Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Commoner Goes to Reno

You’ve may have read by now that Therese comes from New York-not Buffalo, or Rochester, or Binghamton or Albany-Long Island New York.  There lives a big Italian family who she misses very much and will hop on a plane for no reason just to visit them.  So when one of them head west anywhere in California or Northern Nevada-she’s there and she will see them.  So when her cousin Gina announced that she was going on a comped trip to Harrah’s in Reno Therese and Rob hopped in a car and were there.  It helped that Harrah’s arranged for a second comp room and the ‘luxurious’ accommodations were free.

Now Reno.  Have you been to Reno lately?  Well when we got there and found Gina she suggested we go for a walk along whatever the main road is.  It isn’t a strip-I’m not sure what it is.  It’s the road. ..Kind of like that book and movie…in fact we may have been a post apocalyptic set of a movie waiting for the zombies to attack.  But Gina saw a sign for the biggest margarita in Nevada and that’s where we were going.  

Since the walk to Circus Circus to hunt down this drink was one we made quickly.  First of all we wanted this state champion drink-second of all it’s pretty creepy here.  So we made it to the casino where we noticed a man bent over by the curb.  “Hey what’s that guy doing?”  What was that guy doing? He was getting sick right there on the sidewalk.

We muscled our way through Circus Circus which reminded me of Chuck E. Cheese on Steroids to find the stand where they sold the biggest drink in Nevada.  Not just Reno mind you-the whole state.  Gina owns a bar and as the expert decided our best bet was Hawaiian Punch and Rum.  I don’t remember how much rum but I Do remember it was going to contain 64 ounces of Hawaiian Punch.  Now I am on day 7 of the 17 day diet and I’m pretty sure gallons of Hawaiian Punch are not part of the plan-that’s okay I’ll drink lots of water.

Our drinks came with a harness and a super long straw-so we strapped it on and we ventured back out onto the streets trying to avoid the walking dead.  Now I’m not much of a gambler-I can play the slots but other than that I’m quite intimidated by anything involving a table-but this is Reno-there are no intimidating gamblers and I had my cousin Gina here to show me the ropes.  So when we sat down at a 5 dollar Black Jack Table I said “teach me to play!”  And the fun began.

The dealer was very nice and told us her name was Liz and asked us about us and where we were from.  I think we both said New York and it came up that we were Italians married to Irishmen and that Gina owned a bar.  Liz told us that the name of the two guys playing at the end of the table and said her and the guy at the end were related because they were both named Ferguson.  Everyone was very patient as I learned that you can’t take out your cell phone, or takes pictures, or breathes, and when I should or shouldn’t hit etc.  The four of us were there for a long time with different fifth people jumping in and out of the games.

We kept on playing.  Gina kept refilling her giant rum and punch with drinks from the cocktail waitress-literally she would pour it right back into her harnessed drink holder.  I was at this point drinking bottled water.  First of all I had done pretty well with that drink but I was on the 17 day diet after all.  Besides, I sort of kept dropping things by mistake into my giant drink so I was done.  We swapped stories with our table mates and bopped along with 80s music being played in the casino.  

Well we were all having a great time when suddenly a song at least familiar to me came over the loudspeaker. Rock your Body by the Black Eyed Peas.    This song was from this decade (maybe the 00s but regardless it was younger than the other songs by far) to me this was a welcome relief.  I’m a top 40 fan-I listen to it to work out.  Gina pretty much is a classic rock girl.  After all she owns a biker bar.  Liz the dealer said “would you play this song in your bar?”  Gina replies in her Gina like way “I would never play this crap in my bar-this sucks”  Now the guy at the end of the bar who had been pleasant enough and wasn’t a freak-but just a guy with a baseball cap, an Hawaiian shirt and some cargo shorts, speaks up and says “I’m Fergie’s Dad.”

Well –if you know this common girl you know one thing about me….I am relentless-and Gina is me times 10.  We just laid into this guy-right Fergie’s dad is playing the 5 dollar table in Reno.  Then we drilled him with questions about Fergie and laughed and laughed we never for a minute bought it and we never stopped.  At one point his friend turned to me and said “He really is Fergie’s dad.” And we laughed and laughed and mocked this guy some more.  

  There was something however, about the way Fergie’s dad looked, the sad look on his face when he got up that made me think ‘uh-oh”.  Whatever -the fun continued with other table mates and other dealers for hours after that.  But there was something about that guy and the look on his face that kind of made me think hmmm..But come on –Reno?  5 dollar black jack?  No way.

Well the night ended and we woke up the next day-had the fabulous breakfast buffet and hit the road for the five hour ride home.  But of course- I couldn’t stop thinking in the back of my mind that that guy might have indeed been Fergie’s dad.  So I hit my friend Google and alas was shocked to find out…he was indeed.  Commoners and celebrity family members should not mix in commoner territory.  That is the lesson to be learned.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Commoner's Guide to Canning

A Commoners Guide to Canning
Living where we do, we are so lucky to have wonderful fruits and vegetables available all year long, but they are especially terrific in the summer.  In fact, one of my good friends runs a family farm, Fairhaven Orchards, where I get the most delicious apricots year round.  I always enjoy the tasty treats when they are ripe off the tree, the dried apricots are also a tasty, and healthy, snack year round.  Today, however, these commoners decided to make apricot jam so we could enjoy the fruit year round.  And who doesn’t love sugar with their fruit?
Being commoners we bought a book on how to can.  Oh, did I mention that not one of the three of us has ever canned a thing in our lives?  Whatever, it sounded like a great idea at the time.  How hard could it be?  Seriously, pioneer women have been doing this for generations before us.
Boy, were we in for a surprise.  We actually began with strawberry jam.  When I went to Fairhaven Orchards to pick up my tasty apricots, Nicole, my supplier, asked if we were planning to do strawberry jam as well.  “Ok, how hard could it be?,” so she hooked us up with a flat of strawberries as well as 19 pounds of apricots.  That in addition to the 4 gallon bags of freshly picked blackberries out to be just about right!
“Looks like a lot of fruit”, says my friend Glen.  We take a vote and decide to begin with strawberry jam.  They seem to be at the peak of ripeness.  So Glen is juicing lemons, and keeping the rinds and innards in a cheese cloth baggie, to add to the jam.  Jan is getting the pots and pans, jars and lids all organized.  I can’t wait to get started so I start taking the stems and leaves off the top of the berries.  Whack, whack, whack…half the fruit gets cut away with the leaves, but whatever…it’s all about the sugar anyway, right?  The fruit seems to be just for color.  While cutting the third strawberry to shreds I cut my thumb with my super sharp Pampered Chef $1.50 paring knife.  I LOVE that knife.  It, apparently, did not love me back.  So I get to spend the next 2 days with a huge bandage covering my wound.  My friends, however, think I’m faking the injury so I can get out of cutting, and rather can sit in a chair and delegate the work to them…they don’t call me the Queen of Delegation for nothing!  When they see blood they actually look worried for just a second.
After we cut 8 cups of fruit, Jan reads the directions again and says, “Oh, we need to take the stems out of the insides of the strawberries too AND cut them into halves if they’re biggish.”  Well, I’d say they’re big; about the size of the apricots actually.  So we cut them into fourths.   Couldn’t hurt right??
Well, finally it’s time to cook the jam.  Now Glen, being part hippie, decides she does not want to add anything extra to the jam…so NO PECTIN.  NO PECTIN I ask?  NO PECTIN.  Who needs it??  Well, I, uh, GUESS we could try it without pectin…but I’m really looking forward to the jam promised on the pectin box, “delicious recipes with easy-to-follow directions”.  Oh well, I’m out voted.  And who knew you’d need a box of pectin for every 4 cups of fruit…this stuff is expensive.  Since I’m cheap I agree to go along with the “no pectin” decision without incident.
So, we’re heating, stirring, cooking, making it boil but not bubble too much…it’s all very technical stuff.  And remember, NO ONE knows how to make jam.  In fact Jan’s mom asked, “Which of you is the canner?” to which Jan replied, “None of us”.  Her mom giggled and called us “Little Martha Stewarts”.  How cute.  When I told MY MOM we were making jam, she called us, and I quote, “NUTSO”.
Anyway, back to the jam.  So the directions say, “Stir until a drop of jam mounds on a chilled plate.”  Oh, crap…did anyone read ahead and chill a plate?  Of course not!  Quick!!!  Throw one in the freezer.  And how long is that going to be anyway…3 minutes, 13 minutes, an hour?  We don’t know…we’re not jammers!!!  We’re commoners, afterall.
Not wanting to burn the fruit, about 7 minutes into the process, we put the teeniest drop onto a somewhat cooler plate.  It’s barely below room temp, does it matter?  How do we know?  We’re COMMONERS not canners!
Three grown adults, with Masters’ Degrees, gather around that tiny chilled plate to see if it’s mounding.  It’s really hard to tell!  “Nope, not yet!”, says Glen, who has mostly taken the lead on jam making.  In fact, she had even read  the intro to the jam making book AND highlighted important facts like the difference between jam, jelly and preserves.  All very interesting, but not the least bit helpful in regards to jam making.
So, after about 13 minutes we repeat the mound on a chilled plate routine and we think we see a mound, or maybe it’s an air bubble.  Oh well, we stick our fingers in the hot jam and it’s delectable although quite watery.  So we quickly decide, for no reason and with no facts backing us up that is must be done!  We take it off the burner and quickly pour it into half pint jars.  By the way, why do they call it canning if we’re using jars not cans?  Anyway…it’s very technical.  As the book said in the intro, “It’s not rocket science, but it IS science.”  Oh crap, not my best subject!
So we pour, wipe the rims, argue about  what one fourth of an inch really looks like-I’m about to get my measuring tape to prove I’m right, but hey, this is just some friendly jam making, I’m cool with whatever Jan and Glen want to do.  So, we have to pour the jam into hot jars, put on hot lids straight out of boiling water, screw the lids on and then flip the jars upside down.  All the while not burning ourselves or dropping a drop of this yummy concoction.  Not an easy job for the commoner!  We laugh and chuckle through our mistakes and pat ourselves on the back for all the new stuff we’re learning.  About thirty minutes later when all the jar lids start popping we are pretty sure we’re the best jam makers ever.  But then…we turn them right side up.  Uh oh.  Um, do you think these are going to harden up at all, I ask??  They’re pretty runny;  like syrup in fact!  All of a sudden, we’re not so confident in our jam making skills.  But hey, we’re commoners and we’re tired of standing over a hot stove.  So, we take a break and go to the movies.  We’ve had enough science for one night.
Saturday morning we wake up at the crack of dawn to begin on the blackberry jam.  We’ve already determined that we’ll just label the strawberry as “syrup” and call it a lesson learned.  Jan has done some research last night.  She watched “Grandma Sheila” on utube and learned that it’s important to cook the sugary sweet stuff about 30 minutes to get it to the right consistency.  Grandma Sheila doesn’t mention the chilled plate method, but we do that anyway.  Couldn’t hurt!  While I am using my food mill to get the seeds out of the blackberries, Grandma Sheila drones on in the background.  We’re watching her video or rather trying to watch her video.  Everyone’s a little peeved that my computer is so slow though, and the 10 minute videos take about twice as long to stream.  Well hell, I’m on a budget!
Anyway, we get into a bit of a screaming match because Glen thinks we should maybe use half a box of pectin with the blackberries.  Uh, NO WAY, I say.  We either use the whole box or none…we know nothing about canning so why are we going to screw with the recipe.  Well, says Glen, we did follow the recipe yesterday and were not successful.  I argue that we either follow it or find another one to follow.  They can’t all be bad…maybe it’s us clueless commoners trying to make jam. 
Yikes!  Someone needs a chill pill.  Kind of like that sales lady at Tyler Florence’s store in Napa…but that’s another story.
So, we kiss and make up, sort of, and decide to just follow Grandma Sheila’s recipe.  Although, I may have failed to mention Grandma Sheila was making strawberry jam, NOT blackberry jam.  How hard could it be?  They’re all berries, right?
Well, we did follow the directions, until we got to the end of the cooking time and it still looked like the runny strawberry jam.  We took a vote and decided to cook it 3 minutes longer, or maybe 6, I forget.  Well boy oh boy!  That was some tasty blackberry jam.  Too bad it had the consistency of peanut butter.  Seriously we turned the jars over and the jam didn’t budge…not an ooze, not a drop.
Luckily our jam session was sort of like the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”.  The first jam was too runny, the second batch of jam was too thick, but boy oh boy did we hit the nail on the head with the apricot jam.  It came out PERFECT.  It was delicious and it actually looked like jam.
So 24 hours, and 76 jars of jam later, we were done with our adventure.  Not surprisingly, most of our family and friends have asked for a jar of apricot jam.  OF COURSE!  It’s the best looking one.  I however, am a fan of the strawberry.  I just make sure to keep my toast level and not put on so much jam that it oozes off before I can slop it up.
After all this back breaking work, not to mention tired feet and cut fingers, I have to ask myself…what’s wrong with Smuckers?  It’s delicious and at $3.99 a jar, sounds like quite a bargain.   Too common for even these commoners though!  We are now officially jam makers!   And our arms do actually hurt from all the pats on the backs we’ve given ourselves.  If we can can jam, so can YOU!!
Good luck!

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Commoner Goes to a Baseball Game

Occasionally commoners venture out with other commoners.  Occasionally we will go to places where big events like baseball games happen.  I’m a big baseball fan and every year I go to the Giants game to see them play the NY Mets.  I’m a former New Yorker who grew up loving the Mets and now cheer for the Giants.  They like me were sent to live in California-we are kindred spirits and they are a great ball team.

Now ATT Park is not common by any sense of the imagination.  It is outstanding in every way.  The views, the food, the way the park is built into the city so you can’t see it, the food, the view, oh wait right.  The fans are a lot of fun too-no one curses or throws things, they are too busy eating sushi with chop sticks.  But if you don’t know someone (commoners never seem to know anyone) or have a guy (we never have guys either) you are designated to buying your tickets on the open market-you know the internet.  What that means is that your seats are going to be pretty much-well- in the sky somewhere.  But that’s okay because the Giants organization has done a great job of convincing commoners that these are the best seats because you have a great view of the Bay Bridge.  Hey-works for me- I love pictures of bridges.

We always make a weekend out of this event and stay in the city.  Yes New Yorkers, we also refer to San Francisco as the city.  We stay in a Hilton (living the high life for a commoner) and walk to the stadium.  My husband Rob was born and raised in a major European city and I’m a native New Yorker.  But Rob refuses to cross any street if the sign doesn’t say walk.  This means it takes a long time to get through this city-but we got there.  We even had time for a snack on whatever that road is that faces the stadium.
As we sat eating our sandwiches- me with a Panini and Rob with something not a Panini-I looked out the window like a commoner in awe-and noticed that the you could see the top of the stadium where ‘other people’ sit and see that it overlooked the street.  Brilliant I’ve thought you can’t even really tell it’s there.  Who would sit up there anyway?

So we entered the park, and took some pictures with the Willie Mays statue and strolled a lap inside the park.  We looked at the 75 dollar sweatshirts and 30 dollar t-shirts.  I was wearing a jersey already but Rob refused to commit to either team, wearing a Yankee cap instead- now he wanted a cap and he wanted to pay 10 dollars.  That didn’t happen.  Rob would later learn he would be sorry.  

We walked our lap and watched the Mets warm up and kind of got lost.  Now I know our seats are high up, after all, they were cheaper and who doesn’t want that great view right? It’s all about the view.  So I ask an usher who was guarding the seats that lead to the dugout,”How do I get to section 307?”  He looked at us, raised an eyebrow and said “307 huh? You don’t come to the park often do you?”  My answer was-“Oh yes we come all the time.”  Yes I outright lied.   He sneered and grinned like Cruella Deville ready for the dogs and said “Go out that way, out the door and start climbing those steps.”   Oh-those steps? No escalator huh?  Look around San Fran someday-no one is heavy.  These people climb hills as a mode of transportation

Ok no problem and we turned on our heels and started climbing-like mountain climbers we kept going until we got to the 300s and we entered the section.  Okay more steps no problem and we started counting up the rows.  Well we noticed we were running out of numbers-18 isn’t a big number is it?   Well there we were-the very top of the stadium.  I mean it-the top-there was nothing behind us and the pavement below but a chain link fence and some tarp.  When you turn and looked down there was nothing but sidewalk and the restaurant where we ate.  But this is the Giants!  World Champions!  They sell out EVERY game and we were lucky just to be there.

The wind blew, the tarp whipped at our backs, we froze and froze and I warned everyone that came up –don’t look down.  The game started, it was magic-a night at the ballgame and we were there.  Rob was on my left and blocked the wind but it had to be 30 degrees up there.  There were also bouts of altitude sickness –consisting of dizziness, loss of memory and the occasional nose bleed.  But oh the view.
What you learn about baseball fans and about commoners is that a ticket doesn’t really mean you have a designated seat and after the first few innings, all of the fellow commoners we had made friends with somehow disappeared.   You have to know these weren’t just game mates they were wind blockers and they all left.  Talking Rob into living on the edge and nabbing a ‘good ‘seat is next to impossible –so it was only when ALL the commoners had vacated that he agreed to move down-1 row.  Being a commoner and a rule follower is a tough mix.

The game ended-the Giants lost-but hey the Mets won-and the commoners began their trek down the stadium-complete with harness to protect us from falling from the sky.   And because we were walking in a pack of commoners walking through the city- Rob didn’t hesitate to walk when the sign said don’t.  With a little effort and some help from your local REI for Mountain climbing gear-America’s Pastime with America’s (sorry the world’s) best team is still available for a commoner.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Ghana and The Chef's Market

In Napa they don't call them farmer’s  markets like the commoners, they  call them chef’s markets. We went there thinking we would see wines on display,  foods to sample and Tyler Florence doing a demonstration of his cooking skills. But don't ask Therese’s  daughter about anything in Napa or regarding Napa or wine or the chef’s market or Hawaii because she's only lived in Napa two weeks.

So we strolled up and down the streets of downtown Napa looking at things like an iguana,  a fairy singing karaoke ,  Christian booths everywhere,  a rock climbing child and some crepes (and some creeps).  We waited for the chef demonstration.  Waiting patiently  for Tyler when some guy with a Brittney Spears microphone and wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt started chopping up asparagus which were passes around in pill cups for us to try.  Free samples at Costco are always more substantial so the commoners left.

Continuing our stroll through the farmer’s- I mean chef’s market we stopped to watch two women crying and hugging endlessly on the curb.  We all watched in amazement and this heartfelt crying spectacle. Rosa the culturally sensitive ’ahem’ member of our group noticed a stand right next to these women.  This was not just any stand but a stand selling blankets bowls and baskets from Africa

Baskets from Africa you say? Big deal.  Not to  Therese third grade teacher- this matched a story she read every year  with her class about a blanket from Ghana. “Tell me about the blanket,”  she said to the man.  “Is it from Ghana?”  “ Oh no, ”  said the man, “This is from (insert other western African country this commoner never heard of).”  “ Oh”  Therese said as she told the man about the story.  “Oh you mean Ghana!”  the man said, “Yes I have a blanket from Ghana!”   as he pointed to all the rest of the blankets in the stand. 

While Therese bargained with Samba not Simba, Rosa observed the criers and Kristen and lesli found a wood bowl just like the one in Tyler Florence’s store except this one had the commoners price of 55 dollars not 450 dollars. The wood may be different but commoners don't care it's just for popcorn anyway

He then told how they were made and what they meant he told me all about the blankets from Ghana and some basketball players who played for the Warriors.  For the low price of 32 dollars. No easy pay. Samba not Simba sold a blanket,  told her a story,  took a picture and she left with the blanket from  "Ghana".  The third graders are going to love this.

So we continued to our hotel tomorrow would be Rosa’s birthday and as we would find out it wasn't just Rosa's birthday. But that's another story

Monday, July 4, 2011

Clos du Val

First stop-technically not but whatever. It's always nice when you're friend drives you to wineries on her  birthday. So we rode in a trail blazer on the Silverado trail and stopped at a winery with a French flag which at first we thought was Italian. Blue,  green,  whatever- who cares they both make wine

We should have known when the roses that lined the vineyards had no smell that we should have kept going. After all in the common world roses should smell like roses these smelled like nothing which is exactly what the wine tasting host taught us.

The big door was beautiful and heavy- the wood panel room enticed us and boy were we suckered in. Props to the nice couple from
Ohio who made room for us at the bar but of course they were happy their host told them stories and gave them detailed information about  their wine and what they could pair it with

We on the other hand read to the descriptions of the wines to ourselves and wondered why there was toast in the wine while the hostess  looked over the rim of her black plastic glasses and said nothing to us.

When it was Lesli’s  turn to read about the third pairing which included mocha fruit and toast Kristen yelled out sounds like breakfast in the common world.  We all chuckled while Kristen hand under chin in a higher polite tone asked “ Excuse me I don't know much about wine but what is toast?”  - as we all thought to ourselves wheat white or sourdough  She rolled her eyes at us looked up over glasses sighed and said something about burning the inside of the barrel bla blah blah we heard.

The silence kept growing,  the couple from Ohio kept enjoying themselves,  sharing a map with  their host.   Kristen noticed our host diligently writing something on the
cork from our bottle.  Free souvenir we thought, silly us.
 Kristen says, “Are you signing that cork for us?”   The host sarcastically chuckled and  said “Oh no I'm just doodling to pass the time.”  Kristen still hopeful that that this would be a free souveneir realized those hopes would be dashed as the hostess smirked and threw the cork into the the garbage  At this point we were sure there was  a commoner alert system at work in establishments throughout the Napa Valley.

It was time to pay and we whipped out our respective credit cards and cash to pay the whopping sum of fifteen dollars each. Therese always the collector of credit card points and frequent flier mileage whipped out her Zinc American Express  card which she never bothered to design meaning it's white not really white more blankish in common terms. Our personable hosts suddenly came alive. Why what does a white card mean I've seen black,  I've seen platinum but I've never seen white. You could see the wheels turning as she realized these customers might not be common they might be. Wait for it rich.

A ten minute conversation ensued about the status of Therese’s  American Express card and her life on the D list while Lesli  always the kinder more considerate member of our group counted out a five dollar tip.

As we said goodbye we were certain the saleswoman from Tyler Florence’s store would call ahead to the next winery that our Trailblazer would visit and warn them about the commoners tearing through Napa Valley - But that's Another story.