In Praise of Early Dinner


“Do you have a show to get to?” the maître d’ asked as we arrived five minutes early for our 5:30 reservation at Union Square Café. He gave us the up-and-down when my husband answered “no.” Hmmm….no small children or frail companions in tow…why would a couple be here now? Exposed, we made our way to our table. And laughed. We like early dinnner. 

You may have guessed that we are a couple of a certain age. But even as thirty-somethings the 10 o’clock table held little appeal. And being captive at a dinner party with the many-hours-long cocktail hour has always been a certain circle of hell. 

On the upside, restaurant reservation systems like Resy and Open Table favor the early diner. Try getting a 7 o’clock reservation at a popular restaurant anywhere: there’s invariably the block of unavailability between 6:00 and 9:30 pm. It would have taken us years to get into Stephanie Izard’s Girl & the Goat if we hadn’t showed up at the door at 4:30 and sat at the bar. 

Speaking of the bar, it’s quiet! And so are most restaurants at opening hour—at least quiet enough for conversation with inside voices. There’s often a comfortable bass timbre and, depending on the season, a pleasant sepia tone as the sun disappears. The bartender has time to talk. The wait staff are unhurried. 

It took us awhile to embrace the “Early Bird” (yep, we had to answer to the name) hours at one of our favorite vacation spots—The Manitou on M22 in Michigan. The portions and price helped us get over it. Plus, there’s plenty of time left after dinner for taking a walk, reading, or just staring at the trees. 


Easy Meal #5

Pasta with Tomato Sauce

Never mind expensive jars of salty, prepared pasta sauce. With a 28-ounce can of whole tomatoes, you can create your own beautiful sauce. Shop your fridge and pantry for items to add to the sauce—leftovers, lone vegetables, an open jar of olives. It’s cooking improv. My fridge quest turned up a half-jar of capers, half a red onion, and an opened box of spinach.

Ingredients
-28-ounce can peeled whole tomatoes
-Add-ins (chef’s choice)
-8 ounces pasta

Instructions
-Saute raw vegetables in saucepan.
-Add can of tomatoes to saucepan of vegetables and simmer until tomatoes break down (about 30 minutes).
-Cook pasta.
-Toss cooked pasta with sauce.
-Top with red peppers flakes, parmesan, ground pepper, or your own inspiration.

Four servings

Tip: To cut down on calories, use spiral-cut vegetables like zucchini in place of pasta or use a mix of both pasta and veggies.

Monday Wisdom

It is morning, afternoon or evening.
Begin.

Thomas Merton

I share this quote on the occasion of my birthday. Its startlingly simple message of hope made me smile. No matter the time of day or time of life, we can begin or begin again whatever it is we want or need to begin. I remember my mother here too, who on this day began her work as a mother.

Garden Clips

Lurie Garden in fall

Pots of happy succulents lined the porch railing. “I only grow things that like it here,” said my husband’s cousin as we toured his mountain-top cabin in North Carolina. So obvious it made me laugh. Laugh at how many times I placed a plant where it never wanted to be. Like the azalea—a woody skeleton at the end of a Midwestern winter. Lush cascades of rhododendron roll down the Carolina mountain side. Ha!

Piet Oudolf, the legendary plantsman from the Netherlands, recently came to Chicago to talk about seasonality in garden design. He counters the traditional practice of putting the garden to rest for winter with designs of year-round interest and plants in all their stages of life. The Lurie Garden in fall is a painterly, nuanced vision.

Metaphors grow in gardens. And sometimes I listen to what the plant kingdom has to say. When we lost all the JFK roses, I knew it was time to sell the house.

Monday Wisdom

Most things I worry about
Never happen anyway.

—Tom Petty, “Crawling Back to You,” Wildflowers album

Apps with a Past

Pickled mushrooms, crackers, and cheese spread in Russel Wright coffee cups from the 1940s

Most everyone these days prefers to drink coffee or tea out of mugs, and thus the squat cup and saucer of yesteryear have disappeared from kitchen cabinet shelves.

But maybe you’re a collector or have some of these nostalgic pieces from your mother or grandmother who likely sipped and talked casually with friends and neighbors.  My grandma always had a cup of coffee (never water, milk,  or soda) with her sandwich and so did Perry Mason, secretary Della Street, and PI Paul Drake after they won a case.

What can we do with these pieces now? Lots. They make novel vessels for appetizers, especially if they are colorful.  They are perfect for soup with the saucer as a resting place for a spoon. Think yogurt or ice cream with berries. Whatever the adaptation I always enjoy bringing a piece of the past back to the table.

What’s in your cupboard?

Monday Wisdom

“Northwoods,” screenprint by Mike Schwindenhammer

Is not the sky a father and the earth a mother, and are not all living things with feet or wings or roots their children?

—Black Elk, Black Elk Speaks

At the End of the Day, I’m Tired

Femme Banale is glad to be back in your company after a short break.

For more than 20 years, I worked as an editor, and like many editors, possess a certain crankiness.* Maybe it’s the banality of enforcing the serial comma. Who knows.

Today I get cranky about the popular expression “At the end of the day.” News commentators use it with gravitas as the preface for telling us what’s really important. Politicians love to use the expression too. One Chicago mayoral candidate recently said “at the end of the day” seven times in less than a minute. Please make it stop.

The old-school language constables Strunk and White would describe this expression as “threadbare” from over use. It reminds me of another such expression from the Rolex 1980s: “the bottom line.” I’m not sure either metaphor works anyway. At the end of the day, I am not taking account of the day’s wins and losses; instead I’m unwinding with a book or garbage TV.

There are more like it out there. What cliché would you like to see sent to language detention?

*Yes, you sticklers, my writing mixes first person and third person. It’s my party…you know the rest.

Librarians Who Don’t Mess Around

Collection management—the technical term for weeding out obsolete books—is an important part of librarians’ work. Sounds like drudgery, right? Well, two public librarians in Michigan have put the fun in collection management with their website Awful Library Books.  Whether you are a bibliophile or not, you have to visit this site,  if only for a good laugh.

Librarians Holly and Mary feature the worst of the worst from their own library collections and those around the country.  What makes their site so entertaining is not only the titles but Holly’s and Mary’s deadpan commentary on what justifies a book’s weed out. Here are some books you’ll find on their site (comments are mine):
•  Macrame Accessories (Lots of groovy photos, including vests for dudes.)
•  How NOT to Kill Your Husband  (Apparently men are too busy and clueless to take care of themselves.)
•  Brainwashing Is a Cinch!  (Just give me 10 minutes with the president!)
•  Make Your Own Sex Toys (This book is available from Amazon in case you’re interested.)
•  Cat Astrology (New pick-up line: What’s your cat’s sign?)

 Inspired by Mary’s and Holly’s tough-love approach, I made the decision to finally discard my 1941 edition of 2002 Household Helps. Below I share a couple gems or “helps” from this book as part of my farewell ritual.

•  SHOPPING TIP—Don’t go on a long shopping trip without first making out a list of things to be purchased, if you would conserve your energy. Don’t shop after you’ve an aching head and jumpy nerves. You will not get good results.

•  LET BOYS PRESS THEIR OWN PANTS—Letting boys press their own suits and sew on their own buttons is an item in training them for self-reliant manhood.

The latter tip evokes a Banale moment: although they didn’t wear suits, the boys here did their own laundry starting in high school. Amen.

Celebrate! It’s National Chip and Dip Day

Doritos painting by Pamela Michelle Johnson

March 23 is National Chip and Dip Day. That’s right! And it’s no secret that Chez Banale is home to a family of chip fiends. Chip-themed artwork like the Pamela Johnson piece above pay homage to our favorite junk food.  Regrettably, chips have sometimes been at the center of family disputes over hiding, hogging, and perhaps the worst offense of all—leaving a near-empty bag in the pantry with only chip dust.

In honor of the day, below is my sister Sarah’s recipe for quacamole, inspired by a trip to Ixtapa, Mexico.  She says, “I used to load up my guacamole with all sorts ingredients thinking more is better. When I tasted this guacamole in Mexico it was so delicious, yet so simple.”

Sarah’s Guacamole Dip

4–6 ripe avocados
1/2–1 red onion chopped
1/2–1 bunch of cilantro leaves only, lightly chopped
1–2 limes
Kosher or sea salt

Half the avocados and scoop out the avocado flesh. Mash it leaving some small chunks. Add chopped onion and cilantro, the amount will depend on your taste preference and size of avocados. Mix in fresh squeezed lime juice and salt to taste. Add 1/2 of the onion and cilantro and juice of one lime, taste, and add more accordingly. Good tortilla chips are essential.

Another great dip for tortilla chips is Rick Bayless’ Roasted Tomatillo Salsa.  So easy. And let’s not forget an old-time party staple—Knorr’s French onion soup mix dip with sour cream. The perfect companion to any potato chip.