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Source: A Life Informed by Fine China

We’re all snobs about something. Admit it. There are definitely things, foods, directors, restaurants, places– that we love and consider of the highest order and wouldn’t settle for less. I have high, unwavering standards about a lot of things, and I know I should be more flexible. One of them is china. I am a china snob.

In 1989, when my cousin Karen and I went to tea at the Plaza to see what Ivana Trump had done after she renovated the Palm Court, we were pleased to see the room still held its palm trees. the-plaza-palm-court_650

But when we were served, I picked up my cup and saucer and said in honest astonishment sprinkled with indignation, what has now become a family joke, “This is crockery!” How could the Plaza Palm Court have SWITCHED from bone china to crockery? I still can’t get over it, and I haven’t been back. In today’s New York Times there is an article about Trump’s ownership of the Plaza that mentions Ivana’s redecorating and quotes employee Barbara Res as saying, “Some of it came out great; some of it came out kind of chintzy.”

I have 3 sets of “special” china with settings of at least 12 of each: Aynsley’s Henley pattern, Portmeiron’s Twelve Days of Christmas pattern, and Royal Worcester’s Evesham. I use the Christmas china for Christmas of course, the Evesham for Thanksgiving and fall and winter parties and the pastel Henley for Passover, Easter and spring and summer parties, including my August birthday where I love serving the cake on them.

When I was a teenager I had several surgeries. After the first two my junior year in high school, one in November and one in December followed by the holidays in the hospital, my mother took me on a trip to St. Thomas and Puerto Rico. It had been a rough winter, and I begged her to take me somewhere warm and beautiful. After a few days in Puerto Rico, we landed in St. Thomas and I was smitten. It seemed like paradise to me. We went into a china shop and Mom told me that I could pick out some china and she would buy some starter pieces for the set I would have later on when I had my own hhenley1ome. At sixteen, following two frightening female surgeries, that offer was a loving lifeline to the future. Thank you, Mom. I chose Aynsley’s Henley pattern, with its pretty flourishes and flowers in pastel colors enhanced by gold trim. The pattern might be a wee bit rococo, but I count my youth as responsible for that. I still love its femininity, something I was holding on tight to when I chose it. I brought a teacup and saucer with me when I went away to college, a talisman.

The Evesham was on our wedding registry. During my single years I had collected some serving pieces that I loved, but I didn’t have any dishes. I received 15 sets and probably every other piece that they made. The fruit and the corn represent the harvest to me, and the glory of nature. Because we received most of it as wedding gifts, it also reminds me of the family and friends that gave us the pieces as they sent us on our way in our marriage, hoping for a family life that included many happy meals on them. I hope it is not too sentimental to say that their good wishes have come true. This set too has quiet gold trim. It looks lovely by candelight.Thanksgiving table 2014

I remember picking up the Twelve Days of Christmas set thinking that someday, maybe someday, I’d have a family and be able to use them. It has been my honor to put out the “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house” plate holding chocolate chip cookies for Santa with portmeirion-christmas-story-dinner-plate-fine-china-dinnerware-scenes-of-twas-the-night-before-xmasmy son on Christmas eve when he was little.

When I set the holiday table, I put the plates around the table in order, each plate telling part of the verse.

I treasure them all. But when it comes to everyday dishes, I have not been so lucky. Except for the set of Epoch’s Oak Manor, which I came upon as odd pieces apparently moments after they were put on a shelf in a Marshall’s in Arlington, Mass. back in the 80s. I remember calling my mother over to “watch” them while I went and got a shopping cart for them. I haveoak manor one salad plate left. Since that purchase, I have bought nameless every day dishes in white only, and have mixed sets as they have gotten broken and tossed, which happens a lot. Currently I have 3 from one set and 3 from another. In our family with a teenager who snacks on quesadillas with guacamole and sour cream after school, 6 dishes is not enough. Last night I spent two hours online looking at potential additional dishes on the websites of Amazon, Macy’s, Nordstrom’s, Pottery Barn, Bloomingdales, JC Penney’s, Neiman Marcus, Kohl’s, Target, Bed, Bath and Beyond and Walmart. Except for Amazon, I looked at every single set of dishes, fine and every day, that they offered. I only found one set that I liked, Wedgwood’s Nantucket Basket, and it is too expensive to be used for every day dishes in a family that is hard on dishes. Melamine? I have a set of 20 in all different colors, started by a set that a dear friend gave me, that I use for summer barbecues. I just can’t see going to the trouble to cook a meal from scratch and then serving it on a plastic plate in the dining room.

This is my current every day white. yellow tomato salad plateIt’s okay, but, well, it’s crockery. And it doesn’t speak to me. I’m still looking for that perfect set of everyday whites that will warm my heart the way that my “special china” has.







Even though in the last few years her humor pushed the envelope too far for my taste, I have always admired Joan Rivers. She was the first woman to host the Tonight Show in Johnny’s absence. That was HUGE at the time. Whatever you thought about her humor and her plastic surgeries and her style, you had to admire her as a professional in a tough field that was dominated by men when she started.

This book is a warm, funny, loving tribute from daughter to mother, and it is full of delightful personal anecdotes that show that Melissa inherited some of her mother’s wit. I am surprised that she was able to write it so soon after Joan’s death, but she has done so with grace. The chapters are short. The one about Joan’s driving skills is hilarious. Melissa doesn’t go into dark territory about her father’s suicide and how her mother coped. Each chapter takes on another aspect of her mother’s personality and their life as a family —- their emphasis on education, support of Melissa as a sportswoman, Joan’s uber-cleanliness, dislike of poor customer service and grammar, her love of reading and needlepoint, their revered family dinners despite the fact that they were ordered from room service or takeout. I read it in one sitting, and laughed and cried. My favorite line is a quote from Joan, “The only thing better than finding a diamond ring in a box of Chinese takeout is a Sunday Law & Order marathon.”

Melissa Rivers was born in New York City and grew up in Los Angeles. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in European history. Melissa’s extensive television background includes working as a features reporter for CBS This Morning; being a regular contributor to MTV’s Hanging with MTV; serving as a television host and producer for the E! network and as a host for TV Guide Channel’s event programming; and, most recently, as a contestant on The Celebrity Apprentice. She lives in Los Angeles with her son, Cooper. I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

The Book of Joan
Crown Archetype | May 05, 2015 | 304 Pages | 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 | ISBN 9781101903827
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The Perfect Egg by Teri Lyn Fisher and Jenny Park

There is a lot of good information in this well-organized book. And Egg Clouds, Tea Eggs and Pavlova are the kind of unique recipes I was looking for, that is, eggs as the main interest in the recipe. Others, like Spaetzle with Swedish Meatballs, include eggs as an ingredient, but not the star of the recipe. I would have liked more of the former. What’s here is terrific, I just wish there was more, and that it didn’t seem padded with non-eggy recipes. I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.


M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste

Luke Barr

Until I read this book I had managed to resist the cultural obsession with the south of France. Barr’s description of the small town daily life has won me over: I have now officially drunk the Kool-Aid and long to spend a summer living in a maison and buying fresh food daily at a farmer’s market. You can buy fresh vegetables at Whole Fields or your local grocery store every day, but the idea of wandering around an outdoor market searching for just the right fish, meat or vegetables to prepare for dinner while having the time to do so is a tempting fantasy.

The problem is that I am writing this in 2015, and this book transported me to the magical summer of 1970 when the Childs and their friends coincidentally were all there together and cooked wonderful simple meals together that made the most of the fresh ingredients they had access to. The Childs opened their home to friends and neighbors and they all cooked together. James Beard and Simone Beck each stayed for a while, and Richard Olney was just down the road. I had read a number of biographies of Julia Child so I knew about this summer, but Barr’s book truly brings it to life because he takes us into the motivations and lives of some of the other key figures in the food world. I finished the book with a new appreciation for Richard Olney’s perfectionism, James Beards’s health problems, MFK Fisher’s wanderlust.

Trained in the complex world of French sauces and fare, Barr, with the help of his access to Fisher’s papers (he is her grandnephew), shows us how they all reached the point of saturation at roughly the same time, and each sought simplicity in their own way. He calls it the “reinvention of American taste” but I would argue that it wasn’t until these cookbook authors and some others transformed European (read French) cooking into a distinctly uncomplicated cuisine that American cooking was born.

I have always dreamed of winning a Pulitzer Prize. Laugh. Go ahead, it’s fine, because it’s never going to happen. The 2015 prizewinners will be announced tomorrow, and I will not be one of them. It may surprise you that I aspired to win the Pulitzer Prize in biography, not fiction or poetry. I wanted to take a fascinating, meaty subject, spend years in libraries poring over documents and letters, travel to where the subject lived, and write an inciteful, newly factual biography that changed the world’s perception of my subject. When I read biographies I always imagine the author’s process in detail. The research, the travel, the writing, the editing. For me, putting myself in the author’s shoes, seeing how they create the narrative web and introduce their research is part of the fun of reading a biography.

With a big birthday coming up later this year, I have been doing the expected reflection on my life and my accomplishments and lack thereof. Assessing the old bucket list. Crossing “Pulitzer Prize in Biography” right off there with a big bold black Sharpie. Last night I dreamt that the Dalai Lama and I were having a cup of tea together (meeting the Dalai Lama: also on the bucket list. It never happened, but I once attended a sunrise service that he led in Central Park). In the dream the Dalai Lama said to me, “Take two steps back.” That’s all: take two steps. Not one. Nothing more. I believe the cliché is to take “a step back and reflect on your life.” He didn’t say that, he just said to take two steps back. So now, as my coffee is perking this morning, I am wondering what he meant by two steps. By the second step, not just the first.

And I think I know.

Normally, in the whole bucket list assessment stage of life, people look at their lives thus far and make replacements. They take a step back and say to themselves, “I didn’t do X because Y happened, so I did Z and now I’m glad I did, I realize now I wouldn’t have been happy with X.” In my case, I had a lot of surgeries from my mid-teens until the end of my 30s. When I turned 40 I took one step back and determined that marriage and motherhood were apparently out of the picture for me, and settled down to accept that, even though motherhood had been an enormous dream for me, something I thought I could never live without doing. Fate intervened and I married the right guy at 41 and we now have a terrific teenage son. We knew each other and had gone on one date to a Grateful Dead concert in our teens. He was home from college for the summer, I was a rising high school senior. He went back to college, I moved on. A friend reintroduced us 24 years later. I remember sitting next to him on my couch that night so many years later feeling the immensity of our connection. It came over me: “Ah, so it’s going to be Ben Horowitz, the guy who lived around the corner and started an underground newspaper with his friends. After all these years, he turns out to be the one. Hmm. Cool.” They say that sometimes you just know, and I did. But I wish we had had those 24 years together. So does he.

I regret not listening to Hank Chapin, the literature professor who advised me to take education courses to become a licensed teacher as a “back-up” in case the whole poetry and academic thing didn’t work out. It didn’t. I ended up in bookselling and publishing. The bookselling years were among the best I’ve had. If I’d become the high school English teacher he envisioned, I would probably be retiring about now with a nice pension having spent wonderful summers on the beach in Cape Cod or traveling through Europe and Asia. I couldn’t admit it to anyone then, but I’ll tell you now why I didn’t become an English teacher: I was afraid I would have to teach literature I didn’t love. I didn’t think I could teach large sweeping novels by the likes of Dickens, for instance. I couldn’t get through Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary. What high school English teacher doesn’t revere those classics? I couldn’t tell my professor that I was a Lit. major fraud. Loved Huck Finn, hated The Old Man and the Sea. I slithered away, and took the wrong path.

I saw things in black and white, all or nothing. In our college years, before we get out in the “real world,” many of us naively think that we are going to spend our lives tending to our passions and nothing else. Boring adult jobs are for those who don’t know how to do it right. We know better. We won’t end up like the father in The Wonder Years who looks through his telescope in his backyard on clear summer nights and tells his son he doesn’t regret becoming a shipping manager instead of an astronomer. We would be astronomers! Into your starry eyes, baby! We would figure out a way to earn a living doing what we loved, changing the world on an inspired high every single minute. I wish I had had the maturity to realize that although I might have been compelled to teach A Tale of Two Cities, I would probably have also been able to teach Walden and the transcendentalists, and that would have made it worthwhile. It’s not all or nothing. I was too stupid to see that.

And that’s where I think the second of the Dalai Lama in my dream’s steps comes in. Step one could be to conclude that I didn’t become a high school English teacher but I did end up in a wonderful career in bookselling and publishing. Except that I didn’t. There were about ten or more years in there that were pretty horrific. And I have most certainly not taken a 25-year retirement package. Now, as managing editor of a small scholarly press I can say that I enjoy most aspects of what I do every day, and the inspired moments outweigh the drudgery of assessing author’s royalties and approving invoices. I am lucky to have a boss who encourages creativity and intellectual analysis. I haven’t written a groundbreaking book on a major biographical subject but my work did afford me the opportunity to contribute some new scholarship to the field of legal history in the book The Unsigned Essays of Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story. I’m delighted to have been able to identify and publish some writings of the great legal mind that were originally published anonymously. But I would have preferred to have written a Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Louisa May Alcott or Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Edgar Allen Poe.

It didn’t work out better in the end. I did something good, but it is not what I wanted and still want to do — and now won’t be able to do because there isn’t enough time left.

I have regrets, yes, I have a few. If the first step is to accept one’s failures, I think the Dalai Lama of my dream was telling me that the second step is to forgive myself. You have to do a lot of work and step back a lot further to get to that sweet spot of true forgiveness. You can’t rationalize anymore, you have to take responsibility for the wrongs. First you are angry with yourself, you don’t want to forgive yourself, you want to be mad. You want to wallow in the regret. You acknowledge that it’s bad, that you screwed up, and that you are going to die and will never have a chance to do those things you didn’t do. You have to own your mistakes, feel like crap about them, beat yourself up over them, and then you can let them go. Don’t just cross them off the list, erase them. Start a new batch of items on your bucket list that you can probably achieve and go to your grave not hating yourself for if you don’t accomplish them. I’m working on my new list now. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Looking for a great holiday gift for the cozy mystery reader on your list? Don’t know what to buy, or what books have been read? Chances are they’ll find all of their favorite authors (including me!) in this cookbook, available in paperback and in Kindle.

Last week in my blog What exactly is a Cozy Mystery? I promised to address their popularity in my next blog.
First, let’s talk about why mystery novels are so popular. The common notion is that people read mysteries because they want a puzzle, something to figure out. I believe that people read mysteries because they want to use their mind when they are reading, they want to be involved in the experience. They want to read actively, rather than passively receive the experience of the words.

What is it about cozies in particular, that make them so popular? Beyond the attraction of different genres, I believe the reason is the Cheers Factor. The television show Cheers was set in a small bar in Boston, a place “where everyone knows your name.” You thought I was going to say the Cabot Cove Factor, didn’t you? Doesn’t everyone want to live in Cabot Cove? Recognize Jessica’s house above? Doesn’t everyone long to live in a charming small town vacation spot where they know everyone, have lots of time to pursue their interests, have lovely surroundings, and a comfortable life? That is all true, of course, but I believe that the Cheers Factor DRIVES the Cabot Cove Factor. We are more and more isolated in modern times and long for a place “where everyone knows your name.”
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On August 2nd I participated in a panel entitled LET’S GET COZY at the Deadly Ink Mystery Conference at the Hyatt Regency in New Brunswick, New Jersey. K. B. Inglee was the moderator. The other panelists were Steve Rigolosi, Peggy Ehrhart, John Clement, Ilene Schneider and Jane Kelly. We discussed what makes a mystery a cozy and why cozies are so popular.

Although I can already think of exceptions to nearly every point I list, here is what, in my view, comprises a cozy mystery. In my next blog I’ll tackle their popularity.

Protagonist is an amateur, a civilian, thrown into the mystery by happenstance. She is often a woman, and one the reader can identify with, with one or two relatable flaws. She has an interesting career or interest that leads her (sometimes reluctantly) to the mystery. She can be any age.

Setting is a small environment of people, an idealized community we’d all love to live in: a neighborhood in a city, a small town, a fishing village, a theatre, perhaps even a school. A place where everyone knows each other. One could argue that the Harry Potter books are cozies, with Hogwarts the small community of people. When we think “cozy mystery” we usually think of a small English village created by Agatha Christie. The death occurs “off screen”—we do not witness the violent act. There isn’t any gore or blood.

Sex is downplayed or nonexistent.

Profanity is minimal or nonexistent.

Often the protagonist has a friend or family member who is connected to the authorities somehow—the police, the mayor’s office, the school principal, medical examiner, a detective or security company.

Sometimes the supporting characters are a bit offbeat or eccentric, adding humor and whimsy to the book.

The murderers are not serial killers or psychopaths, they are people the reader can identify with, but some circumstance has caused them to snap.

In recent years, niche cozies have evolved. If you are interested in antique prints, cats, dogs, quilting, bookbinding, knitting, old house or furniture restoration, inns, Civil war reenactments, wineries, whitewater rafting, golf, cooking, baking… whatever it is, there is undoubtedly a cozy mystery about it.

The emphasis is on plot and characters, not action.

The books are usually written in series form so that the reader can enjoy the main characters and the community through numerous mysteries.

Don’t think that cozies are just for women. There are a number of cozies written by and for men. Many are niche cozies about topics that are traditionally “male” interest: golf, historic house/inn or general home renovation, fishing. I have never seen a football cozy but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has written one!

Enter to win a free copy of Cinnamon Girl: A Village Cooks Mystery. Ends January 17, 2014.

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