Sunday, February 23, 2014

Retro hot fudge water pudding

It's strange to see a revolution take place in Kiev, to see the central square of a city burn and to know that citizens have been killed by their government's snipers. Strange to see an arrested former prime minister released from prison, and to know a current dictator has tried to flee the capital but has apparently been stopped. We look at the photo of the priest standing amid the smoke with what looks like a knight's shield on his back. Below it we joke that he is a "level 4 cleric," or "came to preach Jesus and whip ass and he's all out of Jesus." Here are people, strangely, who have made and lived through something that the revolutionists in Paris did, two hundred years ago; something like what our own founding fathers did, too. See the photos of them massing tensely a few days ago, they all in their thrown-together clothes and hats and helmets looking like something out of a Bruegel painting. The survivors will talk about these days all their lives. In his book The Closing of the American Mind (1987) Allan Bloom once wrote that the three most transcendent moments in the human experience are the creative process, consummated love, and victory in a just war.

Below, obviously the plate is prettier than the piece of Retro Hot Fudge Water Pudding. I thought we might need something to snack on while we're reading about Kiev, and, well, I still had the picture.

We get this recipe from Gold Medal Jubilee Select Recipes 1880-1955, the same little pamphlet that gave us the Buttermilk Spice Cake of a few days ago. I've called it Hot Fudge Water Pudding to draw attention to the last ingredient required, which is one and three-quarters cups of hot water, poured right on the batter before it goes into the oven. It's the kind of recipe twist that just shrieks, "try me!"

The pamphlet groups this pudding into the chapter "Popular recipes of 1940-1950," and explains that, being a sort of chocolate upside-down cake, it may constitute the original upside down cake of any variety. "In the old days," the authors say, "women poured heavy molasses in the bottom of the pan" to make the cake. Pouring hot water over a brown sugar topping mimics molasses.

The cake is by no means gorgeous to look at, but it's fun to put together and not too sweet.

Hot fudge water pudding

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Set out a 9 x 9 x 2 baking pan. In a bowl, mix:
  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 Tablespoons cocoa
Stir in:
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 Tablespoons butter, melted
Blend in 1 cup chopped nuts. Spread in the pan (the batter is thick). In another bowl, mix:
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup cocoa
Sprinkle this mixture over the batter in the pan. Then, pour over the batter 1 and 3/4 cups hot water. Bake 45 minutes. The cake mixture will rise to the top and the chocolate sauce will sink to the bottom. Serve warm, with or without whipped cream.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Tudor Year: February

My fatheads know that sometimes I import things from other blogs -- my own, I mean, of course. This is a part of my Tudor calendar project. An editor once wrote me that she was impressed by my passion for the subject, but they had decided to pass.

A snowfall at Hampton Court, February, 2009. Photo from Cooking the Books, "the blog of the Tudor kitchens cookery project at Hampton Court palace."

Theme: jewels

(from the National Portrait Gallery, London, via Tudor History)

(photo from Fashion Monitor Toronto)

February 8, 1601 -- Earl of Essex's rebellion against Queen Elizabeth
February 12, 1554 -- Execution of Lady Jane Grey
February 13, 1542 -- Execution of Catherine Howard
February 17, 1587 -- Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots
February 18, 1516 -- Birth of Mary Tudor
February 25, 1601 -- Execution of the Earl of Essex

February's grim roster of executions, particularly of young women, reminds us that to be near royal power, or in the Earl of Essex's case to grasp at it, was to live and die (in Catheine Howard's words) "very dangerously." Depending on the time Easter fell, February was likely to be the month of Shrovetide, a "day of celebration and release before Lent," and then of Lent, which meant, for all Elizabethans, seven weeks of a purely fish diet. Valentine's Day was celebrated by the women of a household -- including servants -- choosing men's names by lot, and then receiving a gift from the man. The first two pictures above show a collection of affordable, middle-class Tudor jewelry, from the Cheapside Hoard discovered in London in 1912. More famous is the fabulous pearl La Peregrina, once owned by Queen Mary I and now belonging -- it was a Valentine's gift -- to Elizabeth Taylor.

David Starkey,
Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII. New York: Harper Collins, 2003, p. 264 (Shrovetide, "day of celebration").

F. G. Emmison, Tudor Secretary: Sir William Petre at Court and Home. London and Chichester: Phillimore & Co., 1970. First published by Longmans, Green, and Co., 1961 (pp. 142-143 (fish diet), and pp. 217-218 (Valentine's Day).

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Retro buttermilk spice cake, 1955

A retro cake for retro people, and what could be nicer? Please enjoy also the lovely advertisements reproduced below, from about the same era. It seems there was once a company called Textron, which made fabric for parachutes and then for ladies' underthings. Could both have been silk? This lady looks as though, while rocking in her quaint little winter-birdhouse chair, she is contemplating getting up and having a piece of cake.

The recipe comes from the Gold Medal Flour Jubilee Select Recipes booklet, published in 1955. It's specifically from the chapter titled "Popular recipes of 1920-1930 brought up to date." If you don't happen to have buttermilk on hand, you'll start with a lemon or a bottle of vinegar: use 1 Tbsp. of either lemon juice or vinegar to sour 1 cup of whole milk. Let the milk sit out at room temperature while you prepare the cake.

Buttermilk spice cake
  • 2 cups plus 2 Tbsp flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 3/4 tsp baking soda
  • 3/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup "soft shortening (such as Spry, Swift'ning)" -- I used equal parts butter and vegetable shortening
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 3 eggs
Preheat the oven to 350 F, and butter and flour two 9-inch cake pans. Mix in a bowl the flour, sugar, salt, leavenings, and spices. Add the brown sugar and mix in well, breaking up any lumps. Mix in the shortening and then the buttermilk or soured milk, beating well with an electric beater. Add the eggs, beating well again. Pour into the prepared pans and bake for about 35 to 40 minutes. Cool the cakes on racks and then frost and fill as desired.

For the frosting, I used the recipe for Quick Cream Icing on the next page of the Gold Medal booklet. Blend 1 and 1/2 cups sifted powdered sugar, 1/2 tsp vanilla, and 2 Tbsp cream or milk to make a thin icing. Spread it between the layers. Then, make another batch of the icing to drizzle over the top of the cake, or perhaps just dust the top with sifted powdered sugar.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

My first fashion essay

All the smiling, dewy-skinned young women do it, and they get dozens of comments per post and ad sponsorship too. Plus they look like it's so much fun.

I was a child of the '70s, however, when everybody was "natural." After that I was a stay at home mother for years. I don't know who wore more hand-me-downs, my kids or me. So as I start my first fashion essay -- how appropriate that the word also connotes "trying" -- you'll have to be patient: this is a learning experience.

In fairness to myself, though, I should say that I am not completely starting emotionally from square one. When I was about five years old I did have a white fur muff with cherries on it, which I loved. The muff in the photo above is mink, uncherried, "thrift," as the fashion bloggers say. I also had a gold lamé winter coat with white fur around the hem. One Christmas when I was about seven I received a Christian Dior white satin nightgown with a matching blue and white checked robe. The '70s were also "all about" multicolored maxi dresses and three-toned suede platform shoes. Sometimes you added a red poncho. I loved all that, too.

So I sorted through my closet today, looking for "pieces" to put together as I see it done on blogs and in magazines. Anything goes, and look down demurely, seems to be the general rule. Speaking of magazines, my renewed subscription to Bazaar came yesterday, and I am loving those calf-wrapping, goddess-style Stuart Weitzman shoes (p. 165). Of course, to wear them well it helps to be Kate Moss and sit in a chair demurely.

Anyway, as I begin my essay I find that my closet boasts very few really decent pieces. The shoes, above, which I am shy of wearing because they are date shoes but would make me tower over my gentleman friend. The muff. One Dior blazer. Hand me down, years ago, from a woman who felt equal to ditching a Dior. I committed the atrocity of cutting off its buttons and sewing on new, more garish ones. One little black dress. One statement necklace: vintage '50s (I assume) pink, white, and black beads. Thrift.

I have also the few blouses, sweaters, or dress or two from labels and department stores which are perfectly all right except that they fall into the category that Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada thrusts from her as "tragic sale bin." And I have one buffalo-checked flannel vest. Chaps, not at all tragic.

Can one put these together? Does anything go, really?

The young women fashion bloggers have no qualms about posting endless photos of themselves. "They're modeling," my daughter said, and it's true. They also own tripods for their cameras, or -- if they must resort to a half-length mirror -- probably remember to dust the mirror.

Now I add the buffalo check flannel vest. I am wearing the shoes, so you must imagine them.

By the way that's not all middle-aged arm flab. That's lifting-35-pound-cases-of-wine-six-hours-a-day-for-four-years well, bulk.

Finally, the bag. Again, thrift. Every woman who sees this adores how tiny it is. I am not sure I ever did, but no fashion blogger puts herself together without a bag.

 There. My first fashion essay is complete. I have almost nothing else to work with except my chocolate-brown sweater with the leopard print boat collar and cuffs (thrift), and maybe my great-aunt's vintage shearling black lamb coat. Suggestions welcome.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

2006 Tinto Pesquera Ribera del Duero (drink up!)

Drink up, because it's ready, all soft ripe fruits and Spanish silkiness. I don't say whether or not, after a few days open, it began to exhale a bit of vinegar. That is not quite what happened. Still. The year 2006 was a little while ago. Do drink up.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Apothic dark

Coffee, caramel, brown sugar
cinnamon, hazelnut 
-- incredibly sweet
the smell of roasted bubbly brown sugar and maple syrup comes right up from the glass. 

If this were breakfast it would be pancakes with maple syrup, honey-cured bacon, cinnamon rolls and hazelnut coffee. All dyed an inky-dark purple.

Wow. Sorry, it will pair with nothing. Except maybe the pancakes of your dreams.

Retail, about $10.

Monday, February 10, 2014

New coctail -- the "Commodora"

One needs a cocktail, you know, after all this everlasting snow. Let us dig the car out of its drift at 5:30 in the morning, shall we? -- and then drive off to work, only going back to retrieve the shovel that we think we left thrust in a snowbank, but then remembered putting into the trunk at the last minute after all. So we circle the block once more and then really head west, snow-filled winds sweeping across dimly lit streets and swirling through the beams of other cars' headlights; we're stopped by a train and then by the red and blue flashes atop a police car parked at an impossible angle beside an accident. Non-plussed, stymied, and thwarted, we decide to turn around in a random parking lot, where we say good morning to the nice man plowing who got down from his tractor to comment that our car looks just like the car belonging to a coworker, get half stuck trying to barrel out of his driveway, barrel on and, having traveled five blocks as the crow flies in thirty minutes, at length pull into work forty minutes late. The day begins.

So we work and when it's time to go home -- driving only on the side streets, since who knows what condition the expressways are in --  it's time also for our afternoon cocktail.

We rename it the Commodora because we can't seem to find the orange bitters that the original, the "Commodore" in our dog-eared Calvert Party Encyclopedia (1961), calls for. Otherwise it is the same recipe:
the juice of half a large lime
1 and 1/2 ounces (a jigger) whisky
a dash of sugar
a dash of (Angostura) bitters.
Shake with ice in a cocktail shaker, strain into a cocktail glass. I garnished it with a green grape, because I had some green grapes in a bowl handy, and used George Dickel No. 8 Tennessee sour mash whisky. It may be that aficionados of Dickel will stand horrified, but I can tell you the drink was rich and tasty. You could even omit the little bit of sugar, and count yourself more pure that way.

Talking of commodores reminds us of travel. Well, commodores sails ships, don't they? A friend of mine is what I suppose we should call an inveterate traveler -- inveterate from the Latin, "to make old," in other words "long or firmly established." He is that, although he only travels to one tropical paradise. He had a terribly exciting past there twenty years ago, black marketeering, fishing, raising pigs, and jungle-exploring, and he believes that anyone who once sees his heaven will want to live there and have adventures forever. Looking out at the everlasting snow does help that persuasion along.

Since I am not an inveterate traveler however, last night I took a sort of page from writer Lisa Medchill's five-year-old New York Observer article on the topic ("The Middle of Somewhere: Why I Hate to Travel," November 4, 2008) and looked up YouTube videos of this place I don't much intend to go to. "Really, it's staggering," Miss Medchill had reflected on hearing her friends' travel tales, "how much you can learn about the world by avoiding it. Without moving a muscle, I know St. Bart’s is 'so restful,' Machu Picchu 'so transcendent' and the Masai 'so cheerful.' " Quite true. I saw everything my friend faithfully describes, the sky, the flowers, the ocean, the sunsets, the crown-like bell tower of the church, the iguanas on the sidewalks and the acrobats on the beach, without the cost and harrying of having to go. Like Miss Medchill, I too "like to be available to my own life."

It's amazing what you will find on YouTube. The thing is a time-suck, yes, but somehow through these little glimpses into human lives one also gets little reassurances about poor bravely struggling human nature.  I found a video of two young sisters chronicling their first trip alone to my friend's tropic paradise. Everything was "a lot of fun" even though they both looked exhausted and the younger girl kept mouthing "scary" to the camera. At one point they whizzed along on a speedboat ride with a pack of other life-jacketed teens whose body language said they might all be being swept off to prison

Then there was a very different video made by a lanky, aging Baby Boomer Texan, who sat on a huge rock in a river deep in a twittering green forest somewhere. For twelve minutes he firmly warned anyone away from the life of the expatriate south of the Rio Grande. "You will never be accepted," was his theme. That matters to poor struggling human beings. He regaled us, un-self-pitying, with his worldly chops: his quarter-century of travel, his Spanish fluency, his land purchase- and house building-history in Peru. Still he had learned a hard, expensive, time-wasting lesson, and was getting ready to "go back to Texas with m' tail between m' legs." "Rent for at least a year first ... you will never be accepted."

I don't think he's just a failed sourpuss. He also briefly alluded to American expatriates in English villages being as isolated as he was. Perhaps he was in touch with disappointed old college friends. As I listened to his eloquent twang I remembered my local library has its share of let's-go-live-in-France-because-it's-all-so-sophisticated-and-calm-there memoirs, and one of them records the shock of an English expat upon learning that life in a French village for forty happy years does not entitle one to burial in the village cemetery. That man, too, was still a stranger.

Incidentally if you want to observe people on YouTube who are not travelers, and who will never have to worry about being refused burial in their adopted villages, look up the "music and nature sounds for relaxation and study" meme. You will find music of Tibetan bowls, and eight hour long video loops of babbling brooks with birdsong. One person filmed an oddly thundery snowstorm battering a stand of trees. For an hour. A human being on the other side of the world happily commented below this, "can't wait to snuggle with my quilt and my cat and imagine this outside. Heaven!" My tropical friend would roll his eyes, and and point to mandevillas and orange trees in January, to the breaching whales, to sunset over the ocean. And then to our own everlasting snow.

Yes, but. Lin Yutang in a chapter on travel (in The Importance of Living, 1937) quotes ancient Chinese philosophers who teach that no one has really "seen" faraway exotica, "stone caves and blessed spots," who cannot also see the mystery and grandeur of his own town and fields. All right, perhaps we don't mean the local Jiffy Lube or urgent care center, but there's a clue to the philosophers' wisdom in this: how many vacationers, on YouTube or elsewhere, come home saying "we love the people there"? Really? They're that different? The man on the rock says they only want your money, and he adds handsomely "you cannot blame them." No, that too is poor struggling human nature.

Now you may have your Commodora. Below, we revisit the "red sky at morn, sailors take warn" proverb. A bit of local grandeur before the snow. 


Thursday, February 6, 2014

What I might end up being known for: finally, the recipe

We conclude our saga, and giving full credit where it's due, we try a recipe for homemade cérat du Galien, Galen's wax or cold cream

If you wish to follow up on this little, this positively Lilliputian (Boswellian?) matter, if you want to achieve true cold cream geekiness, you may do so by surfing the net for websites which actually are devoted to makeup and makeup reviews -- and reviews of products that remove makeup. While embarked on this sub-project I found someone who knows more about the nice chemists at Pond's than I do, but whose information confirms my suspicions, and frightens me a bit, too. Hear this, dated 9/11/09 from

"However, I am disappointed that Pond's reformulated the product by adding toxic ingredients like the preservative DMDM Hydantoin. The upside of this change is that the original Pond's cold cream is still manufactured." [Aside: this information from 2009 is no longer true as far as I know.] "You just have to look harder. My local drugstore has it while one major drugstore carried the new reformulated one. Good luck!"

I can't tell what is more extraordinary, this confirmation that I'm not crazy, or the news of toxicity in my Pond's, -- or other reviewers' complaints about the cold cream's intense, "been around for decades," "granny" smell. "I despise the smell of roses," one woman huffed.

Really? It still contains Galen's roses? I almost think I'm better off not noticing them, rather than being such a poor soul as to dislike them. Meanwhile, it's almost time for my nightly ritual. Bring on the DMDM Hydantoin.


And that is the end of My Pond's Cold Cream Saga, the one piece of writing in my entire career that has garnered the most response. You remember we began by discussing Biography Syndrome, and wondering what we might end up being known for. The writer always hopes that, if it must be just one thing -- and this age of the internet and instant self-publishing certainly has rendered the breadth of competition more appalling than in any previous era -- then, one hopes, that thing will be really valuable, maybe even dignified. But we also remember Flannery O'Connor's quote: you can choose what to write about, but not what you will make come alive. And so -- gad -- as for making things come alive -- gad. This?

I promised you the recipe long since. Here it is, from very busy women at websites like Makeup Alley, Jillee, and Beauty Bottle, who don't bother their heads about all This.

Homemade Cold Cream

1/4 teaspoon borax
1/4 cup distilled water
1/2 cup mineral oil, or another oil that is liquid at room temperature (Almond is nice)
1/2 ounce (by weight) grated beeswax**(see below)

"Dissolve the borax in the water in a (one cup) glass measuring cup. Set aside. [Women who want a fragrant cream say that they add something nice to the water and borax at this point. A fruit infused tea bag, for example. Or, they simply use rose water.]

"Dump together the oil and beeswax in a larger (2-cup) glass measuring cup.

"Heat the oil/beeswax mix in a microwave until the beeswax is melted in and the mixture is clear.

"Heat the borax/water mix in a microwave for a minute - almost to boiling.

"Slowly pour the borax/water mixture into the oil/beeswax mixture, using a stick blender [immersion blender] to mix as you pour. Now beat well with the stick blender until the mix is glossy white and thickened up some. [Again, women looking for fragrance can add a few drops of an essential oil here. Rose is traditional but hugely expensive.]

"Pour the (hot) cold cream into an 8-ounce jar with a lid.

"Let it cool to room temperature.

"NOTE: If you don't have a stick blender you can beat the cold cream with a whisk or in a regular blender, but the cleanup will be much more difficult. By using glass measuring cups and a stick blender you will be able to simply wipe most of the excess off with paper towels, then wash in hot soapy water. Cleaning plastic measuring cups, and a whisk or (worse yet) a blender of this wax-containing product is difficult and a pain in the neck."

One last tiny, tiny P.S. If you are the enchanting blogger Vixen Vintage, and already are supermodel- gorgeous with skin that cannot be described in terms of pearls, alabaster, milk, or velvet because those words are laughably inadequate, then the nice manufacturers of boutique cold creams may simply send you samples to blog about. One is called Queenie May and looks divine. Its cost, though ($47 for a 4 ounce jar) helps explain why some people make their own and keep it in a plastic container in the fridge.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

What I might end up being known for -- "le cérat"

Again with the Pond's cold cream saga.  Best to begin assembling your ingredients: apart from beeswax you will need olive oil, distilled water, and borax.

Ah hah. What is the point of cold cream, anyway, and where does it come from? I imagined it as somehow a product of nineteenth century Victorian leisure and chemistry, or as another brilliant invention of one of those hardscrabble ladies of the early twentieth century, who simply created whole cosmetics and fashion industries from scratch and sheer brainpower -- Estée Lauder was one, Chanel another. Not so, it seems. Cold cream, so named "because it leaves the skin feeling cool and refreshed" (a bit pat, no?) is credited to the classical Greek physician Galen. He stirred together the simple ingredients olive oil, beeswax, water, and rose petals, and arrived at what the French still call le cérat de Galien, Galen's wax. Modern formulas eschew olive oil, because it spoils too quickly. Its replacement is mineral oil.

Do we trust Wikipedia on this important little issue? My French dictionary includes no such word as "cérat"; the word for wax is la cire. That same dictionary also translates cold cream forthrightly as le cold-cream (masculine, oddly). However, my French dictionary is not the only source of information on skin care on the planet. A French website called Huiles & Sens Aromathérapie agrees that, with this invention Claude Galien, "un médecin grec de l'Antiquité," did indeed give us one of the oldest of all cosmetic recipes. And they call it cérat de Galien.

I was so charmed by Miss Chase's retro advice (in Letters of the Century) to cream your face each night, and so pleased by the rediscovery of Pond's at about the same time I was given that book, that I have been cleansing with "the cool classic" religiously every night since. Letters of the Century came out in 1999, so that makes a good ten years of the ritual. And now they've changed the formula, the fragrance is gone or almost gone, and I continue to use it though half the pleasure of it is also gone.

Above, Galen and his first customer? No, "a Druid sacrifice," from a 1940s-era textbook copy of Caesar in Gaul. Once upon a time schoolboys really did learn a bit of Latin. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

What I might end up being known for -- the letter, 1951

We carry on the Pond's cold cream saga. There will be a recipe at the end of it, I promise. Don't forget to buy beeswax. If you can afford essential oil of roses, by all means splurge. 

So now I, too, kept a jar on hand. Still, apart from Halloween, I had no particular use for it -- tried makeup, found it aging on me -- until I happened to receive a book for a present, called Letters of the Century: America 1900 to 1999. It's a collection heavy on left-wing canonic documents, everybody eyewitnessing civil rights, Vietnam, and so on, but in the middle of it (pp. 368-371) is the best letter in the book. It was written in 1951 by a lady named Myrna Chase to another lady simply named Mary. Miss Chase had no grand national agenda to discuss. She was a medical secretary who was leaving her doctor's practice in order to get married, and her letter was one of instruction to her replacement. Miss Chase obviously loved her job and was very good at it, but she was also a fine writer. Her style is simple, delicate, just verging on the waspish but so intensely ladylike that it remains great fun to read. "I'm sure," she warned Mary, "I don't need to caution you against the horror of a dark slip under a white uniform." "Remember that white in a doctor's office must always be just a little whiter than white." "I know you will not feel it beneath you to supplement the efforts of the overworked janitress with a good dust cloth of your own." "When the doctor is ready to leave, usher him out and tell him good night as if he were the guest of honor. Your respect and admiration can never be too great for a man who is following the finest profession in the world."

And this, at the beginning of the letter: "Your day really begins the night before, when you take a warm bath, brush your hair, cream your face, and relax in bed for at least eight hours' sound sleep."

Now doesn't that sound delicious? It takes us right back to 1951, when -- so we fancy -- women relaxed in the evening in fur-trimmed peignoirs and low-heeled mules, gave their hair a hundred strokes before bed, and laid out a soignee uniform of dress, hose, gloves, hat, stole, and who knows maybe a fresh orchid, for the next day. And "creamed" their faces above all. Fran Dodsworth (Ruth Chatterton), in the old movie Dodsworth, creams her face and wipes it all off savagely while having an argument with her husband Sam (Walter Huston) in a European hotel room. She's forty, and about to become a grandmother.

Monday, February 3, 2014

What I might end up being known for, part 2

At the time of writing, it was spring on the south side. After all, if Elizabeth David's 60-year-old articles can be republished with lines like "When I visited Harrods last Saturday, lamb was threepence the pound" intact -- I am thinking of South Wind Through the Kitchen -- after all, why not me too?

We continue with our Pond's cold cream saga. And we include a picture from our most recent field trip. It's spring here on the south side.

I was actually disappointed enough to write to the Pond's company, outlining my complaints and asking why they had changed the formula. Some one from Quality Control wrote me back, apologizing for my experience and insisting that it did not reflect the standards that Pond's is determined to maintain. And wouldn't I please accept a coupon for a free jar, which I would soon find in my mail, while my letter was forwarded through proper channels, etc. I can imagine the person writing this thinking, "get a life, you no doubt ninety-year-old relic."

In a few weeks an entire package of coupons arrived, for all sorts of products. I had no idea that the Pond's people either own or are owned by all sorts of other people -- the people who make Suave shampoo, and Dove soap, too, if memory serves. I didn't use any of the coupons because I don't want two dollars off a soap or a shampoo. I want, at the least, Pond's to confide in me that they have changed the formula, and at best I want them to go back to the old one.

Let me tell you why I love Pond's. (Do I sound as if I am dunning for more coupons? I am not.) Of course every family with women in it is likely to keep a jar in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. It takes off makeup beautifully, and is safe to use even around the eyes. When I was growing up we always had a jar on hand, which seemed to sit half used for years, with the same black swipe plunged into it, from some already mascara-laden fingertip that some woman hadn't bothered to clean off before dipping in for her second helping you might say. Since I don't wear makeup, however, I thought no more about Pond's until it was time to buy a jar, in adulthood, to have on hand to remove my own children's Halloween makeup. And then I opened it and smelled again that scent.

And I was instantly transported back, in the powerful and ridiculous way that scents can do this, to the bathroom of my childhood home. Summertime, the open bathroom window, the heights of the green trees outside, and even the sound of bird calls returned to me in one split second sensation. Because of Pond's. Ridiculous.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

What I might end up being known for (oh gad)

Do you remember wandering the stacks of your small local public library, say on a stifling summer day when you were twelve, looking at all the books -- and imagining your own Works one day being represented there? Maybe you especially wandered the biography section, and liked to picture your Life one day being there, too. A library, especially a small one, gives such a tidy impression of what is valuable. Here on these shelves, you think, is the result of what creative, vigorous and scholarly people have either created themselves, or dug up and summarized about creative and interesting people. (Why, that's us, of course!) Later on it seems not just the physical tidiness of this collected glory that is so bewitching, it's knowing the roots of it. It's knowing that all this has survived the examination of appropriate gatekeepers, editors and Ph.D program directors who know what is worthwhile or what will make money, or both. Chances are it also first survived the more important examination of a grateful humanity.

Even if you didn't think in precisely these words, I'll bet you floated along blissfully unaware of developing the first symptoms of Biography Syndrome. The syndrome presents, as doctors put it, like this: after simply imagining the fun of being alphabetized on the shelf somewhere after Austen and Bronte, you start to trustfully plan. Given time and plenty of hard work (surely), you too will amass Papers. Correspondence. Drafts. Diaries. Possibly even novels and magazine articles published during your lifetime, if you're lucky. You will do your part. And from these Papers, someone someday will pluck the best. They too will get past the gatekeepers with you under their arm as it were, and you will take your place in a library. Your Works, your Life will jut out from the shelves, to be fingered in passing one summer afternoon by another wondering twelve-year-old in the first soft grip of the Syndrome.

Now the Internet has arrived, we must rethink all this. (Or not -- "of the making of books there is no end," Ecclesiastes sighed many centuries ago.) The Internet and the blogosphere, crammed to overflowing with the thoughts and writings and photos of so many people anxious and able to try their hand at immortality now, makes us realize anew how unlikely it is that any of us will be noticed or remembered for anything artistic after we're gone. There is just much too much, and many too many, of everything. Sappho at least had a few centuries of immortality before her poems fell out of favor. Apparently her trouble was she wrote in a difficult dialect of Greek called Aeolic. Aeschylus, it is said, wrote ninety plays of which seven have survived. Such a tidy impression of what is valuable. Today they both would be bloggers, in whatever dialect, checking weekly stats and hoping for a comment.

Still. Seven out of ninety. Printing presses still run and libraries still operate. So it's still fun to wonder what some future editor of your Omnibus edition might choose as your best, or what might survive simply because it was popular. I can give my biographers a head start and tell them freely that I have a horrifying suspicion my literary reputation may one day rest on an article I wrote elsewhere, four years ago, about Pond's cold cream. Seriously. Nothing else I have ever written, certainly not in proper and dignified magazines, has garnered forty-two, forty-two comments. I think it was Flannery O'Connor who said that a writer can choose what to write, but not what he will make come alive. To think that in my case it was not Prometheus Bound or the Hymn to Aphrodite but cold cream. Gad.

I import the article here for its own sake -- why should you dear things be deprived? -- and because at the end, it includes a sort of recipe. There's beeswax involved, which is why I also import the photo of the bee. We'll have to break the original post into installments, since it is long. Here is part one: My Pond's Cold Cream Saga. In the week or so that we'll take to read it, we'll have time to go out and buy more beeswax.

James Boswell once fretted to Samuel Johnson about whether or not he should think of wasting his time reading or writing on some small topic he had in mind. Johnson said, "there can be nothing too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we have as little misery and as much happiness as possible."

I hope that is true, because amid all the awful and serious news in the world, I do have a small subject that frets and interests me. Everyone must promise not to laugh, or be disgusted.

Wonderful Pond's cold cream has lost its wonderful old scent, and now smells like just nothing at all. Chemicals, perhaps, or some kind of locker-room hygienic cream.

Really. That's what is on my mind, as all the micro-blogging platforms ask. What have they done to it? It used to have a fragrance that, now, I'm afraid I can't remember well enough to describe. It was very fresh, flowery but not fussy, a little powdery, fruity but not in the typical melon-and-cucumber style that any cosmetics company can do well and then call pear or kiwi anyway. It was unique.

And now it's gone. I'm sure they have changed the formula, because ever since I noticed the loss well over a year ago, I have continued to buy the product in small sizes and large, in grocery stores and drugstores, reasoning that perhaps that store got a bad shipment, or this one's supply is old and faded. Alas, each jar is now the same. Even my family agree, when I thrust the jar under their noses and demand their opinion that I'm not crazy, that classic Pond's doesn't smell as strong as it once did. The problem has to lie in the factory, and in the decisions made by the nice chemists there. It's become scentless and dull, and even the creamy feel of the stuff is different. I used to be able to catch up a dollop of it on a fingertip, and it sat there white, cool, plump, and perfect, crowned with a little gay curl on top. Now it is thin, greasy, and tacky. I plunge my fingertip into the jar and I pull away nothing. I have to dig into it with some fierceness, and do my best with a clump instead of a dollop.

Their faces move

It pleases me to imagine that, in a very small way, I understand the experience of St. Paul in the agora -- that is, in the public square, b...