Doll House Drama

Pam’s Pictorama Post: As I scrape through the remainder of the available adult fiction of Frances Hodgson Burnett I am beginning to turn to the juvenile works. The first I picked up was one I had never heard of called Racketty Packetty House. In researching it I discovered that while I may never have heard of it the book has not been moldering in obscurity – there are more editions than I can count available online – ancient, new and all between – and it would seem it has been continuously in print since its inception in 1906. It is what I think of as an early chapter book for children, too long for a single sitting, novella length.

As I have written in prior posts, our gal Frances was prolific beyond belief and she was clearly churning out her popular juveniles while writing the novels and keeping magazines supplied with stories. (And turning all of the above into plays and ultimately films! My posts on her at this point are too numerous to list and all could be found by searching my site with her name however they start here and I discuss the films a bit here.)

I guess I should warn anyone reading this as a review that there are what could be considered spoilers in it so you may want to come back when you are done reading the story.

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The book contains the ingredients of a children’s classic – anthropomorphic dolls and animals (I especially like that the family pets bring gifts and apologize for their youthful indiscretions of chewing on body parts and a mouse gentleman brings an offering of wood shavings for dinner one evening) with a princess and a few fairies thrown in for good measure. I read the electronic version (I downloaded it on something called Google Play) and was deprived of illustrations which impacted my experience of it. I think good illustrations could really help sell it and looking around online after the fact I believe this is true. (There are also some quite hideously illustrated volumes, with all due respect, mostly of more recent vintage.) I believe the illustrations I am sharing are from the original publication or at least a contemporaneous one in Hodgson Burnett’s lifetime. If the early editions were less expensive and I had more bookcase space I would want to pick one up.

 

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Ridiklis whose leg was chewed off by the dog and cat in their unbridled youth – friends now and they bring offerings such as string to the doll family.

 

The story is of two dollhouses in a nursery, a dilapidated old one and a shiny new one, the story told from the perspective of a watchful fairy as one is cast aside and shoved in the corner while the other takes center stage and the lives of the doll families within. The new dolls are snooty and look down their noses at the old, ragged dolls – these poor dolls however are jolly and know how to have a good time despite their indigence. The beautiful Lady Patsy doll shows up on the scene and she and Peter Piper (antic ringleader of the poor dolls) and she fall in love.

Funny how all Hodgson Burnett’s tropes are remade for this kid’s story! The poor but worthy (and jolly despite their poverty) find love and are ultimately elevated, financially, socially, in the end. (As I read online reviews this seems to be the primary gripe about her as an author – if you want realism you have gone to the wrong woman I say! I wrote about some of those tropes here and here.) Interesting to me is that she makes the human child owner of said dolls decidedly unlikable – she is a selfish nasty bit of business. Frances Hodgson Burnett did not shy away from portraying unpleasant children.

However, the real reason I decided to write about this story today is that I cannot help but feel that this story planted the seeds for two other significant children’s stories. One I have written about previously and is called The Doll’s House by Rumer Godden. (That post can be found here.) Godden’s book, a similar chapter book for about the same age group, is a classic in its own right. There is a striking similarity in the lives of the dolls and the in-fighting and rivalry between them. That book has a horrific fire in it and the image remained stamped on my memory for years! (Another hugely prolific author, she wrote the book the film Black Narcissus was based on.) The threat of fire hangs heavily over this story as the Racketty Packetty home is perpetually being threatened with being burned as trash and is only saved on several occasions by the hard working fairies.

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This leads me to the second and more famous story I am fairly certain found genesis in this book, The Velveteen Rabbit. Several key elements make me feel that Margery Williams had this story in the back of her mind when she published it in 1922. First there is the old much-beloved toy versus the new toy/s story-line which is integral to both books. Then there is the rather specific plot device of scarlet fever – in the case of the velveteen rabbit it is how the rabbit meets his corporeal end after helping to nurse the boy through the illness, and in this volume it is the wealthy dolls which all fall ill with it after the irresponsible child in charge gives them all scarlet fever and does not trouble herself to make them recover. They are in turn nursed by the poor dolls and become friends after that. Margery Williams throws in a fairy at the end to help out as well.

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From The Velveteen Rabbit, original illustration by William Nicholson

 

Unlike these two latter stories, Hodgson Burnett stops short of the indelible horror of the toys being burned as is the denouement of the other two books. (An image of the celluloid doll catching fire in the Godden book may have inspired my overall fear of the frailty of celluloid which I once penned a post about here. I didn’t read The Velveteen Rabbit until I was an adult but am quite sure it also would have scarred me for life.) Instead her toys are rescued by a visiting princess – a very Burnett ending indeed.

Luchs Messbecher Beer

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Returning to the world of fascinating objects today, I offer this item which has graced the top of my refrigerator more or less as long as I can remember. It was purchased at a street fair for a few dollars in the early years of the 1990’s and has been charged first with holding loose change and in more recent years, the card we now use for laundry. It has long held a special perch on the top of the refrigerator where its cheerful striped pattern and black cat face greet us daily.

In retrospect it is not surprising that a street fair in Yorkville would produce such an item. To some degree it has mystified me – a tin beaker with beer advertising on the outside and what appears to be dry and wet measure indications on the inside. At a casual glance you might think these were cocktail recipes, but closer inspection makes that seem unlikely since indicators are for things like butter, sugar and cocoa.

Research reveals that this was a ubiquitous implement in German and German American kitchens. Evidently traditional German cooking measure is done by weight and therefore this cup expedited simple measuring, a shortcut for daily baking needs which otherwise would require taking out a scale. Strangely, for something so popular and therefore still widely available, some relatively simple questions are not easily answered. Why and how did a beer company end up producing this household device staple and what years was it produced? I have found no answers to these questions, nor have I found out much about the beer company which made it.

When I purchased it I thought it was pre-War German and while there is some speculation dating it there among online sellers, I am less convinced of that now. Dates by some sites are given as late as the 1950’s. My feeling is the 1940’s seems likely. There are shinier examples online, as below, and even a sort of zippy red version.

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Emptied from its depths I disgorged: various loose change (38 cents in US pennies, a 5 Kuna coin from Croatia, and 60 cents in Canadian change); 3 NYC subway tokens of the last variety before they did away with them (the ones with house-shaped holes in the middle); the aforementioned laundry card and doppelganger laundry cards that might or might not work any longer, and may or may not have money on them; an elderly purple vial of Rhus Toxicodendron (homeopathic remedy made from the poison ivy plant); a device that is to be used to unscrew/tightening the screws of the futon frame we sleep on (I’d frankly forgotten this entirely and gone out and purchased another several years ago); and lastly a box of straight edge razors. I went through a phase of using these razors for all sorts of things which, in retrospect, seems cavalier or even a bit dangerous now. I was using them for drawings and I got used to having them around I guess.

The new refrigerator is higher and more narrow than those of years past and some large pans have already been assigned to that venue. However, I think I can find just enough space to fit the Messbecher beaker back in its place of honor.

 

Saving Something for the Swim Back

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Devoted readers of Pam’s Pictorama know that, outside of a few occasions when excessive travel overwhelmed me, I pretty much sit down at this computer every Saturday and Sunday and write. Sometimes you all are subjected to a diatribe about what is on my mind and today is one of those days. As I am surrounded by change today, the nature of change is very much on my mind as is my own role as the agent of it.

For readers who have been following it, the kitchen renovation is finally pretty much concluded. (Various aspects of that tale can be found here , herehere and, alas also here.) We are waiting for a microwave to show up, but otherwise it has finally come to rest and just in the nick of time before we lost what remains of our collective minds. All that is left is the unpacking which has commenced and am determined I will finish this weekend. Kim and cats had it hardest being here each day with the daily construction. While all the guys were nice enough it is a small space and it was a lot to have in your face every day. Cookie in particular had to have long conversations with me about it each evening in the beginning of it all.

The kitchen looks great and most importantly seems to be easier and nicer to work in which is after all the point of a kitchen. The cats have taken full possession of it – I find them rolling and stretching on the new floor – each taking turns being king or queen of the new space.

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Cookie captured mid-roll and stretch on the new kitchen floor. There is tangible relief for all that the cat dishes have returned to their former location in the kitchen.

 

I have a long held theory about cat memory which is that it is about two weeks long. At the end of two weeks it has more or less reset to the present being all they remember. Back when we had a cleaning woman who came every other week I figured she was an all new event for them each time – they didn’t really remember that this would keep happening. (However, my cat Otto really liked one woman who spoke to her in Polish leaving me to wonder if Otto had been Polish in another life or if all cats responded well to the language.)

According to this theory, there was a moment in the middle of the month-long renovation when the cats had pretty much forgotten that there was a time when the apartment wasn’t boxed up with kitchen stuff and workmen didn’t spend part of each and every day banging away and making a smelly mess of the place. By this notion, sometime after Thanksgiving, but well before Christmas they will forget that this is the new kitchen and it will just be the kitchen. This is how cats get along in the world, it is their own process for survival which has evolved over centuries of feline lives.

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Blackie taking his turn atop two cartons of Reincarnation Stories which turned up in the middle of the packed up chaos.

 

Of course for us humans it is ultimately the same, although our memories (for the most part) are longer, our awareness of the process probably deeper. (After all, who knows what cats really think?) I may have previously opined on having a cat-like dislike of change because it is my true nature. I come to it slowly and with trepidation, and there is some real reluctance if I have to be the actual agent of it, as I was in this case. Nonetheless, it is also part of my personality that if I make up my mind to do something I pretty much grab it by the ears and do what needs doing until it is done.

I don’t know if it is age or just my experience, but as I get older this tenacity has become more pronounced and it has come to my attention that there is a sort of take-no-prisoners aspect to my approach in these situations. It takes me a long time to rouse myself to action and my decision making process is prolonged. Once committed however, I am all in.

If I drift into contemplating my past lives I wonder if in one I wasn’t a rank and file, but especially tenacious, foot soldier in let’s say Genghis Khan’s troops. (For those of you who have missed my recent wifely review of Kim’s new book Reincarnation Stories the two-part review can be found here and here, while my own reincarnation tale can be found here.) Once I accept the bit in my mouth, reluctantly or otherwise, I am driven on all cylinders and there is no way around, only straight through. And I deeply suspect that the Genghis Khan reference may have resonance for some of this who work with or encounter me in this mode.

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In my office I put a quote up recently, save something for the swim back. It seems like good advice to consider, but hard for me to follow. Once let out of the starting gate I am pretty much at a dead run from beginning to end. As I sit, rather exhausted from my exertions both at home and at work for the moment, a sort of carnage both personal and professional piled up around me, I am contemplating the sustainability of this approach. Yet, like the cats, we are who and what we are and to some extent we have to accept that.

Smooth as Glass Savings

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Today isn’t quite a toy post, but I guess we could label it a premium post, which is a genre I explore not infrequently, usually in my quest for interesting cat related items. (A favorite post about Corbin pin trays depicting cat heads can be found here, and the more recent acquisition of my Feed the Kitty bank here.)

This little bank was acquired last weekend on what may be our final trip to the store Obscura Antiques and Oddities in the East Village. I was sad to learn recently that they will be closing at the end of the year, a fact I discovered via Instagram where a parade of visitors are paying their final respects and posting them. Evidently it is more a decision about wanting to do something different than about raising rents, but I was very sorry to see this as I have made it my premium choice for expeditions celebrating my birthday or our anniversary annually. A truly great day is pairing a visit there up with a trip to the The Antique Toy Shop in Chelsea. (Some of my other adventures and acquisitions at these establishments can be found in prior post here , here and here.)

It is a bit boring to bemoan how all the interesting places for poking around in old stuff are disappearing. It is just a reality of the way we live, especially in fast moving Manhattan where things seem to come in go with an alarming rapidity. But it saddens me, as poking through the detritus of lives past is one of my great joys. However, I try to be philosophical about the general entropy of retail in Manhattan.

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Obscura Antiques and Oddities in the East Village when we visited last week. I really wish I had room for Mr. Peanut.

 

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Paper Mache mask at Obscura recently.

 

On our recent visit Kim purchased this little bank and a lovely little cabinet for me (future post) as an anniversary gift. I am just charmed by it and I immediately imagined stuffing it full of change as a child – and then being faced with the quandary of retrieving the coins as there seems to be no obvious option for cashing in. There is a seam running down it, and in the case of mine there is a crack near it which makes me wonder if someone didn’t break it in an attempt to open it at the seam. I suppose the purpose of piggy banks was saving, but I have never approved of the idea that you should have to break your beloved piggy bank in order to eventually realize your savings. It seems cruel.

My own experience with piggy banks starts with a nice pig model decorated with painted pink roses. The one below is not the one I had, but puts me reasonably in mind of it.

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I also had a Snoopy one that, given the evidence and availability on the internet of the model I called mine, every child of my generation must have owned at one time. My memory was that it was actually a bit fragile and made of some paper mache material so I did not keep change in it. It was beloved though and I owned it for a very long time. I don’t think I kept money in the pig either – although both had rubber handy plugs in the bottom for releasing the change. No smashing my pig!

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As it happens I instead kept my savings in a small safe made for that purpose. It had a combination lock (with the combination written on a tag the bottom as I remember, defeating the purpose but preventing the obvious problem) and it held a lot of coins, and then it weighed a ton. My sister and I each had one, and although I kept mine for more than a decade I could not tell you what happened to it ultimately. Somehow it and the change in it were lost to the sands of time. The one below, available on Etsy, is pretty much spot on the one I owned. It is a kick to see it again.

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Meanwhile, Pittsburgh Paint was a small Pennsylvania paint company which was acquired by a glass corporation back in 1900. Therefore the slogan smooth as glass and the glass bank premium make total sense and a slogan still associated with them today. (On the reverse side of the bank it also states, Nature’s Colors in Lasting Beauty, a poetic thought.) The paint brand is still very available and the company has become one of the world’s largest corporations, PPG. I am not in a position to comment on quality of their paint except to say that my own kitchen was recently painted with Benjamin Moore and in all fairness, I had not considered Pittsburgh.

The prevalence of contemporary piggy banks found during my online search makes me assume that children are still given them with the intention of instilling a sense of thrift and savings. In a world where, according to Google, the average price of a Hershey bar is $1.60 and a comic book almost $3, kids either need larger piggy banks or to replenish them quickly. I know nothing of the economy of childhood today, but assume it involves as more folding money than coins. In a sense this is too bad as coins were nice objects to collect and own, although folding money seemed downright exotic when I was a kid.

Raising Funds

Pam’s Pictorama Post: This weekend I am fresh back from a trip to Madison, Wisconsin. It was the first time I set foot in the state of Wisconsin and even for the residents of Madison, it was unseasonably cold and snowy. Manhattan was suffering from a modified version of the same, but it was a shock to my system nonetheless and required a scamper to find my snow boots (hidden under the cleaning products that generally live under the sink, but currently reside on the floor of the living room closet during the enduring kitchen renovation), and to retrieve my winter coat from storage. The chaos from the kitchen work has meant that the summer clothes have not been exchanged for the winter clothes here (a ritual of small apartment living) and the best I could do was to grab a few things from the basement containers, buy a few others and plan to layer a lot. (For those of you who are just tuning into my home renovation story you can find the origin post here.)

Leaving Kim and cats to fend for themselves amongst the workmen, I departed Tuesday afternoon for a whirlwind two days in Madison. This was originally meant to be a longer trip with the orchestra as they made their way to Chicago, but that part never gelled so I just zipped in and out of Wisconsin. (I will do the same in Milwaukee in December as Big Band Holiday tours the Mid-west. My prediction is more snow there!) Madison is the long-time former stomping ground of one of my colleagues and many of the people we were visiting were supporters of local Madison projects with whom she had worked for many years. Walking down the streets of Madison with her was like being with the mayor of that town so glad were they to see her back!

It was lovely to experience their hospitality and generosity. Several of them support Jazz at Lincoln Center now, largely in tribute to her, but also because they are interested in our music education programs (some in their community) and because essentially they are philanthropic people. Their support is evident in named spaces and on donor plaques throughout that town and the pride in what they have created is tangible.

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Interactive donor recognition at the Overture Center in Madison.

 

Madison, the capital of the state, is a city of about 260,000 people and a whopping student population at the university of 45,000, 10,00 of those doing graduate work year round. This makes it a little more than half the size of Minneapolis which it reminded me of in their devotion to supporting arts and culture in their community. (And not to mention winter weather.) The capital building, a slightly smaller version of the one in DC, is at the heart of downtown and I am told it is an area that teems with local life from a robust seasonal farmers market, to art fairs, music on the green and even as the starting point for their local marathon. I was also told that the building is open to the public seven days a week and in many ways this puts New York’s City Hall, increasingly inaccessible, to shame.

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Capital building in Madison, photo taken earlier this week. Even for locals the snow and single digit cold was early in the season.

 

It makes me reflect on how different it must be to raise money in an area like that – with a dedicated, but more finite donor base, sharing them with the other major charities in the community such as the hospitals, and of course the enormous fundraising machine that the university must be.

I can see pros and cons of raising money in that milieu, but at the end of the day it is a very different animal than the sort of day-to-day I experience working for an international performing arts organization in the heart of New York City. One conversation I had with someone, who spoke with great gratitude for the work my colleague had done for their city by raising money for two significant projects there, a student union and an arts complex, stayed with me in particular.

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A beautifully renovated theater from the 1920’s within the Overture arts complex in Madison.

 

While over the years individuals may have expressed gratitude for what I had done for them personally (access to the Museum’s collections, an opportunity to hear a concert for example) never had a donor expressed gratitude for the work done on behalf of the community. This struck me as an especially thoughtful perspective – imagine being thanked for raising money. Feeding the giant maw of need of one of these magnificent gems in the crown of Manhattan’s cultural life does not have the same resonance with individuals here and we are the facilitators are seen at best as a necessary part of the machine at best. Generous individuals see it as their responsibility to be philanthropic or even their pleasure, however never has anyone thanked me for helping keep the doors of the Metropolitan Museum open, nor for keeping the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra going. I must say, not that I would have expected them to either, but I was touched by the idea. It renewed my faith in my chosen profession.

While I enjoyed my stint in Wisconsin I do not pretend I am cut out for life in a small city. Enticing though space and pretty Victorian or Arts and Crafts houses in the downtown area were, I believe I would chafe quickly. Nonetheless, I will carry the experience with me and it makes me more reflective about the nature of my work. Meanwhile, I have returned contentedly to our one-room home, piled high with boxes of kitchen items for now, to deal with the newly purchased faucet with a faulty tap recently purchased and the microwave which was the wrong size and has to be exchanged. Eventually it will be finished and the winter clothes will be restored to the closets for the season and life on 86th Street will return to normal.

 

Sewn Up

Pam’s Pictorama Post: As I type I pause to consider if today’s post was a Pictorama Toy post or not, because while I think of this little fellow as a toy, he isn’t. He is a sweet little practical item from a time more or less gone by days – a sewing pin cushion and tape measure. Now, I admit it is hard to imagine sticking pins in this fella (making him perhaps more hedgehog than kitty), but he would be very cheerful and perky to perch on your sewing table or to find in your sewing basket. When grasped you can hear the crunch of his kapok or sawdust filling (aren’t pin cushions filled with something to sharpen the pins though?), his eyes are glass and his cheerful red tongue can be pulled out for a tape measure. (I cannot not display this as it no longer can be made to retract.) He has a tag on his tummy, but any manufacture information printed on it has long faded away. I like his red plastic collar which has remained firmly in place.

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I have already opined previously on my inability to sew. (That post which features another pin cushion cat can be found here.) My maternal grandmother didn’t sew a lot, however she did have a sewing basket which I now only remember as round and I believe covered in fabric, although most I see from the same period are wicker so perhaps my memory is flawed. As a child the magic of the sewing box was all about the rare occasion of when it was opened and I could peer into the interesting bits and pieces inside. Sewing baskets make tremendous sense, housing all those sewing necessities in one place so that one can quickly get down to the task at hand. However, as I do it so seldom I seem to be loathe to spare the shelf or table space and instead have to scramble each and every time I sew a button on.

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The pleasant jumble inside this sewing box reminds me at least a little of my grandmother’s.

 

Crammed inside there were scraps of fabric, thread of course and fascinating tools whose use I had no idea of – nor have I necessarily learned about them since. The exception was the shiny coin-like needle threaders which always interested me – so bright and tempting! They are an exception because I eventually learned to use one and ultimately became utterly dependent on them for threading needles, especially as I get older and my eyes get more frustrated with the difficulty of this task. Wikipedia tells me that these have been around since the late 18th or early 19th century and that a head of a woman is generally stamped on them, which is how I think of them. I show the classic version as I know it below. Genius!

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Additionally, I am familiar with this model below of porcelain doll as sewing kit although I cannot remember who used one. Perhaps my father’s mother who sewed less than my other grandmother, but I have a very specific tactile memory of these. I think I was very small and slightly afraid of it.

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If I had discovered this little kitty along the way I don’t think anyone could have stopped me from nabbing him for my own. As it was, he was one of my very first black cat purchases from a now defunct antiques annex in Red Bank, New Jersey. He sits proudly among the other black cats where to my knowledge no one remarks on his utilitarian beginnings.

On Stuff

Pam’s Pictorama Post: As we remain packed (and dusty) during our renovation stint I find myself reluctant to go digging among my collections so today I am reflecting on that which I have recently packed up in the process. Life in our apartment is about maintaining status quo right now, with hopes of all returning to its rightful place in about ten days. The process of packing up was by necessity much quicker than I would have liked (tucked in after the window replacement packing and unpacking a few days prior) and unfortunately the thinning out of unnecessary items will have to occur on the unpacking side.

As I have opined – it is a very small kitchen and in general a compact, tiny really, apartment. Having said that I was amazed by how much I had managed to store in the kitchen cabinets. Like a clown car at the circus, it just kept coming and filling more (and yet more) boxes. I had honestly thought I could pack the kitchen in two hours and instead found myself searching frantically for additional boxes and packing well into the night. Boxes were piled higher and claimed more space in the living room until there was only a path through it.

What I found interesting was that in some ways it was like excavating through the layers of my life back to my much younger self, setting up my first apartment in New York City. As I measure the reality of my life against the sort of adult existence I imagined for myself, the difference can be divined through dishes rarely or never used.

I was launched from my home in New Jersey with access to generations of dishes and a certain wonderful excess of antique furniture. (As a result I have a truly unusual number of antique rocking chairs in a very small space, but we’ll discuss my family’s mania for chairs another time.) As I packed up wine decanters and covered serving dishes well into that evening I realized I had envisioned a life where I would entertain more, one where I would actually cook. I was unable to peer into a future where at most we would grab some pizza or take-out from the Mexican place across the street (run by a Korean family which makes for not quite authentic, but perfectly satisfying cuisine), move some piles of books and call it a meal.

In addition to the aforementioned decanters and covered dishes, I am in possession of a full set of sterling silver – I think it is service for at least eight. I had tucked away serving bowls, luncheon plates and some fairly esoteric baking devices such as a gram scale, which had not seen the light of day in decades. I will certainly send much of this on its way to a thrift store in hopes that it finds a home where it is trotted out and used more frequently and I am touched in some ways with gratitude that I was launched into adulthood with such largess. Nonetheless, I am also confronted with a ghost memory of a younger me, imaging a different sort of future where I would cook and bake and have a need for serving dishes. One that has never really reached fruition.

It isn’t like I have never cooked for friends, although admittedly it has not happened in recent years. I am a good cook – professionally trained as I thought that was how I would make my living at one time. It is a muscle I rarely exercise beyond weekend meals for Kim and I however and those more about dietary exactitude and convenience than creative cooking endeavors. (However, Pictorama readers might remember when I was seized with a desire for my grandmother’s poor man’s cake over the holidays last year and I recreated it with the help of the internet. I posted about it here. Incidentally I found the Pyrex baking dishes I knew I owned and could not find and which I ultimately replaced with a purchase from ebay.)

In part it isn’t just me but the world that has changed and I dare say there aren’t many people in New York apartments who are making much use of decanters or cake plates these days, even in larger abodes. Perhaps it happens in the houses in other parts of the country where HDTV home renovation television thrives – but even there the days of formal dining rooms seem to have faded away.

The question remains, how much of this will I keep out of a sense of nostalgia and perhaps promise. By this I mean, will our entirely new kitchen mean a renaissance of baking and cooking? It seems unlikely given my current job and priorities. Still, with the holidays on the horizon there is an itch for another poor man’s cake and perhaps even some of my grandmother’s spice cookies if I can locate the recipe.