New is Not Necessarily Improved

digital illustrationWhat is it about commercial enterprise and marketing that says we need to change everything on a regular basis and that everything newer is better? Have we not looked in the mirror lately?!

Aside from the obvious danger in believing that every tweak a company makes to its products is an actual improvement of it in form or function rather than a logical step toward getting us to buy more from them, there’s the problem of how easily we are led astray by our own hubris. What we see as innovation and a natural extension of expertise that comes with our getting older, more advanced and practiced does not, in my experience guarantee that no further missteps and mistakes will occur. Why, a flood of examples comes instantly to mind. Every era, and every single object conceived and invented and designed in that era, has connections to spectacular failures and dismal disappointments in this regard.

Being lazy and spoiled, I’ll happily replace perfectly repairable things with prettier, shinier ones some of the time, but even in my privileged state I am capable of looking at my briefcase, thinking that I wish it had a strap that made it hug the handle of my rolling travel bag, imagining what it would take in time, money and effort to shop for another and find one that I really liked as well as I like this simple briefcase but had such a strap and then pay what would likely be an exorbitant price for it and thinking instead, ‘what do I have on hand from which I could make a suitable strap that I could then attach to my favorite little briefcase?’ The answer to which real-life question was a length of wide grosgrain ribbon, lapped fourfold end to end and stitched into one heavy piece now the width of the case and hand-sewn onto it. It’s not fancy, but it’s unobtrusive and cost me only a little labor, and by golly, it works.

Not that I intend to make my own replacements for, say, outmoded electronics when they no longer work. Because my new versions would be guaranteed to be failures, given my complete lack of knowledge or skill or anything related to them in the world of electronics, and I would have lots of nonfunctional electronics, a lot of things not done that should have been done, and a bunch of annoyed people around me wishing I’d just suck it up and get the equipment that would put me back on track. I am an accomplished fantasist, but I don’t go so far as to delude myself that I can make everything better than it is in its current form.

Not all upgrades are legit. Some of them are full of bugs or their new formats are not nearly as appealing and user-friendly as their predecessors’. Not all growth is positive. Noxious weeds grow, after all, and so does the hair on my chinny-chin-chin, which as you can imagine is not nearly as cute as it might sound in the Little Pigs’ tale.

Yet ranting about it is pointless other than as a vent. And much more good than ill comes from change and growth, it’s true. As a tiny example, while today’s pictorial illustration may not be high art by any stretch, it was made by using a combination of tools that I’ve only recently begun to embrace, and it was fun to make. An end in itself? No, and far from ideal and flawless as a Thing; I have new methods and am beginning to work on a new set of skills to use them and improve them, but I’ve a long way to go. But I don’t have to be all better, i.e., perfect, for the process to be worthwhile and the me that’s also in progress is an improvement if only because I am working on making change. I am happy when I can get up the nerve at any point to learn, to try, or yes, to become anything that I am not already firmly entrenched in being, because it’s worth striving to improve even–maybe especially–when the odds are against it. My evolution will always be slow and full of sideways and backwards steps, but I’m pretty sure it beats stasis.

Foodie Tuesday: Hospitality as Apotheosis

photoBeing good and doing well make us just a little bit more like angels. Making good food and treating guests well is just that much better. It’s a feeding not just of the stomach but also of the spirit. It puts one in a state of grace that can be earned, but at the same time is the richer for being given without thought of such recompense. A simple cup of hot coffee proffered with kindness becomes through this transubstantiation the elixir of joy.

Today I woke up thinking of such hospitality as I was remembering a time thirty years ago when I was the fortunate beneficiary of it. I was a recent college graduate, working for my uncle’s construction company while I paid off undergraduate loans and contemplated the prospect of taking out more for grad school, and I was sent out with a couple of fellow workers to spend a few days laboring on the repair and renovation of a hundred year old farmhouse out in the country. The weather was pleasantly warm and the house only moderately shaggy for its vintage, and the owners were friendly on our arrival.photoThe work, still, was dirty enough–removal of and repair from exterior dry rot and moss that was encroaching on the northerly upper story window frames and trim, and some interior rebuilding that the lead carpenter on the team would start framing in as a new arch between living and dining spaces as soon as the group effort of tear-out was finished on the second story outside. It was a pretty and classic old farmhouse, with a wraparound porch hugging it so that we were able to set up on the porch roof’s venerable cedar shakes to do our second-story work without having to run our ladders the full height from the ground. But therein lay the problem: by the end of the first day of demolition, the aforementioned carpenter was almost demolished too when the footing he’d installed on the roof for his ladder gave way, the ladder went flat with its top end spearing through an upstairs window and its base making a perfect slide for said gentleman to go shooting straight, if uncomfortably, off the roof.

The other guy and I were close by on either side of Chuck, but neither Jake nor I could, in the split second it took for this to happen, stop the ladder or him from going straight down into the gloom below. There was a terrible moment of near-silence while we scrambled over to the gutter to see whether we could get to him; the first thing we could see was the steel post of the truck bed spearing upward menacingly right about where he’d fallen, so we were breathless with horror as we peered over the edge into the dusk. To our immense relief, Chuck was lying in the spiny shrub next to the truck bed, where he’d slid instead, and though he had some impressive bruises afterward, he’d neither been impaled nor broken a single bone. Needless to say, there was a different wrap-up to the day than we’d planned, what with boarding up a broken window for the night and assuring the owners of the house, who’d come running at the crash, that all was going to be fine. No deaths, no lawsuits from either side, and an even better-repaired window, since we’d now rebuild the thing and re-glaze it rather than just scraping and painting.

Perhaps it was a bit of bonding brought about by the emergency that made them adopt us afterward, the homeowners, but whatever the cause, our next few days were among the most pleasant I ever spent on the job (along with those spent working in the house of the lady who afterward became another uncle’s life partner!), and the sweetness of it lingers in my memory. The second day was such a benevolent spring day that I opted to stay on the roof and eat my lunch while reading an Agatha Christie novel. That worked out remarkably well, for when the man of the house came out to see why I hadn’t come down with the others, he chatted me up about my enjoyment of British mysteries, disappeared, and reappeared later with a grocery bag crammed with said delicacies. It turned out that he was an English professor at the University and taught a course in this very topic, and that along with the house’s ‘issues’ for which we’d been hired there was one of steadily decreasing bookshelf space thanks to his and his wife’s reading habits.

The next day, there was to be no reading on the roof. All three of us workers were summoned into the house at lunchtime and seated at table. While the Professor expressed his kindliness in the gift of books, his wife expressed hers in culinary largesse. I had already thought her a very beautiful woman, with her elegant and mysteriously foreign-looking features, deep-set warm black eyes and smooth brown skin and all, her patrician carriage that belied a gentleness of manner, and her sleek black hair, but I think I fell in love with her more than a little when she put the food in front of us. It wasn’t terribly complex, perhaps, this meal, but it was heavenly. She served us robust bowls of satin-smooth potato-leek soup with slices of dark pumpernickel bread covered in rich Brie. When we thought we might be entirely filled up, we made room for more, because she came back to the table with a freshly baked, perfectly spiced apple pie.

It may be that these things have long since disappeared from the minds of all of the other players (though I find it hard to imagine Chuck has forgotten his scary adventure entirely), but the beauty of that meal so suffused me with happiness that I find it coming to me intermittently still, after all these years. I have no idea who the Lady and the Professor were and don’t even know precisely what became of Jake and Chuck, so I can’t check my facts let alone repay the kindness. I can only hope to pay it forward. I do have some of my home-brewed chicken broth in the fridge; might have to fix someone some soup soon.

Potato-Leek Soup (as remembered)

Boil a few medium-sized potatoes in enough well-seasoned chicken broth [vegetable broth, if you’re not a meat-eater] to cover them fully. While the potatoes are cooking, saute a bunch of sliced leeks in butter with a little bit of salt until melted. Deglaze the pan with a hearty splash of dry Sherry or brandy or whatever dry white wine happens to be handy.

(If you have to open the bottle for the occasion, why then you’ll probably have to have a sip whilst you cook. This is all the better if you have a friend or acquaintance standing by for the meal; you’ll enjoy the visiting all the more.)

When the potatoes are cooked and softened through, add the leeks to the pot, along with (optionally or–if you ask me–optimally) a splash of cream. Using a stick blender, puree the lot until as smooth as possible, adjusting the thickness with any of the three previously introduced liquids as desired, and tasting for seasoning. If you don’t have a stick blender, a regular blender will do as long as you take the necessary precautions against blending hot foods–or just use a potato masher and have a more rustic soup. This soup won’t lend itself perfectly to chilling like a Vichyssoise, because the butter and cream can curdle or separate, but warm or hot it should certainly be filling and definitely warm the spirits.

Cook. Share. Polish your halo. Enjoy.photo