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.)

Saturday, January 2, 2010

It's On: The Bread Machine vs. The KitchenAid Stand Mixer

(I drew this myself! Which probably explains why I've switched creative outlets, from drawing and painting to writing and baking.)

After a recent Facebook discussion about the relative merits of making homemade bread with a bread machine vs. a KitchenAid stand mixer, I--a firm advocate of the KitchenAid mixer method--became curious about exactly how much hands-on time it requires to make a loaf of bread in one.

The Timed Experiment

I started making a two-loaf batch of oatmeal bread at 1:40 this afternoon, and took it out of the oven at 3:55. That's two hours and 15 minutes (which is actually less time than I expected; I always tell people that making homemade bread takes "three or four hours," but maybe I'm just trying to add to the home bread-baker's reputation and mystique, and garner the awe and respect of non-bread-bakers [kind of like that Rice Krispies Treats commercial where the mom throws flour on herself before emerging from the kitchen to make her family believe that making RKTs is a Really Big Deal]), BUT while I was making it, I kept track of all the actual hands-on time it required, and you may be surprised at the total: 14 minutes. That's right, 14 minutes. And I ended up with two loaves of bread, not one. And this oatmeal bread recipe is one that requires cooking the oatmeal and letting it cool before mixing the bread; using my other oatmeal bread recipe, in which I throw the oats into the bowl with the flour, would probably have saved me two whole minutes.

Here's how it broke down:

Put water on to boil; add oats, salt, and butter (actually, the recipe only calls for a tablespoon of butter and I usually substitute canola oil in case I end up freezing one loaf and taking it out when Vegan Daughter happens to visit) and stir--2 minutes. (While it was cooking, then cooling, I washed some dishes and cleaned the kitchen a little, so that time doesn't count; I was going to have to wash those dishes eventually anyway, and they had nothing to do with the bread-making.)

Mix yeast, warm water, and a little sugar in my KitchenAid bowl--1 minute. (Back to cleaning the kitchen for five minutes while it proofed.)

Add the oat mixture, brown sugar, molasses, and flour to the bowl while mixing; turn out on the counter and knead for a few seconds by hand (I think this step is totally unnecessary. I just do it so I can feel At One With The Bread; it's a holdover from the days when I kneaded all my bread by hand and considered it something akin to a religious experience); put in a greased bowl and set someplace warm to rise--6 minutes. (Yes, that's all. When I used to knead by hand, I never kneaded for less than 10 minutes, but the mixer is more efficient and five minutes will do it.)

After about 40 minutes, punch dough down, divide in half, and place in greased pans--2 minutes. (I used the rising time to tear the house apart looking for the pencil drawing I did of my KitchenAid mixer seven years ago when I was taking a drawing class, and to scan it so I could use it here.)

After about 25 more minutes, turn on the oven to preheat--1 minute. (It doesn't take that long, of course, but I had to walk from the computer to the kitchen and back.)

After about 10 minutes, put the loaves in the oven--1 minute.

After 30 minutes, take them out--1 minute.

So that's it--14 minutes of hands-on time for two loaves of "real" bread.

You can buy a cheap bread machine for around $50 or $60 now, and a fairly good one (I'm making an assumption about quality here--it's a Cuisinart, so it should be fairly good, right?) for a little over $100. Or, if you want to, you can spend over $200 for something called a Zojirushi Home Baker that makes a 2-pound loaf and brags that it can also be used to make several other things, among them quick breads, cake, and jam. (Seriously, jam? In a bread machine?)

A quick, unscientific review of information about bread machines available on line seems to indicate that they only last a couple of years with regular use. I got my KitchenAid mixer for Christmas in 1986 and it's still going strong after what I calculate to be somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 loaves of bread. That number doesn't include the estimated 5,000 loaves I made during the two years when I ran the bakery, because I mixed those in this awesome 12-quart mixer, which still lives in a corner of the former bakery kitchen, and which I refuse to part with because it's handy when I get the urge to make 6 or 8 loaves of bread at a time (something that happens more often than you might think).

I don't want a bread machine, partly because of the cost, but mostly because I don't have room in my kitchen to house an appliance that, let's be honest here, only does one thing well. (I would love to know just what percentage of Zojirushi Home Baker owners have actually used the thing to make jam.) A KitchenAid stand mixer takes up about the same amount of counterspace, and I use mine just about every time I bake--for bread, cakes, cookie dough--and I bake a lot. (Way too much. Way, way too much. Weigh, weigh, weigh too much.)

Also, should you be so inclined (surprisingly, I never have been, but someday I might), you can buy attachments for your KitchenAid that will enable you to do some pretty diverse things with food: slice, shred, and grind everything from veggies to meat; stuff sausage; mix, roll, and cut pasta (even ravioli!); juice citrus fruits; make ice cream; and open cans. (Yes, a $50 can-opener attachment is one of the optional accessories listed on the KitchenAid site. Who knew?)

C'mon, bread me what you got. Yeah...I didn't think so.