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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Today In The Oven ...

Have you ever heard the phrase “kill them with kindness?” Well, that works … but I have always had better luck with my own saying, “persuade them with pie,” as long as I make good on my word. I’ve tried making apple (it’s pretty good), pecan-caramel (wicked yummy!), coconut cream (tasty), strawberry-rhubarb (great for summer gatherings), and lemon meringue (sooooo refreshing), but nothing works as well as an edible “olive branch” than a cherry pie.

In my relatively short lifespan, I have given cherry pies as gifts, taken a fresh cherry pie to a friend in crisis, wowed the workers at an office potluck, and even provided one of my signature pies (as well as a pint of ice cream) to someone I had wronged.

Both pies and cherries have unique places in world and U.S. history. A pie (derived from the medieval words “coffyn” and “pye”) is a baked dish consisting of a pastry dough casing or crust that partially or completely encloses some type of filling. Most pies fall into one of three categories: savory (like “pot pies” and Shepherd’s pie and quiche), sweet (a single type or combination of fruit and berries), and cream (usually a whipped confectionary mixture that many cooks and bakers do not even recognize as a true pie). Pies range in size and shape, but most are further labeled as “filled” pies (a baking dish covered with pastry which is then covered with filling), “top-crust” pies (filling is placed in a baking dish and simply covered with pastry dough or even a potato mash type layer before baking), or “two-crust” pies (filling is completely enclosed in layers of pastry).

Historians believe that pies were initially found in Egyptian culture as early as 9500 B.C. These early pies were called “galettes” and were simply lumps of honey wrapped in a covering of ground oats, wheat, rye, or barley. Over time, pie “recipes” took on the needs and flavors of conquering cultures. Ancient Greeks developed a more true pastry dough and used it to create “meat pies” that were ideal for lightweight, easy-to-store foods that could travel both on ships and with foot soldiers. As the Romans took charge and their influence moved into northern Europe and southern Spain, pies began to make better use of salt and spices. The first Roman “cookbook” produced in the 1st century actually contained several pie recipes. And in Asian cultures, even items such as “spring rolls” and “pot stickers” are simply regional variations of the pie concept.

During the middle ages, pies were incredibly popular because they could be cooked over an open fire and could make use of local game. The Pilgrim communities and early settlers of the yet-to-be-formed U.S. brought pie recipes with them to the New World and soon pies included native fruits, berries, and nuts.

Cherry pie is a favorite type of dessert worldwide, and in America it is a staunch rival of the iconic apple pie. In fact, in the U.S., cherry pies are common players in pie eating contests and baking competitions, summer-month picnics, and restaurant dessert displays. Many bakers pay special attention to developing patterns and decorative treatments for the top crusts of cherry pies, building lattices or intricate braids or even unique cut-out shapes. Cherry pie is also one of the top items served à la mode (with a scoop of ice cream or dollop of some other dairy treat).

Of course, you can’t have a cherry pie without some cherries. Cherries … the popular stone fruit loved by millions … are a member of the Rosaceae family, making them cousins to apricots, peaches, plums, and even almonds. With more than 1,000 known varieties in the world, cherries are believed to have originated in China around 4000 B.C. Cherries have been enjoyed for centuries throughout Europe and Asia, and cherry seeds came to the Americas with the first settlers … due in part to the fact that a cherry orchard can be planted and brought to full production in between 4 to 6 years. Today, cherries are grown commercially in about 20 countries. In the U.S., cherries are primarily grown in Michigan, northern Wisconsin, Washington and the Pacific Northwest, and California.

Cherries generally fall into one of two categories. Sweet cherries … Prunus avium … are the most common type found in the U.S. and grow primarily in the northwest climates. These fruits are the larger of the cherry types, with firm and sweet meat. Sweet cherries are most usually eaten “raw” as a simply snack.

There are several popular types of sweet cherries such as the well-known Bing (extra-large fruit with dark red-to-almost black skin), Rainier (sometimes called “white cherries” because of their light yellowish flesh, golden reddish color, and delicate flavor), Lambert (heart-shaped fruit with a deep ruby color and semi-sweet flavor), Skeena (a dark red, very firm variety with a particularly strong flavor), Van (smaller than the Bing variety with a black skin and extremely sweet juice), Lapin (a large, meaty cherry that keeps extremely well and is popular worldwide for jams and jellies), Royal Ann (a golden pink variety that is used to make “maraschino” cherries), Santina (a very sweet, oval-shaped black cherry popular in British Columbia), and Sweetheart (a late seasonal cherry that is firm to the point of almost being crunchy).

Sour cherries … Prunus cerasus or “pie cherries” … are smaller in size and less sweet (or actually tart) than their sweet relatives. Because it is easier to control the sweetness levels while cooking and baking, sour cherries are highly preferred for the production of pies, desserts, sauces, candies, etc.

In the 1600s, much of the British country side boasted large cherry orchards. Cuttings from one orchard near Kent, England, were one of the first plantings completed by American colonists in Massachusetts. Today, most varieties of sour cherries grow in the Midwest and eastern United States; nearly 75 percent of the varieties grown domestically come from Michigan. Sour cherry trees are smaller than sweet varieties, require more water and a more nitrogen-rich soil, and are more resistant to blights and pests.

Varieties of sour cherries include two broad groups: Montmorency (also called “Amarelle” with light red skin, yellowish fruit, and clear juice that is the most popular variety for pies) and Morello (dark red cherries with red juice that freeze well and retain flavor).

Regardless of sugar content, most cherries have a short cultivating season … some as little as 30 days … roughly falling between early June and mid August. Medical researchers have also discovered that cherries are rich in vitamins (especially C), iron, potassium, and antioxidants. Sour cherries have higher levels of these health agents than sweet varieties. Sour cherries have also been found to exhibit anti-inflammatory properties ten times stronger than aspirin; some cherry extracts are popular herbal treatments for gout and arthritis.

I know many people make pies with fresh cherries and I do when it is summer. But like tomatoes, “fresh” cherries out of season are dreadful. Canned varieties work just fine. First you create two 9-inch crusts for a two-crust pie. In fact, if I’m thinking of doing something fancy, sometimes I make the recipe 50 percent larger so I have extra pastry dough to “play with.” But for a normal pie, sift the flower, salt, and nutmeg together in a good-sized mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, beat the oil, milk, and vanilla together lightly with a fork. Add this mixture to the sifted components and blend well. Divide the flaky dough in half. Place each half between sheets of wax paper and roll them out carefully into pie crusts. Let the crusts sit.

To create the filling, stir together the sugar, corn starch, cinnamon, and cloves in a large mixing bowl. Add the cherries and toss in the dry mixture until the cherries are coated. The required cherries for this recipe come in an odd amount (5 ½ cups). One 16 oz. can of cherries equates to about 1 ½ cups, so four cans will be just a bit too much … you need to “guesstimate” about 3 2/3 cans. If you want to use fresh cherries, 1 pound provides about 2 1/3 cups. And if you choose frozen cherries, 10 oz. of frozen cherries equals 1 cup. If you do use fresh cherries, let the bowl stand for 15 minutes (stirring occasionally) before you proceed. If you select frozen cherries, let the mixture stand until the fruit is partially thawed … about 45 minutes … before proceeding.

At this point go ahead and preheat your oven to 375 degrees F. Slowly loosen the wax paper from one crust and use it to line a 9-inch pie pan (glass preferred). Trim the crust with maybe 1/2 inch overhang. Once finished, slowly fold the sour cream into the cherry filling mixture. If it appears thin, sprinkle in some additional corn starch and stir easily. Once satisfied with the consistency, transfer the completed filling into the pastry-lined pie pan.

Now you have to decide how you are going to treat the top crust. The “easy way” is to simply place the second crust over the top of the pie and then crimp the edges together to form a seal. And cut small slits in the top crust to vent heat during baking. DON’T FORGET THE SLITS.

Another option is to use a small knife or even small cookie cutters to cut patterns into the top crust. I actually have an old ChapStick lid I saved to create a “polka dot” motif. Classic cooks often cut the top crust into strips and actually weave a lattice, carefully crimping the edges into the bottom crust. It takes some patience, but this treatment produces a gorgeous pie. Once completed, carefully brush your top crust with milk using a pastry brush and then sprinkle the whole thing with a little sugar.

Now that you are ready, place the pie on a baking sheet. To prevent overbrowning, cover the edges of the pie crust with strips of aluminum foil. Place the pie and baking sheet in the oven and bake for 30 minutes (or 50 minutes if you used frozen cherries). Open the oven door and carefully remove the foil. Bake your pie for between 25 and 30 minutes more until the crust is golden brown and you can see the filling bubbling. Remove your “labor of love" (or “project of penance”) and let the pie cool on a wire rack.

POINT OF RANT: After going to the trouble, you may just want to scarf the first one down yourself … so make two!!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Today In A Stranger's Backyard ...

As I’ve stated in previous posts, my family has a tendency towards procrastination hidden deep in our genetic markers. So it was no real surprise when, a few short weeks ago, my oldest nephew announced that his yearbook “photo” was due and that no one had made a single inquiry or formulated a plan about having his “Senior Portraits” taken.

With the pervasiveness of the Internet and the pic-saturated world of Facebook, I figured that procuring pictures during their last year of prison … I mean high school … would be the furthest thing from the minds of our techno-savvy youth. And I would be wrong!

My
nephew has already collected dozens of formal and candid shots from classmates whose parents, no doubt, lit a fire under them months ago about crossing this senior-year task off their burdensome lists. Some of these photos, in my opinion, were better than others, displaying more care with lighting and location and even the clothing and props chosen. And some … according to my nephew … ran his classmates close to $700!!

Many moons ago (damn, I’m old) I, too, had the daunting task of having my image captured for posterity and exploitation during my last year of state-mandated education. My parents let me handle the process, promising to put $150 toward the project … I was responsible for anything more. So during the summer between junior and senior years, I called around to three or four photography studios, scouted locations, and solicited advice from my friends concerning their intentions. I ended up working with Ray Delgado of Delgado Imagery. He was a friendly guy … about 50 … who had been taking photos for more than 20 years while also dabbling in selling real estate. Because of his contacts, Mr. Delgado had permission to use the grounds of several fairly fancy homes for his photography business.

Delgado Imagery offered the “Senior Sizzler Package,” which included one hour’s worth of shooting time, five finished 8” X 10” photos of one pose, half a dozen 5” X 7” shots of two selected poses, 25 “wallets” of three selected poses, and a keepsake proof book with your 15 best shots all for the low, low price of $185. My Dad went with me to make the initial deposit and I asked Mr. Delgado if he and I could meet a few days before the scheduled shoot to discuss my “plan.” He smiled a really toothy grin and said, “I like your spunk, kid … how about Thursday around 4?”

When
I stopped by his studio, Mr. Delgado was finishing up taking some baby pictures. I waited in the small reception area but I could hear him working with the baby and the parent. He had a soothing voice that put people at ease. He had that baby squealing with delight so I figured he must be getting some really good shots. A little later, the photographer and I were sitting around a small bistro table and he was laughing about how prepared I was. I had six 4” X 6” note cards with me. One said “formal” and I think I had scribbled notes like “suit and tie? best colors? outside?” Other cards included “swing choir,” “art,” “reading,” and “sport.” And my last card just said “bridge” because there was a park with a small bridge on one of its trails that I had always loved and hoped it could be worked into a photo. For additional visual support, I had taped some images from magazines to all of the cards.

It
took about 30 minutes to address each card, but Mr. Delgado didn’t seem to mind taking the time. He asked me if I was comfortable in a suit and I told him a shirt and tie was more my style. “Shirt and tie it is,” he said. He also assured me that a pale solid shirt would work fine and that we could take a few nice outdoor poses with no problem. The “art” and “reading” poses were easy to plan and we agreed on a few props that I would provide. Under “sport” I explained that I had ran cross country for two years but it wasn’t anything recent and I felt odd claiming that as a non-participating senior. I also mentioned that I had played golf with my father a few times but didn’t really enjoy it. We jotted down a few ideas that seemed like winners. For “swing choir” I didn’t need to explain because Mr. Delgado knew about our school’s award-winning group. I did, however, have to explain the bridge and my desire to have at least one kind of “artsy” pose.

And just as we finished going over my notions, Mr. Delgado’s eyes grew wide and he blurted out, “could you pull yourself together for pictures by Saturday morning?” I was a bit shocked but told him “sure.” He gave me a card with an address on the “nice” side of town and told me to give him between two-and-a-half and three hours and we could “knock it out of the park.” I was excited but nervous because of the time.

Mr. Delgado … maybe I should scale back because I want to keep the price under control. My parents …“

He
put his hand on my shoulder. “Son,” he countered. “We’ll make this work.”

So at around 9 a.m. on Saturday, I pulled into a sprawling, tree-lined lot with a fairly modern looking single story home. The mailbox said “The Wellingtons,” which meant nothing to me. Mr. Delgado was in the driveway and escorted me inside. He explained that the Wellingtons were good friends of him and his wife, and that they were out of town for the weekend and had no problem with us using their home for a few photos.

We lugged my props into the entry way and then I was shown to a small guest bathroom where I changed into my “formal wear” and checked my hair and stuff. When I came out, Mr. Delgado fussed with me a bit, straightening my tie and running a lint brush over me. We moved into the living room area where Mr. Delgado had set up some lights and diffusers near a wall boasting a huge weaving showing coarse vertical bands of ecru, tan, and ochre. He had me work through a variety of stand poses before he clicked off the lights and ushered me outside into the Wellington's spacious and enclosed backyard. Several types of summer foliage were in bloom and Mr. Delgado used these as artful backdrops. The Wellingtons also had a rock garden alcove and I sat on a granite chunk for a few more pics. Formal ... check.

Mr. Delgado was very pleased with how well I took directions and he said we would be finished up “here” in no time. I wondered what he meant exactly when he scooted me inside to change into my jeans and casual pullover. Once dressed, we used a study in the home’s small office/library to shoot a few frames of me reading my all-time favorite book … Ursula LeGuin’s “A Wizard of Earthsea.” Reading … check.

Then Mr. Delgado surprised me when he threw me an old denim shirt. It was a little too long and covered with paint like it was used when doing chores, but I shrugged into it. “Just see if this works for you,” he said with a wink. We set up my easel complete with a large blank canvas for effect. I retrieved a few brushes from my art kit and removed my palette from a garbage bag. Mr. Delgado moved over his lights and took a couple of readings. He explained that he wanted to create some harsh shadows. I trusted his skills so I just nodded and did as I was told. As the photographer moved around me to try and get a moody portrait of an “artist at work,” his frown told me that he wasn’t happy with the set up. Suddenly he asked me if I had actual paints in my kit. “Yeah,” I said and that led to the man actually smearing small dabs of paint on my face and then he took more shots with much greater gusto. Art … check.

Once this scene was done, Mr. Delgado asked if I had any more clothing changes planned. I told him yes so he dismissed me and sent me into the restroom to wipe off my face and alter my attire. It didn’t take me long but I could tell the photog was slightly surprised when I emerged in cargo shorts, a t-shirt layered under a burgundy striped oxford, high tops, and spiked hair. I had also put in my earring and put on two chokers I almost always wear. “This is how I dress,” I explained firmly. “I figured since I am paying for part of this that I should look like ME.” He just gave me a resigned smile and directed me to follow him.

We exited the home proper through the kitchen into a well-lit garage. There, standing near a bluish gray wall, stood a recording microphone from like the '30s. "It's a prop from a community theatre play that I had stored at the studio. I thought you might like to try a few poses with it and we'll see how they turn out." Mr. Delgado also handed me a pair or matte gray headphones. They did't look exactly like recording studio equipment, but the neon yellow accents on them were really cool. I aped a few rocker poses and even did the "cupping your ears for the high note" pose. Through the headphone padding I'm sure I heard the photographer's muffled laughter. Swing choir ... check.

I
helped Mr. Delgado load the microphone into his Jeep Cherokee before we headed back into the Wellington’s yard. The photographer directed me back over toward the rock garden and I noticed for the first time the slightly Asian-looking red footbridge and a koi pond. Mr. Delgado suggested I take off my shoes and dangle my feet in the water. “George and Maggie haven’t had any fish in there for years,” he explained when he saw my reluctance. Mr. Delgado certainly was imaginative. He took shots of me from several angles, even from up and behind me. He never had me look at the camera and I hoped his artistic flair and forced perspectives would look cool. Bridge … check.

We broke down the lighting equipment inside and did a quick check of the library and bathroom to see that everything was in order. When we stood outside beside my old beater, I checked my watch and was amazed that it was only 10:40.

I was about to ask when he thought I could see proofs when Mr. Delgado asked if I had enough time for one quick stop. I assured him I had set aside the entire morning. He grinned and told me to follow him to Twilight Lanes, the local bowling alley. About 15 minutes later we were inside the lanes and shaking hands with the manager. Mr. Delgado explained that he had asked if we could spend a few minutes over in the far corner lane before business picked up for the day. The manager … a dude named Loren … was a buddy of his and said it wouldn’t be a problem. He even turned the overheads on over the back alleys so Mr. Delgado didn’t need any extra lights. I grabbed a blue-swirled ball and met the photographer on lane 22. He positioned himself to my left about a third of the way down lane 21 and had me throw about 10 balls. For the last three he closed the distance by half.

I felt like I was in a professional model shoot; my mind was filled with ideas I wished we had tried at the Wellingtons. Damn, I wish I would have climbed up into that treehouse, I thought. So I think Mr. Delgado was both surprised and pleased when I asked him if we could just take a few shots at one of the nearby pool tables because I loved shooting pool. Sport … check.

Long story short … I went with the outdoor formal pose for my yearbook shot and 8” X 10”s. And the art pose with paint smears and the dangling feet in the pond pose made it to 5” X 7”s and wallets. The shooting pool pose … a close-up with my face and a cue close to the felt … was awesome, but I liked the others better. The reading, singing, and bowling poses were fine too, but my family and I agreed that the other ones were better choices.

And Mr. Delgado was the most awesome prize of all. He offered to give me the whole package as planned for $220 dollars if he could use my proofs for promotional purposes. And when I picked up all my prints, he had made a 5” X 7” and a set of wallets (50) of the pool pose I liked so much for free!! I think it was the one picture that all my friends wanted too.

So back to my nephew. I ended up taking his yearbook photo. We picked out an awesome shirt and tie and then went to a nearby bookstore that has all these interesting nooks and alcoves. We took pics in about 10 locations and ended up with some truly good shots.

I also sat down with my oldest brother’s son and we created a plan. He isn’t a football star or a pet owner, but he does love rock climbing walls and taking care of his used car … his baby! So I suggested the climbing wall at a big sports complex in Columbus and maybe simple pictures of him checking his oil or washing the car or even gassing it up. I also suggested some shots of him playing with his Xbox and maybe some outdoor shots at a nearby playland on the jungle gyms or curly slides. There’s even a carousel nearby, but he thought that sounded “girly.”

“What about me with a guitar?” he suggested.

“But you don’t play guitar.”

“Who cares … it’s cool!”

POINT OF RANT: Why do I bother?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Today At The Table ...

My family is a competitive bunch of misfits! If we can attempt to outdo one another at anything, we do. And this same trait has affected my choice of friends. Most of my closest comrades are fiercely competitive to the bitter end. We even brag about who found the best parking spot when we go out in a group.

Anyway, earlier today my family gathered for a late lunch celebrating the return of my oldest nephew from a short school trip. We ate … we talked … and then we got out the board games.

Since I was a tiny kid, the family has taken out some of its individual and collective aggressions at the dining room table … inflicting our pain through high rents in “Monopoly” or snarky comments when someone misses an “easy one” in “Trivial Pursuit.” To be honest, my sister has always enjoyed inflicting pain by ACTUALLY inflicting pain … I have the mended bones and faded scars to prove it.

I always scream for “Boggle” if the crowd is the right mix. My oldest brother is a “Risk” lover; my other brother has a passion for all things “Clue.” My sister enjoys the simplicity of “Bingo” and “Password.” But over the last few years, literally everyone in the extended family has grown to love a not-so-promoted game called “Apples to Apples.”

This fruity free-for-all was originally published in 1998 by Out of the Box Publishing, a Madison, Wisconsin company focused on innovative card and party games that are both easy to learn and relatively quick to play. In fact, of the 45 games marketed by Out of the Box, most require about five minutes to learn the basic rules and between 30 minutes and 40 minutes to play.

Basically, “Apples to Apples” is a card game. Each player is dealt seven “red apple” cards containing a noun or noun phrase. These cards are very specific … meatloaf, Richard Nixon, neighbors, kittens, etc. The judge (a rotating player) draws a “green apple” card containing an adjective … eerie, challenging, sexy, patriotic, etc. The judge displays and/or reads the green apple card aloud and the remaining players choose a card from their hand that best “matches” the noun. The judge mixes up the selected cards and usually reads them aloud. Then, in a completely subjective manner the judge awards the card (or point) to the person who creates the most humorous or interesting connection. The round concludes by everyone drawing another red apple card to maintain seven cards in their hand. The judging duties typically rotate to the player on the left. Once a player earns a predetermined number of green apple cards, he or she is declared the winner.

“Apples to Apples” can accommodate four to 10 players. Game instructions suggest the number of “points” needed for a win based on the number of players … the more players the lower the total needed to win to keep the play time manageable. In my family, we love the damn game so much we usually always play to 20. And having a little bit of wine going around the table for the adults never hurts.

Since more of the older nieces and nephews have joined in on the fun, we’ve even started playing some of the more complicated variations suggested by the manufacturers. One of our favorites is “Apple Turnovers.” In this type of play, each player is dealt a hand of “green apple” (adjective) cards and the judge provides a “red apple” (noun) card for the match. Another option to spice things up is playing “Crab Apples” where the object of the game is to provide a “red apple” card that is the most UNLIKE the “green apple” card. And in “2 for 1 Apples,” two “green apple” cards are used and players have to find a matching “red apple” card that makes the most sense for both.

All of my siblings and I own a copy of “Apples to Apples.” I have the “party crate version” that comes housed in a wooden box similar to a miniature apple crate. Besides slightly different packaging, there are four expansion card sets for the game as well as the following editions: Kids, Junior, Bible, Jewish, Spanish, German, UK, Disney, a travel “To Go” version, and an online game. (Not all versions are currently available.)

In 1999 … one year after its release … “Apples to Apples” was awarded the MENSA Select Prize (awarded to five outstanding games each year) and the National Parenting Center’s seal of approval, as well as being named “Party Game of the Year” by Games magazine. If there was a “Makes You Feel Like A Kid Cause You’re Having So Much Fun” award, “Apples to Apples” would have received it SEVERAL times!

In September of 2007, Mattel Inc. … the mega giant of the toy and game industry ,,, acquired the rights to “Apples to Apples.”

POINT OF RANT: Sorry UNO … we’ll dust you off one of these days!!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Today In A Magazine Article ...

In previous blogs, I have mentioned my cat Pickles (full name Sweet Pickles). She was a surprise “housewarming” gift from a co-worker when I moved into this new apartment about nine months ago. Pickles is fun, frisky, and loves to scratch my furniture and chew cords. I was ill-prepared for having a pet because, as a child, my family never had pets. No cats, dogs, fish, hamsters, turtles, guinea pigs, rabbits, snakes … you get the picture. But Pickles and I have made our peace and she’s a hell of a lot easier to keep alive than a houseplant.

About a month ago that same co-worker stopped me and told me a “tale of woe” concerning the lady whom donated Pickles (formerly known as “Topsy” I discovered) for my gift. It seems this woman needs to have knee surgery and is going to stay at her daughter’s place in Virginia while recuperating. The recovery and associated physical therapy was estimated to require between eight and 10 weeks, which was great with this lady’s family because they had been trying to get “Grandma” to move in for years. But the hitch was that this lady still had another pet cat … Turvy … and her grand-daughter is allergic to cats. Topsy Turvy … well, at least Pickles’ original name makes some sense now.

So to make a long story short … Pickles (the extrovert) was reunited with her introverted sister (they are actually from the same litter) who I renamed Moo (short for “Moo Goo Gai Pan”) and all hell has broken loose. In the dictionary, the term “topsy turvy” is deined as “confused, disorderly, or an inversion of the natural order.” Truer words have never been printed on high-quality paper. These two cats are insane when they rough house, and it’s MY HOUSE they are chewing and scratching their way through. Blinds … curtains … earbuds … lamp cords … shoe strings …dish towels … anything and everything is fair game.

And then there’s the “stigma” of being a double cat owner. I recently read an article where the writer said, “Single men and cats are like a burger and broccoli. Separately they are okay, but together it just seems off.” When I meet people I sometimes lie about my feline flatmates because people assume a single man my age with cats is “troubled” and destined for a life of loneliness and tea parties with his still-in-the-original-packaging action figures! P.S. … they are not dolls, people!!

So it’s time to defend my cats’ honor as well as my own!! Here’s the scoop …

The domesticated catFelis catus … has been associated with humans for more than 9,500 years. These little furry felines have been valued for providing companionship, preying on pests and vermin, and even inspiring entire civilizations. Mine mostly chew stuff.

The ancestors of domesticated cats lived about 10 million to 15 million years ago and share genetic “stuff” with lions, tigers, cougars, and other ferocious “kitties.” During the evolution process, domestic cats really haven’t changed that much. They are still small, have a strong social nature and love of play, display high intelligence and a system of communication, and still possess their innate hunting skills and abilities.

It has always been said that domesticated cats were first prominent in Egypt, but more recent discoveries trace their first appearances to Cypress and Africa just under 10,000 years ago. But ancient Egyptians definitely raised the bar on the treatment of cats. Around 3500 B.C., many Egyptians worshiped cats and looked at them as embodiments of their gods. Some prayed to them and pampered them ridiculously. Some protected them because of their abilities to hunt and kill mice and other destructive vermin. There were even elaborate funerals for pet cats and equally horrible punishments for individuals who harmed these beloved felids. There have been hundreds or ornate caskets found with carefully mummified cats inside, as well as embalmed mice for “treats” in the afterlife. Historic records also show that some Egyptian cat owners shaved off all their hair to mourn the loss of their pets. If a home caught fire in ancient Egypt, the cat was saved first. The Egyptians also honored and revered Bast, a goddess with the body of a woman and the head of a cat, as the protector of these sacred animals and as a deity who bestowed luck and favor on people who cared for her “many children.”

Many other civilizations, too, catered to the whims of cats. The Romans of the 1st and 2nd century treated domesticated cats like royalty. Romans are also believed to have been responsible for the spread of cats to most of Europe. In Norse mythology, Freyja … the goddess of love and fertility … rode in a chariot pulled by cats. In Japan, the Maneki Neko is a cat that brings good fortune. And many seafaring tribes and peoples took cats aboard ships because they believed these animals brought luck and could perceive approaching storms and dangers. It is this last practice that is believed to have spread the domesticated cat to other continents.

Today, there are more than 500 million domesticated cats in the world. According to a 2009-2010 study endorsed by the Humane Society of the United States, there are 93.6 million “owned” cats in the U.S. … about 16 million more than pet canines. On average, one third of American households have at least one cat; the average “cat owner” has 2.45 pets.

The domestic cat was first classified in 1758 in the 10th edition of Systema Naturae. Currently, there are 41 recognized breeds of domesticated cats. Purebred cats (or pedigree cats) are animals whose entire lineage has been maintained within one standard breed; these animals represent less than 10 percent of the overall cat population. Many other breeds are grouped into loose “clowders” (a group of cats) such as domestic longhair, domestic shorthair, and other nomenclature based on coat length, fur pattern, body type, or any number or genetic quirks created by a cat’s more than 20,000 separate genes and 38 chromosomal pairs.

But the real question still remains: why choose a cat for a pet? First off, cats have super powers. Cats have additional thoracic and lumbar vertebrae that provide it with exceptional mobility, flexibility, and balance. They even possess “floating clavicles” that allow them to move through tight spaces. Cats have a more acute sense of hearing than people (and dogs!). They can hear an incredibly wide range of frequencies as well as fainter noises in part because of their large, movable outer ears which both amplify sound and provide better source direction for the noises. Cats also have super vision … because of retinal formations and slit pupils, cats can see in near darkness by focusing all available light. But they see in only blues and greens … weird! Add to the list that cats have “super jaws” and specially formulated teeth to kill prey; a sense of smell that can perceive one part per billion of a substance in catnip; protractible claws for defense and hunting; a special gait similar to camels and giraffes that assures balance and even stealth; and a system of whiskers that provide sensory information on everything from air currents to the dimensions of gaps in small spaces. And don’t forget the super metabolism … cats have extremely efficient digestive systems, can tolerate temperatures up to 133° F with access to water, and can conserve heat for cold weather conditions by reducing the flow of blood to their skin. Cats should come with capes!!

The second reason to choose a cat as a pet is that cats can talk. Numerous studies have documented that cats use a variety of sounds and body language to communicate with each other and with their human caregivers. Ask any cat owner and they will confirm that the meows, purrs, trills, growls, squeals, and hisses from their little “furballs” all correlate to very specific needs and emotional states. Likewise, cats will make body contact, move their ears and tails, fall into a self-grooming pattern, or even do the “kneading” trick with their front paws to express themselves. They even emit pheromones (undetectable by humans) to convey their feelings and emotions to each other. Dogs just bark. Hamsters just keep running in their wheels. And turtles … turtles just take up space.

Thirdly on my list … cats keep you healthy. Although there are an estimated 400,000 minor cat bites inflicted on pet owners each year, cat ownership has been shown to provide greater mental health through affection and companionship. Reduced physical responses to stress also are a benefit of owning a cat. Studies in America, Switzerland, England, and other locations have shown reduced blood pressure in at-risk cat owners as well as a corresponding lower risk of heart attacks and strokes.

And finally … and maybe most importantly … cats just make better pets from a practical standpoint. According to more Humane Society data, cat owners spend less money on routine vet visits than do dog owners. Cats use a litter box for “their business” … a natural instinct not dimmed in millions of years … so they do not need to be taken outside or specially trained. If something comes up at the office or if an opportunity presents itself for overnight or weekend travel, a cat can be left to its own devices. Cats are generally low maintenance, providing a sense of freedom to their owners. A dog … oh, no! A dog would need a sitter or a walker or a stay at a kennel in a similar situation.

As I wrote this blog post, I was feeling good about my relationship with my pets … aside from the destruction of personal property. Then I saw some information that actually made me a little smug. Suddenly, owning a pair of feisty felines made me a little cocky.

A higher percentage of cat owners both adopted their pets from animal shelters and had their animals spayed or neutered as compared to their canine-loving counterparts. Additionally, a psychological study conducted at the University of Texas at Austin put “cat people” in a good light when researching the differences between “us” and “dog lovers.” Looking at personality traits and the connections between people and their pets, subjects who associated themselves with cats were noted to be more open and flexible. And then a separate study conducted in the UK found that a higher percentage of cat owners (over dog owners) held advanced educational degrees.

So people … and dog owners, in particular … quit dissing on our kitties!!

POINT OF RANT: My one cat is a “polydactyl,” meaning she has extra toes. And extra toes mean extra claws. Maybe all the scratching and chewing is just in her “super powered mutant” nature! SNIKT!!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Today In My Closet ...

When I went away to college at the age of 18, I was suddenly 2 ½ hours away from home and surrounded by people roughly my own age of every race, orientation, and idiosyncrasy. I was so desperate to find my own “style” that I copied everyone else looking for it. I pierced my ears. I tried red hair and blue hair and bleached blond hair. I wore eyeliner for two months, for God's sake. I started wearing camouflage pants … then rugby shirts … then workout "jams" ... then cargo shorts. And then for a semester, I made friends with this crazy guy in pottery class and I started mimicking him. So off and on for 15 weeks, I wore a kilt. My God … I wore a kilt … in public … in front of people. YIKES!!

By definition, the kilt is a knee-length garment that originated in the 16th century in the highlands of Scotland. Traditionally, kilts were worn by men and boys during formal occasions such as weddings and sporting events. But in the 1800s the garment gained more popularity in all of Scotland and surrounding Celtic nations. In Ireland, particularly, a solid kilt … called a “cilt” … came into general fashion around 1900. Likewise, kilts became popular in Wales, Normandy, and parts of Spain and Portugal.

Today, in Scotland, kilts are still primarily considered formal dress … kind of like the American tuxedo. They are also popular attire for dances, pipe band competitions, parades, and celebrations like the Highland Games. Certain military groups with a Scottish heritage occasionally utilize ceremonial kilts as well; these groups include regiments of the British Army, certain units of the military in Australia and New Zealand, and the pipe and drum bands of the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Military Academy, U.S. Coast Guard, and the U.S. Air Force.

Both traditionally-styled and more contemporary kilts (also known as “modern kilts” or “utility kilts”) have been growing in the men’s garment industry in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. And while wool is still popular, fabrics such as leather, denim, corduroy, and cotton have been used to give kilts more versatility and to make them more affordable. Designs are available for formal and casual wear, utilizing traditional pleating and fasteners as well as velcro and pockets for tools and other items.

The original kilts of the Highlands were referred to as “great kilts” because the garments extended over the shoulder and could be used as a cloak or head cover. The more common version ... the one most Americans picture in their brains ... is termed a “small kilt” or “walking kilt” and wasn’t adopted until the later 1800s.

Kilts have been seen in ancient Egypt (pleated linen wraps known as “shendyts”) as well as Ireland and other Gaelic nations, but the Scottish kilt is very unique in its construction and adherence to centuries-old traditions. Kilts are made of twill-woven worsted wool. It’s a heavier fabric, but weavers and manufacturers create a variety of weights appropriate for various seasons and activities.

A traditional kilt is a very tailored garment, carefully matched to the wearer’s waist, hips, and height. It takes between 8 and 9 yards of fabric to construct a kilt that covers a man’s body from the waist down to the center of his knees. Starting from one side (usually the wearer’s left), kilt fabric is wrapped around the front and back of the body and across the front again to the opposite side. A system of fastening straps and buckles secures the waist. Kilts seldom have hems to avoid seeming bulky.

The overlapping layers in the front of a kilt are called "aprons" and they are flat. The single layer of fabric the covers the sides and back of the body is pleated with either knife pleats (simple folds) or more structured box pleats.

But for most people, choosing a kilt is all about the tartan. Tartan is sometimes called the sett, but basically it is the unique plaid design that is woven for kilt construction. Setts are created by the vertical and horizontal arrangement of specific thread counts of a structured sequence of colored fibers. A tartan or set code is maintained so that the pattern can be duplicated. Tartans can be created symmetrically (with the pattern being mirrored at a pivot point) or asymmetrically (where the pattern is just repeated over and over). Likewise, the tartan can be worked into the pleating so that either one dominant stripe of the pattern runs down each pleat (making the unpleated front appear different from the sides and back of the kilt), or the fabric can be folded in such a way that the same pattern is maintained throughout the garment.

Once a tartan pattern has been established, there are typically four color variations developed. An “ancient” treatment takes the color sequence and skews the colors to resemble the vegetable dyes used centuries ago. In this process, blues and greens become slightly lighter and reds have an orange tinge. In the “modern” variation, colors are very intense and bright. “Weathered” tartan attempts to create cloth that appears worn by the elements by adjusting greens into light browns, blues into grays, and reds into mulberry colors. And finally, a “muted” variation skews the tartan toward earth tones where greens are olive, blues look like slate, and reds take on a deep wine color.

For centuries, tartan patterns have been associated with clans and families, as well as geographic regions. Today, there are even tartans representing schools and universities, corporations, sporting clubs, special events, and even single individuals. And generic patterns are available to anyone.

Beginning in the 19th century, weaving companies began developing a formalized system for filing registered tartan patterns. Today most of these patterns are part of the international tartan index of the Scottish Tartans Authority (STA). The STA is a wonderful resource for many things Scottish, including tartan formulas, fabric samples, and more than 3,500 registered setts. And with the variations I mentioned previously, that means more than 14,000 separate registered patterns!!

But there is more to wearing a kilt than just “putting on a skirt” and calling it a day! When worn in a more traditional setting, kilts are often accompanied by structured jackets, woolen kilt “hose” turned down at the knee, moccasin-type shoes, a sporran (a decorated purse or pouch worn at the waist), a kilt pin, and a sgian dubh (Gaelic for “black knife,” a small ceremonial weapon worn in the top of the hose). Tradition also states that a “true Scotsman” wears nothing under his kilt, so underwear is often omitted.

In more contemporary settings, kilts are paired with sports jerseys, t-shirts, and flannel shirts, as well as sneakers and work boots. And the “going commando” thing is up to the individual.

POINT OF RANT: With my legs, a kilt should NEVER have become a part of my wardrobe!!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Today In The Frig ...

I bought some pepper turkey at my favorite deli … sliced extra thick … as well as some mild Swiss cheese, crisp lettuce, and a luscious tomato. I was going to build the perfect sandwich. So I was just short of insane when I discovered that my jar of Miracle Whip was empty. I mean like “rattle, rattle” empty.

I was raised on Miracle Whip. There was no debate or battle to choose sides in my house. Miracle Whip was used on sandwiches and burgers and in yummy pasta and potato salads. I remember being about 7 and having lunch at a neighbor kid’s house. His Mom had made tuna salad for sandwiches and, as was their family custom, used Hellmann’s … Miracle Whip’s top competitor. After that first bite, I wanted to ask my pal’s Mom if she had substituted rat for tuna. It tasted disgusting. So in my world, the fight of Miracle Whip vs. Hellmann’s Real Mayonnaise … the “real” standing for “really awful” … was simply good vs. bad. Actually, good vs. evil!

In 1933, Kraft Foods launched its Miracle Whip product at the Chicago World’s Fair. The company claims that the product was an in-house development, but some attribute this creamy condiment to a man named Max Crosset who created a vibrant salad dressing in 1931 which he later sold to Kraft. Regardless of its origins, Miracle Whip sits on grocery shelves everywhere and on refrigerator shelves in millions of homes.

Miracle Whip … supposedly named for the “whip” apparatus developed to mix the product into a proper consistency … is defined as a salad dressing and sandwich spread, but it has become interchangeable with mayonnaise as a condiment and cooking ingredient in salads, dips, and more. Like mayonnaise, Miracle Whip embraces the simplicity of the recipe … eggs, oil, salt, mustard, and vinegar or lemon juice. But Miracle Whip doesn’t stop at standard … it truly delivers a “zip” with higher levels of vinegar, sugar (a supposed no-no for “true” mayo), garlic, paprika, and other palette-pleasing spices. It’s bold! It’s zesty! It’s sweet! It’s oh-so creamy! And it has HALF THE FAT of traditional mayonnaise!!

But what has been catching my eye lately is the hilarious advertising campaign that highlights the “feelings” of both fans and detractors of Miracle Whip. One advocate says “Miracle Whip is America!” Another believes that MW may be “the greatest thing since toilet paper.” But on the antis’ side, one woman rates Miracle Whip’s taste on a 1-10 “bad scale” at 26! And one unhappy man describes the eggy emulsion as “spreadable disappointment.”

POINT OF RANT: Regardless of where you stand on the MW vs. Hellmann’s debate, you will love this vid of a commercial currently airing.