It’s funny, but I seem to be really in the habit of posting. It’s been nagging me all weekend, that I should post something – although I’m just as glad I don’t have any more Jell-O recipes that I have to do.
The Freak Mountain furnace issue continues to drag on. Last Sunday, it turned out that we did have a frozen pipe somewhere in the downstairs radiators, so there was no heat at all down there. Local plumbers were overwhelmed because so many people were getting frozen pipes in the unusually long stretch of extreme cold weather, and we couldn’t get anyone to help us. After staying up all night to monitor the pipes and a couple of space heaters, Bryan and I stayed home from work on Monday and were there to quickly handle the situation and minimize damage when a pipe burst in the afternoon, although we did have to spend that night in the house with no heat at all, and no water. (Luckily, there was plenty of snow in the yard to melt for toilet flushing.) On Tuesday, we were able to get a plumber to replace the broken pipes, and the January thaw made the situation more manageable, but our furnace specialist proved elusive. We had to go over his head to the distributor, and that got him to finally return my calls. He came over on Saturday, diagnosed the problem with the furnace – and said he would need to get a part and might not be able to complete the repair until at least next Wednesday.
Sigh. The plumber did show us a little magic trick, which involves turning the hot water in the kitchen sink on and off a few times, to get the heat going when it cuts out for no apparent reason well shy of the target temperature. So the furnace is limping along under our careful ministrations, keeping the pipes warm so that they won’t freeze again. The house is topsy-turvy because we moved furniture and brought books, record albums, and electronics upstairs to prevent damage from burst pipes. The television is sitting on the kitchen island. My office upstairs is the warmest room in the house, so we’ve been using it as a living room, watching videos on my computer in the evenings. Our routine has been upended, and we’ve been spending a lot of quiet time in the house, listening for the ticking of the radiators as the heat comes on, ready to do the hot-water-tap trick again if it’s too quiet for too long.
What’s that got to do with joy? Well, over this MLK Day weekend, I’ve been thinking about the African-American struggle for equality and justice – not that I claim to be the most “woke” middle-aged white lady around, but these things do cross my mind, and in the context of this blog it’s because a lot of the joy in the New Joy of Jell-O Project has come from the music of some great African-American artists. As regular readers might remember, for quite some time as I’ve been cooking I’ve been listening to my “Galaxy News Radio” Pandora channel, which features artists like the Ink Spots, Roy Brown, Billie Holiday, the Mills Brothers, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat “King” Cole, Louis Jordan, Count Basie, Ray Charles… and on and on. I listen to those artists, and I think about what their lives were like under Jim Crow, and I am awed that they were still able to put so much joy into those recordings.
When I’m feeling beat down by circumstances, like I am today, I wonder how they did it. I wonder at the resilience it must take to work to have a good and meaningful and joyful life despite systemic oppression. I recognize that my tale of woe at the beginning of this post comes from a privileged place. What I really want to say is that I have great respect for the struggle, and profound gratitude to the people who have undergone it and managed to share the joy they’ve found within themselves…
So a while ago I was googling Jell-O (don’t ask) and stumbled upon a factoid – July 12 is National Eat Your Jell-O Day. I noted it in my calendar and resumed googling. (Really, don’t ask.)
Procrastinator that I am, I left doing something about it until the last possible moment, and yesterday after work as I researched National Eat Your Jell-O Day, I discovered that the reason it’s on July 12 is that July 12 is Bill Cosby’s birthday.
I think we’d all rather not make that association anymore. Still, if you google “National Eat Your Jell-O Day”, it’s in all the calendars for July 12, and we can’t just go around changing all the calendars on the internet now, can we?
I say we just re-claim this holiday, treat the day as though it were based on, say, the Mayan calendar. (Let’s not make it a lunar holiday, though. Then it’ll keep moving around and we’ll never be able to keep track of it.) Let’s make it all about the Jell-O, because that’s what’s important.
So in honor of National Eat Your Jell-O Day, I decided to put up a little New Joy of Jell-O retrospective. Jell-O has changed my life in some weird and interesting ways.
For those of you who haven’t read the “About the Project” page, I started this blog on a dare. I had been grumbling at length to Bryan about Julie Powell’s success with her Julie/Julia Project blog after we saw the movie Julie and Julia. (Okay, I admit it, I was jealous.) Thinking he’d get me to shut up about it, when we got home he said I should start my own though-cooking blog, and he pulled The New Joys of Jell-O from our bookcase full of cookbooks and handed it to me.
I don’t think he really thought I’d do it. Considering that by that point he’d known me for over twenty years and married me twice, you’d think he would’ve known better.
I mean, it didn’t seem like it would be that hard. Depending on how you count, there’s a little over a hundred recipes in the book. And it’s Jell-O, ferchrissakes! Cafeteria food! Sick-day food! It’s the easiest bloody dessert to make in the world after cut-up fruit!
It turned out that two Jell-O dishes per week, plus the photography and writing (in addition to work, fitness activities, and other life things) was a bit much. Strange as it sounds, I got burnt out on Jell-O.
Even stranger, though, was the way that the Project haunted me. For four years it haunted me, until some friends convinced me to restart it.
Even with a proper editorial calendar and careful pacing, it hasn’t been totally smooth going, but I finally feel like I’m on track to see this thing through to the end. I like that the New Joy of Jell-O Project gives my life a sort of weird, random purpose, and it feels good to be writing regularly, getting a little creative, and stretching a bit into visual arts.
I think I’m even getting to like Jell-O. I’m kind of looking forward to the next one, actually…
Happy National Eat Your Jell-O Day!
Now that I’m back, I can share the reason that I selected a repost for last week’s blog entry – I was on holiday in New Orleans! While I’m working on a new savory Jell-O and accompanying video for next weekend, I thought I’d share a few highlights.
It had been a long time since either Bryan or I had been to the Big Easy. I spent a couple of days there on my way from San Francisco to NYC in 2000, and Bryan was there for the World Science Fiction Convention in 1988. This time, we went partly because our friend J– had seized upon his daughter’s graduation from Loyola as a happy occasion for a gathering, to make a change from all the funerals.
Our impression of today’s NOLA was mixed. There is a lot about NOLA that’s exceedingly cool (art, music, food, history…) but the drinking culture is kind of overwhelming. We got to experience it even before leaving Boston when a bro’s bachelor party, already underway, boarded the plane and settled into the row behind us.
We saw many such groups in the French Quarter. The bachelorette parties were particularly easy to identify by their matching tee-shirts, festive headgear, and feather boas. There are few cities in the U.S. where public drinking is legal (of which NOLA and Las Vegas are the best known), and NOLA bars are allowed to stay open 24/7, so it’s a major drinking destination, and people do some major drinking there.
We arrived on a Wednesday evening, hungry for some good Southern cooking. The desk clerk at our B&B, Creole Gardens, pointed us in the direction of Lafayette Square, where a weekly live music show would be winding down, and we’d be able to buy food from street vendors. Bryan didn’t care for the music, so we continued on to Canal Street and, as Bourbon Street was right in front of us, we decided to plunge on into the French Quarter.
I’m not going to apologize for saying this: Bourbon Street is awful. It’s noisy, smelly, and vulgar, and within a few blocks Bryan found himself in the clutches of a Shoeshine Man. There’s a scam where a Shoeshine Man bets you that he can tell you where you got your shoes, making it sound like he can psychically discern the state, city, and store where you bought them, but when he finishes winding up his pitch, it turns out that “you got yo’ shoes on the bottoms of yo’ feet”. Ha! And while he’s doing that, if the shoes are leather, he squirts polish on them so that you have no choice but to let him shine them. We had already learned about this scam because a friend of ours fell for it when he was in NOLA a couple of years ago, but Bryan forgot, and got soaked for a cool $20.
We spent far too long wandering pointlessly in the French Quarter before we headed back to the Garden District, to wind up having supper at Seed, a vegan restaurant across the street from Creole Gardens. We agree that this was the best meal we had in NOLA. Creole care for cooking does wonders for vegan cuisine. The food was just beautifully done, excellent flavors, and the restaurant was maybe a little hipstery, but friendly and welcoming and comfortable – a good start to the trip.
We had most of our breakfasts at Creole Gardens, and they were excellent. Barbara’s grits and biscuits are top-notch. On Friday and Saturday morning we weren’t able to get up in time for the B&B breakfast, so we ventured out to the neighborhood, hitting the Trolley Stop Café (notable for its dark-colored coffee cups that made pouring difficult for our waitress) and the St. Charles Tavern (notable for being nearly empty late Saturday morning, although the food was good).
Over the course of the six days we were there, the quality of the food was surprisingly inconsistent. An early lunch on Thursday at the Café Fleur de Lis (I had gumbo, Bryan had a shrimp p’ boy) was very good, but that evening we found ourselves part of a group of 13 with no dinner reservations, and we ended up at the Café Pontalba, which deserves props for accommodating us quickly, but alas not for the food. The Spicy Green Beans were a serious fail. We fared much better on Friday with a late lunch with friends at the Gumbo Shop (which I remembered fondly from my last visit to NOLA – lovely pecan pie) and a very, very late supper with them at the 24-hour Daisy Duke’s on Chartres Street. Eating a big bowl of gumbo and having a long, punchy conversation about vampires, zombies and ghosts with our friends’ 12-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son was one of the highlights of the trip.
Friday turned into such a late night because J– had organized a “ghost and mystery tour” for the party guests with Jonathan Weiss, the New Orleans Ghost Tour Guide to the Stars, as described by Key and Peele on Jimmy Kimmel’s show while promoting their film Keanu. Jonathan is a charismatic and skilled storyteller (though he could’ve skipped Brangelina’s house). Locations on the tour included the house of Madame Lalaurie (inspiration for “American Horror Story: Coven”), Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, Madame John’s Legacy, and the Old Ursuline Convent. The history lesson were interesting, but the upshot seemed to be that anyplace where someone has died might be haunted. Actually, it’s not hard to believe that New Orleans is haunted, and I expect that the complete absence of ghosts on the tour might have been down to the masses of tourists drinking up a storm everywhere we went. If I was a ghost, I would have stayed holed up in an attic, too.
While we got sucked into the French Quarter far too often, we did manage to spend some time in the Garden District. The graduation party was at a house J– had rented, and that turned out to be a nice, relaxing time hanging out with old friends and meeting cool new people.
One day we visited Lafayette Cemetery #1, where some of Interview with a Vampire was filmed. Bryan was disappointed at the lack of spookiness, though expecting a cemetery to be spooky at noon might be asking a lot. He’d learned that part of the reason the tombs are above ground (aside from the well-known high water table) is because the older cemeteries in NOLA are modeled on Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, where many of the graves have small chapels built above them. The graves in Lafayette #1 are more modest than most at Père Lachaise, and more uniform. Lafayette #1 is also small area-wise, because those tombs are often shared by many family members.
One of the things I love about the American South is the folk art, and we managed to see a good bit of that while we were there. We visited the Ogden Museum, just down the street from Creole Gardens, and browsed the galleries on Royal Street looking for the work of Dr. Bob (which I’ve loved since I picked up one of his pieces in Memphis almost 20 years ago). We went to the old U.S. Mint over on Esplanade Street, where the ground floor houses an exhibit on the history of the mint (including why it’s not a working mint anymore), and the second floor has art exhibits – at the time we visited, one gallery had an exhibit of Southern outsider art, and another had a really good exhibit on native son Louis Armstrong. We even made a visit to Madame John’s Legacy in the daytime, while it was open to the public (and free!) It seemed even less haunted in the middle of the day, but we like antique houses (we used to own one) and there was a nice exhibit on Newcomb Pottery (I have a weakness for the Arts and Crafts movement).
And yes, we did finally manage to round out our trip to New Orleans with the obligatory visit to the Café du Monde for beignets and café au lait.
Laissez les bon temps roulez!
I owe another tip of the hat to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. The other night he had some fun with a statement by RNC Chair Reince Priebus, who declared that the U.S. presidential primaries have been fun, not hard at all, and it’s not like he’s pouring Baileys on his cereal or anything like that. When I heard that on the news clip, I thought, “Hm, that sounds like it might work, wish I’d thought of it….”, and it turned out that Colbert and/or his writers had the same thought. He pulled out a bowl, a spoon, a box of Lucky Charms, and a bottle of Baileys Irish Cream, and proceeded to chow down:
A short time later, he and guest Tom Hanks partook of Stephen’s “Irish continental breakfast” during their interview.
Adolescent-at-heart that I am, I was deeply intrigued – although, much as I respect Stephen Colbert, I thought that there must be a better choice of cereal than Lucky Charms. While I get the whole “Irish” theme, I thought this would be better with a chocolate cereal, of which there is no shortage these days. I was thinking maybe Count Chocula cereal would do, though I could also go with classics like Cocoa Puffs or Cocoa Pebbles, or with chocolate Cheerioes, Oreo cookie cereal, chocolate Batman cereal…
OK, I think I just found the cause of our obesity epidemic. You’re welcome.
So our Saturday errands took us to a nearby Shaw’s supermarket, where they didn’t have Count Chocula (apparently it’s seasonal now,) but they did have chocolate Lucky Charms. There are chocolate Lucky Charms? Perfect! says I. We grabbed a box, a little later picked up a bottle of Baileys from a new liquor store in the neighborhood, and we were all set.
I’m here to tell you that Baileys on chocolate cereal totally works. Not only does the liqueur taste fine with the cereal, but the cereal makes the Baileys left in the bowl all chocolatey, so when you’ve finished off the cereal you can add a little vodka and some crushed ice, and you’ve got a chocolate mudslide. It was the perfect thing to eat while watching Time Traveling Bong.
I just need to ask a favor, readers. Please don’t tell my trainer about this. Any of it.
This opening monologue from “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” has been haunting me since the beginning of October.
What really got me was the part about breakfast for dinner, pancakes at dusk. That happened at my house sometimes when I was growing up, my mother apparently couldn’t be arsed to make a proper supper, and instead we’d have pancakes. As a kid, I thought it was a lark (pancakes for supper!) but in retrospect, I think Colbert was right – Mom was either very sad or very tired; either way, somebody needed counseling.
Well, anyway, I suppose that if I was in charge of dinner at Freak Mountain, there would be a lot of pancakes at dusk. I’ve been both very sad and very tired for a long time. My long, dark teatime of the soul, you might say. After July, my mood was taking even more of a beat-down when the presidential race started heating up. I won’t rehash that. We all know how our initial amusement slowly changed to a growing horror, which paralleled my own personal descent towards a self-negating hell.
Pretty heavy stuff for a blog about Jell-O, innit?
So, something happened to me last week that I don’t think I’ll divulge here because I’m still processing it, and it’s a little embarrassing, but it reminded me that there’s a part of me that can still see the amazing, weird, fun parts of life. Things have gotten bad enough that, even though near as I can tell practically no one reads this blog, I can kind of see a point to making Jell-O recipes and writing about them. It’s so random, and silly, and I’m not monetizing this (it’s actually costing me money, because I pay extra so that readers won’t have to see ads, and Kraft certainly isn’t chucking any ducats at me for this) but it’s fun, okay?
Fun is what’s needed now. Yes, I’ve been drinking. But here we are.
I’m back on the Jell-O, kids. But I have other ideas, too. I’m trying to have more fun, which I want to share with the world (or at least the internet), because we need some fun now. The concept is that this won’t be so much “the joy of Jell-O” as “joy and Jell-O”. I hope you’ll come along on the ride with me, and maybe bring some friends along, as I try to enjoy life more.
Hang in there with me. It’ll get better, I promise. And truly, I love you a little…
P.S. I’m on my third bourbon-and-water here, and my connection with gravity is becoming tenuous. How did Hemingway and Kerouac do it? Stay tuned, kiddoes…
Ah, speaking of influences in my formative years, and speaking of joy….
Like so many people, I was stunned and saddened to learn about Robin Williams’s death by suicide on Monday. I’ve been a fan since the first appearance of Mork from Ork on “Happy Days”, and his wild, brilliant comedy not only helped me survive a difficult adolescence, but also provided weird and wonderful creative inspiration. (Jell-O, anyone?) When he wasn’t bowling you over by the force of his energy, he was blowing your mind putting together disparate elements to create a hilarious and beautifully unified whole.
He was open for a long time about how some of that energy was cocaine-fueled, and about his struggles with substance abuse and depression. To me, those things make his accomplishments that much more impressive. I know how hard it is, when you’re feeling lousy and down on yourself, to just show up and function on a minimally acceptable level. Williams did whatever he had to do to be amazing – and make no mistake, that is an incredibly difficult thing to do in show business, where the glamor is heavily underpinned by a great deal of personal risk-taking and terrifying levels of vulnerability. Anybody who’s ever gotten up on a stage in front of people, even just for a high school talent show or an open mic, should be able to appreciate that. His ability to be joyful in his comedy and deeply present in his dramatic roles despite his suffering demonstrates a profound generosity of spirit.
A former boss of mine posted this quote on Facebook:
“Killing oneself is, anyway, a misnomer. We don’t kill ourselves. We are simply defeated by the long, hard struggle to stay alive. When somebody dies after a long illness, people are apt to say, with a note of approval, ‘He fought so hard.’ And they are inclined to think, about a suicide, that no fight was involved, that somebody simply gave up. This is quite wrong.”
― Sally Brampton, Shoot The Damn Dog: A Memoir Of Depression
Robin Williams fought long and hard and valiantly. I’m sad that he suffered so, and deeply grateful to him for fighting. We were lucky to have him on the planet with us.