Archive for home organization

Kicking the Pandemic Bucket

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

This is not a post about death.

It is about the phenomenon of Pandemic Bucket Lists.

In the Before Times, my family and I commuted to work and spent long hours on errands and other activities outside our house. When our state locked down in April, I was among many who vowed to do things differently: to think positively, in the face of fear, and use the empty hours as a commitment to fulfilling dreams.

I heard a lot about pandemic bucket lists, and they seemed to fall into two varieties: one for wonderful activities to look forward to after the pandemic’s end, and the other for things to accomplish while living in solitude.

The bucket lists are a way to make sense of the insane; to order unpredictability. I can understand why some might think of them as a trivial trend. But I am a list maker and a resolution lover. I already had buckets at the ready.

The first imaginary bucket I have is shiny clean, because it is the bucket for Wishful Thinking.

Peering in, I don’t see much. I’m happy with the work I do, so I don’t want to reinvent that, or the place that I live. I do spy imaginary reservations for planes and trains and beautiful inns around the world. The first trips on this bucket list will be only see a few mundane activities of my past, and a few imagined activities for the future. I see travel: plane, train and car. I’ll get to Minnesota and Louisiana, to see my family and in-laws. I’ll also drive to Asheville, North Carolina and Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. I will reappear looking different, with salt and pepper hair. I am using the pandemic let artifice fade and reality rise.

Another activity is feeding local friends inside my home and going around the country to see far-flung mystery readers and writers at conventions. Finally, the bottom of my wishful thinking bucket is filled with water. It represents the warm-water pool where I used to exercise four times a week and where I hope to someday be jumping and kicking and splashing again.

The second bucket—Pandemic Action Bucket—is gritty because it’s in use.

Gardening was one of the first things I got going on during pandemic spring, and as every gardener knows, the goals never stop. Besides my weed knife, the bucket holds plenty of books, especially those that are newly released by authors who I can read and watch on zoom. I’m also enjoying my children’s book collection, which felt too indulgent before, but is just right now.

And speaking of writing, I aim to finish my next book before pandemic’s end.

In the Before Times, there were social justice issues I cared about but didn’t have time to show up for. Now I am showing up, again and again, for Black Lives Matter, for the sake of the Post Office, and to support voting. In the end, each action takes only an hour or two; and the feeling of raising my voice for what I believe in gives me such an energy boost.

Back to the bucket of to-dos. I still haven’t decluttered my home to the point of looking as serene as an AirBnB. Yet I’ve reorganized my fridge and freezer and pantry every few months. Each venture teaches me how much food I actually have, and gets stuff out of storage and onto the table. I’ve mentioned my garden in previous blogs, and in the waning light of autumn, it is full-blown and exuberant. While I weed, I get to chat with my friends and neighbors and see the adorable young generation learn to ride bikes in the nearby lane.

Enjoying outdoor socialization, I felt inspired to buy two small tables for the side porch. Once the tables were set up, I arranged for the installation of ceiling fans. And the porch’s paint job was chipping, so it needed repainting. But wouldn’t it look weird for the rest of the house to stay dingy? That meant new shingles. And a fresh coat of stain.

As I write this, ten men are literally climbing the walls of our house, sanding off flaking paint, staining cedar shakes, and transforming tired beige trim to Windsor Green. After about a week’s work, they’ve still got a ways to go, but without a doubt, they’ll finish before the pandemic does.

“Thank you for the work,” a man nailing shingles to the house said to me when I praised his work. One of the painters said the same thing to me today. It made me realize that the things I think about doing to help myself feel calm have the potential to do the same for others.

And in such an uncertain time, this realization makes me happy.

Hiking My Own Spice Trail

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Political chaos is making me cling to quiet evenings home. As it turns out, I am not alone in thinking that our everyday, intimate life can be a source of restoration.

The idea that our kitchens should remain places of joy was explored beautifully on this Sept. 13 Splendid Table podcast. One of the show’s regular contributors, editor Tucker Shaw from America’s Test Kitchen, suggested replacing old spices with new ones as a profound way to nurture yourself.

A few days after hearing the podcast, I got an email from a home organizing site, A Bowl Full of Lemons, that proclaimed that very day was the one that everyone needed to purge their spice drawer. Yes. In that dream blog world, all the spices come in matching jars, and they take up one small drawer.

The writing was on the wall—or in my case, the kitchen blackboard. I hoard spices the way that shops and libraries store books. In fact, I believe in a library of spices, along with a library of cookbooks. But I knew that any spice organization program in my home would last much longer than the fifteen minutes suggested by A Bowl Full of Lemons.

I like to think that my own spice and dried herb trail is a microcosm of the original spice trails emanating from Asia and the Americas to Europe. In my house, one is forced to hunt down spices in both a kitchen and a butler’s pantry. The journey includes stops to view, sniff and taste many dozens of jars that have been crammed like unhappy subway riders in six kitchen drawers, with the overflow packed in three plastic containers in a large cabinet.

There are so many spices that our husband does not know where to start looking, when he wants to cook. His solution is to go to the neighborhood grocery and buy a tiny, six-dollar bottle of whatever he does not see.

I needed Marie Kondo, but she was not available. And predictably, as I began considering the values of my assorted spices, many of them tugged mightily at my heart. It is not the same as wilted celery from a fridge or frostbitten lamb from the freezer. The spices look fine, and they will not make you sick, if you add a tired teaspoon to your soup or stew.

But here’s my problem. Removing spices is striking at history of past cooking—and dreams of dishes that could be.

One of the first big jars I regarded was a giant one stuffed with dried purple-red guajillo chiles that I purchased at a bodega, probably around 2009 when I was very ambitious. The chilies traveled with me to Maryland in 2012—quite far, because we have lived in Maryland since 2012. The dried chiles are so large and gorgeous—but could they be a tad too complex for my ordinary enchilada and chili nights?

Probably a third of my spices hail from India. I adore a multi-spice pack from the southern state of Kerala brought to me by a relative a few years ago (who’s counting). The pack has locally grown black peppercorns, star anise, whole cloves, cardamom pods and cinnamon bark. This is a key, highly aromatic grouping that goes a long way, either as single elements, or roasted and ground into a kind of garam masala used for Malayali cooking.

Kerala is also the home of my most unused and mysterious item: cocum. Cocum are small sour black orbs that were a subtle flavoring in a fabulous shrimp curry made by Maria Zacharia for my daughter and me in her Alleppey home in 2008. Maria gifted me the cookbook she wrote,  and because cocum was on the ingredient list for many of her fish recipes, I hunted it down in a local market.  Despite the passage of time, the cocum is moist, and it is supposed to be soaked before cooking. It is staying with me another decade, I believe.

In my various drawers and the cabinet, I discovered three containers of the black cumin seeds more commonly known as nigella or kalonji. These were easy to toss, because I had already bought a new bag and discovered the taste of a new kalonji seed is biting and much more interesting than the aged seeds.

Taste-testing and careful viewing were good way to lead a reluctant drawer-cleaner to truth. Cardamom pods might look green and plump, but inside, if the seeds are white, they are far from fresh.  I found that the cardamom I’d stored inside the butler’s pantry cabinet had fresh black seeds inside the pods, making it a snap to eliminate the three other small jars of old cardamom pods.

Spice mixtures are a special problem unto themselves. Anyone who cooks from a good Indian cookbook—and I am thinking most specially of Madhur Jaffrey—is instructed to roast and grind spices and mix them in particular ways for easy use in future dishes. The same kind of spice blend making is encouraged in Mexican cooking and Middle Eastern cuisine. It took me more than a half-hour a couple of years ago to make Madhur’s hot and sour chaat mixture, but I know that the purpose of making these spice mixtures is because the freshly ground spices are more fragrant than what comes from the store. Though I do not hesitate to buy spice mixes that are new to me, like a bruschetta blend I saw in a department store in Milan, or the Ras El Hanout spice blend I found in a Middle Eastern grocery store in Brooklyn.

It is fortunate my sodium level is normal, because my kitchen is packed with salt. We start with coarse kosher salt and finely milled sea salt, but the real adventures begins with the various flavors of Hawaiian sea salt that I brought home from Honolulu. My feelings run deep for silky gray smoked sea salt, Himalayan pink salt in both block and granulated forms, and kala namak, a volcanic salt from India. I was thrilled to find flaky Maldon salt from England at Trader Joe’s, so it’s been in my wheelhouse for a few weeks. I’m also working through various salt specialty mixes with flavorings of garlic, chili, ginger and paprika. Confession: I only threw away one small container. However, I have pledged not to buy another grain of specialty salt for the next three years.

Midway through the purge, my husband paid a call to the kitchen and requested that I go easy on our tiny collection of American spices (I secretly call them processed vegetable extracts). I am talking about dried, mechanically-minced or granulated or powdered garlic and onion. There is a role for them in some American Thanksgiving dishes and the foods of Louisiana. To each their own. At least their maker, McCormick, is a Baltimore company!

Salt is cheap, and other spices are very expensive. If I had to go to the mat to save a particular spice, it would be the two containers of Iranian saffron. Saffron is a very powerful spice: so aromatic that even a pinch goes a long way. At $160 an ounce, I am certainly going to keep using the precious saffron threads I have, especially with the political drama going on. Who knows when we can get fresh saffron from Iran?

After five hours of slow work, the drawers are cleared, and I have spare room in all of them. I also know exactly where to find what I need.

The epilogue to the grand clean-out is that I now have several dozen of empty glass jars and tiny meal tins. Some are going to recycling, and others will be washed and saved as containers for the small amounts of fresh spices that I intend to buy in the future. Because that was the point of changing out spices: to get the chance to absorb fresh, thrilling new tastes.