Archives for the month of: September, 2011

File under: It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

When we walked into the animal shelter near Christmas 2010, our mission was simple and well-articulated: Get two cats, so they could play together and we could leave them alone for days at a time without feeling guilty. They would forever be inside cats, so as not to risk their disappearing one night or getting in fights, like Kitty used to do.

We lost our cat, Cat, about this time last year. Daphne, who adores animals of all kinds, was heart-broken. We had healed, resisted getting another pet, and then it just felt like it was time to jump back in.

Now I wonder what on earth I was possibly thinking.

My first clue should have been the relative emptiness of the feline kennel. Typically, the cat house at the shelter is packed to the gills with mewing, itchy-watery-eye-inducing claw bags. Not the day before Christmas Eve. Everyone else had made it in early to select their holiday gifts. What we encountered were the six or seven left-overs.

When we walked by Rudolph’s cage, he reached up and out, as if to tap us on the leg to get our attention. “Excuse me, madams,” I could imagine him saying in a British accent, “But could you bother stroking my side? It has been a while…” Charming. Absolutely charming. We went into his cage (I should explain that the cages are dog-kennel-sized and we could stand upright, lest you picture a cozier, more awkward set-up), and he softly head-butted our legs, amping up the effect by purring loudly. When we found ourselves distracted by another cat, Rudy politely reminded us by reaching up with his high-five to tap us again. Delightful.

There was nothing particularly noteworthy about any of the other animals, except that Carol was the smallest and was the only calico in the bunch. She was so pretty. It was with that shallow assessment that she made the cut. Rudy we selected for his dogishness.

We still lived in our house at the time. Our cats had always been indoor/outdoor cats, so although we had a litter box, the cats tended to do their business in the yard. This was about to change, as we did not intend to let Rudy and Carol out.

I have had two indoor cats before, so I do have a reference point for what I am about to assert: It quickly became clear that Rudy and Carol were the smelliest, messiest, and most prodigious defecators in existence. And I’ve seen horses and elephants drop loads, so bear that in mind.

The litter box was under the sink in Daphne’s bathroom, so her room constantly reeked of sewage. I could not figure out what was wrong with these animals. At first, I thought that perhaps they had picked up an illness at the shelter. But the days and eventually weeks passed, and they were still grossing us out. I scoured the internet and hit up friends for advice. I purchased expensive cat food. I even made brown rice and boiled chicken so that all they had to eat was meat and grains for a while. Nothing seemed to help.

I would clean their litter box two or three times a day. I had to. Otherwise, I could not have insisted that my child sleep in the vicinity. Typically, I would say that these were her pets and that she should clean up after them, but managing to neatly dispose of diarrhea bombs is not something of which I assume that child capable.

Eventually, I settled on pine litter instead of the clay, and that helped with the smell a lot. It was also a lot less messy than the clay pebbles, which was helpful since both cats were flingers when burying their business (if they bothered to bury it at all).

Their personalities came out quickly. Rudy was obviously a lap cat. He wanted to be in the middle of everything and would sit on your lap if you were reading, on your arms if you were using the computer, and on your newspaper if you were really wrapped up in an article (hypothetically; in my town, this never happens). Carol was a batter. If she could move something from wherever it was perched to the floor, she would go for it. Big messes, little messes. Lots and lots of messes.

But they were just babies; the shelter estimated that Rudy would be two in July and Carol would be one in May. So surely they’d be out of the kitten phase soon, I erroneously reasoned.

When we moved into the trailer, it was as though shrunken environs amplified their characteristics. We have no real countertop space, and we can’t leave things on the table because we use it so much. Instead, Carol took to batting around their food and water dishes. I would move them back and correct her, but then she’d just do it again. Perhaps I should have just left the food and water in the middle of the kitchen floor.

However, I saw this as a challenge. My first plan of action was to purchase the allegedly “no skid” bowls from PetSmart. My cat had those for lunch. Figuratively. In no time, the heavy stainless steel containers with nifty rubber skirting were being treated like hockey pucks, but hockey pucks that slosh water and suspiciously-formulated nuggets all over the laminate floor.

Next, I purchased the “feeders.” You know, the containers that hold several days’ worth of food and water? I figured that those might be heavy enough to prevent Carol from moving them around at her whim. They seemed to be working okay (she did bat at them a couple of times) until I went away overnight and returned to find the water container on its side, empty, in the kitchen floor. The carpet in the dining area and living room was not even damp, so I can only assume that the little… well, Carol, knocked the bottle over fairly soon after I had left and that she and Rudy spent the better part of 24 hours trying to drink out of the toilet which, I’m sure they’ve learned, doesn’t hold water in an RV the way a house house toilet does.

Idiots.

The final stage of the plan, because I couldn’t imagine what else I might try if this didn’t work, was to sink anchor screws into my wall and to hold the water and food containers in their respective places using tiny bungee cords from The Home Depot.

Guess what? That worked! Carol spent about five hours a day for the next week trying to figure out how to dislodge the containers, but she never succeeded. She did strum some interesting notes on the cords, but the dishes held tight.

Carol’s solution? Knocking over the 13-gallon kitchen trash can! Yes, that 3 pound pipsqueak, who does not appear to have the ability to grow, despite her food aggression, copious consumption of cat food, and stealth of any item of unprotected people food, can rock the trash can until it falls over into the floor, spilling its contents and creating her own personal playground.

About a month ago, Carol found a new victim: Toilet paper. I don’t know why she hadn’t realized its shredding potential in the past, but now we have to perch the roll atop the mirror in the restroom, lest we come home to cat-made confetti.

Both Rudy and Carol will hop into any open cabinet. This is particularly problematic under the sink, where they can climb behind the stove and access the wires leading to the fuse box. We have no way to retrieve them there. Plus, when they get into the closets, our clothes end up all hairy(er. Than usual).

Carol especially likes to go outside. And by “likes,” I mean that she stands at the door, using her kitty ESP to intuit when we’re about to be home. She then darts out, if she can, but Daphne has gotten good at blocking her and making loud, obnoxious noises to scare her off. The other night, I’d gotten home at 10 o’clock and nodded off before receiving a phone call. At about midnight, I heard a familiar, plaintive, “Meow”ing from outside the living room window. Carol must have sneaked out when I’d arrived at the RV, and my argument to Daphne’s OCD about swooping the cat up in her arms whenever I leave or slamming the door closed, pushing on it with her behind, testing it by trying to pull it open, then trying the door knob and the latching mechanism: “They’ve never gotten out before and I open the door LOTS when you’re gone” was rendered moot.

Rudy is a snuggler, which would be nice, but he is relentless. He decides to be loving when you’re trying to work or read, or when it’s bed time. Then he’ll come stand on your chest (and his pawfalls seem to be targeted right on the most sensitive areas, if you know what I’m sayin’) and ram his head into your face or your hand. If you don’t respond, he “high-fives” you until you notice his claws digging into whatever is nearest to him. He does this when I’m working out. I’ll be doing squats, and he stands up on the countertop, reaching out and grabbing at my arm or shoulder.

Rudy also likes to knock over beverages, especially if they’re in a foam cup. I don’t know why that is his preference, but it is. He will take a perfectly good Route 44 Diet Coke, easy ice, and upend it, sending it crashing to the floor in an explosion of carbonated water and syrup.

Finally, the cats DO play together, as we’d hoped. The problem is that they play together the most exuberantly between the hours of 6:00 and 8:00 every morning, the majority of which time we are still in bed. And they have no caring for the fact that there are things as sensitive as human bodies snuggled underneath the highly un-claw-proof sheets. They zoom over us like we were traction-enhancing pincushions. The first run is the worst, when it wakes you from a dead sleep. The one right after you dozed back to sleep is pretty terrible, too.

So why do I keep the cats? Simple: Daphne is in love with them. I don’t anticipate a reality in which I live both with my daughter and without cats. So I grin (most of the time) and bear it (having no other choice). We’re half way to college…

Wanna hear my first genius idea about RV cooking adaptations and the aforementioned limitations I have with my current set-up and familiarity with propane as a heat source for preparing foodstuffs?

If not, you shouldn’t read this entry. Otherwise, proceed.

My cakes have burnt in the oven, thought I, so why not cook them on top of the stove? This would require applying heat to both sides, lest the top of the cake remain raw, so flipping would be necessary. I would use a shallow metal skillet, and I would call my creation: pan-cake.

What?

Oh.

Nevermind.

It seemed like an idea that might possibly work. After a couple of misfires with judging how “done” the underside of the cake layers were, I ended up with a respectable stack of lemon pan-cakes.

You can see the problem, though: uneven size and shape. Even though I used a consistent amount each time I poured, my lack of skill in shaping and turning the pancakes lead to a hodgepodge of yumminess.

They tasted fine, but I realized that this might pose a problem later. Had I used a thick icing, I could have faked it. Alas, that was not to be.

A cream cheese frosting was my plan. I put the fat-free cream cheese into the mixer to soften it up and then realized that I was out of powdered sugar. I covered the mixing bowl in foil (Jim gave me his deceased parents’ KitchenAid when I moved into the RV. Score!).

Over the next few days, I routinely forgot to purchase powdered sugar when I was at the store. The cream cheese hardened a bit, permanently, and Daphne and I ate about half of the lemon pancakes. They were just that delicious.

By the time I finally did bring home ye olde confectioner’s, the cream cheese had developed a permanent skin. I scraped that off and worked with what I had left. I also learned that fat free cream cheese does not make a stable frosting. It’s too thin, and I had to use two pounds of sugar just to make it spreadable (versus pourable). It still tasted great, though.

After layering and frosting, I had a decent-enough pile o’ cake. I wouldn’t have taken it anywhere as a showpiece, but Daphne and I enjoyed the whole thing over the week or so. It settled over the next few days, as the pancakes were weighty and the icing was so thin. In the end, the icing oozed out the sides of the cake and pooled on the plate. We ate that, too.

I’m sure I learned something from this experiment. What did I learn?

1) Make sure you have all of your ingredients before you start. (I know; Cooking 101. My bad.)
2) Don’t use fat free anything when trying to produce something yummy.
3) Don’t be afraid to trim stuff down to make it uniform in size.
4) If a cake is taller in the middle, gravity is not going to be your friend, icing-wise.

That’s it for this installment of Cooking in a Van Down By the River. Carry on, peeps!

Jim is worried.

This was the hottest summer on record, during which Daphne and I learned something that is highly useful to know: Our trailer is not very well insulated. We spent all summer hemorrhaging cool air and money. The a/c ran constantly, but we were always on the verge of gym-level sweating. Michael lent us a fan, which we used to its breaking point. Now that the heat has abated (for the most part), we are grateful to come home to what feels positively chilly at this point.

But Gus knows something we all know in the back of our minds, but about which I haven’t thought about much, what with the near-melting: Winter’s coming.

Gus’s solution, which he offered back in April when we were moving, is, “You should be living here.” Gus has a house. A big house. With two cats and lots of stuff left over from three lives. Aside from the fact that the house isn’t entirely child-friendly, and aside from my knowledge that living with a pre-teen is probably more exhausting than Gus realizes or for which he likely has no tolerance, there is one gigantic truth that prevails: I do not need to live among the humans.

I do not do well with roommates. I never have.

When I was a child, if Britt woke me up after I’d finally drifted off for the night, I would freak out. My parents got so angry with me for my yelling and crying.

Back in the days of church camp, I made fast enemies insisting that everybody quiet down when I was ready to call it a night. How they could giggle into the night was beyond me… and not just because I was bitter that they’d somehow all managed to buddy up while I excelled mostly at repelling other girls.

The one semester of college during which I lived in a dorm, my roommate was a girl who’d been my best friend since we were four years old. I loved her. What I didn’t love was that her pre-med major means she spent late nights out in bogs trapping native microorganisms for research, then would come home smelling of stagnant water, throw her clothes on the floor (no time to clean up! Pre-med = study study study), then turn on her study/go-to-sleep sountrack: A Linda Ronstadt CD I heard every single night of my fall 1990 life, except when I went home to visit.

I was about to describe our living conditions, but if you are familiar with The Odd Couple, you can just imagine that.

Right now, I’m going to own up to something: I am not an easy person with whom to live. I have quirks and hang-ups and preferences and do not do well with compromising. I realize that I live with another person, but she’s a child. She’s petulant but ultimately compliant, and we tend to come to some sort of middlish ground because we know we don’t have a choice.

While I appreciate Gus’s worry that Daphne and I will become popsicles, and agree with his assertion that I would save several thousand dollars a year sharing housing with him (he says I need only pitch in on the electricity bill), cohabitating with an unrelated male leads to a whole other set of complications.

For one, to date, Gus genuinely believes that I am flatus-free. I’d hate to destroy his picture-perfect vision of the wonder that is moi.

Additionally, late-night snacks would require a level of dressing to which I am unaccustomed.

Even though Daphne, Gus, and I would know the truth, having a dude for a roommate might look bad to some people and, while I’m not fussed by the scrutiny, I don’t want Daphne to have to answer for my decisions.

So we’re staying put. We love the trailer. We enjoy our park. And we super like having the freedom to keep the hours we want, be as loud as we want, and act like goofy gooberheads whenever we feel like it. In short, we are living the dream, baby. Living the dream!

I love to bake. Seriously love. And I am pretty good at it.

For years, Daphne and I have made gingerbread something-or-other for the holidays. The first year, we did a train using a pattern we found in Family Fun. It took the better part of a week: one day to make the dough; one day to roll, cut, and cook; one day to put it together with royal icing, and one day to decorate. Then it sat around for a week before we took it to a skating party and gave it away.

The next year, we decided to make up our own recipe, since Daphne doesn’t really like gingerbread. That Thanksgiving, we each made a big chocolate shortbread turkey. I made the pattern that year, using a big fan shape for the tail and then a generic bird-shaped body. I cut slits in both so they would cross and hold each other up. It worked! We each decorated our birds, and they were different and beautiful. Daphne’s featured candy corn tail feathers (about one hundred), and mine was a veritable rainbow of earth-toned frostings carefully brushed frosting. They were nice centerpieces at the family dinner.

Always having enjoyed making cakes for special occasions, a couple of years ago, I decided to attempt to do fondant. Having read enough to know that store-bought fondant is not tasty, I made my own. It was surprisingly simple, and the results were so fun and amazing. I’ve made a guitar, diapers, a camera (having baked some cake in a soup can to be the lens), and a Golden Snitch, among others. I have a great recipe for chocolate fondant that tastes like Tootsie rolls.

Regular frosting cakes are awesome, too, though… One year for Daphne’s birthday, I made a cauldron cake using the mould that has a hold in the middle for filling. I also baked a red velvet cake, which I crumpled and mixed with frosting (this was before the cake balls phenomenon) and made it look like it was potion bubbling over the side of the cauldron. I then used black icing frosting to coat the cauldron and lid… remembering to warn parents that their children’s excrement might be shockingly-colored over the next day or two.

I made a beach scene, an owl (with feathers of rolled and cut-patterned caramels), snake, jungle scene (using various candies to produce palm trees, coconuts, and monkeys), and then just crazy stuff like a cake decorated with courante or candy bars.

All of this to say that moving into the trailer, I did not anticipate losing this once-loved hobby. But I did. And it threw me for a horrific loop!

We moved in just before Easter. I did bake some press cookies, which, fortunately, do not have to bake for very long. My daughter and one of her many cousins decorated the cookies in pastel icing, and everything was great. The next time I baked, however, whatever I was trying to cook burnt all along the bottom. We have a propane oven, and the flame is so close to the baking apparatus that anything containing even a modicum of starch (baked sweets, French fries, lasagne, etc.) burns along the bottom.

I’ve experimented with several things, like lowering the temperature or baking in smaller batches, but these have only met with mediocre results. Then it got hot. Really hot. As in the hottest summer on record. Ever. And I couldn’t even imagine heating up the barely-insulated trailer with an open blue flame in the middle of the living area.

I could not believe how much of my identity was wrapped up in baking before this! I have been asked in the past to bake for people’s showers and weddings and birthday parties, and have always declined because I did not want the pressure of having to make money doing what I loved doing.

Now, I can’t even get a cake to de-pan without leaving half of the charred remains in the pan?! Who am I?!

PROBLEM 1: Propane heat, close to pan = burn.

Knowing this and still wanting to make cakes for a baby shower I was co-hosting, I baked turquoise velvet cakes at my parents’ house then brought the cakes home to decorate. That’s when I ran into…

PROBLEM 2: Small refrigerator, no wasted space = no storage.

I took the well-wrapped cakes to a friend’s house and kept them there during the week. I was going to try to decorate the cakes on Friday, but realized that…

PROBLEM 3: Tiny trailer, elevated sliding doors = no place to close out the cats except for the restroom and there’s no way I’m leaving cakes in THERE… 1) eww and 2) that’s where the litter box is; if I locked the cat door, they would be REALLY confused and probably poop in the floor just to get me back.

Knowing how foolish it was both to wait until the day of to decorate the cakes AND to try a new “simplified” (read: not tried and true) fondant recipe, I got to work early Saturday morning.

First, the uber-yummy cream cheese frosting turned into soup. My friend ended up having to bring me six extra pounds of powdered sugar, which would have made the frosting way too sweet had I not added some shortening to even things out. Crisis One averted.

Then the fondant failed. I rolled and mixed and rerolled. I lost my patience and freaked out. When another hostess called me, I yelled into the phone and threw it onto the couch. I ended up only covering one cake with fondant and decorating the other two over the cream cheese frosting with fondant bits I was able to salvage, thanks to a lot of help working the chocolate fondant from Daphne, at whom I had also snapped earlier.

Proud moment.

Everyone loved the cakes, but I hated them. I knew what I wanted them to be, and even if they were acceptable, they weren’t what I’d wanted. They were… okay. I hate average. I want spectacular. (In all truth, my camera cake had been only average, as had the snake cake. This is why I don’t want to do things professionally. I’d always be in a snit.)

Next, I attempted to make a lovely layered Key Lime Pie Cake for a friend’s birthday. Again, the cake burnt. Not only that, I hadn’t realized that the cake pans had overlapped and one of them was tilted, so a bunch of batter spilled and burnt on the pan, thus stinking up the trailer.

With that, I ended up scooping out the cake and mixing it with the cream cheese frosting, making cake balls. I then dipped them in chocolate, so they were pretty extremely yummy and they were attractive enough… but, again, not what I’d wanted. I’d wanted to cover the beautifully-layered cakes in chocolate ganache. Boo.

Now that it’s cooling down, though, I’m ready to start experimenting. The other day, I made some lemon cake using a lemon cake mix and a big pan… so I guess they’re pancakes. I was going to layer them by piping vanilla icing between the layers and covering it with chocolate icing, but I was out of powdered sugar, and the cakes are so yummy, we’ve been nomming them! I also baked some store-dough cookies the other night, underbaking them but leaving them in the warm oven to firm up. They were pretty good. So it’s just going to take some practice.

Eventually, I’m sure, I will find the new normal way of cooking here in the van down by the river…

Five months ago, my daughter, Daphne, and I moved into an RV park. Permanently. I love it when people ask me what my long-term plan is, as though this is just some tragic stopover in a misplanned life. This is it, baby. And we’re loving it.

We have lived here long enough that the novelty has worn off, long enough that we know it’s not the newness but the lifestyle that we enjoy. We’ve lived here long enough to make friends who have since moved on. We’ve lived here long enough to know how properly to flush the toilet so that the stuff doesn’t back up and have to be coaxed on with the “poop stick.” We’ve lived here long enough to get to know one of the managers, who just died of a heart attack. We’ve lived here long enough to survive the worst month of weather events (hail, tornadoes, severe windstorms) in recent history, and our travel trailer is still standing.