so inviting that after I was done eating, I put my whole face on the pillow. One second after I did that, the server emerged silently from the corner like a ninja. I was mortified, but Alec said he’s probably seen other diners do that.
  6. The server overheard me talking about the serving pieces and said they’re custom made by a guy named Martin Kastner, whose company is called Crucial Detail. You can buy their stuff online, so maybe I’ll start serving everything on metal antennas.
  7. The first sweet course, designed to evoke “winter wonderland in New Hampshire,” was served on rocks frozen in liquid nitrogen. That’s 200 degrees below zero! The server warned us not to touch or lick the rocks. (I immediately poked the rock with my spoon because I am four years old.) He said one diner disobeyed and had to go to the ER, although the person did finish the meal first. Here are my notes from this course, transcribed verbatim: “w wanted to touch a rock. A was like woman did you not listen to the warnings.”
  8. One of the final dessert courses was a balloon, made out of green apple taffy and filled with helium. Alec expertly sucked the helium out of his balloon and started singing the Lollipop Guild song from The Wizard of Oz. I started laughing so hard that I began crying, and then my balloon popped on my hand and I had to lick my hand to eat the course. Peasants, pay attention! This is how CLASSY PEOPLE dine at Alinea.
  9. Our friend had recommended that we split the wine pairing. This was a very good idea because we are a couple of lightweights. Case in point: my notes for the final course read: “–Banguls silicon tablecloth.” If anyone wants to tell me what “Banguls” is, I’m all ears!
  10. You should read Alec’s blog post on Alinea. It’s way better than this one.

Oscar Nom Noms

Five years ago, a boy named Alec invited me to an Oscars party at his apartment in Park Slope. We weren’t dating yet, but I did want to impress him with my baking skills and knowledge of cinema, so I made red velvet cupcakes (I called them “red carpet cupcakes”) and drew little Oscar statuettes and envelopes on each one with icing. They looked pretty cute. Then the tops got smushed while I was transporting the cupcakes on the subway, making the designs totally unrecognizable by the time I got to Brooklyn.

That was just the beginning of what would become an escalating annual tradition of making themed Oscar snacks. For the 2008 awards, Alec granted me co-hostess status and I reprised the red velvet cupcakes (the invitation e-mail’s subject line was “There Will Be Cupcakes“). I also made hamburger cookies in honor of Juno.

We are now committed to making a themed or punny snack for each Best Picture nominee. Brainstorming starts early, like months before the nominations are even announced, as we try to predict who will be in the running. Then I handle most of the cooking while Alec makes clever table cards on Photoshop.

This year seemed to be more challenging than others. We were still scrapping around for ideas for several of the nominees, like “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” days before the party. For “The Help,” I suggested buying kombu crackers and calling it “The Kelp.” Alec said: “That is literally the worst idea I’ve ever heard.”

I’m pleased to report that despite some tricky titles, this year’s spread turned out great!

And here are each of the dishes. The award for favorite pun goes to War Hors d’oeuvres, which are the sausage and cheddar balls I made for the holiday dinner party in December.

My runner-up for favorite pun is “Extremely Loud and Incredible Toast,” which The Kitchn had also suggested. We made shrimp butter toasts and ended up with a crazy amount of leftover shrimp butter, which we are going to spread on everything. It is so good.

For “The Descendants,” I baked pineapple cookies with brown sugar icing and called them Hawaiian Island Cakes because their texture was more cake- than cookie-like. I wish the pineapple flavor had come through more, but it’s hard to argue with the brown sugar icing, which was divine.

My first thought for “The Artist” was to make black and white cookies, but I already made those last year for “Black Swan” and didn’t want to repeat myself. I found a Martha Stewart recipe for black and white cheesecake squares, and they turned out delicious. I will say, however, that if you’re making this recipe, you might need a little more of the cream cheese filling. Also, you only need to reserve about 3/4 cup of chocolate dough, not 1 cup, for the topping. (I had lots left over, so I pressed it into the bottom of a muffin tin and made mini chocolate bowls for serving ice cream.) And don’t worry if the chocolate dough doesn’t press into the baking pan that well. Stick it in the fridge for the specified time and the dough will be much more malleable when it’s a little colder.

We had to do a little bit of improv for this next dish. It was our plan all along to do crudite with dip for “The Tree of Life.” But the prosciutto and pears? Originally, I was going to do little pear cubes served in baked prosciutto cups. But minutes before the party was going to start, I realized I had forgotten to start the dish, and I was too stressed to worry about the prosciutto cups. So we just made the pears and prosciutto part of the crudite platter. Our guests were none the wiser! (The dip was zucchini and ricotta, very tasty.)

As for “The Help”? I made deviled eggs, a traditional Southern appetizer, from The New Best Recipe. Yeah, I know the obvious joke is to make chocolate pie, but I didn’t want to go there.

The only non-homemade item we provided, besides the beverages, was a variety of French cheeses from the Marion Street Cheese Market to represent “Hugo.” I should also note this marked the one annual usage of our cheese board, which we registered for because we assumed that getting married would usher us into a sophisticated lifestyle of regularly eating nice cheese, when in fact we are kind of lactose intolerant.

And finally, there were the Moneyball cake pops.

OK. A word on cake pops. First of all, I know I am about four or so years behind the cake pop trend. Whatever. Secondly, while these turned out pretty cute, I will probably never make cake pops again. The most satisfying part of the process was reducing an entire chocolate cake to crumbs in a big bowl. It’s all downhill from there. Trying to get an even coating on the cake balls was pretty tedious. And then there was the matter of drawing the red seams on the pops. Aggggghhhhh. Baseball seams are very tricky! Alec drew me an example using a Sharpie and an orange, and I studied it intensely before attempting my own using red candy melts and a toothpick as a little stylus. I got the hang of it eventually, but then decided I absolutely must draw the stitches too, and my bowl of red candy melts hardened before I could finish the stitching. I could have reheated the bowl and kept going, but at that point I was just so sick of everything and full of self-loathing for having attempted the stitching at all. So I just stopped.

Also, cake pops are incredibly sweet. I thought I was going to have a diabetic coma from eating just one. (My friend’s two-year-old ate like six of them at the party. He seemed to be just fine, although I’m not the one who had to put him to bed that night.)

So there you have it, an exhaustive recap of this year’s Oscar snacks. Special thanks to our friends for their excellent company and for bringing treats, including some very delicious monster cookies and toffee from Chicago’s very own Terry’s Toffee. Please visit again, especially if you’d like to help us finish the leftover shrimp butter!

 

We spent this last weekend on our final (for now) painting project, the kitchen and powder room. The Kardashians couldn’t entertain us this time because we were tackling separate rooms, so we listened to the Beatles and the Pet Shop Boys instead, with me yelling from the powder room, “Is this song about drugs?”

Alec had the trickier job of painting all the hard-to-reach spots above the kitchen cabinets. Like on the right-hand side of this photo:

I just had to make sure not to drip paint on the toilet:

We moved everything from the kitchen countertops to the dining room table. Alec said we looked like subjects in that photo series where families around the world pose with all their food, except with a Hello Kitty toaster instead of comestibles. Maybe we just looked like we were having an indoor rummage sale.

We painted the rooms Benjamin Moore’s Harp Strings, which is a soft, buttery yellow. It made everything so happy, and complemented the woodwork, countertops and blacksplash. I was so pleased with the difference.

Kudos to Alec to painting above these cabinets. He managed to get in there with a long-handled radiator brush, which we had ordered for his office and ended up not using.

And here’s my handiwork in the powder room. We are working on adding a bit more to this room, so I’ll have additional photos later.

We ordered in from Leona’s to celebrate a hard day’s work and ate dinner while watching Community commentary tracks. I ordered a Caesar avocado wrap and it was enormous! I took a photo with a roll of tape (the closest object I had on hand) for scale.

That’s a wrap!

Alec and I cooked dinner at home for Valentine’s Day this year. I had originally wanted to broil lamb rib chops as an indulgent treat, but they were $22.99 a pound at Whole Foods. I am not even joking.

At first, I was in denial of my own sticker shock, loudly telling Alec at the meat counter,”It’s Valentine’s Day! Let’s go CRAZY!” while the butcher patiently waited for us to decide. But Alec was like, “You really want to spend $23 a pound?”

So we got shoulder chops instead ($9.99 a pound!) and made a few sides from stuff we already had on hand at home: cauliflower, baby broccoli and a few slices of bread. Dinner was grilled lamb shoulder chops, cauliflower gratin, sauteed baby broccoli and garlic bread.

Cooking the baby broccoli was the perfect excuse to use a new kitchen gadget that had just arrived via Amazon Prime: the Vebo. It’s a collapsible silicone basket for steaming, boiling and straining vegetables. Here’s the Vebo with the baby broccoli inside. It’s got holes punched in it so you can use it like a colander.

And then you just stick the basket inside a pot of boiling water. I was blanching the baby broccoli, so I needed it fully submerged (and needed to push it down with a wooden spoon) but you can also leave the veggies suspended over the water if you’re just steaming.

I know I sound like an annoying Vebo saleslady right now, but I just love kitchen stuff and this worked out really well. (Note: I tried plunging the whole Vebo into a bowl of ice water after the broccolini was done blanching, but that didn’t quite work, so either I needed a much bigger bowl or it’s not meant for that sort of thing.)

As a bonus, the Vebo comes in cute packaging.

Hooray indeed! Hope everyone had a lovely Valentine’s Day!

Blue Walls Smiling At Me

With the office painted, the next room to tackle was the dining room. We opted out of washing the walls because they were already primed back in the fall, when we first moved in and had the painters remove that high-gloss textured paint in other parts of the first floor. The trick with the dining room was careful taping because it has practically more woodwork than actual wall space.

The tight spaces around the windows and above the wooden archway also meant we were doing more brushwork than painting with rollers, and we had to be quite meticulous about everything. But we passed the time by streaming Keeping up with the Kardashians, which was surprisingly enjoyable, even for Alec. I don’t know what it is exactly, but there’s something kind of endearing about the early seasons. And I’ve finally learned which non-Kim sister is which, so my pop culture literacy has really skyrocketed.

We did two coats of Benjamin Moore’s Summer Shower on the walls. In some lights, it can look almost white or and other times it is unmistakably blue. The color is a nice complement to the sand and khaki accents in the room such as the drapes and the chairs, and it also picks up the hints of blue in the rug. You’ll just have to take my word for it because this are the only semi-decent photos I have of the room right now.

I was going to take another photo today, but we’re getting the kitchen ready for painting and now the dining room table is cluttered with everything that was sitting on the kitchen counters. Oops!

Special thanks to Netflix Watch Instantly for getting us through the afternoon of painting. And if you have thoughts about why Kourtney Kardashian (who seems relatively smart and thoughtful after you discount the whole reality show fameball thing) continues to be in a relationship with Scott Disick when he is clearly a vile layabout with a drinking problem who is trying to non-ironically impersonate Patrick Bateman for some unfathomable reason, please leave them in the comments. Thanks.