Thursday, November 25, 2010

It's not just about the pie

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! This will be a short post, since I still have rolls in the oven and squash to warm up before we head out to Steve and Peggy’s for dinner, but I woke up thinking—as I should every day, but seldom take the time—of everything I’m thankful for.

I’m thankful for Tony and the kids, and for living here in western Maine, exactly where I’ve always wanted to live, and for the 45 years of friendship I’ve shared with Donna, and for all my other wonderful friends, and for a job I like and great coworkers, and for not being cold or hungry, and for a million other things, big and small.

But today I’m thinking a lot about my birth family, which has expanded over the years from a tight little group of five kids and a widowed mom, figuring out together how to take on the world, to an extended and riotous gang of about four dozen, counting original siblings, kids, step-kids, grandkids, step-grandkids, and grand-dogs.

Even though we live far apart, have busy lives, and don’t get together very often, even though we’re without our original matriarch, even though two of the original five siblings won’t be with us today, whenever I think about the family I was lucky enough to be born into and grow up with, I always feel surrounded by their love, and I always feel blessed.

Now, bring on the pie!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Milk: A Moral Issue?

This post will not be about deplorable conditions in the dairy industry and why we should all go vegan (sorry, Annie), or about why it's probably not a good thing for the National Dairy Council to have launched a campaign to promote milk as an aid to maintaining a healthy weight when the actual data is inconclusive and may even point to the opposite effect, or why we should boycott the makers of baby formula who push economically disadvantaged mothers to choose formula over breastfeeding. (Those are all valid issues, and if you'd like, you can find out all you ever wanted to know about them from the website

No, instead, this post is about a burning question of ethics in my own household: whether or not it is morally acceptable, when selecting a gallon of milk from the dairy case, to dig behind the front row or two of jugs and pull out one from the back which has more time remaining before its "sell by" date.

I have always considered myself to be a rather highly ethical person. I've been known to ask the supermarket checker, "Are you sure that rang in?" as she passes an item over the scanner. If I found a wallet, I would return it without thinking twice. I once bought a pair of shorts for $5 in a local second-hand store and discovered a $20 bill in the pocket, so I called the store and tracked down the previous owner of the shorts and gave it back to her. (She was really, really happy about it.)

I believe in karma, and I believe in living your life in a way that allows you to sleep well at night, but I have never thought twice about choosing the gallon of milk with the "best date." When my kids were at home I often sent them to the store for milk, always adding, "Make sure it has a good date!" It never occurred to me that I might be leading them down the twisted path of immorality and corruption...until today.

Usually, I'm the one who buys our milk at the grocery store, or stops to pick it up on my way home from work. Lately, however, I've been consuming less milk myself--I still use it on cereal, and I cook with it (and I have no intention of giving up ice cream or cheese, two foods without which my world would be a gray and dreary place), but, for whatever reason (probably partly from reading the information on sites like the idea of drinking a big glass of milk no longer appeals to me, so I've switched to drinking water or iced tea and taking calcium supplements. Since Tony still drinks milk every day (even though [nag, nag, nag] I keep suggesting that he could have a mild [or moderate] intolerance to lactose, and it could be the cause of some of his chronic gastric distress, and I keep reminding him to take the Lactaid tablets I bought for him, just in case they help [they don't seem to]), he's often the one who notices when our milk supply is getting low, and a few times recently he's stopped at a small convenience store and picked up a gallon.

This morning I noticed that the partial gallon of milk in the refrigerator is dated May 15th, while the unopened gallon he brought home yesterday is dated May 12th.

"Did you notice that this gallon of milk you bought is only dated for May 12th?" I asked.

(Today is May 6th, and we'll probably use the new gallon up before May 12th anyway, so, in retrospect, it was probably completely unnecessary for me to say anything about it at all, but the fact that I said it anyway is evidence of the fact that nearly 21 years of marriage have not taught me much.)

"Yeah," he said. "I just took the one that was in front. I saw that it had about a week left, so I figured it didn't matter."

Didn't matter? Didn't matter? When the possibility exists that just behind this particular gallon of milk was another gallon that was several days fresher? Aughhh! To me, that's like bidding on a job and finding out that there's good news and bad news--you got the bid, but you bid twice as much as the next bidder. Well, OK, maybe it's not exactly like that, but anyway....

Well! It turns out that not only does Tony think it "doesn't matter," but he actually thinks there is something morally wrong in digging through the dairy case and helping oneself to the freshest milk! He wouldn't buy milk that was outdated, or only had a couple of days left before its last sale date, he explained, but if there's enough time left before the date to use it up, he "doesn't think it's right" to bypass it in favor of the fresher stuff in the back of the case.

This is a revelation to me. And, of course, the dairy case is not the only area of the grocery store where I'm guilty of what Tony would call "high-grading" (which, in logging, is the practice of cutting only the best, most lucrative trees on a woodlot, regardless of which trees need to be harvested for the overall health of the forest)--I regularly sort through rows of those plastic boxes of baby spinach and unstack piles of peppers in the produce department, and pull loaves of bread off the shelf in the bread aisle to get to the fresher ones behind them. (Note: I always put everything back neatly the way I found it, and I never move other fresher stuff to the front for other people to scoop up; I figure anyone who wants the freshest selection should be willing to do the work to get it.)

Tony feels this is wrong, because "if you always take the freshest stuff, someone else always has to take the older stuff." I tried to argue with him, but now I'm actually starting to second-guess myself. Is it morally wrong for me to take the freshest milk (bread, peppers, spinach, or whatever) and leave the tired stuff for someone else? Is it unfair to those little old ladies in electric shopping carts who can't reach to the back of the dairy case, or to the top of the pepper pile? To harried grocery-shopping mothers who send their little kids to "grab a gallon of milk and meet me at the check-out"? To the illiterate, mathematically-challenged, and careless shoppers among us? I wonder about this.

Anyone who has spent a lot of time in grocery stores knows it's a dog-eat-dog world. Haven't we all heard the phrase "come early for best selection"? One store brags that it has "the freshest meats;" another says it knows that, when it comes to freshness, its customers are "picky, picky, picky" and guarantees they'll be satisfied. If I figure out exactly when my store puts out the freshest produce and time my trip to coincide with that, am I doing anything wrong?

And, of course, there have always been jokes and parodies about people who squeeze the fruits and vegetables to check it for quality and ripeness. Remember those old "please don't squeeze the Charmin" commercials? OK, they were ridiculous, but they were obviously based on the idea that grocery shoppers are in relentless pursuit of the best quality, right? My friend Maria's uncle once yelled at Paul Newman (yes, the Paul Newman) for squeezing a grapefruit in his market in Bridgeport, Connecticut. (He didn't recognize him, but another customer did, and tried to get Paul to autograph the grapefruit for her. I don't remember if he did it or not.) I personally don't squeeze produce because it falls outside of my moral comfort zone, but I will pick it over pretty carefully and reject anything that's been bruised by someone else's over-zealous handling.

But Tony, who I suspect may have an over-developed sense of morality, was pretty serious about the fact that high-grading the dairy case is inconsistent with the Greater Common Good. (When I told him I didn't really think it was, he actually said, "Well, I may just be better than you." Grrr.)

I'm actually kind of surprised by the vehemence with which he defended his position, since, when it comes to most of our food, he's something of a freshness fiend. If he grew corn, he'd be one of those people who has to make sure the water is already boiling before he picks it (not that there's anything wrong with that), and he's always asking me "how long things stay good in the freezer." (The answer to that question, I'm sure, falls somewhere between Tony's opinion--"nothing should be frozen for more than a few weeks or it starts to go downhill" and my mother's opinion [which I've largely adopted]--"nothing ever goes bad once you've put it in the freezer! Freezer burn? What freezer burn? Why, I had a hot dog just the other night that was frozen in 1998, and it was just fine!")

[Aside: just yesterday, I found a container in my freezer marked "4 cups apple juice for jelly, 11/6/99." (It was most likely liquid I drained off after making a huge pot of apple sauce with overly juicy apples.) I thawed it out, and it still smelled fine--like apples, not like freezer burn, but I dumped it down the drain, not because I don't think it would make perfectly lovely apple jelly, but because if I haven't been moved to make apple jelly any time in the past 10 1/2 years, it's not terribly likely that I will any time soon. My mother would certainly have used it, though, rather than "let it go to waste."]

I may not worry much about how long foods will keep once they've been frozen (or canned--we just ate a jar of bread-and-butter pickles that was dated 2004, and they were just fine), but fresh foods are another story, and unless someone is able to convince me otherwise, I'll probably continue to dig around in the back of the dairy case for the freshest gallon of milk. It probably won't keep me up at night as much as worrying about the milk souring in the refrigerator before we can use it up.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Goodbye to Auntie Bet

This morning, my Auntie Bet passed away. She was almost 90. She had had a good, long life, and she was ready to go, as she had been telling her family for a while now.

(The tough part is that, just because someone is ready to go, it doesn't mean you're ready for them to leave.)

My mother and Betty Baxter met in Connecticut in the 1940s, when they were both young mothers. For many years they lived across the street from each other in Newington, and from the stories my mother told about those days, it always seemed to me as if the two families had raised their collective seven children--Betty and Elmer's three boys and my own parents' three boys and one girl (I didn't come along until later)--as one big brood. As fellow exiled Mainers, these suburban Connecticut parents encouraged (or at least did not discourage) their offspring in such rugged pursuits as camping, hiking, shooting arrows, firing rifles, and trapping muskrats. (Perhaps the kids spent so much time together because no one else in the neighborhood was allowed to play with them? Hmmm.)

After my parents bought land on a lake in Maine and began building their camp, the Baxters visited them there in the summer.
(1957...that's Greg, my mom, Steve, David, Leddy, and Betty in the back, with Andy and Ben in the front. I'm not sure where Leslie was...she was only seven, but I suppose she could have been behind the camera. Look at my mom and Betty in their skirts...I don't think I've ever worn a skirt at camp, but I guess things were different in 1957.)

I suppose it must have been terribly hard on all of them, perhaps most especially my mother and Betty, when my parents moved their family to New Jersey in the mid-50s, but the families stayed friends, visiting as often as they could.

Betty's daughter-in-law, Nancy, recently emailed to tell us a story: before they left, my father and Elmer carried our family's picnic table across the street and put it in the Baxters' backyard where, remarkably, it has lasted through more than 50 years of family gatherings. (Steve says that's because of some "old school oil" our father put on it when he built it in 1952.) "At some point," Nancy wrote, "we would like for you to have it if any of you would like to have it back." Later, she reported that Betty "was delighted that the table will be with your family. Her words were something like, 'Good, that's where it belongs.' "

After our father died suddenly while the family was living in New Jersey, and after I was born (eight months later), the family moved back to Connecticut. We lived about an hour away from the Baxters, but we went there often, especially on Sunday afternoons. Their house was a wonderful place to visit, because it held so many quirks and treasures--a third-floor attic where the boys slept; a system of buzzers so that Betty, in the kitchen, could communicate, using a special code, "Dinnertime!" or "Time to get up for school!"; a lush, terraced vegetable garden in the backyard, at the bottom of which was the scummiest, most brilliantly green frog pond; a dug-out doghouse cave in one of the garden's terraced hills where Ben's German shepherd, Phantom, slept to keep varmints away from Elmer's vegetables; a tiny dining room that quite comfortably contained--apparently by some trick of spatial geometry--an enormous table, an enormous sideboard, and an enormous upright piano; an upstairs room entirely devoted to Elmer's model trains; a big black-and-white tomcat named Tim; a kitchen drawer full of shoestrings and wooden beads, paper and colored pencils, and tin soldiers; and a startling number of clocks that dinged or bonged or cuckoo-ed every hour.

I would spend the afternoon exploring the nooks and crannies and marvels of the Baxters' house and yard, while my mother and Betty, boring old ladies that they were, would be content to do nothing at all but talk.

When I was six years old, I met Donna and discovered the wonderful concept of Best Friends. We spent all day together at school, and as soon as the bus dropped us off and we had checked in at home, we would get together at either her house or mine for the rest of the afternoon. If for some reason we weren't together, we were on the phone with each other. I remember asking my mom, who worked and cooked and cleaned and went to meetings but never seemed to spend much time with friends, if she had a best friend.

"Yes," she answered without hesitation. "Auntie Bet."

"But you don't get to see her very much," I mused, thinking of all the time Donna and I spent together.

"When you've been friends as long as we have, that doesn't matter," my mom said.

In a letter she sent me a year or so after my mother died, Betty concurred: "I do miss your mother!" she wrote. "So often we shared thoughts without even speaking."

Last December, after a surprise breakfast birthday party for our uncle in Bangor, Steve and Leslie and I continued on to Bar Harbor to visit Betty and Elmer in their retirement home. They treated us to lunch and we spent a bittersweet afternoon reminiscing, all of us knowing, I think, that it would be our last visit with Betty. I brought a tin of Christmas cookies, and she said, "These are all the kinds your mother used to make!"
Betty was no-nonsense, outdoorsy, and strong. She was smart, creative, and well-educated--a college graduate (Colby, 1941) at a time when few women were. She was a historian, a writer--she wrote a history of Newington, a real, actual book you could hold in your hands!--and a formidable bridge, cribbage, and Scrabble player. She was a mom, and a surrogate mom--she had three sons but no daughters, so she liked to borrow Leslie and me now and then.

She was our mom's very best friend for sixty years.

Nancy wrote to us this morning, "Elmer was holding her hand and Joan said she actually heard her laughing and conversing with someone earlier this morning. If she was laughing with anyone, it would have been your mom."

Monday, March 1, 2010

50,000 words in 30 days

Over the past 30 days, I wrote a 50,000-word novel. I'm not saying it's a good novel, or a finished novel. I'm not even saying that it's the sort of novel that a year of rewriting, revising, and redeeming could whip into any sort of presentable shape.

But the point is, it's a novel, it's 50,000 words, and I wrote it. In 30 days.

Writing a novel in 30 days was not, of course, an idea that originated with me. There's a guy named Chris Baty out in California who came up with it. Back in 1999, he got together with 20 friends who had each decided, for no very sane reason, that they would like to write a novel in a month. Since then, National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, has spiraled out of control: in 2009, there were upwards of 200,000 participants, with about one in five actually completing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.

February is not National Novel Writing Month. (It's too short, for one thing, which is why I had to borrow two days from January to get started.) The official National Novel Writing Month is November. I briefly considered signing up last fall and trying to write my novel then, but November is not a good month for me--too much pre-holiday stress, and then there's Thanksgiving to deal with at the end of the month. (Obviously, Chris Baty does not have the weighty responsibility of producing six kinds of pie to interfere with his November noveling.)

February, on the other hand, was looking pretty good. If you're not a cold-weather person, February in Maine doesn't have a lot to recommend it, and I'm usually perfectly happy to seek indoor pursuits in the winter anyway. Will was headed back to school at the end of January after five weeks at home, meaning that I would be sharing the house with only one person who might become resentful if I gave up cooking, grocery shopping, and speaking in full sentences for a month. And I had a week of vacation smack in the middle of February, and no plans for it.

So, with equal measures of excitement and trepidation, I decided to plunge in. By starting on January 30th and finishing on February 28th, I figured I would get ten weekend days, plus five vacation days, so I wouldn't be working at my real job on half of my allotted 30 days. That made the whole thing sound surprisingly doable. If I could just write 3,000 words a day on each of those 15 days, I'd barely have to write at all on work days. Piece of cake, right?

It turns out that writing 3,000 words a day can be far easier than you'd think. On the other hand, writing 3,000 words a day can be far harder than you'd think. It all depends on the day. In the beginning, I actually thought I might "put words in the bank" by writing in the evening after working all day, or by writing more than 3,000 words on some days.

I did write in the evenings, and I did write about 4,000 words on one of my early weekend days, which turned out to be a really good thing when I started to slow down toward the end of the month. (Or maybe the only reason I started to slow down toward the end of the month was that I had those extra words in the bank. Hmmm.) But one of the many things I discovered during my month of nearly non-stop noveling is that 3,000 words in a single day is just about my personal limit. After that, I start looking for excuses to take breaks. Wrote a page? Check Facebook. Wrote 100 words? Check my email for the tenth time in an hour. Wrote a paragraph? Make some hot cocoa. Wrote a sentence (or a fragment thereof)? Get a snack. You can see where this is going.

However, I did write nearly half of my 50,000 words during the nine-day period that included my vacation and its two book-end weekends. Having that vacation occur during Week 3 of the process turned out to be nearly perfect timing, since by then the story was well enough developed to allow me to (occasionally) reach my peak rate of about 900 words an hour. Most of the time, though, I slogged along at a much slower pace, more like 400-500 words per hours.

In the end, I estimate that I spent about 100 hours writing during that 30-day period, not including frequent breaks for stretching, snacking, and maintaining my sanity. One hundred hours to produce 50,000 words seems like a surprisingly tidy figure, but that's about how it worked out.

Although I didn't watch much TV, do a lot of cooking, or clean the house much during February, I did manage to catch all I wanted to see of the Olympics. I made mostly passable meals on a fairly regular basis. (I even baked a couple of times.) The Board of Health did not declare my home a health hazard, and we usually had clean clothes for work. Perhaps most amazing, besides writing a novel during February, I also found time to read two 500-page novels (The Cider House Rules and The Grapes of Wrath) during the same period.

What that tells me is that, in all of the other months, when I'm not writing a 50,000-word novel, I'm obviously somehow spending 100 hours of free time doing something else. One hundred hours is being frittered away each and every month! This is a revelation for someone like me, who constantly feels pressured, runs perpetually behind schedule, and frequently bemoans the lack of sufficient time to clean the house, read a magazine, connect with friends, and, of course, read and write as much as I would like.

I'm going to have to do some serious thinking about how to harness the wealth of free time I've obviously had all along, and put it to Really Good Use...right after I check Facebook, and email, and maybe fix a snack.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

"There is a marvelous peace in not publishing." --J.D. Salinger

I'm posting this here, even though it feels a little like cheating, because I'm tired and I have a cold, but I wanted to say something here about the passing of J.D. Salinger, and I remembered this piece I wrote a couple of years ago:

“Here is the Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, January first, 2008,” Garrison Keillor says, and he goes on to tell me that it was on this day in 1892 that the Ellis Island Immigrant Station officially opened, and a 15-year-old Irish girl named Annie Moore became the first of more than twelve million immigrants to pass through it. He reminds me that on this day in 1953, country music legend Hank Williams, Sr. died in the backseat of his baby-blue Cadillac, on his way to a concert in Canton, Ohio. And today is the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, in which, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared freedom for all slaves in the southern states.

“It’s the birthday of writer E.M. Forster, born in London, 1879,” Garrison says, and I remember that I mean to read A Passage to India sometime soon. It is also the birthday of J.D. Salinger, born in New York City in 1919. Novelist J.D. Salinger, Garrison calls him, although The Catcher in the Rye is the only novel Salinger has ever published. His three other published books are collections of short stories or novellas, and he has published nothing at all for more than forty years, although, as Garrison says, “his friends and neighbors claim that he still continues to write.”

In fact, Salinger is probably famous as much for his reclusive lifestyle as for his published works. He last granted an interview nearly thirty years ago, and is said to rarely leave his New Hampshire home. But The Catcher in the Rye, more than half a century after its publication, continues to sell a quarter of a million copies a year. “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing,” he told The New York Times in 1974. “I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”

Here is how I imagine my life as a writer: On weekdays, Tony will leave the house for work by 8:00 a.m. and the house will be mine. I will look around at my empty house and throw my arms in the air and say, “Whoo-hoo!” because I am a writer, and I know that my muse, and nobody else, is here waiting for me. I will feed the cats. I will finish reading the paper at the kitchen table, and then I will go into my writing room and tune the radio to NPR. I will half-listen to the news while checking my email, dashing off a quick reply to my brother’s short message, but saving my best friend’s longer one to savor later, during a break. I will read my favorite on-line advice column, look up the author of the book I’m reading and scan his bio (he wasn’t published until he was well into his fifties, which I find encouraging), then check out a couple of possible markets for the magazine articles and essays I’ve been working on.

Garrison Keillor will come on the radio for the “The Writer’s Almanac,” and I will know it’s 9:00, almost time to get down to business. He’ll run through some highlights of the day in history, briefly profile a writer or two, or some other famous or not-so-famous personage who was born on this day, read a poem, and conclude with his signature, “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.”

In my imagined life, my parallel universe, I will close my eyes as Garrison begins to read the poem—one that I probably wouldn’t even enjoy if I read it myself, but that, in his wheezy, Midwestern accented, everyman’s voice, is transformed into something poignant and unique and, somehow, beautiful beyond its ordinary words. I concentrate on the words, the images the poem calls forth, and allow myself to slip into my writer’s skin.

“The Writer’s Almanac” will be followed by three hours of classical music, the perfect, unobtrusive background for a morning of productive writing. And I will write! My fingers will fly over the keyboard; words will pour forth—good words, magical words. I will finish an essay, revise an article, begin a poem. I may work on my novel. By noon I will already have done a good day’s work, but I’ll be caught up in the writing, unwilling to leave it for long. So I’ll take a break, go for a walk, fix some lunch—but none of this will break my stride. In early afternoon I’ll be right back at it, the magic unbroken. The mail will bring a check from a major magazine, an acceptance from another, and, perhaps, a rejection or two, but nothing very unexpected, nothing paralyzing, nothing heartbreaking.

That is how I imagine my life.

This is something more like reality:

If it’s a day when I don’t have to go to work, I see the whole long day stretching ahead of me, and I think I’ve got plenty of time to do just a few things before I sit down to write. When I finally get to my computer, the classical music has already started and I haven’t even checked my email. I think maybe I won’t check it just yet, that I’ll resist the urge to go on line at all, that I’ll just open a blank document in Microsoft Word and start to write. I’ve only lost a few minutes of time so far; there’s still plenty of time to get that idea pinned down.

An hour later, I’m still staring at a blank screen. I’ve typed a sentence or two, revised it, deleted it, rewritten it, deleted it again. I know I should stop worrying about that first sentence, that requisite “attention-grabbing lead,” and just start writing. By the time I fall into the flow of the piece, that perfect first sentence will write itself, and I’ll go back and replace those uninspiring opening lines.

But that idea that seemed to hover at the edge of my peripheral vision all night apparently flew off with my dreams in the hard-edged morning light. I get up from the computer to stretch and remember the laundry in the washer, so I make the trek to the basement, put it in the dryer, start another load. I get a glass of water and sit back down. I’m hungry and realize that I forgot to eat breakfast, so even though it’s getting close to lunchtime, I go back out to the kitchen and make some toast. A light snow has started falling, and back in my writing room I think about coffee and wish I were a coffee-drinker. I think it would feel cozy to sit at the computer while snow falls outside my window, cradling my favorite mug in both hands and thinking about what to write. I picture a gray-haired children’s author with her “World’s Best Grandma” mug, or a haggard poet, bent over his keyboard, eyes ringed with dark smudges, hands shaking from the caffeine surging through his veins. I wonder if I can really be a writer if I don’t even drink coffee.

If, as Salinger says, “there is a marvelous peace in not publishing,” I suppose I should feel very much at peace. So why am I growing more agitated, like the insomniac who lies rigidly on his back, repeating to himself, “I’ve got to get some sleep”? I’d like, at least, an opportunity to know the difference between how it feels to publish and how it feels to not publish. I’d like to be able to make that choice for myself.

But the rest of Salinger’s quote, “I write just for myself and my own pleasure,” makes sense to me. Perhaps I’ve been going about this all wrong, trying to figure out what might sell and then write it, going around in circles, trying to come up with an idea that might capture some editor’s interest.

I return to my blank screen. I set a timer, place my hands lightly on the keyboard, and free-write for five minutes. I pull out a book of writing prompts and open it at random. My instructions are to think about the phrase, “What matters to me today…”—but not to think for too long—and to simply begin writing.

By noon I’m actually writing, and by mid-afternoon, I’ve made some headway on a new essay. It’s not the Great Idea that teased me all night, but it’s a start, a few hundred words that I can point to with some measure of satisfaction. It’s a start. It may turn into something.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Update: Why I Love My KitchenAid (But You May Not Love Yours)

Yesterday I wrote about making bread with my KitchenAid stand mixer, and I mentioned that my mixer, which is 23 years old, is still going strong after mixing an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 loaves of bread, not to mention plenty of cakes and cheesecakes, as well as innumerable batches of cookies (I made over 1,800 cookies for Christmas this year; suffice it to say that I bake a lot).

However, after receiving a comment from JWD (someone I don't even know, who apparently stumbled across my post only hours after I wrote it, while doing research on--imagine!--the merits of making bread with a bread machine vs. a KitchenAid stand mixer [I have to admit that I get excited all out of proportion to the event whenever someone I don't know finds my blog and leaves a comment, as if it might be the first step on the road to the kind of wild success enjoyed by Julie & Julia author Julie Powell...]), who found my post helpful in her process of deciding which appliance to buy, I felt that perhaps I should post again, this time on the topic of Why I Love My KitchenAid (But You May Not Love Yours).

As I mentioned yesterday, my KitchenAid stand mixer was a Christmas gift in 1986. (It was one of the two best inanimate gifts I ever received from my first husband [from whom I also got two wonderful children]. The other was a portable Kenmore sewing machine he gave me for Christmas in 1977, back when they were still made with almost exclusively metal parts. [It was the first year we were dating. I was 18, and my mother seemed concerned when I got it, thinking it was an inappropriately intimate gift.] If it weren't for the time a few years ago when I started to sew while Remy was sleeping under the table, startling him awake and causing him to leap up in a panic, becoming entangled in the electric cord, and yanking the machine off the table so it crashed to the floor, I'd still be using it today. The two newer used machines with which I've attempted to replace it have both been rather fragile and plasticky.)

My KitchenAid is the model that I think is now called the "Classic," with a 4.5-quart metal bowl and a 250-watt motor. It's a workhorse, but I can only mix two, or possibly three, loaves of bread at a time in it, so in 2005, when I decided to open a bakery, I knew I'd need something bigger. Much bigger.

I had been lusting after a used 12- to 20-quart Hobart dough mixer, but they were prohibitively expensive for my shoestring operation. Before I found the used 12-quart Univex pictured in yesterday's post, I bought a brand-new KitchenAid Professional 600, a totally cool-looking machine with a six-quart bowl, a 575-watt motor, and the bowl-lift (rather than the tilting-head) mechanism.

Here's how the KitchenAid website describes the Professional 600: "The overachiever of the stand mixer family, it has a Flour Power Rating of 14 cups. That means it can mix enough dough for 8 loaves of bread or 13 dozen cookies in a single bowl."

Excuse me, but this is bullshit. For one thing, 14 cups of flour makes about five loaves of bread. Maybe even six, if they're not too big. But eight loaves? No way.

However, I was still pretty happy with my Professional 600, because it easily mixed up big batches of cookie dough and cake batter, and four- or five-loaf batches of bread. And I had this really cool antique dough bucket that I used to mix most of my bread dough anyway.(I got it from our former neighbor, Aunt Bertha, when she was cleaning out her house, prior to moving out so the state could bulldoze it and reroute the road. I liked using it because it was such a simple, non-electric thing [such as one might find in the awesome Lehman's catalog--except that I just checked, and they don't have one], and because it made me think of Aunt Bertha, and because I developed some pretty impressive biceps muscles during those first few months in the bakery, turning the crank that turned the paddle that mixed the dough. [These are the directions on the lid of the bucket: Put in all liquids first, then flour. Turn 3 minutes. Raise in pail. After raising, turn until dough forms a ball. Take off cross-piece. Lift out dough with kneader. It doesn't get much simpler.])

But...only a month or two after I started using my Professional 600, as I was mixing a batch of dough of a perfectly reasonable size, it started making a funny noise and smelling very hot, and then it just quit. I called the KitchenAid people and they told me it was probably "just overheating" and I should leave it alone until it cooled and try again, but that didn't fix the problem. Every time I turned it on, it would run for a minute or two, smell funny, make a noise, and shut down.

I consulted my owner's manual for information on their "Hassle-Free Replacement Warranty"--after all, it was practically new. That's when I read this: KitchenAid Will Not Pay For: A) Repairs when Stand Mixer is used in other than normal single family home use.

Excuse me?! This mixer--this Professional 600 model--is covered under the warranty only if I don't use it professionally?? If that's the case, shouldn't it be called the "Home-baker 600," or the "Big-family 600" instead?

Having spent $350 for the darned thing only a couple of months previously, I was pretty unhappy. I was unhappy enough to decide to adopt a "don't ask, don't tell" policy with regard to my conversation with the KitchenAid warranty people. I think all I told them was that I had four kids and I made a lot of bread...which was true. They didn't ask if I had just opened a bakery in the front room of my house, and I didn't mention it, either.

They sent me a new mixer. And I loved it. I loved it for more than a year, which is to say, until after the warranty expired. (Not that I would have dared to try to get away with the "don't ask, don't tell" thing again, anyway. Probably.) And then it quit. After learning that it would cost me a bundle just to ship it to a repair center and have the problem diagnosed, to say nothing of what it might cost to fix it, I stowed it on a corner of the porch, where it rests to this day. Sigh.

I moved my old reliable Classic into the bakery and used it when I needed to make small batches of bread, cookies, and cakes. The Univex took care of everything else.

I thought probably I had just had an isolated case of bad luck with my two Professional 600 models, and, given my wonderful experience with the Classic, I was still prepared to defend KitchenAid's quality. Until, that is, in the process of writing yesterday's post, I spent entirely too much time doing on-line research about KitchenAid mixers, and what I found was pretty interesting.

It turns out that KitchenAid used to be a brand of the Hobart Corporation. Hobart invented the electric mixer 100 years ago, and their mixers are still the gold standard for the foodservice industry. (They make floor models with bowls of up to 140-quart capacity. It boggles the mind.)

However, Hobart sold the brand to Whirlpool Corporation in 1986. Remember that I said my KitchenAid Classic was a Christmas gift in 1986? It was apparently one of the last KitchenAids manufactured by Hobart, and I think that probably explains why I've been so happy with it.

I found several sites where people could rate and review their KitchenAid mixers, and, while the reviews were generally positive, each site had a smattering (maybe 10%) of very negative reviews. Since, in my experience, the majority of people who have fancy kitchens and high-end appliances don't actually use them all that much, I'm guessing that the negative reviews are probably coming from frequent bakers like me (who are the only ones really putting their mixers to the test).

One Amazon reviewer wrote: "No, KitchenAid is not top-of-the-line anymore. They aren't as high quality as they used to be, they are noiser than earlier models, and have only a third the life expectancy of the old ones." Ouch.

Another reviewer pointed out sadly that "the reputation comes from the days when it was a brand name of the Hobart Corporation, through 1986...KitchenAid mixers no longer have any Hobart DNA in them; they are Whirlpool through and through."

So, be warned: if you buy a KitchenAid mixer today, you won't be getting the same machine I got for Christmas 23 years ago.

That leaves me to worry about what I'll do when my 1986 model finally does bite the dust. I guess I should be keeping an eye on eBay to see if anyone is selling a gently-used, quarter-century-old KitchenAid Classic. (Or a late-70s-vintage Kenmore zigzag sewing machine with all metal parts.)