How to Cook Like Julia Child: A Play in Two Acts

ACT I

[Marie is in her kitchen, assembling ingredients and reviewing the appropriate pages of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking to prepare the Custard Apple Tart. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major streams from Pandora.]

Marie: I have reviewed the recipe, purchased the ingredients, and assembled all the things. I even poured a beer to enjoy as I cook. I’m ready!IMG_4430.jpg

Marie: [Reads aloud Step 1 of the Custard Apple Tart Recipe on page 637] Use the sweet short paste on page 633 for the pastry shell. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Marie: [Preheats oven. Turns to page 633.]

Marie: [The recipe lists “Amounts Needed” as follows:

“For an 8- to 9-inch shell, proportions for 1 ½ cups flour.”

“For a 10- to 11-inch shell, proportions for 2 cups flour.”

IMG_4422.jpgThen, “Proportions for 1 cup flour” with the actual recipe to follow.]

Marie: …

Marie: [Asking a friend] Does this mean that I’m to adjust the recipe by adding .5 for everything since I have a 9-inch pan?

Friend: This is nuts. I have no idea. I’ll read it some more.

Friend:I believe you adjust the recipe amounts to 1.5. So you’ll use 1 cup flour and 1.5 cups sugar.

Marie: This is why I don’t use Julia’s recipes more. They make me crazy. I adjust everything, right, not just the flour?

Friend: Adjust fats by .5 also. Urgh!

Marie:I can’t do math! Damn you, Julia!

Friend:Blahhh – why butter AND shortening?

Marie: 1 ½ T shortening x .5 is…2.25 T shortening?

Friend: 2 T and 1 tsp. Unless you have a quarter tablespoon measure. A teaspoon is about a third of a tablespoon.

Marie: Don’t round. Must be precise. I need the math.

Friend: Urk. 2 T plus .75 tsp.

Marie: Fuck. I got 2.25 T. Is that the same thing?

Lisa: I think so?

Marie: All I can think of is my remedial math teacher in college intoning, “fractions never go away.”

Lisa: I hate that teacher! But, he is right.

Marie: [Mixes dough. Does baking things.] Motherf…the dough has to chill in the freezer for an hour. Guess I’ll turn the oven off.

Friend: Oh, fer…

Marie: I’m assuming that the “freezing compartment of the refrigerator” is the freezer, yes?

Friend: Hahahahaha!

Marie: Or, the dough can be refrigerated for two hours or overnight. That’s right, two hours, or tomorrow. There is no in-between, apparently.

Marie: [reviews instructions for making the dough] It says to “place the flour in the bowl, mix in the sugar and salt, and then proceed to make the dough …” Make the dough? That’s the instruction? It’s like being on the technical challenge of the Great British Baking Show.

Marie: [Looks up instructions for making the dough on page 140]

Marie: [Reads aloud the instructions for making the dough in a food processor. She is not making this up.]

Measure the dry ingredients into the bowl. Quarter the chilled sticks of butter lengthwise and cut crosswise into 3/8 inch pieces; add to the flour along with the chilled shortening. Flick the machine on and off 4 or 5 times, then measure out a scant half-cup of iced water. Turn the machine on and pour it all in at once; immediately flick the machine on and off….

Marie: [Stops reading, because that is insane.]

Marie: [Reviews how to make dough with her hands.]

Place the dough on a lightly floured pastry board. With the heel of one hand, not the palm which is too warm, rapidly press the pastry by two-spoonful bits down on the board and away from you…

Marie: F this, I’m just going to knead the dough.

Marie: [Reads instructions}

“Then press the dough firmly into a roughly shaped ball. It should just hold together and be pliable but not sticky.”

Marie: What if it IS sticky, Julia? What, then?IMG_4423.jpg

Marie: [Rolls the sticky dough into a ball, wraps it in waxed paper as directed, and places it on a plate in the refrigerator for two hours, but not overnight, having not felt confident on the meaning of the “freezing compartment of the refrigerator.”]

Marie: [Finishes beer and wonders what she got herself into.]

[End of scene, End of Act I]

 

ACT II

[After a walk outdoors to rethink her culinary choices, Marie is back in the kitchen, attempting to roll out what she hopes will pass for dough. The only sound is that of her despair.]

[Six hours later…]

Marie: I have a tart! It’s pretty and it tastes good. Also, I am never doing this again.

[End of scene, End of Act II, End of Play]

IMG_4431.jpg

The Key to Maintaining A Healthy Weight in Your 40s

I am a reasonably slim, physically fit woman. I have always been active, and enjoy exercise. Yet, despite these truths, I started gradually putting on a little more weight, and a little more, and a little more after that, until one day I was 40 years old and had no idea how I suddenly needed all new pants.

I went hiking last year with a dear friend and after several hours of a fairly grueling ascent, we took a selfie. I hated – and I mean hated – how I looked in that picture. I was embarrassed by that picture. My friend posted that picture to Facebook and I almost asked her to take it down. Then I thought, no. Hiding from this is not the answer. Instead, I need to figure out what I’m going to do about it, because no way am I buying all new pants, again.

Marie before
My “Before” picture

How It Happened

In a nutshell: I turned 40. When women get to middle age, our metabolism decreases by about 5% for every ten years past the age of 40.[1]By changing nothing other than simply observing the passage of time, I will continue to gain weight slowly yet steadily. It’s a cruel game, but one that I am determined to win.

What I Did About It

I resolved to make some changes in my life. I started by moving more. I found some buddies at work who also want to move more, and we went for a brisk half hour walk every day at lunchtime. Eventually, I found some coworkers who wanted to hit the gym pretty hard during our lunch breaks, so I joined them. Together, we have been incorporating running and strength training – get this – into my workday. That was a tough change at first. I had to embrace packing (and unpacking) a gym bag each and every day. I needed a second pair of sneakers so I could keep a pair in my bag at all times. I got used to taking a sometimes cold shower on the fly after a workout and going back to my desk just a bit askew. I accepted that any good hair day I had would only last for the morning, because after lunch I would have workout hair.

And you know what? It was worth it.

Within six months I noticed I not only had more energy, but my pants were fitting looser. I was able to lift heavier weights. I started to like what I saw when I looked in the mirror more and more.

Don’t Count Calories

As much as I know that exercise helped not only my waistline but also my psyche, changing my eating habits helped much more. I met with a nutritionist, and that was helpful, mostly because she showed me that as long as I am eating nutritionally dense foods, I can eat much more than I thought I could and stay within a healthy calorie range. But the real key was when I met with my doctor and asked for her recommendation for a healthy weight. She paused for a minute, and then said thoughtfully: “Women in our 40s and 50s just don’t need as many calories.”

It was like a light went off. She’s right. That’s the key. It really is that simple.

I have to work on not eating when I’m not hungry. I don’t need to munch on something every time I sit down with a book. I don’t need to pre-emptively eat now just in case I get hungry later and don’t have easy access to food. I started stashing healthy, protein-heavy snacks in easy to grab places. I have a large tub of unsalted mixed nuts in my desk at work. I bought 100 calorie Kind bars so I can throw one in my bag for when I’m out and about. I made it easy for myself to always have something that tastes good and is nutrient-rich around me at all times, so that I make better choices.

This way, when I do make less than healthy choices, I’m not derailing myself. I still eat ice cream, but I buy mochi, which are individual sized bites of ice cream wrapped in rice dough. They’re delightful and portion controlled. I sometimes eat more fruit snacks than I should but I make sure to buy them in individual sized packages so I don’t snarf an entire bag in one sitting. Sure, buying things that are pre-packaged that way is a bit less economical than portioning them out myself, but not having to buy all new pants – again – is well worth the added bit of expense of these foods. I’m more likely to stick with the healthy snacks when I make it as easy on myself as possible to access them.

Throw Away the Scale

This step is key. I was making myself crazy by stepping on my bathroom scale every day, every day. Then the battery died, and I made a conscious decision not to replace it. I give the side eye to the scale at the gym and keep on walking. I’ll let my doctor weigh me once a year, but other than that, the only number I’ll pay attention to is the one on the smaller size pants that I’m buying.

I also do not count calories, ever. Do I have a better idea of what constitutes 100 calories? Yes. Am I getting more comfortable with just how much food I need at any given meal to be satisfied and healthy? Yes, though that’s still a process. When counting calories, I would try to “win” by eating as few of my allotted calories a day. That was a mistake. I was constantly hungry, and then angry, and then hangry, and then had no energy, and this doesn’t work! Do not do this to yourself! I am now in the habit of knowing that I will be happier if I eat those multi-grain toaster waffles with almond butter in the morning than if I have a doughnut for breakfast. I’m giving up nothing.

What’s Next

I’m going to continue to plan meals, including making extra and freezing them. This way, when I’m hungry and don’t have the time or energy to cook, I simply pull a premade meal out of the freezer, defrost, and enjoy. I’m going to continue to exercise regularly and find new ways to fit exercise into my daily routine, because I enjoy it, not because I feel that I should. I’m going to continue not caring about the number on the scale, because the real point of life is to find the balance between enjoying food without overindulging in food (which really isn’t so enjoyable anyway).

after
Me today.

I plan to eat all the things, but to remember that I simply don’t need as many calories, and let that be my guide. So far, it’s working out pretty well.

[1]https://www.webmd.com/diet/features/fighting-40s-flab#1

 

The Day I Stopped Using My Fitbit

I recently started making a conscious choice to change my habits when it comes to technology. I have been staring at my phone too long, losing hours to mindlessly web surfing. I jumped at every message that came in, and even started my day using my phone as my alarm clock, which inevitably led to more staring at the screen as I used that as an excuse not to face the day. The final straw was when I was sitting in the dentist’s chair and saw a poster on the wall advertising the latest electronic toothbrush. The thing comes with an app that you can use for – who cares what you can use it for. I was almost angry when looking at that poster. The last thing I want is to need my phone to use my toothbrush. What on earth have we become?

This inspired me to start thinking about all of the ways I have been using my phone out of habit. I even brought it to the office gym every day when I would work out at lunchtime. Why on earth do I need my phone at the gym? I don’t. Sometimes when I run on the treadmill, I don’t mind having tunes to keep me occupied, but normally I work out with other people. I don’t need the phone to do the workout. Someone else is usually willing to stream music while we exercise, and take a group picture after we’re done. And if we miss out on those things, oh well. Small price to pay for being untethered.

Plus, I found that when I had my phone with me, I would linger before showering to check email, scan Facebook, and generally waste time. It was getting ridiculous.

So, one day, I left my FitBit at home by accident. I got halfway to my car, thought about going back for it, and then thought, nope.

It was that simple. That was two weeks ago and I haven’t touched it since. I haven’t charged it. I haven’t synced it. I haven’t missed it.

When I first got the Fitbit, I enjoyed using it to connect to others. Then I enjoyed using it to compete with others. And then I enjoyed using it to compete with myself.

However, after not too long at all, I realized that I was starting to feel obligated to stare at my phone to sync my steps at least once a day, if not more. And when I started working out with the group at lunchtime, those strength workouts didn’t add up to nearly as many steps even though I was getting better exercise. I found that thanks to those daily workouts, I was getting more than enough fitness and really didn’t need to overwhelm myself with trying to get in more steps.

I certainly wasn’t going to feel obligated to then walk an arbitrary number of additional steps just to meet … what? Whose goal, exactly? Daily step goals are great to get you out of a rut. They’re interesting to see how far you go on a day when you’re on your feet a lot. But walking a minimum number of steps is merely one way to work exercise into your day. It’s certainly not the only way.

While the FitBit can be a gateway to developing newer, better fitness habits, I found that it was also a gateway to developing an unhealthy phone addiction.

To cap it all off, today I received an email from Fitbit alerting users to a recent data breach. Awesome. I knew while using it that I was wearing a GPS tracking device. I was aware of how much information I was choosing to upload to the magic cloud in the sky. But all the same, with so much of our lives happening digitally now, it is time for companies like this to step up their security game, and protect their users. Basic respect for privacy, within the limits of what we choose to share, is not an unreasonable expectation.

All signs are pointing to no more Fitbit. And I am very much okay with that.

How I Got Through College Without Crippling Student Loan Debt, aka Thanks, Mom and Dad

This morning, I read yet another “how I wound up with a bajillion dollars worth of student loan debt” article. And I experienced my usual reaction: it’s not as if the cost of tuition or the cost of interest on the loans were a surprise. No one did that to you. You made a choice. If you don’t want to end up with crippling debt, don’t borrow the money.

Then, I thought back to my own college experiences, and about the choices that I made that allowed me to graduate debt-free. And I realized that it’s an easy thing to point debt-free fingers now, but important to remember that when you’re 18, 19, 20 years old, there’s no magic place from which to get the information you need to make smart financial choices. The learning curve for how borrow responsibly and manage debt can be steep.

After one year in college, I wanted very much to transfer from my affordable state university to a fancy private school in my dream city. My parents, who were generously paying the full bill for me to attend said state school, were not happy about this decision. They didn’t really understand it. Neither of them attended a residential college. My dad commuted to his school while living at home with his parents, and my mom didn’t go to college, instead working to save money while dad was in school. “That’s just what people did,” mom always said.

So, the idea of eschewing this incredible free (to me) thing – a full ride, including room and board, at a well-regarded university, in favor of a much more expensive degree at a school that they regarded as essentially the same only this one would require plane tickets to get me there and back and a much higher price tag – was unthinkably bizarre to them.

To me, the allure was living in the brand new city, spreading my wings, and experiencing life. The school had a unique work-study program that would have allowed me a structured way to get significant work experience under my belt by the time I graduated. It also involved moving away from home, which had a lot of appeal.

My parents only saw the price tag: Fancy Private School cost a whopping three times as much as Perfectly Fine State University. My parents were willing to continue paying the same money they had set aside for me to attend Perfectly Fine State University, but I would have to come up with the balance on my own.

I knew even then that coming up with that amount of money was not going to be easy.

I was disappointed. My dreams of living a grand life in Fabulous New City were crushed. Darn my parents and their practicality!

I stayed at Perfectly Fine State University and learned to make the best of it. I made good friends. I found my own work-study opportunities.

I’ll be honest – it was a long time before I was able to let go of the big idea of attending Fancy Private School. I can look back on it now, twenty-plus years later, and see the benefit of my choice to stay at Perfectly Fine State University as I am able to move forward with my life enjoying the lack of crippling debt that an expensive undergraduate education would have cost me.

What stopped me from taking out loan after loan and [insert dramatic emphasis] going after my dream of attending Fancy Private School was not logic or understanding of personal finance. It was, quite simply, my parents.

It was seeing how stressed my mother was at wanting so badly to help me have the thing I clearly wanted but knowing she couldn’t afford to send me there. (And, to be fair, my parents gave me a pretty nice life. It’s just that the Thing That I Wanted was ridiculously expensive and unnecessary.)

It was sitting with my dad in the hotel room in Fancy New City when he took me there to visit the school (and probably hoped to show me that it really wasn’t all that different than my Perfectly Fine State University. To me, though, Fancy New Private School was all glitter and rainbows). After going on a tour of the campus, we went back to the hotel, and had a chat. That’s when he said that he and my mother were prepared to continue paying the same amount of money they had planned to pay to send me to Perfectly Fine State University, and that if I were serious about attending Fancy Private School, I was going to be responsible for coming up with the difference in cost.

“How are you going to do that?” my father asked. I had no idea. I had a vague awareness that other people took out loans. I thought I could do that, too! My dad explained a bit about how long it might take to pay off that amount of money. He talked about how difficult it might be for me to borrow the amount of money I needed, because he was not willing to co-sign a loan or sign the student loan paperwork that would require me (him) to divulge his salary and other assets to the federal government.

I was stumped. How do other people do this, I wondered?

I still don’t know for sure how people finance that kind of expensive anything without help. Through massive interest rates, most likely. Perhaps they do have a parent or other family member willing to co-sign a loan. I truly don’t know how people even get that kind of money to borrow, let alone figure out how to pay back, without any participation from their parents, as nascent young adults without an established credit history.

What I do know is that it was hard enough to figure out how to live on my entry-level paycheck for my first job out of college without loan payments to make. I don’t see how I could have gone to graduate school with that kind of debt under my belt, either. Or bought a house. Or saved for retirement.

Do I wonder, every now and then, what life would have been like had I been able to move to Fancy New City and attend Fancy Private School? Sure, I do. Am I grateful that I had parents willing to help me put the brakes on and make a more sensible decision that would affect me long-term? Absolutely. I realize that not everyone has that kind of support built in, and I try to keep that in mind when I read yet another article about someone who took on hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of college debt without realizing just how financially crippling that would be. Sometimes, people really don’t know the effects of a decision like that until it’s too late.

Finance Series: Introductory Post

I’m 41 years old, and I have been saving money for retirement for roughly half of those years. I thank my dad for that. He would talk to me about saving and investing so often that it was a normal topic of conversation for me. Thanks to him, I took two key pieces of action when I was in college: I opened an IRA and I started investing in a mutual fund.

I have had both of those accounts ever since, and over time, I have taken other steps to save for retirement, and while I am on track to meet my retirement goals, it is not uncommon for me to meet others in their 30s and 40s who have not started saving for retirement, and who aren’t sure how to start.

I am not a financial planner and have no credentials that qualify me to dispense investment advice. What I do have is personal experience and a low tolerance for being unprepared. I’m also a big fan of money and like finding ways to balance saving as much as possible while living my best life. In a series of upcoming blog posts, I will share some of my personal decisions and the information I have learned along the way.

My upcoming topics include:

  • Open an IRA: I’ll talk about what an IRA is and why (and how) you should start one
  • Invest in a mutual fund: I’ll talk about what that is and how it can be a great way to save a little extra money that you won’t miss and then watch it grow
  • Avoid debt like the plague, except when you shouldn’t: I’ll talk about the difference between good debt and bad debt.
  • Your FICO score: what it is and why it’s important, as well as how to build and maintain your credit history
  • When to co-sign a loan. (Hint: you should never co-sign a loan)
  • Car-buying: How to choose wisely
  • How much to save for retirement: are you wondering how to save for retirement when you can barely make ends meet? It’s possible. If I could save money when earning $9/hour without benefits, so can you.
  • Change your mindset, change your future: How to maximize the retirement benefits from your employer. There is no such thing as not being able to afford to get the full match from your employer.
  • When to hire others to help manage your money. Why have an accountant and/or financial planner, and how to afford them.
  • First steps: I’ll share the first, second, and third steps you should take toward saving for retirement, regardless of income.

What other topics would you like to see in this space?

A quick note on customer service

A colleague and I like to trade customer service stories. He loves Plated and recommended them to me. So far, I haven’t had any issues with them that required resolution, but my friend has. Little things, like once they forgot a minor ingredient, so they credited him a few dollars to cover the cost. Or, recently, his box was delivered to the wrong house. It took a few extra hours and some confusion before the error was revealed, and in the end, all was well, but Plated took the extra step of crediting my friend the cost of the box. He did not expect this, nor did he request it, but Plated’s response was, “You were inconvenienced. That is not okay. This box is on us.”

In return, my friend tells others about this, and then they want to use Plated, too. It’s a win all the way around. Plated empowered it’s customer service representatives to consider how customers might feel in a given situation, and made an adjustment. Plated gets it right.

Recently, I experienced the opposite of Plated’s customer service, from Amazon.

I reached out to Amazon because a book I had ordered was not delivered on time. Did I need the book that exact second? No. But I didn’t like the pattern of delivery issues I have been having with Amazon, and this book coming late did not help.

In the last year, I have had four items either not delivered per their “guaranteed” delivery date, or not delivered at all.

When I did reach out to Amazon to address these issues, I struggled to reach resolution. I filed an electronic complaint, and was rewarded with five – count them, five – robo-calls from Amazon’s customer service department. It was the weirdest thing; I would answer my phone only to hear a recorded message saying, “Thank you for calling Amazon’s Kindle services…a customer representative will be with you shortly…your estimated wait time is…”

Seriously? First, I didn’t reach out to Kindle services. Second, you called me, Amazon. Why on earth do you think it’s a good idea to ring someone’s phone only to force them into being on hold? Whose idea of customer service is that?

While I do think the company should refund items that never arrive (which they did), and I do think they should be held accountable for their so-called “guarantees” without customers chasing them down (after all, what does “guaranteed” delivery mean otherwise?), what will keep me a loyal customer of any business is some acknowledgement that the company actually values me as an individual. I want to shop with businesses that empower their staff to keep their word, stand behind their promises, and deliver as expected. And mistakes happen, own it. Stand behind the promises you make to your customers, and don’t make excuses. And for the love of all things sacred and holy, don’t make them chase you down (or sit on hold) to make it right.

 

Because Nice Matters

Several years ago, I was the manager on duty at a large cultural attraction during our biggest fundraising event of the year. Thousands of people came through our gates that day, and my job was to keep things running smoothly. That involved managing the main gate ticket sales, keeping the flow of guests running without issue, and addressing all of the various and sundry issues that come up over the course of a busy day.

By the time we were within an hour of closing, I was tired. I loved my job, but it’s amazing how demanding people can be once they have bought a ticket to something. Suddenly, “the customer is always right” echoes in their minds and typically reasonable people let their rude flags fly.

I was standing near the main gate, saying goodbye to guests as they left, when a man walked up to the ticket window. He wanted to renew his annual membership to our attraction. The ticket agent offered the standard discount for an early membership renewal – 10%. The gentleman politely asked for a 20% discount instead. The ticket agent said she could only offer 10% off. The man, again politely, asked to speak with someone who could authorize a larger discount. The ticket agent pointed at me.

The man walked over. He explained that he was a member and would like to continue to be a member. He was interested in renewing his membership that day, but would appreciate a 20% discount instead of the standard 10% discount for early renewals. I explained that that was not our policy.

He then told me about his strategy. Over the last year or so, when he would go to places like home improvement stores or other attractions, he would see rude customers harass customer service agents and get their rudeness rewarded with whatever they demanded, whereas the people who didn’t speak up did not receive the same concessions. So, he made a decision. He was going to try being nice and simply ask for what he wanted, on the theory that people who were used to taking abuse would appreciate being treated with consideration and he could then get what he wanted without being rude. Everybody wins.

Over the last year or so, he had been able to receive discounts for all sorts of things, simply by being nice. He was right; being nice was a great strategy. He knew that I had likely been beleaguered by rude people all day long (I had), and that if he spoke with me at the end of the day, I might appreciate speaking with a nice person (I did). He was straightforward and transparent. Of course I gave him a bigger discount than the standard one. He saved a bit of money, I had an enjoyable conversation with a nice person, and the attraction kept a loyal member.

Over time, I find that being nice is generally the way to go, as a customer, as a service provider, or as a human being in general. We can all stand to err on the side of kindness and transparency in our personal and business dealings.