Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Design Tragedy or Design Opportunity? Even Better Than the First Time, Baby!

If you missed my earlier posts about this project I'm working on for a client who had a house fire, you can catch up here.  This client has such an amazing attitude about the disaster -- instead of moping about everything that was lost, she's made up her mind to rebuild and redecorate, not just in hopes of making things look the way they were before the fire, but taking advantage of the opportunity to change things about the home that she had resigned herself to before the fire, and the rise up from the ashes -- literally! -- even better than before.

So her walk-in closet will be enlarged, appliances and cabinetry in both kitchens will be upgraded, an elevator may be added to facilitate visits from the clients' elderly parents, and lighting will be added and/or upgraded in several areas.  I brought my client in to Fine Art Lamps' High Point Market showroom a few days ago for a private showing of the line, and we both fell in love with this enormous oversized pendant fixture from the Mid-Century Inspirations collection to hang over the pool table in her Game Room.  Pictures do not do this line justice at all.  The fixtures are all made-to-order in the U.S. and the company is wonderful about accommodating designers' customization requests whenever feasible, but beware -- the pricing is not for the faint-of-heart.  The photo above is from the manufacturer's web site, and I took the photo below myself in the showroom the other day.  The finishes are all hand applied, and this piece combines two gorgeous art glass styles.  The larger pieces of glass are smooth on the outside and textured on the inside, with a mesmerizing metallic shimmer that perfectly echoes the wrapped metallic bead trim from Kravet that we used (and are using again) on the black silk velvet drapery panels and the little door valance.

 Here's what the almost-completed room looked like before it was destroyed in the fire.  Virtually everything in this room has been written off as a loss.  I'm going to be campaigning hard to paint the vaulted ceilings a darker color this time, especially now that we're considering this dramatic, sculptural light fixture. 

As Porky Pig would say, "That's all for now, folks!"  :-)

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Children's Book: Why did I Force Myself to Finish Reading This?

The Children's BookThe Children's Book by A.S. Byatt

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I must have heard a positive review of this book on NPR or something, because I had it on my Amazon wish list and had completely forgotten about it by the time my husband bought it for me.  I started reading The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt at the beach last month, and have been reading it off and on.  In the beginning, I was enjoying the historical background of the Art Nouveau movement and European Socialism, but I was annoyed by all of the incest, sexual abuse, and spouse-sharing in the novel.  At times I felt like it was the Jerry Springer show, set in the early Edwardian era. Which is a shame, because the writing is beautiful, and there doesn't seem to be any literary/artistic merit to this particular variety of smuttiness.  By comparison, when an author like Margaret Atwood includes disturbing sexual material in a novel, she does it with purpose, to draw an attention to an evil that exists in the world and inspire readers to rebel against it, and to explore the far-reaching effects of those evils.  In this novel, however, the sordid smut adds little other than to say "bad things happened back then, too," and it detracts from the substance of the novel.

I finally finished reading this book yesterday. Reading the acknowledgements at the end helped me figure out what exactly I disliked most about this book. The author was too ambitious, trying to cram all of her research into this novel about the history of various radical and pre-revolutionary groups, the history of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the history of Art Nouveau and decorative pottery, the history of women in medicine and the battle for women's suffrage, the history of trench warfare in the first World War...  I'm all in favor of well-researched historical fiction, but in order to be successful, the history needs to be woven seamlessly into the fabric of the story. In The Children's Book, I felt that Byatt switched back and forth quite abruptly between the story line and the historical background, stalling the momentum of the plot.  It was kind of like a TV miniseries where the drama is continually interrupted by an annoying announcer's voice saying, "And now, a word from our sponsors..." I think some of the excessive, unnecessary (to the novel) historical information should have been edited out to allow room for more character development.  Perhaps Byatt could then have written a second book, a straight cultural and political history of the era she explored in her novel.

View all my reviews

Monday, September 20, 2010

In the Battle of Family-Friendly Theatre, Annie Takes On Mary Poppins

Due to one of my husband's last-minute business trips, I had to scramble to exchange our opening night tickets to the touring performance of Disney's Mary Poppins, and the only performance for which somewhat comparable tickets were still available was for one of the final performances this past Friday night.  No one is going to be surprised to find out that I am a ticket snob, but especially since this was my first time taking the boys to a big, Broadway-style musical, I wanted to make it an extra-special experience for them.  This past weekend's performances were added to the original schedule for Charlotte, so I was able to get us seats in the second row of the Grand Tier circle.  However, I had also previously purchased tickets for Theatre Charlotte's performance of Annie for this Saturday night, so our family got an unintended double dose of back-to-back musical theatre this weekend, both classic family shows, but in two very different venues, and the difference between the Disney Mary Poppins budget and the community theatre's budget for their Annie production was like the difference between the defense budgets of the United States of America and Madagascar.

I have to tell you, I was disappointed by the Mary Poppins production.  With the vast resources of Disney at their disposal, along with a hefty box office take (my tickets cost $85 each, even for the kids) and a professional cast and crew, you would think that Mary Poppins would have been a far better show.  However, I felt commercially ambushed in that theatre, steamrolled with gimmicks and special effects that would have been more impressive had they contributed meaningfully to a production with genuine artistic merit.  The show's producers seemed unable to decide whether they were trying to rehash the hit 1964 Disney film, present something more faithful to P. L. Travers' original Mary Poppins books, or go Cirque de Soleil.  Major characters such as Burt, the Banks' household maid, and Mary Poppins herself were stale caricatures of the two-dimensional characters from the original Disney film, like photocopies of photocopies.  No one is going to do Julie Andrews better than Julie Adrews, or Dick Van Dyke better than Dick Van Dyke, so I would have preferred to see more original casting and interpretation in these roles.  Caroline Sheen's Mary Poppins came across a bit too harsh and self-absorbed, so that we really needed the "Holy Terror," Miss Andrews (she's the Evil Nanny who comes in and terrorizes the Banks family briefly when Mary goes MIA) as a contrast to show us what a great nanny Mary really is.  Choreographer Matthew Bourne's dance numbers are fabulous; just a bit confusing and out of place.  I'm as much in favor of well-muscled male ballet dancers in spandex as the next gal, but the statues that came to life in the park were more creepy than exciting, and Burt's dancing up the walls and ceiling was a gimicky, cheap thrill, not what I expect from a big-budget show.  If you missed Mary Poppins here in Charlotte, don't feel too bad -- you didn't miss anything you haven't seen a hundred times before.

Annie (Hannah Gundersheim) and Oliver Warbucks (Steve Bryan)
So on Saturday evening, we headed to a tiny little theatre in a converted house on Queens Road in Myers Park, where the all-volunteer cast and crew of Theatre Charlotte, our community theatre group, weaves magic out of next to nothing like Rumplestiltskin spins straw into gold. 

Ticket prices for Annie were $24 each, and that got us great seats in the second row.  The amateur performers (and by amateur I mean only that they were unpaid -- the cast was truly professional in every other sense) were accompanied by recorded instrumentals rather than by a live orchestra, and the sets and costumes were obviously a low or no-budget affair.  Yet the energy at Theatre Charlotte was electric, from the moment we entered the lobby until the last curtain call.  The child actors were fantastic, especially the little girl who plays Molly and Hannah Gundersheim as Annie.  Set Designer Chris Timmons and Costumer Jamie Varnadore did a fantastic job transporting us all to the Depression era.  I especially enjoyed the projected skyscrapers on the walls of the theatre, surrounding the audience and making us all feel that we were right in the thick of a bustling Manhattan thoroughfare for the "NYC" number. 

So, for all you Charlotteans out there, whether you have young children or not, I highly recommend that you make it a priority to see Annie before the show closes at the end of September, as well as any of the other upcoming Theatre Charlotte performances this season.  Even if you don't live in the Charlotte area, there's probably a community theatre in your neck of the woods, too.  Check them out!  It's a great way to support the arts at the grass roots level, and an affordable opportunity to enjoy live theatre. 

By the way, all you designers and drapery workrooms -- you know all those fabric scraps you've been hoarding that are too beautiful to throw away, but you really don't have any use for them?  Consider donating them to your local community theatre group!  If you have donations of gently worn vintage evening wear, suits, hats, gloves, sewing supplies, or fabrics that could be repurposed for costumes, contact Jamey Varnadore at (704) 840-5218, or send him an email to

Thursday, September 16, 2010

New Paintings from Santa Fe Artist Michael Kessler

I love the new paintings contemporary artist Michael Kessler has been working on, including this one that was recently installed in a gallery in Hawaii. Kessler's work is a fine example of the complexity and emotional richness that can be achieved through abstract art. The greens he's working with have captivated me -- there's something familiar about this color, like a faraway memory I just can't put my finger on. This painting in particular reminds me of fractured memories in the subconscious, dream sequences that you're trying to put back in order. I wish I could see this in person!

To see more of Kessler's latest works, check out his blog here. The exhibit in Hawaii opens on December 18th.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Virtual Design Fix: Studio to the Rescue!

As a designer, I learn so much from studying the work of other designers.  I scour industry and shelter magazines, attend classes and seminars, and of course the internet is a wonderful tool for keeping tabs on what's new and wonderful in the world of interiors.  However, I confess that I also take a little guilty pleasure now and then by checking out the hilarious examples of what NOT to do compiled by James Swan on his Facebook page, "101 Things I Hate About Your House."   Sometimes he finds ghastly furniture from manufacturers who honestly must be from outer space if they think anyone could live with that whatever-it-is.  Other times he serves up tough love in the form of a series of photographs of houseplant ivy run amok and taking over someone's entire home as though it was Sleeping Beauty's castle waiting for Prince Charming to come and hack his way through the vines.  There are close to 3,000 fans of this page, and sometimes the clever comments posted after the photographs are even funnier than the photos themselves.

But a few days ago, looking through the photos Swan posted under Duck Soup, I started to feel uncomfortable.  All of the photos in this group show interiors with "errors" that are easy for design professionals to pick out -- maybe errors is too strong a word; let's say missed opportunities.  Most of them involve poor choices in window treatments, or poor execution of what might have worked in the hands of a professional drapery workroom and installer.  Unfortunately, hiring an interior design professional is beyond the means of many people, and I think many of the photos in the Duck Soup album show interiors that homeowners decorated themselves, with little or no professional assistance, on a budget that most interior designers would consider minimal (although, to the homeowner writing the checks, it is ALWAYS a lot of money -- it's all about levels).  Keeping that in mind, most of these rooms aren't that bad.

This room in particular caught my attention:

Tall ceilings, beautiful arched windows, and the arches are chopped off by squatty little striped swag valances that do nothing to enhance the proportions of the room.  The busy striped fabric (polyester satin?) and all that tassel trim is at odds with the casual feel of the mismatched furnishings, distressed wood finishes, and leather chair.

Maybe this homeowner is really industrious and she sewed and installed the Roman shades and board-mounted valances herself, or perhaps she engaged a professional whose services were affordable to her.  Either way, analyzing the photo, I can guess what her objectives were:

"I need something on the window to insulate the glass, because it gets so cold here in the winter, and I need privacy at night so everyone driving by can't see me eating Ben & Jerry's in front of the fireplace.  I want something dressy, more dramatic than just plain blinds or boring drapery panels.  I know the furniture is a bit of a mish-mosh, but I can't afford to change everything right now.  My budget is limited and I really need to work with what I have.  I like the arches on the windows and I don't want to cover them up -- one of my favorite things about this house is that there's so much natural light in this room, even in the winter.  Can you help me?"

So I took a little break from working on other projects for real clients who have actually hired me, uploaded this photo into my Studio design software from Minutes Matter, and gave this stranger's room a virtual makeover.  In the 45 minutes or so that I played around with this, I tried to better accomplish the client's objectives (the objectives I'm inferring from clues in the original photo), enhance and complement the client's existing furnishings, and -- most importantly -- I made sure that my new window treatments could realistically be obtained at about the same cost as the window treatments in the original photo.

Alaire in Persimmon, $30.50/yd Retail
I left the Roman shades exactly as they were, because they do a good job of keeping out the cold if they're interlined, and there's nothing wrong with them, and obviously the client likes them or she wouldn't have picked them.  I might have suggested doing the shades top-down/bottom up, so the client could cover the bottom portion of the window for privacy but have the option of letting more light in at the top of the window if she wanted to.  However, I think the satin striped fabric on the swag valances is too tired/traditional/formal for this space.  It doesn't feel fresh.  So I substituted this very affordable 100% cotton fabric from Robert Allen.  (Note: I am aware that this is probably not a perfect color match, it probably needs to be a bit more bordeaux and less russet, but it's hard to judge color accurately from a photograph, and I couldn't justify spending hours and hours searching for the PERFECT fabric for an imaginary project.  Obviously if this was a real client, I would take the time to nail the fabric selection).

Next, I added a stationary drapery panel to the outside of each window, and raised the swags up at the center above the arched portion of the window.  This plays up the drama of the vaulted ceiling better, and the stationary drapery panels will help to muffle echoes and give the room a psychologically warmer feeling, elegant, but still cozy and not too formal because the fabric is a soft cotton instead of a shiny satin.  I left the tassel fringe on the Roman shades to keep them looking custom, and because my imaginary client really loves tassel fringe, but I eliminated it from the swags because I felt like it was overkill.  Skipping the trim on the swag valance also offset the increased labor and yardage costs of the drapery panels that I added.  My swags are mounted on little fabric-covered blocks of wood with decorative iron medallion ornaments screwed through the front, similar to the candlesticks in front of the fireplace that my imaginary client purchased at one of her girlfriends' parties (you know, those parties where the ladies all eat hors d'oeuvres and drink wine while they shop for baskets/candles/food storage containers/makeup). 

Without further ado, here's how my new imaginary window treatments would look in this client's home:

Isn't it amazing how window treatments can totally transform a space, even when everything else in the room stays the same?  If I had more time to play with this, I would "paint" the walls in my software program, a color similar to the color of the Roman shade fabric, or possibly a few shades lighter, to warm up those stark, Builder White walls and make the crown molding, fireplace mantel, and other trimwork pop.  What do you think?  I love it when I get comments, hint, hint, nudge nudge...

Sunday, September 12, 2010

More Pettiskirt Ruffles!

If you missed the earlier posts chronicling this pettiskirt progress, click here to catch up.  Up until yesterday afternoon, the pettiskirt for Princess Petunia was still exactly the way it was when I last posted about it on July 14th.  After simultaneously ruffling and attaching the ruffle to the bottom tier of the skirt, I discovered that my ruffler setting was only giving me 2 1/2 to 3 times fullness for most of the hem ruffle, and I was discouraged by how many yards of carefully cut 2" strips of chiffon were left over.  I decided NOT to attempt to rip out stitches and redo the hem ruffle, but I've been distracted with work and the organized chaos known as Back-to-School...  Those are my excuses. 

However, when I looked at my blog traffic statistics yesterday morning, I was amazed by the volume of traffic my pettiskirt posts were getting, not just from people I know personally, but from people as far away as Japan, Russia, and New Zealand.  Somehow, knowing that there are so many other folks out there working on this project has given me the jolt of motivation I needed to get back in that sewing room, rip the dust cover off my sewbaby, and dive back into that mountain of ruffled chiffon.  I hope that all of those sewers who visited my blog in search of pettiskirt tips found some useful information here, and I want to thank them all for stopping by.  Apparently September is National Sewing Month (who knew?), so what better time to finish this up?  My parents are headed up to New Jersey to visit Janice the Manice's family in a few weeks, so that gives me a deadline for my project.  I'd like to send Princess Petunia's pettiskirt up with them when they leave for New Jersey on the 24th.

One of the problems with letting so much time lapse in the middle of a project is that, when you come back to it, your head's not in the game anymore and you have to reread all the instructions, figure out where you were, and what you need to do next.  I actually had to come back downstairs (no computer in my sewing studio -- YET!) and reread my earlier posts about this project to refresh my memory.  The next step in my project was to simultaneously gather and attach the bottom tier of the skirt (the one I previously attached the hem frill to) to the second tier of the skirt.  I expected this step to go a lot faster than the previous step.  After all, since each step is gathering four-to-one, you have only a quarter of the fabric to deal with each time you move up one layer in the skirt.  However, I found that I had to run the machine at a slower speed this time in order to keep the top layer of gathered fabric from catching itself under the needle.  I had to stop three times to rip out stitches because of that, and it was NOT fun.  VERY PLEASED with the decision not to rip out and redo the entire hem frill, by the way -- that was definitely the right decision!  But I just now remembered -- too late to help with yesterday's issues -- that I had temporarily reduced the machine speed on my Artista last time I was ruffling to reduce these kinds of problems.  So, if your machine has this capability, try reducing the motor speed to between 50-75%.  And, since I'm sharing tips, let me also warn you to keep an eye on your bobbin thread!  You will go through a lot of thread for this project, and it's best to make sure you have a full bobbin before you start ruffling up each layer of the skirt.  Running out of bobbin thread will slow you down.

In this photo, you can really see how I have the two layers of chiffon fabric feeding through my ruffler foot (except that the bottom layer is actually UNDER the ruffler foot because it is not gathering at all).  Again, I'm using that pink low-tack Olfa quilting ruler tape to mark my 1/2" seam allowance (more information about that product is available in previous posts).  I'm attaching the layers right sides together, as directed by the pattern instructions from Kari Me Away.  This puts the little 1/2" ruffled seam allowance on the INSIDE of the skirt, but it would be pretty to put that on the outside of the skirt if you prefer, as it makes a little mini-frill between each tier of the skirt.

Ta-da!  That's what it looks like when you've got the hem frill attached to the bottom tier of the skirt and the bottom tier gathered and attached to the middle tier.

...and that's the whole length of it!  Next, I'm supposed to cut this whole long thing into two equal lengths because I'm making a two-layer skirt.  The top tier of the skirt is a double layer of poly satin, and I'm going to serge the raw edges of that to ensure nothing frays before I gather the bottom two tiers of the skirt onto the top tier.  The end is in sight!  Also, I should mention that even though I have dragged this project out over months and weeks, it really hasn't taken me that much time.  I spent about an hour and a half sewing yesterday, and about the same amount of time back in July when I did the hem frill.  What took longest was cutting miles and miles of chiffon strips, so I highly, highly recommend that you buy rolls of pre-cut chiffon for this project.  Hopefully, next time I post about this project I will be at the finish line!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Sliding Down the Slippery Slope: The Espresso Obsession Continues!

I ordered a new espresso machine.  Yes, I ordered a new one AGAIN, even though I just got a new one a couple of weeks ago...  In case you missed my earlier posts on the exciting topic of Latte Love, click here and here and then come on back to this post for my latest adventures in coffee obsession. 

So for the first week or so with my Expobar Office Pulser espresso machine, I was pulling consistently good espresso shots with a layer of crema on top.  The shots were running a little fast (ideally, it should take 20-25 seconds from the time I press the "go" button until the espresso is up to the little lines on the shot glasses.  If it takes longer for the shot glasses to fill, the shots taste bitter.  If they fill up faster, the espresso tastes weak and you don't get that caramelly crema on top).  The way you correct this problem is to adjust how finely the coffee is ground and/or how much pressure you're using to tamp (pack it down into the portofilter thing).  Not owning a coffee grinder, I always bought Starbucks' Espresso Roast a pound at a time and asked the store to grind it on #3 for my espresso machines.  But lately they keep screwing it up.  I wish I took pictures for you of what the espresso shots look like when you use coffee that is ground on #6 (particles the size of Folgers in a supermarket can for an automatic drip machine), but I was way too upset to think about getting the camera.  Anyway, after two separate Starbucks stores managed to screw up grinding my coffee beans three times in a row, I decided I'd had it with Starbucks and I needed to take the grind into my own hands! 

I headed back to my favorite online coffee store, Whole Latte Love, and read through numerous tutorials and reviews before selecting my grinder, the Mazzer Mini.  When I get my grinder, I will be able to grind just enough beans at a time to make one latte.  This means much better freshness, and it also means that I can make small adjustments to fine-tune the grind from one latte to the next until I get it exactly the way I want it.  I'm also not going to be limited to only Starbucks coffees anymore.  There are so many other beans out there, waiting to be discovered!  One key feature of this machine that appealed to me is that it's so quiet -- supposedly, when it's grinding beans, it's no louder than the interior sound level of a running BMW.  Since I have cathedral ceilings in my kitchen, sound ricochets off the walls and ceilings and amplifies considerably, so the last thing I wanted was a grinder that sounded like a jet plane taking off in my kitchen at 6 AM.

But wait, that's a grinder -- didn't I say I bought another espresso machine? 

Okay, so it turns out that when I was reading the manual for the Expobar Office Pulser machine and read the part about how the machine could be plumbed for a continuous water supply, I was reading about a different model, the Expobar Office Lever Plus.  It only costs $200 more than the machine I purchased, and when I made this discovery I was still within the return/exchange period.  Although I really enjoy the Office Pulser, the things I dislike about it are having to fill that water tank every day (which I can only manage with a funnel or else water splashes all over the place) and the fact that there's no way to tell how much water is left in the tank without removing the top of the machine.  There's a fabulous instant hot water dispenser on the machine that would be great for making hot tea or hot chocolate, except that it drains too much water out of the tank.  Plus, there's a little water softening filter thingy attached to the hose inside the water tank that I'm supposed to change every 300 lattes or so.  Who wants to remember to do that?  We're planning to change out the kitchen backsplash one of these days anyway, and Bernie wants to add a pot filler behind the stove, so adding a plumbing line for the espresso machine at the same time should not be a big huge deal.

This is the new EspressoBaby that's on its way, on some UPS truck somewhere between New York and North Carolina, carefully packaged and nestled in foam.  Isn't it beautiful?  I love how it's open at the top of the machine, too, for better visibility as well as aesthetics.  Plumbing the machine is optional, not required, so I can continue to fill the water tank with my funnel until we get around to replacing the backsplash tile.  I want to find some distressed terra cotta subway tiles, I think...  That will be another quest for another day.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

...So, Perfectionism: Is it a Good Thing?

You may be wondering why I felt compelled to extoll the virtues of perfectionism earlier.  Even if you weren't wondering, I'm going to tell you anyway.  Remember my post about our stay at The Sanctuary resort on Kiawah Island a couple of weeks ago?  Well, what I didn't tell you is that I made them move us to another room after the first night because I noticed splatter marks on the walls around the toilet in the first room.  Gross, right?  Vomit, or... I don't even want to think about what else it could have been!  Soon after moving into the second hotel room, I was grossed out by the discovery of black mold between the marble tiles of the shower stall, and we asked the front desk to have it cleaned.  The black mold remained throughout our stay, as did a dirty tissue from a previous guest out on the balcony.  Now, does this tell you more about the hotel, or more about me?  Are my standards just too high?

One thing I can assure you of is that perfectionism comes in handy in the field of high-end design.  As I was reminded on my vacation, it does not feel good to be paying a lot of money for something and then have to complain about everything in order to get things done right.  That's why I finally looked the other way where the mold and dirty Kleenex were concerned -- I resigned myself to the fact that, no matter how much money I paid, no matter which room they put me in, the room would probably not be cleaned to my standards, and it's not like there was another 5-star hotel on the island that I could move to.  I had to make the best of things, but my memories of the trip are soured by the fact that I paid through the nose to stay in a dirty hotel room.  In my work, I obsess about the details in hopes that my clients will love everything the first time, without having to point out flaws and without having to feel bad about complaining in order to get what they want.

Remember the discontinued embroidered silk fabric that I'm having recreated by a custom embroiderer for my client who was the victim of a house fire?  I got a sample of the custom embroidery today, and I spent the better part of an hour agonizing over every little detail.  There it is, on the left in this photo, with a sample of the original fabric on the right.  Isn't it gorgeous?  The thread color definitely needs to be a darker shade of brown, but as I examined the samples side-by-side, and viewed the embroidery file in my computer software program, I found several nit-picky, minute revisions to request.  This fabric is going to be used for ceiling mounted swags that are going to be seen from across the room; no one is going to get this close to the embroidery once the window treatments are installed anyway.  Yet my client is investing a lot of money in these draperies, trusting me to deliver a couture quality product that begs to be admired up close.  There's no such thing as a perfect design, a perfect drapery, or even a perfect fabric, but the goal is always to leave as little room for improvement as possible. 

I have a feeling that my very talented digitizer, who does beautiful work that I am absolutely awestruck by, is probably whipping up a little Rebecca voodoo doll right about now after receiving my feedback on his design work.  Soon I am going to be experiencing mysterious, sharp pains inflicted by stick pins far, far away...  Still, I'd rather spend more time and energy getting the design right at this stage than have 16 yards of silk custom-embroidered and sewn into window treatments, only for my client to be disappointed by the quality on installation day.  Perfectionism: It's A Good Thing!

Perfectionism in Love and War: Martha Stewart Just Works Harder Than You Do

Once upon a time, Americans were known for having a "strong work ethic" that was a legacy from the pilgrims who invaded founded our nation.  I know this because I learned it in American history class, and if you read it in a textbook then either it's actually true, or else it's so widely believed to be true (like George Washington's cherry tree chopping) that it's a fiction with more power than fact.  But in modern American culture, those who work hard and strive to be the best that they can be are ridiculed and ripped to shreds for the sin of "perfectionism" while lazy, ineffective people are held up to be "normal" and well-adjusted members of society.  Oh, yes they are -- everyone hates Martha Stewart for not only being better at a lot of things than everyone else, but for turning homemaking into a lucrative career.  Career women hate Martha for baking cookies from scratch and ironing bed sheets.  Women who don't work outside the home hate Martha for making so much money baking cookies and ironing sheets, and for looking glamorous while she does it.  She wouldn't be making so much money if there weren't tons of people furtively reading her books and magazines, watching her on television, and listening to her radio shows, but it's not cool to admit that you like Martha Stewart.  It's much more socially acceptable to have a Cathy mug (that is, Cathy Guisewite's Cathy cartoon character) on your desk than a Martha Stewart mug that says "It's A Good Thing."

How pathetic is that?  So, no; I'm not to be counted among those who will be mourning the end of the Cathy strip once Guisewite lays it to rest next month.  I'm one of those who is wondering whatever happened to the myth of the American work ethic?  When did high standards, hard work, and success become shameful in our society?  Was it a backlash against 1980s films like Mr. Mom and Baby Boom that claimed women could "have it all," glossing over the tough choices women have to make in real life and making them feel guilty if they failed to handle everything as seamlessly as the working moms of the screen?

Maybe that's the real reason for the national pastime of Martha-bashing.  Maybe we don't hate her because she does things better than we do, but because she makes it look so EASY when we know that it's really, really HARD.  We hate her for having a full staff running each of her households and doing all of her housekeeping for her while she's on television showing us how to properly clean the silverware that we don't own in the first place, for having assistants and creative teams coming up with fabulous ideas for which she seems to take the credit.  We hate her for the perceived dishonesty, and for the unfair advantage.  But, once upon a time, Martha Stewart was a young single woman from a blue-collar background who worked hard and started her own catering company with a friend.  She was good at something, she worked really hard at it, and she turned her domestic interests and aptitude into a multi-million dollar lifestyle brand -- while a lot of other women were lying on the couch eating chocolate while obsessing about their weight, and trying to solve their problems with shopping instead of with good old-fashioned hard work.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

From Zero to Latte in Five Minutes Flat!

In case you missed my earlier post about my new Expobar Office Pulser espresso machine, you can read that here.  I've had the machine up and running for about three weeks now, and wanted to report back about how much I love it!

I must admit; I was a little intimidated when I first unpacked this beast.  It's MUCH bigger than the old machine, and the instructions weren't much help.  Thank goodness for the supplemental instruction sheet that the distributor, Whole Latte Love, packed with the machine or I would have been completely lost.  That's me, up on the counter, peering down into the innards of the espresso machine to try to figure out what's up with the filter thingy and the little hoses.

But really, all I had to do before I made my first latte was plug the machine in and fill the tank up with water.  After that, the machine works exactly like my old Barista machine from Starbucks.  Except that it does its magic in a third of the time the old machine took, with no down time, and the coffee tastes SO much better!  I'm in Espresso Nirvana!!

Do you see that beautiful foam on my steamed milk?  The old Barista machine took at least 5-6 minutes to steam milk, and it was very finicky about which milk it would steam.  It had to be the Harris Teeter skim milk, pulled from the very back of the store's refrigerator, and it had to be ice-cold.  I tried the organic milk, 1% milk, or skim milk from other grocery stores, and the foam would go flat and disappear within 30 seconds of making it.  The new machine will foam every milk I've tried to frothy, fabulous perfection in under two minutes every time.

After steaming milk on my old machine, I had to switch the machine from steaming to brewing mode and wait for the machine to cool off before I could pull any shots.  It is such a delight (and an enormous time-saver) to flip the brew switch and pull espresso shots immediately after steaming milk on this machine.

Trickle trickle trickle...
 ...And there you have it: beautiful, flavorful espresso shots with gorgeous, caramelly crema, ready to combine with the steamed milk into a vastly superior latte, in less than 5 minutes from start to finish.  You can't even brew coffee in an automatic drip machine that fast!

Isn't that beautiful?  I don't get foam like that on my lattes at Starbucks; they have been doing a weird steamed slushy milk thing lately.  They got new machines at my local Starbucks and the refrain I keep hearing when customers complain about lack of foam or burning their taste buds off with the first sip is "but it's all automatic."  If Starbucks can't make a decent latte anymore, they are in serious trouble.

So, you'd think that my espresso dreams would have all come true now that the snazzy new espresso machine is up and running and cranking out amazing lattes to satisfy my every whim, but you'd be wrong.  This Latte Lust has not yet run its course, I'm afraid.  I've been using Starbucks Espresso Roast beans at home for years, and I always had Starbucks grind the beans on #3 for my Barista machine.  I wanted to try a slightly finer grind with the new machine because the shots were pouring a bit fast (ideally, it should take 20-25 seconds from the time you push the brew button until the espresso reaches the white lines on the shot glasses.  If the shots pour much faster, your beans are probably ground too coarsely and/or you aren't tamping firmly enough, and you won't get much flavor from the shots.  If the shots pour more slowly, then you're grinding too fine or tamping too hard, and the shots will be bitter).  The inexpensive blade coffee grinders that you find at stores like Target and Bed Bath & Beyond grind too unevenly, and expose the beans to too much heat during the grinding process, to be suitable for those seeking espresso bliss.  Fresh ground coffee is of course preferred, but we go through coffee so fast in my house anyway that having Starbucks grind the beans for me a pound at a time seemed to be a good compromise solution.

Except that they keep screwing up the grind, and I don't realize it until the next morning, at about 7 AM, bleary-eyed, stumbling blindly around the kitchen, knowing I can handle any hitch the boys might throw my way as long as I have that nice, warm latte in my hand...  You can't make even a halfway decent latte with just any old grind.  Last week I went to Starbucks, actually went INSIDE Starbucks so I wouldn't hold up the drive-through line, and talked with a Barista about how I wanted my coffee ground.  I told her that I had always asked for #3 in the past, but that I wanted to try a slightly finer grind with my new commercial style espresso machine.  I asked her specifically to grind my beans on the same setting that they used for THEIR espresso machines.  And then, to my horror, when I opened the bag the next morning, I saw coffee particles the size of sand instead of powder.  It looked like Folgers from the grocery store; it was definitely an automatic drip machine grind setting.  I was desperate, so I tamped it into the little portofilter as best as I could and tried to get some shots out of it.  The resulting latte tasted like a cup of steamed milk, like I'd forgotten to put the shots in at all.  So, mystery solved -- all those times when I've ordered a latte and it tastes like there isn't any espresso in it, now I know that the shots were pouring way too fast and the grind was too coarse.  I tried adding two additional shots of this sad excuse for espresso, and now my latte tasted kind of like that instant cappuccino stuff from Taster's Choice, but with real foam.  Blech!  Now Starbucks cannot even be counted on to grind beans properly!

The other thing to consider is that there are so many other espresso beans out there, waiting to be experienced, but I've been restricted to Starbucks beans since I have no way of grinding my own beans at home.  Whole Latte Love sent me a pound of interesting-looking espresso beans as a gift-with-purchase, and my father-in-law sent me a whole box full of different coffee beans from his recent trip to Costa Rica -- none of which I have been able to sample, since I have no way to grind the beans.  It seems obvious to me that the Universe wants me to take the next step towards Espresso Independence with the purchase of a commercial-style burr grinder to take its rightful place on the counter beside my espresso machine.  Even my husband, who is enjoying his homemade lattes now that I share, thinks I should buy a grinder.  So now the question is, which one?  I did lots of research and read through hundreds of reviews before selecting my espresso machine, and I know even less about the ins and outs of coffee grinders than I knew about espresso machines.  I'm going to head back over to Whole Latte Love and start my research.  I'll let you know what I come up with!