Saturday, January 31, 2009

It's not the book, it's the accessories

My friend Emily gave me a cookbook for Christmas, BakeWise by Shirley Corriher. Ms. Corriher is a bio-chemist, the go-to scientist when a professional chef has something go wrong and needs to know why. Emily knew I, with a degree in chemistry and a what-if frame of mind, would enjoy this book and that she herself would also. Alas, it proved so popular she could only find one copy pre-Christmas, and I was the lucky recipient. In turn, when the shelves were restocked in January, I found her a copy, used a 40% off coupon, and made everyone happy.

But back to the book. It was a gift, but so far, it hasn't been free. First off, I was fascinated that one could make bread without the yeast being exposed to 120-degree liquid, that 68-degrees, given the right set of circumstances, was sufficient. Somehow, that just didn't seem right, and in order to run her experiment and see if I got the same result, I needed to buy a different yeast, the quick-rise kind. Four hours later, I had 4 extraordinary bagettes. Unreal. I'm not going to be turning the old kitchen into a French bakery any time soon, but should the occasion arise (so to speak), I'd consider making them again.

Then there were the biscuits and the need for White Lily Self-Rising Flour. White Lily is made from soft Southern wheat, as opposed to the hard Northern red variety found in bread flours. It took a trip to Dallas to obtain the White Lily--and the biscuits were incredible.

Now I was on a roll. I make a good pound cake, but here, at the front of the book, was the recipe for the ultimate one. But I needed potato starch, an ingredient tagged by the book as 'kosher'. Well, I was game to try and find it at the local store and sure enough, it was there with the other small mill offerings like semolina and oat flour. Now that I had the ingredients and the regular all-purpose flour, I was ready to see how this pound cake stood up against my favorite.

Stand up, isn't quite the word, as it collapsed in a heap. My husband, bless his heart, declared it of good flavor and has eaten it anyway. But not to be out-maneuvered, I have repeated this experiment today. So far, one side has collapsed to half its height. It's been a graceful collapse and I resisted slicing until it was fully cool. The taste is good, full of vanilla, but this just isn't going to be the ultimate pound cake for our family. Anyway, it took 6 bowls and 7 measuring cups to make it.

But besides adding extra ingredients to my kitchen shelves, I've bought a baking stone, two instant-read thermometers (didn't realize I needed digital until the first one was out of the package), two 9 x 2 inch non-stick cake pans which I probably should have owned anyway, CookWise, her first book from 1997, and regular White Lily flour because I was at the store... and why not.

Why not, indeed. That's the reason I've already picked out my next experiment, uh, project: Boston Cream Pie. From scratch. I wonder how many bowls and cups it'll take.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Zip code-profiling, part II

As an avid coupon-clipper, I walk over to the convenience store each Sunday morning and pick up a copy of the Dallas Morning News for its weekly TV guide and its coupon inserts. Occasionally, the latter are not in there, but I get a paper anyway for the former. I've found that before big holidays, the coupon supplements are usually not included.

We also get coupon inserts in the area newspaper, the Herald-Democrat out of Sherman and Denison. I merrily clip away and file them and sometimes notice that where I usually have two of any one coupon, sometimes I just have one. But not until last weekend did I make a study of it.

There are two major players in the insert game around here, Smart Source and Red Plum. Once a month (I think), Proctor and Gamble has a special insert. The P&G inserts are the same, no matter the paper. The other two are not.

Printed on the spine is a listing of the papers they are inserted in. In each case, the Dallas Morning News was on one and a grouping of smaller papers on the other. Let's start with the least interesting of the two, the Red Plum.

Put out by Valassis of Livonia, MI, this insert had different covers, but the same back page (Eye Masters). The cover of the DMN was from Unilever and began an 11-page section of their products. This was not included in the H-D supplement. The remaining coupon ads were in a different order and there were a few in the DMN that were not in the H-D.

While small town/rural areas had been left out of the Unilever (think Dove soap) ad, we were offered much more in the Smart Source supplement from News America Marketing. Not more in the way of manufacturer's coupons, but more in the way of services and devices. None of the following appeared in the DMN version: Amish mantle, hearing aids, foot pain remedy, commemorative plates, bedwetting, compression hose, home security, acne meds, butter cookbook. On the other hand, urbane Dallas was treated to an upscale-looking hair product I'd never heard of. (How would I? It's not advertised in my paper.) Again, the front pages were different, but the backs the same, this time from Pearle.

I think this interesting. Where I live determines what advertisers think I need or want. For what it's worth, I wouldn't order/use any of the "extras" listed above. Both of the Smart Source inserts advertised Inaugural coins and postal covers. I wonder how effective this all is.

I emailed Valassis, and while I received notice that they are received my query, I've never had an answer.

So, I continue to be zip code-profiled. At least I can walk to a C-store, pick up a paper, and know what all I'd be missing if I lived Dallas. Except... we get an different edition of the DMN, too.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Zip code-profiling, part I

This week, my daughter-in-law appeared in a Wall Street Journal ad for her graduate alma mater, SMU. As you know, the WSJ is my favorite newspaper, and I was thrilled that not only was she going to get the recognition she deserved (along with others chosen for the ad), but also I'd get to have my own copy. While it was not going to be nationally distributed, it would be in the southwest region.

Or not.

Not in my zip code, it wasn't. It's a Texas zip code, not even that far from the Big City. But did my post-office-delivered WSJ have this insert? No. I called a friend, lest mine was an anomaly. She didn't have it either. I informed my DIL. She called the school. Had the dates changed? No, their copy, their DALLAS copy, had it.

Once again, I had been zip code-profiled.

I suppose in the trade it's known as marketing. My zip code must not be interested in the number one MBA program in Texas. No, we did have an "insert", but it was for Phoenix University, which has been heavily advertising on TV lately. It was a fine three-page ad. But I don't know why it couldn't have been in another edition, and not in the one I was waiting for.

I resent being excluded, not that that's going to do me any good. My DIL will get a copy of the ad and I'll see it the next time I see her. If this were the extent of it, I'd not feel so bad, but it's not. It's but the tip of the iceberg and tomorrow, I'll finish zip code-profiling, part II.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

I knew better and I did it anyway

This is not the blog I was going to write today. No, I was going to rant in two parts about target marketing, otherwise known as zipcode-profiling. But then, life handed me a blog post and I'll rant later on in the weekend.

Yesterday, the local grocery store, not the big box, was having a special 4pm-10pm sale. There were special coupons and lots of 'buy one, get one for a penny.' I hadn't bothered to read their ad earlier in the week, but when a friend told me about it yesterday afternoon, I decided, what the heck--I could use some bargains, too.

I planned to zip in to the store before everyone else got off work, grab the goodies I desired, and be home in less than an hour, dinner promptly on the table by six, and me nestled on the couch for my favorite night of TV, Thursday, by seven.

The best laid plans, etc.

The parking lot was full, but there were spaces available if one was willing to walk and, since I'm on the treadmill for two miles each morning, I could hardly plea that I was unfit to do so. I took a shopping cart off a bag boy as he was coming back into the store. I didn't realize it was the last available cart until I was met with stony stares from people who had walked in 10 seconds before I had. Oh, well. I took my hustled cart and started strolling through the crowd toward produce, trying to read the ad which had been left in it and decide what to take advantage of.

The dollar coupon for any produce covered the kiwi. The bacon was priced well, and the sausage was a bargain with the second one being a penny. So far, so good. The paper towels came attached with a two-dollar coupon. No wonder everyone had a set in their cart. I skipped the chicken and rump roast, actually put a few non-sale items in my cart and hastened to the cat food, where another two-dollar coupon applied. Emerging near the frozen foods, I looked in shock at the lines to the check-out stands.

Everyone's cart was laden. This was not going to be quick or easy. I hadn't seen lines like this in about 20 years when the weatherman had predicted a week of ice (he was correct) and everyone made haste to the store to stock-up. The thaw shopping lines four days later were just as bad.

Obviously, I needed a new exit strategy. I did a quick count of my ill-gotten gain: 11 items. The quick-check lines were 12 or about and I took a circuitous route to them. Things were definitely looking better here, except the quick-checkout was also the self-checkout.

Now I had a personal dilemma: I don't use self-checkout. I think a store should provide someone to help with this process. There are questions, sometimes. I looked back to my right to the longer lines.

I caved on my moral stance and stayed in the shorter line.

It may have been self- but it wasn't quick. In the best of times, a friend who happened to get in line beside me related, the self-checkout process at this store was temperamental. Today was not the best of times. For starters, I had no experience with self-checkout and this would not appear to be the most optimum time in which to learn. But as I watched the three men in front of me fumble about with the system, I figured surely I could do this too.

Just as I get ready for my first attempt, the woman in line behind me (my friend having been spirited off to the newly opened deli counter with her two items) inquires as to the number of coupons I have. Hmmm.... I think, does she want the ones I'm not using? No, turns out she needs to pick up her grandchildren and wants (although she never directly asks) in front of me.

My husband and I had been fooled by this ploy about three years ago when a young mother accosted us in the checkout line of a high-dollar grocery, told us we didn't look like we had anything important to do, informed us she needed to get home to nurse her baby, and got in front of us. We had then watched her cry while she paid for her milk and wine and organic goods. I've never decided if her milk had just let down, or if she was embarrassed.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

I started checking my groceries. It was a laborious process, the machine not allowing me to check item X until item X-1 was sacked. Then when the paper towels fell off the weight-bearing part of the mechanism and I put them back, it told me there was a foreign object there and to remove it. It is no wonder I detest self-checkout. I'm insulted by people enough. I don't need to be insulted by a machine.

But for expedience sake, I paid by credit card. Transaction approved, a receipt was spit out. It was a very long piece of paper for my 11 items. And it was blank. The assistant manager had taken over the computer governing the self-checkout lines and I informed him I wanted my receipt. I flourished the blank page at him. The men in front of me had also received very long pieces of paper. I'd bet they were blank too, but they either didn't notice in their haste to leave, or didn't care.

I cared. So off we went to the office to get a duplicate receipt. I should have fed cash into the machine. Eventually, I had to hand over my credit card again so the proper sequence of numbers could be entered. This took 15 minutes. Then, he asked, did I want an itemized list? I was tempted to say no, but I didn't. Sure, I said. Otherwise, I had no way of knowing if I'd truly gotten any bargains. This was quicker, two pages long, and filled with code.

I'll just assume I got a bargain. I certainly got a lesson.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Selling to your audience

Like most Americans, we get too many catalogs. Way too many. Before Christmas, it becomes a battle to see if we can throw them away before the next identical one comes. Oftentimes, only the cover is changed. They're just trying to fool you into thinking it's something new and opening it. We all know this game.

I don't think this holiday catalog season was any more crowded than the previous. When the mail came, I'd sort through the catalogs, tossing those immediately which held absolutely no interest and saving in a pile those which did. While we watched TV in the evenings, I'd go through them and gather ideas for gifts or for items the Library Board might make for one sale or the other. Most catalogs would be missing a page or two by the time they were thrown out. I'm a bit indiscriminate in my idea-gathering.

Then I hit a catalog which had me smiling, not at the merchandise, which was common enough, but at the models. The male models. Many catalogs simply display men's clothing sans men, while women's catalogs, such as Chico's and Neiman Marcus, will take their models somewhere and have backgrounds as interesting as the clothing. But at Cuddledown, out of Portland, Maine, they are into realism. Their target audience isn't pretty boys whose girlfriends are interested in displaying their pecs. No, their audience, is the middle-aged customer. How do I know this? The male models are balding.

I found it quite comforting. He looked as a real man would modeling his silk robe. I applaud that. And here's a sample link to see what you think about it, too.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Inauguration memory

When I was a little girl, I certainly didn't know if my parents struggled with money issues. Mother was a good manager, Daddy told me after she was dead, and she worked long hours and scrimped and cut corners in every way possible for us to have the things we did. A quick look through our black and white Christmas photos can verify that. If my sister and I wanted for anything under the tree, I don't remember it. I can probably blame this on what I always perceived as Mother's Depression-era childhood. She didn't have much, if anything, but her children would.

I give this background only to say that the impending inauguration has jostled loose a memory. We had a small, portable, black and white television, one that my Dad took off work to bring up to my fourth grade classroom. I remember the teacher getting a rolling cart and (at least) one of the other fourth grade classrooms coming in to join us. Daddy adjusted the rabbit ear antenna and together we all watched John Kennedy be sworn in.

Now, classrooms are cable connected or everyone can gather around the computer monitor. But 48 years ago, it was a treat, and for me and a few classrooms at West Ward Elementary in McKinney, Texas, it was brought to us by my parents.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Getting crosswise about lengthwise

How do you fold?

It's a question which has relevance only when you're in the middle of it: after a dinner helping the hostess fold the tablecloth; folding a quilt you've pulled off a table at a flea market; folding a sheet fresh from the dryer. Big items which need help from someone else to make a sharply folded object can lead to awkward moments.

For some reason, it's rare for me to find someone else who folds as I do: lengthwise, lengthwise, in half, half again, then just one of you completing the fold. I'd hate to think I was the strange one in this, but if I find someone who does lengthwise first (and this is more logical if an item is wide, think sheet), they usually want to come toward me and crosswise it then. There's an awkward moment, no matter how close the relationship, when one of you has to back down.

A telling moment, perhaps? As a guest, I would yield to the hostess on the tablecloth, whoever pulls the quilt off should be lead on that one, and whoever owns the sheet.

But what joy to find someone who folds as I do. Then again, see the third paragraph, second sentence.

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Gran Torino

In a small town, the weeks between Christmas and mid-winter can be a delight, entertainment-wise, before they virtually shut down to the cinematic equivalent of the Dead Sea. In December, the studios have put forth their final movies for the award push, and they eventually trickle out to the hinterlands. So we have had occasion to view quality movies at bargain prices, which here are $3 matinees and senior rates (over 55) and $5 full-price.

In November, I rejoiced with having seen Slumdog Millionaire and Australia. The latter, alas, did not hold up at the box office, which I think is a real pity, and the former has not made it to the small town screens as I had hoped it would. They would both have made the top rating on my movie rating scale:

Worth full price
Worth matinee
Rent it
Free TV
Don't you have anything better to do?

Regrettably Marley and Me has to go into the Rent It category. Yes, I cried, but really, not a strong movie. I could stretch it to be worth a matinee if it were reasonably priced. Bride Wars would be in the same category. As an aside, if you watch the trailer closely, there's a scene where one of our 'heroines' devastates the other's wedding dress. Not in the movie.

On to better pickings: We liked Valkyrie, the Tom Cruise opus based on a true story of a plot to assassinate Hitler. I don't know how well it's doing at the box office, but the History Channel show about the attempt interspersed with how/why the movie was made helped our understanding. Strong matinee to Full Price.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is well done and worth the full nickel, I think. It made me want to find Fitzgerald's short story and read it.

And then there's Gran Torino, the latest from Clint Eastwood. Full price value. I was surprised to see it here, thinking (obviously mistakenly) that it would stay with the big-city theaters. But it sold out here twice this weekend. If this doesn't have Oscar written all over it, I don't know what does. I hope it opened in December somewhere so it's eligible.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A changing of the year

Last week I changed the order of things in our house. The 2008 calendars were taken down and put away and the 2009 put up. There's one on the wall in the kitchen and a desk-model in my "basket" on the counter top. There's another on the wall of my study, tucked behind the door and made of the slick material you can write on and erase. It's the one with the up-to-date business schedule. The kitchen calendar marks all the family events and the desk calendar catches the minutiae of everyday living. Making an appointment to do something usually requires a peek at all three.

I don't throw my old calendars away. Instead, I roll up the study one and slide a rubberband around it. It may never be seen again from the back of the closet. The kitchen calendar is put in a drawer along with the desk one. But I might have occasion to need a neglected phone number or address I tucked there and no where else, so I know where it is.

Several years ago, determined to put in order all the places we'd been, I pulled out the old calendars and made a list from their contents of vacations and special events. At the time, we looked to have been sooo busy! I was quite pleased with myself. But I've neglected to keep it up to date.

If I could only find it, I'd know what I'd been up to.


Monday, January 05, 2009

The game is over... and I really miss the game

When the boys were young, we thought it would be a good observational exercise to have them look for something. We chose the Bicentennial quarters which were minted in 1976. In the mid-80s when we started this game, Bicentennials still abounded and it wasn't unusual to spot one a week. They enjoyed this game for a while and we gathered about $30 worth of 1976 quarters which we still have sitting around, rolled and ready for some thoughtless descendant to spend frivolously. Just as a comparison, we might find one 1976 quarter a year now. It would appear that others have played our game.

But a new game came on the horizon when the state quarters were released in 1999, five per year, in order of joining the Union. The boys were long gone from the household, but we played the game, checking change until we found 4 of each issue and tucking them away in a jar. Some of them were easy; many proved elusive and I'd find issue x+1 before I found its predecessor.

But when Hawaii came out and I opted to change a dollar bill for four beautiful shiny coins at the bank, the game was over. Now change is just change.

I miss the game. I'll have to think of another.

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Thursday, January 01, 2009

The north end of a north-bound tree

There's a Christmas tree farm in the north part of my county. Each December, I smile as I drive in from points south on the highway and meet cars with evergreen trees bound to their roofs, the south end of south-bound trees. Meant for a happy hearth, the trees sometimes arch over the back of the car. I try to glimpse at the occupants, but at 70 mph, it's difficult. I just assume exhausted family, tired from apple cider and a hay ride and picking the perfect tree.

I'm used to this sight. So that's why it took a moment for me to register yesterday that something was wrong with the little SUV which pulled out in front of me from a gas station. Strapped to its roof was a Christmas tree, and I had a view of the north end of the north-bound tree. The problem? It was New Year's Eve.

I thought to pass the car, but it sped away from me, although I did catch up at a light as we entered town. But it turned left and I was left to speculate at the calendar anomaly.

Going to use it as firewood? Too scrawny. Taking it back? Uh... don't think there's a return policy on after-season Christmas trees.

How about, a special Christmas, a celebration for a returning soldier? What if someone rescued the last little tree in the lot and was now going to make it the centerpiece of a joyous post-New Year's holiday?

Oh, I like that idea. I think I'll stick with it.

Merry Christmas to the tree-bearers. Happy New Year to the rest of you.

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