Archive for the ‘Home life’ Category

Somewhere in this pile …

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

At one point we had thought we might be leaving for Colorado today … but it became very apparent last week that I had absolutely no chance of being ready to hit the road anytime soon.  Everything is happening at once, and I’m locked down in Tucson until I can get it under control.

For years I advocated how you can work from the road, and that’s still true.  In fact it’s even more true today than ever before, because the Internet-based software tools and connectivity options have improved dramatically.  But “from the road” doesn’t really mean from the road, it means “while parked somewhere in your RV.”

To really get serious work done, you have to stop driving, stop sightseeing, and just do the job.  The fantasy of working from your Airstream while the scent of pine trees wafts in your open window, and the Grand Canyon looms just a few feet away, is replaced by the reality that the best place to get work done is often an RV park in a city, with the doors & windows shut.  And if you’ve got to get somewhere in a hurry, it’s pretty hard to get much of anything done.  I’ve never mastered the technique of driving and typing on my laptop at the same time.

I realized that with all the things I need to get done, it was pointless to hitch up the trailer.  We’d just end up driving 300 or 400 miles and then sitting there while I pounded away at the laptop keys and raved about lousy Internet connections.  Eleanor and Emma would have to find something to do, perhaps not in an ideal location, and all told we’d probably be less productive than if we just stayed here a few more days.  So we are.

The Fall 2012 magazine got done last week, and is off to the printer, but that didn’t end my work on it.  A few other things have to be checked off the list before I can forget about it, such as cutting a postage check (a painful moment; postage is my second-highest expense), invoicing the advertisers, invoicing subscribers, updating the online store, updating the website, building the Online Edition, cutting mailing lists, and a few other jobs.  Most of that is now done.  I’m working on the Winter 2012 and Spring 2013 issues when I have time.  Fall should be in the mail by late next week.

We launched Alumafiesta last weekend and that is going well.  People are signing up quickly, which is great to see.  I think we’ve got a winner there.  I’m working on the schedule now and hope to have something to release in draft in about two weeks.

We’re going to have a Track A/B/C system for Alumafiesta.  Track A events will be “active”, meaning hiking, bicycling, and walking. Brett and I will lead most of these personally.  Track B events will be physically easier stuff, mostly museums (like Pima Air & Space) and parks (like Tohono Chul) with guided tours by docents and volunteers.  Track C will be “self guided” suggestions for each day, including driving tours, tourist attractions, and gem show venues.

This will all be in addition to the usual daily get-togethers, evening seminars, meals, and entertainment on-site.  I’m having fun picking out and researching the activities.  Today we are going out for lunch to see if a particular 4th Avenue restaurant will be suitable for an optional lunch get-together for our group, and this weekend we will go check out a park or two and inquire about guided tours.  In September or October, when the weather is cooler, I’ll ride some of the local bike paths to scout out a route we can do, with lunch stop built-in.

The Airstream renovation project is plodding along when I have time to think about it.  The upholstery shop came by for an interior tour, and their quote on re-doing the dinette came in at $1,728 (with new foam, and fabric assumed at $37/yd).  It turns out that the dinette will use about 14 yards of material, which is more than I had thought.  So upholstery is going to be a huge part of the budget. We will probably try to cut that by shopping fabrics carefully, and getting a competitive bid.  Tom M tipped us off to, where we can get Ultraleather at about $21 per yard.  That alone would save us $224.  But no question, it’s going to be tough staying inside of $6k for the whole project.  The Marmoleum floor is looking like about $900 for the material, and I haven’t yet got a quote on the installation.

Alumafandango is in the final stages, with far too much happening at the 11th hour, but the bulk of the details are now complete.  Over at Lakeside they’re racing to finish clearing up the site and installing the power system.  Of about 91 trailers slated to arrive (as of today), more than half need/want 30-amp power, which caught us by surprise.   The hot summer in Denver has really freaked people out.  So the local electrical shops are  being cleaned out of connection boxes by our electrical crew.  Brett & I bought the old power distribution system that was owned by the Vintage Trailer Jam partnership (2008-2009) and that’s being cannibalized to distribute power at Alumafandango too.

We had a serious monkey wrench tossed in the works a few weeks ago.  A micro-burst thunderstorm hit Lakeside Amusement Park and washed out our camping area.  An estimated 300 cubic yards of material was relocated from the main parking area, through our campsites, and into the lake.  It also washed out the track for the steam train that circles the lake.  Brett H of Timeless Travel Trailers led the heroic effort to recover the park as quickly as possible.  They’ve brought in several 4-yard front end loaders, various other machines, and 90 cubic yards of crushed concrete.  There was a lot of stored old park “stuff” that got flooded, and as a result over 30 dumpsters full of soggy material have been hauled away.

All in all this has turned out to be a good thing for us.  The campground will have little grass this year, but we will have a fresh new surface, graded with a swale to prevent future wash-outs.  A lot of eyesore debris is gone, many dead trees have been removed, and overall the camping area will be considerably nicer than it might have been.  Work is still ongoing and things are a bit messy at this point but it should be done well before the event starts on August 21. We’re in daily contact with our people at the park, and revising the parking map & schedule of events a couple of times a day just to keep up with all the new information.  I would rather this was all done months ago, but who can tell a thunderstorm when to hit?

And then there’s the “miscellaneous”. I’m supposed to be giving a presentation on “my favorite mobile apps and tools,” which I have yet to begin writing.  We’re still recruiting volunteers.  The t-shirts need to be shipped tomorrow.  We need to build the geocaches, confirm the ice cream vendor, publish the Survival Guide, pick up the awards, build a temporary dump station, finalize some catering details, order the volunteer shirts, …. At times it does seem endless.

So life is temporarily a little crazy.  We’re trying to do the work of two dozen people with a skeleton crew.  It’s all I can do to keep my desk functional. I have lists upon lists, just to keep all the ideas and tasks straight.  Somewhere in the pile of data that is my computer’s desktop I actually have a list of lists.  There are photos and maps, spreadsheets and layouts, online registration systems (two separate systems covering four events), custom reports, and all sorts of shared documents in the cloud.  If I lost my laptop this week I might as well just move to a country with no extradition treaty because there would be several dozen people looking to kill and/or sue me.  (Which reminds me, I need to do a hard drive backup today.)

This would be depressing except that I live for challenges like this.  Brett and I wouldn’t kill ourselves putting together these events if we didn’t really enjoy it.  The standard we set for ourselves is high, but when it comes together at the end and people say “You guys did a great job!”, it all seems worthwhile—and then we start planning for the next year.

In the meantime there are sacrifices, and the primary one right now is that we will not be able to get into the Airstream until at least sometime late next week.  I haven’t begun packing yet, although Eleanor has done much of the household stuff.  My packing should be simple, since I didn’t take much out of the trailer when we got home a few weeks ago.  I’ve got a small pile of clothes to add from the laundry and then my office stuff (laptop, cameras, etc).  Over the years I’ve gradually accumulated separate “Airstream clothes,” and “Airstream equipment,” so for example I don’t have to load in my flatbed scanner or printer because the Airstream has its own that never get unloaded.  This saves a lot of time. And that’s a good thing, because time is definitely something that is a bit scarce right now.


Faux Japan … In Phoenix

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

I wasn’t kidding in the last blog when I said we needed to go somewhere to make up for the loss of our trip to Hawaii and Japan. With Emma feeling a little better, we decided that we could take off for a 3-day weekend in Phoenix.

This became one of our non-Airstream trips. Eleanor booked us into a downtown hotel and we just decided to wing it from there, with no particular plan. As it turned out, the weekend has been a tiny taste of the trip we had planned, kind of like visiting Epcot Center is like traveling to foreign countries. Certainly not the same, but at least you get to eat the food.


The first stop was the Japanese Friendship Garden, called Ro Ho En. It’s a tiny oasis that sits almost above the sunken part of interstate 10 near downtown Phoenix. Inside the garden fence is a beautifully landscaped 5 acres with pond, waterfalls, koi, and desert-adapted plantings. It invites pausing and contemplation. I particularly like the way that the landscaping is designed so that every fresh angle of view provides yet another perfectly proportioned composition.


We were riding Phoenix’s smooth and modern streetcar system, which connects downtown Phoenix with Mesa and Tempe. I noticed that the streetcars themselves were Japanese, made apparently by Kinkisharyo. We might as well have been riding the trains of Tokyo, if we sort of squinted and pretended that our fellow riders were fashionable Shinjuku girls. At this point it seemed we had a theme going, so I pointed this out to e&E and we resolved to keep it going all day if we could.


From there we rode another 3 stops to downtown, and walked over to the Science Museum to take in an IMAX movie. The title was Coral Reef, and the underwater sequences reminded me that we would have been snorkeling on Oahu or Maui if we’d gone. I couldn’t decide if this was a sad thought or a happy one at first, but ultimately I realized I was happy to see colorful reef fish even if I wasn’t actually dipped in salt water myself.


At this point we weren’t going to let go of the Japan/Hawaii theme, so I pulled up the Yelp app on my iPhone and found a sushi restaurant nearby. Sorry that all the good stuff was eaten by the time I got around to shooting a picture with the phone. I warned Emma that our next steps might be to sleep on tatami mats on the hotel room floor, and order raw fish for breakfast. She drew the line at that.


Instead we decided to take the train back to our hotel, and the car across town to the Chinese Cultural Center. This was the closest thing we could find to a Japanese market. Eleanor spent a happy half hour browsing the aisles and then we hit the bakery for dessert. Actually, several desserts: red bean paste mochi, custard cream filled cream puff, flaky lotus yolk pastry, red bean sesame bun, cream horn, mango mochi, and something called a flaky wife pastry. (Yes, we made all of the obligatory jokes.) We took them all back to the hotel and shared them with hot green tea.

I would happily have sushi for breakfast tomorrow, but the hotel’s breakfast buffet comes with our room and the offerings are entirely American. But perhaps tonight we will dream of adventures on the other side of the Date Line, and at least have a few hours more of our faux Japanese vacation.

Guest house Airstreams

Monday, February 20th, 2012

I occasionally think that we have too many Airstreams, but sometimes we don’t have enough.  This is the time of year when people tend to come visit  (guess why) and the Airstreams become very useful as guest houses.

We live in a three bedroom house that is in a perpetual state of construction and has only two usable bedrooms, and 1.5 usable baths.  I don’t even have an office that I can use, just a desk in the corner of the living room.  So we aren’t well set up for having overnight guests, at least not indoors.

This has never been a problem for the dozen or so houseguests who visit each season, because the Airstream makes a far better place for them to stay.  We tell prospective visitors that they will be welcome to stay “in the Airstream in the carport.”  This is a sort of test.  Those who are intimidated by the idea of sleeping in a trailer, parked next to the car and tool shed, would probably be happier in a hotel.  Most of our friends have the opposite response.  They say, “Oh cool, I get to sleep in the Airstream?” and then we know that they’ll be great house guests.

This week we have a full house.  Lou & Larry have arrived in their 30-foot Airstream and are parked in front of the house. We have courtesy-parked at their place in Ohio many times, and this is the first chance we’ve had to reciprocate.  They will be here a couple of nights and then head to California to visit Bert & Janie at their boondock site in Anza-Borrego (and Michael Depraida at his spot at “The Slabs” near the Salton Sea), and then come back here for a few more nights.

Tomorrow, a long-time friend of Eleanor’s will fly in from the northeast, and she’ll be accommodated in the Safari. That trailer is like having your own apartment, since it is roomy, stocked with everything you could possibly need, and fully hooked up to utilities.  The same day, Brett will fly in from Florida, and he’ll be set up in the smaller Caravel.  So we’ll have four guests at once, across three Airstreams.

This works out really well.  Everyone has a space to call their own.  We don’t have to worry about whose towel is whose, or when people like to get out of bed.  Everyone has their own refrigerator, stocked with the things they like to eat.  Everyone has their own bathroom, and can set the temperature where they like it.  Lots of those opportunities for friction (even between good friends) are eliminated, and we all get to focus on the good parts of visiting.

It’s financially very practical too.  We don’t need a big house just for those occasions when people visit. There are no unnecessary rooms to dust or pay taxes on.  When our guests are gone, the “guest houses” revert to being our vacation and business vehicles, or I can use one of them as a private office when I need a quiet space to work.  The Airstreams make our little house much more flexible and affordable.

I may someday get a plaque for our Airstream Safari’s bedroom that lists all the people who slept there.  (That ought to freak a few people out during tours.) I think a few of them stayed specifically because they could sleep in the Airstream.  It is an attraction, to some folks.

Long term I would like to buy a few more Airstreams, set them up luxuriously, and place them on a piece of property, for rental to the general public when visiting Tucson.  This is a popular idea, which we’ve documented several times in the magazine.  There are spots all over the world where you can spend the night in an Airstream “hotel room.”  I feel like I’m nearly in the business already, especially this week, so it would probably be fun to do for real someday …


Spreading out

Friday, January 6th, 2012

We’re still not in the Airstream but life at home has been just fine.  There’s snow up in the Santa Catalina mountains, which has afforded Emma the chance to use her Hammerhead sled with friends at 7,000 feet elevation, and down here in the valley we’re been having days warm enough to have the windows open every afternoon.  I like the dichotomy of snow up above and palm trees swaying in the breeze down below this time of year.

The Airstream is slowly getting unpacked, as we pull out things that we would have used during our 10-day trip.  Every day we go “shopping” in the Airstream for whatever we need:  clothes, frozen food, a movie, some tools, etc.  Mostly we’ve been taking out food since Eleanor had a program of meals planned for the entire trip.

The Dutch Oven has been fun for both of us, even though our second attempt at cooking was disastrous.  We tried apple crisp, a favorite of mine (traditional up in Vermont, where I grew up), but naively followed the recipe in the “Dutch Oven Cooking 101″ booklet.  We should have followed our instincts instead.  The recipe called for way too much nutmeg and not enough brown sugar.  It smelled fantastic as it was cooking out in the back yard, and we were drooling with anticipation, but when we sampled it after dinner the taste was repulsive.  Nobody could even finish their serving.

It was a complete loss, and things got worse the next morning.  Disappointed with the outcome, I left that terrible apple crisp in the Dutch oven overnight rather than transferring it immediately to the compost bin.  When I scooped it out in the morning the bottom of the crisp had an absolutely incredible skunk smell that nearly drove us out of the kitchen.  Some sort of chemical reaction occurred, a final insult in the apple debacle.  Fortunately, after cleaning the oven didn’t retain the smell.

Cooking-wise, the oven has done a good job.  I stacked up some leftover flagstone to make a temporary windscreen, with an aluminum turkey pan for the coals, and it worked so well at retaining the heat from the oven that it may become a semi-permanent feature of our back yard.  (Someday I’d like to build a permanent brick & stone oven that we can also use for pizzas, but that’s way down the home improvement plan.)

Even though the potato recipe we tried earlier did work fairly well, it was a bit on the greasy side and there was more bacon in it than we would have preferred.  So based on that and the apple crisp we’ve learned that the booklet recipes are really just starting points.  From now on, we are going to modify the recipes as we go, using Eleanor’s culinary experience and training as our guide.  Tomorrow the plan is to make “Chisolm Trail Blueberry French Toast Cobbler” from a different recipe book as a special Saturday morning breakfast.

We’re also going to break out one of Eleanor’s Christmas gifts, a deep fryer.  Now, some of you are probably thinking, “You got your wife a deep fryer as a gift?  What’s next, a vacuum cleaner and a scrub mop?”  But don’t worry, Eleanor loves cooking tools.  I once bought her a second refrigerator as a Christmas gift and it was probably the best received thing I’ve ever given her.  She’d rather have a new oven than a diamond ring (and the oven she wants costs about the same as a 1-carat diamond).

All of this cooking is a way of maximizing the value of our staycation.  We would have used the Dutch oven once, maybe twice, and the deep fryer not at all if we were in the Airstream.  The fryer is just too big for our style of travel, especially with the gallons of oil it requires.  Dear old Vince Saltaformaggio would have brought it all—and more—but we don’t have a separate trailer just for the cooking gear, as he did.  So we’re taking full advantage of being at home by spreading out and getting into messy projects.

Until Tuesday, things were nice and quiet.  With the New Year everyone has come out of the woodwork.  Suddenly I’m getting calls about Modernism Week and Alumapalooza again, I’m getting article pitches from PR agencies and freelance writers, advertisers with shiny new budgets are looking to spend money (yahoo!) and people I call are actually answering their phones again.  This has impacted the vacation aspect of this week but I can’t complain because stuff is getting done.

Even Carlos called, wanting to shoot some neon this week.  In the past two years we’ve documented just about every historic sign in Tucson, and certainly all of the “live” ones (those that are still operable).  These days we are just picking up the remaining “dead” signs, like this one.  The upholstery shop is moving and the long-dead neon sign will likely be torn down, so this photo shoot was slightly urgent.  This particular sign doesn’t look like much because the neon is broken and the background was repainted.  In its original form it looked like a ribbon and was undoubtedly considerably more attractive. We’re trying to locate a historic shot that shows the original design, for inclusion in the book.

The brake actuator problem is on its way to resolution.  I have decided to get a Dexter replacement, which is currently on order and should arrive fairly soon.  The replacement unit has a good reputation, takes up about the same space, and requires only four wires.  I’m hoping to install it later this month with Eleanor’s assistance.  As Jim & Debbie pointed out in a comment earlier, installing it ourselves means we’ll know that much more about our Airstream, which is very useful when you are on the road and something goes wrong.

@Alicia Miller:  We hope to be more skilled with our Dutch Oven by Alumapalooza time, but in any case both Eleanor and I hope to attend the DO cooking class this year.  I’m pleased to say that Lodge is going to be a sponsor and so we’ll have a few pieces of their cookware as door prizes too!

The skills of our past

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

Since Emma was born in 2000, it’s obvious that she is a child of the 21st century while her parents are relics of the previous century.  We are the old timers who remember when music came on vinyl records, soda cans had dangerous pull-tabs and saccharine sweetener, pay phones were on every corner, smoking was sexy, and — most shocking of all — there was no Google.  We have fun from time to time, as I suppose every parent does, telling her tales of the “old days” and exaggerating the realities of life in the 1970s and 1980s.

I think most people tend to concentrate on the thundering advance of new technology and social rules because they can be overwhelming and the pace of change seems to accelerate all the time.  But let’s not forget the things we’ve left behind, whether they are a loss or not.  Sure, nobody really wants the 1976 Ford Pinto to come back, and there’s very little to recommend a manual typewriter in our increasingly paperless society, but they are still intangible and permanent influences on our view of the world ahead.  Our child of the 21st century doesn’t have such baggage.  This is her advantage, for the most part.  She doesn’t have the benefit of history (yet) but she has the “clean sheet of paper” mind that us more experienced people sometimes must strain to achieve.

One of Emma’s homeschooling books recently reminded me of this.  She was supposed to learn something about abbreviations and concepts of written information.  As an exercise, the book gave her a “classified ad” to decode, as follows:

NEED EXEC SECY — typ 70 wpm, shthnd, fil.  Local ofc of nat’l co.  Paid hosp ins, 2 wk vac, top hrly pay.  40 hr wk.  Apply 8-5, M-F.

This was of course a simple exercise for Eleanor and I.  But keep in mind that our student grew up in the age of the Internet.  She was completely baffled.  First off, she’s never heard of a “classified ad.”  We had to explain that in the old days, people used to pay to have tiny ads inserted in the printed newspaper.  This inspired a series of follow-up questions, such as “Why would you pay for that when you can just use Craigslist?”

Once we got past the concept of no Internet and having to pay high rates for three lines of print, we moved on to the ad itself.  This proved no better.  How could she be expected to decode “EXEC SECY” when the concept of corporate “executives” is rapidly becoming obsolete, and the term “secretary” is so anti-P.C. that it is one step from being a pejorative?

“Typ 70 wpm,” was easier, since typing is the new version of writing, for modern kids.  In fact, educational pundits are now decrying the loss of cursive writing skills from our school curriculum.  But again, the idea of being tested for typing speed struck Emma as odd.  After all, typing is no longer a specialized skill — these days, we’re all supposed to be able to do it.  So when would the “executives” need someone else to do it for them?  How do they do their own texting and update their Facebook pages if they can’t type?  Not being able to type these days is kind of like not being able to dial your own phone numbers.  (Oh wait, that “skill” may go away soon too, since we can now just talk to our phones and tell them who we want them to call.  How many of you have your spouse’s phone number memorized?)

“shthnd”:  I just laughed at that one.  I know only two women who can take shorthand: my mother and a lady about her age in Denver named Rhoda.  They both are amazing to watch as they effortlessly write beautiful squiggles on paper that mean nothing to me, and yet have a nearly perfect transcription of whatever is being said.  It’s nearly a lost skill.  I wish I’d learned it because I still take notes in my job, but who teaches it anymore?  Even when I went to journalism school in the 1980’s it was no longer taught.  Of course Emma had never heard of it.

“fil.”:  Filing?  What’s that?  These days a job ad would be far more likely to ask for someone with database skills.  Emma knows what a database is, since we were practicing building rudimentary ones two weeks ago, but I would like to see her face if she were confronted with a room full of file cabinets.  I can hear the question now: “Why don’t they scan this into a database and make it searchable on Google?”

“Paid hosp ins.”:  Another obsolete concept, but not because we Americans don’t need health insurance — a lot of us just can’t afford it.  Hardly any non-governmental or blue chip corporates still offer 100% employer-paid health insurance.  I am setting Emma’s expectations appropriately:  don’t expect any corporation to take care of your retirement, healthcare, or other personal needs.  Take care of yourself.

“2 wk vac, top hrly pay.  40 hr wk.  Apply 8-5, M-F”:  I have to admit that these are our fault.  Emma has never known a time when either of her parents worked outside the home or for any company, and thus the concepts of paid vacation, hourly pay, and strict working hours are foreign to her.  Hopefully this will be a plus for her.  I believe that 21st century kids will have to be creative, flexible, and entrepreneurial to be successful in America, as many of the recent economic victims of our recession have had to be.  Us relics from the previous century were the last of the era of factory workers, taught to show up on time, toe the line, and do the job until the clock says 5.  That’s not going to cut it anymore.

The home school curriculum we buy is pretty good, but once in a while it comes up with a real clinker like this classified ad.  Fortunately, one of the advantages of home schooling is that we can modify the program as we see fit.  It’s also a reminder to me that we need to stay atop the social and technological changes that are bombarding us, for her sake, and think about how they’ll change expectations in the future.  We can’t prepare her using only the skills of our past.


Thanksgiving Week 2011

Monday, November 21st, 2011

The duck story has come to a successful conclusion.  Both Keli and Pierre emerged from the kitchen in fine form.

Eleanor started the final cooking marathon at noon on Sunday, with Emma standing by to chop vegetables.  This early phase was a little dull for me, but this is the best time of year for cycling in Tucson so I pumped up the tires and ran a couple of errands to the nearby grocery stores.  Eleanor was quite unhappy with her store-brand kosher salt and I was able to pick up a better kind while out with the bike, along with a package of pie crusts.  (People gave me curious looks as I was stuffing groceries into my bike bag.  I don’t know why.  When we lived in Massachusetts many years ago I used to run errands with my bike all the time.  I should try to do it more often here in Tucson, since the city is more bike friendly that any place I’ve ever lived.)

Most of Eleanor’s day was spent making the side dishes, of which there turned out to be 13 in total, plus incidentals like Matignon and stuffing in Pierre.  Even for her that’s a fairly ridiculous amount of food for three people, and that may be why she separated our feast into two menus:

The Keli Menu

Steamed & rotisseried duckling
Roasted butternut squash with pears, maple sugar, and gorgonzola cheese
Boiled red & blue potatoes with thyme, rosemary, and sage
Mixed grains with wild mushrooms, figs, currants, and persimmon
Crimini mushrooms stuffed with veal, apple, and onion
Crisp salad of romaine with pomegranate dressing
Cranberry cherry pie

The Pierre Menu

Classic roasted duckling
Roasted petite golden potatoes with pearl onions and white truffle oil
Roasted carrots, onions, and apples with bacon
Cipollini onions and chestnuts marinated in cider syrup
Pork & apple stuffing al la frittata
Haricot vert with cranberries and buttered walnuts
Pumpkin soup
Fresh blackberries with syrup de Cassis

In the midst of all of this our neighbor Mike showed up, drawn perhaps by the smell of cooking.   We kept him for over an hour, sampling the dishes as they come out of the kitchen.  He left around 8:30 with a little of Eleanor’s syrup de Cassis to make his own blackberry dessert.

We sampled the goodies too, so that by 9 p.m. when all was finally done (except Pierre), none of us were particularly hungry.  But we ate anyway … and ate … and ate … so that by 10 p.m. we were all like Winnie the Pooh, nearly large enough to get stuck in Rabbit’s doorway.  And then Pierre came out of the oven, so we had to try him.  And then there was pie.

I took far too many photos to show here. If you want to see more of the food, check out my Flickr album.

Here’s the duck synopsis:  Keli the American duck was prepared by steaming and then browning in a rotisserie.  She came out absolutely succulent, still with a fair amount of fat under the skin but not much more than you’d expect from a rotisserie chicken.  There was not a hint of dryness, and the meat was delicious.  Since she was not stuffed or layered, Keli represented a fairly straightforward duck, but if we were to prepare duck again I think we’d probably use this technique.

Pierre the French duck was seared in a pan, then stuffed, laid atop a base of vegetables, coated with the Matignon (fine diced vegetables), and layered with bacon.  You can see him ready for the oven at left.  Pierre came out even juicier than Keli with large quantities of fat under the skin and in the meat.  This made him tasty but also rather rich, even though we separated the fat on our plates.

The bottom layer of vegetables was almost decadently delicious, and the Matignon was … well, let’s just say that if all vegetables tasted like smoked bacon we’d probably eat a lot more of them.  The green apples stuffed inside tasted of spice and je nais sais quoi.  Fabulous, but eating any part of Pierre and his side dishes gave me the sensation of arteries clogging as I chewed.

Last night’s meal was superb but it was late and we were all a little tired, so we are going to re-boot tonight with the entire spread again.  In preparation, I had no breakfast and only a little cottage cheese and fruit for lunch.  Frankly, I wasn’t really even hungry.  By dinner we should all be ready for a more relaxed version of the feast.  I have declared this “Thanksgiving Week” in our household, to eat at leisure what we used to gorge on in a single day.  It will certainly take that long to consume everything that is currently packing our two refrigerators.

We may never do a big duck experiment again, but I’m glad we did because it has already made Thanksgiving Week 2011 one of the most memorable ever.  Of course, for the rest of America, Thanksgiving is still a few days off.  I hope you have a great holiday, and I hope that our experience has given you some ideas, inspiration, or at least an appetite.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go for a long bike ride.


Cooking up a storm

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

A benefit of having an Airstream the driveway is the use of a second refrigerator. The extra 10 cubic feet of our Dometic NDR1026 gas refrigerator always come in handy when Eleanor is stocking up on ingredients for a big feast.   (By the way, the refrigerator has operated normally ever since we removed and reinstalled it in September at Paul Mayeux’s shop.  The theory for its prior poor operation is that it had a small internal obstruction or bubble that was dislodged in the process.)

The flip side of having a second refrigerator is that someone has to go back and forth between the house and the Airstream to deliver and retrieve things from that refrigerator.  This is where my talents are usually invested, along with tasks such as dumping the compost, taking out recycling and trash and documenting the cooking process with my camera. If only my college journalism professors could see me now…

In the morning I went out to get Keli the American Duck for her steam bath.  Unfortunately, 24 hours in the refrigerator was not enough to fully defrost her.  The refrigerator was running exactly 32.0 degrees inside, probably because temperatures have been cool in Tucson lately and because we put two solidly-frozen ducks in it.  We reduced the refrigerator’s cooling level, but it was essentially too late.  Keli couldn’t be steamed until she was fully defrosted.

We left the duck out on the counter for a while, and then Eleanor had a brainstorm.  We’d just done a load of dishes and the dischwascher was still very warm from the drying cycle. Eleanor popped Keli on the lower rack for an hour, closed the door, and managed to get some of the defrosting process completed that way.  But it wasn’t until after dinner that Keli was frost-free enough to come out of her plastic bag and get prepped for the pot.

In the meantime we had a technical problem to solve.   We didn’t have a steamer large enough for a 5.1 pound duck.  The pot needed to be big enough for the duck while sitting on a rack so that an inch or so of water could be brought to a boil beneath.  After trying several odd contraptions we finally found a combination that would work, using two aluminum foil pie tins to support a pair of round cooling racks, upon which Keli perched.

The steaming process went well.  Once the water was to a boil, Keli began sweating like a nervous Aeroflot passenger.  Christopher Kimball and his team of cooking gurus were right: Keli the duck lost a lot of fat in a short period of time.  I collected the grease/water combination when she was done, separated the water, and ended up with more than a quart of grease.

The city of Tucson has a program to keep grease out of the public sewage system.  They’ll be collecting the grease on the day after Thanksgiving, where it gets turned into biodiesel fuel for cars.  If I still had the Mercedes 300D, I would like to think that a bit of Keli-grease would come back to power my car a few miles.

This is not the end of Keli’s cooking process. Her next step, today, will be to visit the “tanning booth” (rotisserie) to brown the skin, with a bit more seasoning.

While Keli worked on her fat-reduction program, Eleanor also worked on the stuffing and the first of the side dishes.  As I had feared, Eleanor has gone far off the reservation and so now the side dish list consists of:

boiled potatoes with fresh herbs
roasted potatoes
mixed grains & wild rice with persimmon & figs
pork & apple stuffing
haricot vert with cranberries & walnuts
butternut squash with pear & gorgonzola cheese
cipollini onions and chestnuts
roasted carrots and pearl onions
Romaine with pomegranate

Yeah, we’ll need some help with eating all of this … Carol & Tom, Mike & Becky, Rob & Theresa, Terry & Greg, Judy & Rick, David & Lee & Hannah: feel free to give a call today to schedule dinner with us this week.  Please.

And when the actual Thanksgiving Day rolls around Eleanor plans to make pumpkin soup, too.  I would try to stop her but (a) it’s all so good; (b) this is what she likes to do.  You can’t stop a good chef any more than you can stop a monsoon. Eleanor cooking is like a force of nature.  It’s just going to happen, so I’m going to continue playing errand/garbage boy and await the spectacle that is coming later today.  Pierre is waiting too, for his moment in the oven with his rich French friends (bacon, butter, and more butter), so it is going to be an interesting day indeed.

Keli, Pierre, and friends

Friday, November 18th, 2011

Our menu consists of two ducks.   Ha ha ha.

I laugh because my wife is a combination of French chef, Italian lover, and Irish temperament.  This means she cooks heartily, is passionate about all things, and will certainly take it personally if I get anything wrong in this blog.  It also means that “two ducks” does not make a meal, and there must be plenty of side dishes.  In her philosophy, there should be no chance of running out of part of the meal.

So normally Eleanor cooks for a small army regardless of how many people we have coming for dinner.  This year, in response to my pleas for a reasonable amount of leftovers, she has promised to keep the portions small.  So, without comment, I will now list the ingredients she has accumulated over the past few days, all of which will be in our “small” Thanksgiving dinner:

ducks (2)
mixed gourmet petite potatoes
haricot vert (green beans)
various rice and grains including wild, white, red, barley, pink lentils, Israeli cous-cous
onions: cipolini, pearl, spanish
canned pumpkin
various mushrooms: white, crimini, and dried (porcini, shitaki, morel)
pears (3),  pomegranate, green apples, persimmons, carrots, celery, leeks, ginger, lemons, blood oranges
garlic, capers, fresh ginger
herbs: chive, oregano, sage, thyme, mint, basil, cilantro, Italian parsley, rosemary
dried fruit: figs, cranberries, tart cherries, Thompson & Golden raisins
raw nuts:  walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, macadamia, chestnuts
fresh cranberries, sour cherries
ground veal, ground pork
apple smoked bacon (4 strips)
maple syrup, maple sugar, and dark brown sugar
orange juice, pomegranate juice
white wine, red wine, Madeira (medium dry), Cognac, brandy
stocks: chicken, beef, vegetable
white truffle oil
butternut squash
unsalted butter, evaporated milk and cream (light & heavy)
apple cider
French bread
cider vinegar
various spices including Kosher salt, black & white peppercorns

All of this was impossible to gather at any single store, so Eleanor spent much of the day at Safeway, Albertson’s, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s, in addition to raiding the pantries of both the Airstream and the house.  Her food gathering instincts have been let loose, and that’s an impressive thing, much like releasing the Kraken. I don’t want to know what all of this is costing.  Today at Whole Foods I had to restrain her from buying a $25 jar that contained exactly three truffles.  We’ll “make do” with a bottle of white truffle oil instead.

This morning we retrieved the ducks from the Airstream’s freezer (where we have been storing all of the “overflow” ingredients).  Defrosting them will take at least a day.  Before they went into the house refrigerator, we personalized them, as you can see above.  Duck #1 will be the American duck (code-named “Keli”) following the Cook’s Illustrated technique of steaming before roasting to reduce the fat.  Duck #2 will be the French duck (code-named “Pierre”), prepared using a modified version of the classic poëlé technique described by Escoffier, et al.  The steaming process will happen on Saturday, a full day before the actual roasting.

With 48 hours to mealtime, we are already accumulating a list of people who are interested in sharing the leftovers.  Fellow Airstreamer Rob, who lives only a couple of miles away, dropped by and eyed the list of ingredients hungrily.  But remember, this could turn into a complete debacle.  Sometimes experiments go wrong — just ask Dr. Frankenstein or any Marvel comic book villain.  Fortunately, if the ducklings turn into dumplings we won’t starve, thanks to the friends of Keli & Pierre: those extensive side dishes.  I’ll have more to write about those as they begin to take shape this weekend.

The RV industry made us do it

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

As I mentioned yesterday, the duck project was simply the result of wanting to having something a little different for our Thanksgiving meal.  The timing is the RV industry’s fault.  Really.

See, every year the RV Industry Association holds a trade show and convention in Louisville KY, which I need to attend for business reasons.  I can only assume that the organizers chose the date and location specifically to save money, because the convention is held immediately after Thanksgiving.  The convention center is probably rock-bottom cheap at that time (who wants to have a trade show then?)  Not only are airliners crowded and airfares ridiculous, not only is the weather dismal beyond belief in Louisville that time of year, but most critically this timing means that all the participants have to interrupt a time-honored post-Thanksgiving ritual — namely, making sandwiches with cold turkey breast, mayonnaise, lettuce and bread — in order to drive or fly to Louisville so that they can attend the show starting on Monday.

Either the convention dates were picked by someone who needed an excuse to get away from their in-laws, or they’re getting a smoking deal on the Kentucky Exposition Center.  Probably both, now that I think of it.  Of course the cost is simply shifted to those of us who must attend, because we pay higher fares on the airlines in order to fly on Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, not to mention inflated rates at the local hotels.

I think this will be the sixth or seventh time I’ve attended this show.  Each year I find myself dejectedly heading for the airport on Sunday when I should by all rights and dyed-in-the-wool American tradition be lounging around the living room with a remote control in one hand and a plate of leftovers in the other.  We can’t really dent all the Thanksgiving leftovers before I have to go, and it seems wrong to leave when there’s still a huge pile of yummy chow in the refrigerator.  To make things worse this year, E & E are flying to Vermont for a visit in early December, which would leave the entire burden of leftover turkey consumption on me.  I like to eat but that’s too much.  So part of the motivation to make something other than turkey was to have fewer leftovers, and we’re doing it this weekend so we have plenty of time to eat what we have before I have to go.

And now you know how, last Sunday, we found ourselves driving around Tucson in a rare Fall drizzle, looking for ducks.  The frozen kind.  (Vegetarians may wish to stop reading here, as the rest of this blog becomes graphically carnivorous.)

We found the duck at Dickman’s Meat, at 5.1 pounder.  That was the easy part.  Then came the research. Eleanor first handed over her worn old copy of The Escoffier Cookbook and challenged me to choose between one of 29 obscure French preparations for duck, including “Hot Pate of Duckling,” “Nantais Duckling With Sauerkraut,” “Moliere Duckling,” “Rouennais Duckling Wings With Truffles,” and of course the crowd favorite, “Stuffed Balls of Duckling.”  I picked out a few recipes from which Eleanor began to select compatible elements to create her own recipe.

Based on the influence of departed French chefs (Auguste, Julia, et al) and her culinary training, Eleanor originally planned to poëlé the duck.  This means she would start with a Matignon, which is a fine mince of carrots, onions, and celery hearts, with a bit of lean ham, a sprig of thyme and half a crushed bay leaf. This would be put all over the duck in a thick coating.  The enveloped duck would subsequently be richly layered with strips of bacon and buttered paper, and then — in the spirit of old French cooking — basted with the drippings, melted butter, and Madeira wine while roasting in the oven.

The “roasting rack” for the duck would be a large dice of celery, carrots, onion, and fingerling potatoes, to be eaten as a side dish.  Eleanor had also conceived a stuffing that would be a mix of veal, pork, and diced apples.

But something didn’t seem right.  We both knew (from a painful 1990’s-era duck cooking debacle) that the amount of fat in a duck is critical to the outcome.  Also, most of the Escoffier recipes called for undercooking the duck if it was whole, and that made Eleanor dig deeper for a reason why.  She consulted all of her best culinary references and kept running into hints that roast duck was tricky because the amount of fat in them varies so widely.  Wild ducks are lean and tend to dry out, while market ducks are ridiculously fatty.  We finally found a good analysis of the problem in “The New Best Recipe,” published by Cook’s Illustrated, which is sort of the Consumer Reports of food.

The article explained that since Escoffier was published (first edition in 1942), the ducks we can buy at the market have changed.  They’re fattier and — to make things even trickier — they tend to be disproportionately fat in the legs and wings, which makes roasting the bird as a whole quite difficult.  The solution according to Cook’s Illustrated is to steam the bird before roasting, which greatly reduces the amount of fat, and separate the legs so that subcutaneous fat can be more easily rendered from them.

We also discovered that the duck could be expected to reduce in weight by approximately 50% during cooking (due to the rendering of fat), which means our 5.1 pound duck (technically, a duckling) might yield as little as two or three servings.  I don’t want massive leftovers, but I’d like at least some.  Off I went to Dickman’s for a second 5.1 pound duck.  This experiment was already getting expensive.

The good news about having two ducks was that we can experiment a little.  The current plan is to prepare one duck using the poëlé technique, but instead of adding butter for basting, she’ll use only the drippings.  It also will not be stuffed.  The vegetable “roasting rack” will remain the same, except without the potatoes, as they would absorb oil and get greasy.

Duck No. 2 will follow the Cook’s Illustrated recommendation, first steamed to reduce the fat, then slow-cooked on a rotisserie.  Eleanor is thinking of putting the Matignon beneath the skin, but that’s still a work in progress.  The next step will be later today: a grocery run for ingredients.  The plan is to start cooking in earnest on Saturday.

And all this because the RVIA convention is held at the wrong time of year …



The duck

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

The blog has been quiet lately because we are in that rather dull period between trips, commonly referred to as “daily life.”  It’s something I do my best to avoid but occasionally it does happen. It’s really true as they say that life is what happens while you’re making other plans.

This has been a period mostly for me to simply take care of business.  The Winter 2011 of Airstream Life magazine has been printed and was mailed this week, and meanwhile Spring 2012 is well underway with a lot of great articles in development.  I’m also working on a busy program of 2012 events, including Alumapalooza (June 2012), Modernism Week (February 2012), and an exciting new event to be held out west next summer.  We expect to have an announcement about that in January.

Of course, the Airstreams have not been neglected.  Before parking the Caravel in a secure off-site location, Eleanor and I replaced two more of the leaky water hoses and fixed another water leak at the tank fill.  It should be ready to go when we are.  The Safari remains in the carport, fully hooked up, cleaned up, and stocked with goodies for future “hotel” guests.

The most recent visitors, however, brought their own: Tiffani and Deke of the traveling blog “Weaselmouth.”  They were passing through last week, heading for California, and spent a night parked in front of the house.  Eleanor and I had met them at Alumapalooza last June, and I saw them again in Texas when I was picking up the Caravel, but they had never met Emma.  I’m not sure if my offer of free parking was really what enticed them here, since Tiffani did mention several times that she really wanted to meet Emma…  In any case, it was a superb visit and far too short.  We may cross paths with them again next year if we get up to Washington state, as I’ve been hoping to do.

Part of being home is a process of recovery.  We’ve proved we can live in the Airstream indefinitely but when circumstances place us back in the stationary house, we try to take full advantage of that by catching up on projects, relaxing, and saving up money.  The latter goal never works out as well as I’d like.  Living in a house is far more expensive than living “on the road” in an RV when you really factor everything in.  Being back at the house means activation of expensive projects, repairs, and tempting upgrades.

This time was no different: the house demanded a few things, and the local Tax Collector demanded the real estate taxes, and — whoosh — we were thousands of dollars poorer in an extraordinarily brief amount of time.  Worse, there was nothing tangible to show for it.  This always seems to be the pattern of home life, so after a few months we usually give up on the idea of “financial recovery” and move back into the Airstream for a reminder taste of the inexpensive alternative lifestyle it affords. Eleanor has often commented that if we hadn’t bought a house in 2007, and had simply remained in the Airstream full-timing, we’d be financially far better off, but you can’t re-make history.  And the house is something we all enjoy … in moderation.

In the interest of saving money we have resisted the call of Tucson’s many interesting restaurants, favoring meals at home.  This is no particular hardship, as anyone who has eaten Eleanor’s food can attest, and it often results in intriguing culinary experiences resulting from home experiments.  For example, last Saturday we really wanted to go out for Dim Sum, but we stayed home, collected the various ingredients we had in the house, and Eleanor whipped up “Dim Something.”  It was not what you’d call authentic but it was darned good.

This brings me to the subject of today’s essay.  You were probably wondering about the title, “The duck.” Thanksgiving is coming up soon but due to minor obligations on the calendar, we are going to celebrate it this weekend instead.  Bored with traditional turkey, after some discussion we opted to try cooking duck instead.  Or to be completely accurate, Eleanor will try preparing duck, and I will stand by as Advisor, Dishwasher, and Errand Boy as needed.

Normally I would expect this to be a minor footnote in our lives, but even today, days before the actual cooking event, it has become obvious that The Duck is going to be a formative experience.  It turns out that the culinary challenge is significant, even momentous, if you want to get it right.  There are tricky carnivorous issues of fat distribution and moisture content to confront.  Eleanor has pulled out an arsenal of references from her bookshelf and is sweating the details to the point that you’d think she was expecting the Queen of England to join us.  (I’m pretty sure that Thanksgiving is pretty low on the Queen’s list, along with Independence Day, so no danger there.)

Since things are quiet, I’m going to document The Story of The Duck this week, as it happens.  The first entry will go up tomorrow.  This is risky because we have no idea if the duck will be delicious or Daffy.  The gauntlet has been tossed down, and now she (and her two bumbling assistants) are committed to this meal.  Will we find sweet success or smoking disaster?  You’ll see.


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Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine