Jan 31, 2011

January's resolution

Well, I started off in January with every intention of jumping back into daily Bible reading. And I kept it up for a couple weeks.  In fact I was feeling pretty confident that it would settle into a newly formed habit by the end of the month.

But then one night I didn't get my reading done. Or the next night, or the night after that. Before I knew it a week and then two had gone by, without any attempt to catch up or even start over.

So this past weekend, I took a few hours and caught up. (Is that the best way to read the Bible? Arguably no, but there's that OCD part of me that needs to be "on track" - whatever that means, and by whatever means necessary.) One disclaimer I feel I should add, even though it doesn't excuse my lack of study, but the Bible is the only book I have picked up and read with any frequency as of late. A stack of hardbacks sit forlornly in my nightstand. Not even the surprise Christmas gift of a second Kindle has ignited my interest in reading anything else. So it's not that I'm not interested in Bible reading, it's a general malaise.

Now that I'm caught up, I'll be using habitforge.com to re-start this resolution and make it part of my daily routine, while also starting on February's resolution. (Sorry, you'll have to wait until tomorrow to find out what THAT is :-)

How are you doing with your new year's resolutions? If you're struggling, take heart - you're definitely not alone! And if you need to start over, now's as good a time as any.

Happy reading - and resolution-keeping!

Jan 29, 2011

A perfect Saturday with me, myself and I

I should preface this by saying I L.O.V.E. my family beyond words.  And 51 weekends out of 52, I can't wait to spend time with as many of them as I can.

But occasionally I get an opportunity to enjoy my own company and this is one such weekend. Did I mention that Mr. Official and all our offspring loooove snow skiing?  They do. I, however, do not enjoy cold weather or anything involving staying outdoors for extended periods of time in the winter.  A pesky hiatal hernia  has been fixed once, but threatens to return every time I try certain activities, namely white water rafting and snow tubing.  Those are my excuses and I'm sticking to them.

Friday was taken up with driving the swim taxi to and from our regional swim meet in Nashville, then ferrying swimmer girl and her daddy to meet the church bus headed for Perfect North slopes, rushing back to the 'boro to pick up middle child's prescription and snagging a quick drive-thru meal to eat while figuring out how to manipulate our television and surround sound system.  I figured it out and actually watched a few hours of television before dropping into bed and dreaming of my perfect Saturday.

So what does a perfect Saturday alone consist of?  For starters, it starts late.  Guilt-free sleeping in is practically required.  After a leisurely start to my morning, I took advantage of the springlike temperatures and climbed up in the attic to try to make some sense of the Christmas stuff that got pitched up there.  (And uh, added a few boxes of Christmas stuff that were still hanging out in the dining room.  For shame.)  While the washer and dryer were getting a workout, I decided to get at least one  master bedroom chore done for this week in Flylady's world, and I turned and spun the king-size mattress around after pulling off the bedding and sending it to the laundry.  (At one point, I envisioned a crime scene photo in our local newspaper, with a caption reading "woman found pinned under mattress.  No foul play suspected.")
Today's shade: "O'Hare and Nails Look Great!"

With the morning chores done, I let the pooch out for some afternoon sunbathing.  Meanwhile I dug out a pair of last summer's flipflops and headed to Sonic for a cherry Coke Zero during happy hour, then on to my favorite little in-and-out pedicure place for some long-overdue foot therapy.

God bless pleasant pedicurists who know how to deal with calloused feet.  And O.P.I. nail polish with its amazing array of  colors and whimsical names.  What a difference a shiny coat of Valentine-y red paint can make on a girl's mood!

Next up:  nap time.  Yes, a real, bona fide nap, followed by a call-in pizza order for a pepperoni, mushroom and onion pie.  I'm always outvoted by the naysayers on the 'shrooms so I took full advantage of this opportunity to savor them all over my pizza.  Yumm.  And now I'm settled in for an evening of reading and movie watching with a fire in the fireplace. 

It's not that I did anything special.  But I did exactly what I wanted to do, and that made it a totally perfect day.  For every mom out there who thinks this kind of "me time" will never happen, take heart:  it will.  And if need be, you can speed it along by encouraging your kids and their dad to take up activities that aren't your idea of a good time.  Sooner or later, you can stand back and wave goodbye and assure them you'll be just fine without them.  Try not to smirk as they drive away.

Happy weekend!

Jan 28, 2011

Fiesta Friday: Running in circles

Just when you thought Fiesta Fridays were over, here's one final blog post on the subject, at least for now.  It's a brief exploration of pottery known as "ringware" or "California pottery" (although Homer Laughlin has always been located in the eastern U.S., it falls into this category, along with several other Ohio River-area pottery companies such as Cronin China, McCoy, Hall, Taylor, Smith & Taylor.)  Even Frankoma down in Oklahoma made some solid color pottery dishes in the same hues.

Suffice it to say Homer Laughlin's Fiesta/Harlequin/Riviera dinnerware aren't the only lines of brightly colored pottery introduced during the Great Depression, nor are they even the only ones with concentric rings and Art Deco shapes. However, they are the best-known and Fiesta is arguably the most successful and enduring line.

Other well-known lines originated with Gladding, McBean & Company who introduced Franciscan ware in California, and Bauer (originally called Paducah Pottery before John Bauer moved production from Kentucky to California in the 1930s.)

When I think of Franciscan, I usually think of their famous "Desert Rose" dishes. But their line of "El Patio" is very similar in many respects to Fiesta, and the ball jug is almost identical to the Harlequin ball jug.

Many of Bauer's pieces are easy to distinguish with their heavy rings, reminiscent of a beehive. Among Bauer collector's favorite is nested mixing bowls that range from 1 pint to 3 gallons. In fact, I have a Bauer bowl I use as a fruit bowl. (It came along with a Fiesta mixing bowl I won off eBay several years ago and I didn't know what it was for a long time.) Bauer has reintroduced its "American Modern" line of mix-and-match pieces designed by Russel Wright, in a partnership with his daughter.

So who came first? (And who copied whom?) Well, both HLC and Bauer got their start in the late 1800s.  HLC began in East Liverpool, Ohio 1871 and Bauer in Paducah, Kentucky in 1885. Bauer moved to California in 1909, but didn't begin producing chunky, handthrown ringware until 1931, a few years before Fiesta debuted with a more sleek and stylized rendition of Bauer's "beehive" ringed pieces.

But credit for first producing this genre of pottery probably goes to the California Colored Pottery, which began on Catalina Island in 1927 and was acquired by Gladding McBean in 1937. Gladding McBean produced a line called "El Patio," and at a glance it looks a lot like Fiesta. Gladding also produced a line of promotional products for Sperry Flour Company of California (the small pieces were placed in sacks of flour); Sperry later became part of General Mills. Gladding's "Montecito" line was a more refined, pastel-hued line not pottery that is still highly collectible today.

Another player in this arena was Vernon Kiln (the makers of all those commemorative state plates), who also produced a "Montecito" line of pottery in pale colors around the same period.

Why the history lesson? Well, for one thing, it's interesting. (At least I think it's interesting), and in case you also like knowing the background of what you're collecting, I wanted to save you a little time and energy, which could be better spent stalking pieces of pottery!

More seriously, if you are starting a collection, you will undoubtedly come across some pieces that you may initially snub as "fake Fiesta."  One of the telltale signs is the rings - concentric rings that remain evenly spaced are not Fiesta (but may be Harlequin); the rings on Fiesta move closer together with each rotation.  But except for some clearly unoriginal imported knock-offs, most of what you'll come across isn't really faux anything; these pieces were proudly designed and produced by a pottery company - many of them right here in the U.S. using our own clay soil. And you may find you like one of these lines as well or better than Fiesta. Or you may want to mix and match items of similar colors or shapes.

In fact, I'm really starting to covet a dog bowl made by Bauer. Fiesta made pet bowls, too but they're no longer in production, and - truth be told - I really kind of like Bauer's better anyway.

Bauer's pet bowls - there's one for cats, too!
Fiesta's pet bowls
Happy history-ing!

Jan 27, 2011

My mantel, my mantle

In each home we have owned, I have wanted (and gotten) a fireplace with a mantel. Last home had two fireplaces and three mantels (one fireplace was two-sided.) I love (REALLY love) having a fireplace. And - of course - a mantel. But decorating said mantel doesn't come naturally to yours truly. And this home's fireplace has the added complexity of having a massive brick wall above the mantel. Everything seems to recede into the earth-tone brick.

I know, I know..what a problem to have, right?  But all whining aside, I've developed a real mental block when it comes to decorating this prominent feature of our living space, and each season seems to bring new and bigger challenges for me.  (I never decorate the mantel the same way twice.  Maybe if I found a style I really love - or even really like - I'd just fall back on it each year.  So far, nada.)

So the mantel has become a mantle.  You know, a yoke, a burden, a responsibility that I shoulder alone (because if I left it to the menfolk of this family, there'd be some random UT memorabilia thrown up there willy-nilly.  And that's just not happening.)

So let's back up to last spring, when I put together an homage to our South Carolina spring trip, with blown-up photos of starfish and sea stuff. I really liked that scheme, but:
  1. There was a complete and utter DEARTH of tasteful or inspired mantel decoration between the holidays and spring. Oh my.
  2. In retrospect, the scale was still a little small. Or maybe it's just me thinking I should somehow cover that vast expanse of brick with SOMETHING?
At any rate, spring and summer, the mantel stayed pretty much the same.  Then came fall and I did pump up the orange with some seasonal items.

And then...the Christmas mantel.  Three days of decorating resulted in this.   Pffft.  And now that has been down for several weeks....and there's a void once again.  I keep looking at blogs with mantel ideas, hoping to get inspired. Or find something I could shamelessly copy item-for-item. (Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and all that.)

A painting class scheduled for last week got canceled due to snow.  Alas, it was going to be a painting of a winter wonderland scene, which I had hoped would grace my mantel until it is time for another trip to South Carolina.  I decided it was high time to implement Plan B.  (Well, to be more precise, it was time to create and implement Plan B.  And now that you've heard all my excuses and rationalizing, here's this year's winter mantel.

I'm not sure it's worthy of much commentary or explanation, but in case you're interested, here's what I did:

I started out with a print of Monet's "Magpie," one of my favorite winter scenes, in a brushed silver frame.  In front of the print is a mix of old and new candle holders, with crushed oyster shells in the bases.

Hobby Lobby had some fantastic closeout deals on the black candlesticks (which I really wanted last Christmas, so a very early "Merry Christmas 2011" to me!) ;  their flowers were 50% off and I already had the vase sitting around collecting dust.  The mirror was borrowed from the dining room.
The center is another mix of old and new:  the bronze barnstar is new (but was half off!), while the vase, bird statue, candle and "Family" sign are from recycled from seasons and mantels past.  (Okay, some of the floral stems are new, too.)

    So what do you think?  Will it carry us through these bleakest months weeks of the year?  Any suggestions or ideas?   I'm really hoping this mantel can be gently transitioned into a spring mantel in a couple of months.  I like the idea of gradually changing it over every few months instead of a total overhaul each season.  Especially since I seem to encounter a mental block when I'm faced with the prospect of a complete change-out.

    And in case you're wondering, yes, we've thought about painting the brick or covering it with drywall and painting it the color of the walls, but our time in this house may be ending soon. If that happens, I'm not going to waste the time (and extreme energy) to tape and mud and sand and paint, especially dangling from a ladder, when the next residents may not appreciate or value my efforts.  Of course, if we decide to stay put, then that may be high on my list of honey-do's this spring.

    Happy decorating!

    Jan 26, 2011

    Recipe of the Week: N'awlins Oyster Soup

    Our final week of celebrating soup month, and I might have just saved the best for last!

    Several years ago, Mr. Official and I traveled to New Orleans for our anniversary, and had an amazing time even though the weather was a little nippy. One of the restaurants we visited was Arnaud's, a venerable French Quarter establishment known for its world-famous remoulade sauce. They served Mr. Official a particularly wonderful oyster soup. (Side note : oyster soup or stew is a Christmas Eve traditional dish for Catholics and especially in areas where fresh oysters are plentiful...places like New Orleans.) The restaurant was kind enough to email the recipe to me after we left. Merci beacoup, Chef Tommy! If you are a fan of oyster soup (or stew), this one is definitely bowl-worthy.

    Arnaud's Oyster Soup

    3 1/2 cups water
    2 dozen freshly shucked oysters, drained
    1/2 cup chopped celery
    1/2 cup chopped green onions
    1/2 cup chopped onion
    1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
    1/2 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
    1/4 teaspoon fresh thyme or 1/8 teaspoon dried thyme
    1/8 teaspoon cayenne
    1 bay leaf
    3/4 cup whipping cream
    2 cups whole milk
    1/4 cup unsalted butter
    1/2 cup all-purpose flour
    1 teaspoon Kosher or sea salt
    1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper

    Bring water to boil in a medium saucepan. Add oysters and cook for 3 minutes. Remove oysters with a slotted spoon and reserve 3 cups liquid. Set both aside.

    In a Dutch oven, over medium heat, cook celery, green onions and onion in 1 tablespoon butter, stirring constantly until tender. Stir in 2 1/2 cups reserved broth, plus garlic, thyme, red pepper and bay leaf; bring to a boil. Stir in whipping cream; reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes. Stir in milk and return to simmer. Melt 1/4 cup butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Add flour, stirring until smooth. Cook one minute, stirring constantly, then about 3 minutes or until smooth (mixture will be very thick.) Gradually add flour mixture to milk mixture, stirring with a wire whisk until blended. Add oysters, salt and white pepper. Cook until thoroughly heated. Remove from heat, discard bay leaf and ladle into warm soup plates. Serves 4-6

    Happy soup-ing,

    Jan 21, 2011

    Fiesta Friday: More collecting fun

    After last week's history lesson, let's get down to some real-life tips and things to watch for when you start collecting Fiesta.  For starters, make sure it was manufactured by Homer Laughlin.  (In an upcoming post, I'll explore some of the other Depression-era pottery pieces that are sometimes mislabled or mistaken for genuine Fiesta, Harlequin, Riviera or Kitchen Kraft.)

    Mixing bowls. Here are some photos of Kitchen Kraft vs. Fiesta bowls. Note the different proportions and "foot" on the Kitchen Kraft bowls. Try as I might, I've never found any website or blog that provides any discussion or visual comparisons of these two lines of bowls. However, unless you're familiar with them, you may not notice the distinctions until you've bought one and tried to "nest" it with others in your collection. I've also provided the sizes of the nesting bowls here.

    Top view of Fiesta (l) and Kitchen Kraft (r) bowls
    Fiesta bowls are taller and have several rows of circles while Kitchen Kraft have a footed bottom and 3 rows of rings at the rim

    Rimmed bowls. I'm not sure why these are called "nappy bowls" or "nappies" as the term isn't clearly defined.  (I think it has to do with size...fairly small).  I have three sizes of rimmed bowls: two are individual bowls, the third are serving bowls, measuring 8 1/2" across. A 9 1/2" nappy bowl was also produced for a time, and then discontinued (making them more valuable and harder to find.)

    Cups and mugs. Within the Fiesta line, there are two enduring styles of hot beverage containers:  a ring-handled cup (with saucer) and "Tom & Jerry" mugs; it's easy to distinguish between them. The name "Tom & Jerry" isn't from the cartoon (I thought so, too), but a reference to a drink of the same name, popularized in the early 1800s. It is a spiked eggnog with brandy, served in a mug with this shape, which are now known as "Tom & Jerry" mugs, regardless of who makes them.

    Demitasse cups are rarer and have a unique lever handle; the Harlequin coffee cups have a conical shape and distinctive "D" shaped handles. 

    Utility, vegetable or celery...or bread?  A serving plate by any other name is still...a serving plate. Seriously, I've seen this oblong vintage serving plate described with all three terms used interchangeably, while the modern rendering (slightly larger and a small circle in the middle, instead of a line that follows the oblong shape) is sometimes called a "bread server." That's good to know when you're seeking one, as you may need to search by all the names to find what you're seeking.

    Plates and bowls. Suffice it to say they come in a huge array of sizes and shapes - there are sites like those here that provide detailed guidelines to keep them straight.  The plates tend to have a bit of a raised rim, so if you find a perfectly flat plate with a heavy ring or two on the bottom, it is most likely a cake plate.

    Pots and pitchers. For collectors, this is an area where it's easy to lose your head. Coffee pots, demitasse pots, teapots and disc water pitchers (large and small), ice pitchers, carafes, decanters, some with lids, some without...the variety is astounding. My collection is a mishmash of this 'n that (hey, I freely admit I'm a dilettante, even when it comes to collecting Fiesta.) A word to the wise, become familiar with the colors and details of vintage vs. new, especially for teapots and pitchers.  Here's a picture of two teapot lids:
    New lid (l) and vintage lid (r)
    As your collection grows, you will want to find ways to display it.  One of the best displays of disc water pitchers I've seen is this one.  The photo below is not the only Fiesta display in her kitchen, but even if it were the only one, what an attractive shelf!
    What an impact with a simple row of pitchers
    I salute this kitchen owner's sense of style - the row of disc pitchers speaks Fiesta in a very classy, fun way and is more visually stunning than a wall of cabinets packed with rare and expensive Fiesta vintage pieces, IMHO.

    "Go-alongs." Once you start collecting, you'll find a lot of stuff is passed off as Fiesta because the seller knows it will attract attention and command a higher price than a piece described as "something that kinda looks like Fiesta." One of the loosest categories for Fiesta collectors is "go-alongs," which is defined as an item made by an independent manufacturer to complement Fiestaware.

    Some items (like blenders and toasters) are/were authorized and branded with the Fiesta logo, while others are much more loosely affiliated. This category encompasses both new and vintage pieces.  Case in point: I passed by a great set of colorful vintage metal popcorn bowls at an out-of-the-way antique store because I doubted they were truly Fiesta. I later found out that indeed, collectors consider these sets in this category.  If you find something labeled as a "Fiesta Go-along," go with your gut. Good price and you love it? Buy it and display it proudly.  If it's kind of expensive, and you're considering it for investment purposes? Do some homework before plunking down your cash.

    Generally speaking. My personal advice to anyone starting out is to do some reconnaissance work before you plunge into buying:
    • Peruse some estate sales, antique and junk stores (there's a booth called "Heart Full of Memories" that specializes in Fiesta at the Nashville Fleamarket, and I hear they've opened a second booth at Triune, too.)
    • Check Goodwill (local and ShopGoodwill.com) and Craigslist for new, retired or vintage pieces.
    • Watch some online auctions on eBay, or check sites like Cyberattic, Ruby Lane, and TIAS to get an idea of what particular pieces are going for.
    • Price books are available, but they become outdated as soon as they're published; check your library or bookseller for specific information instead of buying one.
    • To complement your burgeoning collection, consider the vast world of new and vintage linens (look for Fiesta brand for new items, or "Mexicana" themed prints for older pieces), as well as posters, reprints and original sales ads that make great framed artwork.
    • Need a daily fix of Fiesta? The Pottery Papers website features Fiesta ephemera each day.  It is amazing how many advertisements have featured Fiesta over the years.
    • Are you more hard core than all of that? The Homer Laughlin China Collectors Association (HLCCA.org) is right up your alley.
    A final note of advice: if you've been bitten by the Fiesta bug and you've armed yourself with some knowledge, focus on collecting only the pieces and colors you love, and don't worry too much about age or condition, except as they relate to the price. Unless you're into building a museum-quality collection, there's a lot of great old and new Fiesta out there, and most of it can be had at a reasonable price if you're patient and not too worried about a few minor nicks and chips that come with acquiring well-used and well-loved family heirlooms.

    Happy collecting!

    Jan 19, 2011

    Recipe of the Week: Tomato-Basil Soup

    Here's another family favorite in honor of soup month.  Cream of tomato soup strikes a chord with almost everyone. For most of us, we think of the sweet red condensed stuff that oozes out of a can of Campbell's Soup, with its distinctive red and white label. Diluted with milk and heated, it is often accompanied by a grilled cheese sandwich and remains a classic pairing for a quick lunch.  What's not to love?

    When I came across this recipe in a 1997 Southern Living magazine, I latched onto it and served it as the soup course for Christmas dinner that year.  It was an epiphany to realize that tomato soup could be much more elegant and interesting than the canned soup of my childhood, and yet still retain its comfort-food feel and taste.  Since then, I've seen many similar recipes crop up, and tomato-basil soup has become a staple on many restaurant menus. I've tested many of them for myself; some rise to the occasion and others fall short. Over the years I've adapted the recipe slightly (the advent of stick blenders and commercially prepared fire-roasted tomatoes are responsible for the main changes), but it remains pretty true to the original...because it's just that good.

    Versatile Tomato Basil Soup

    1 medium onion, diced (or 4 shallots and 1/2 pound leeks, diced)
    1 celery stalk, diced
    2 or 3 tablespoons diced garlic
    2 tablespoons olive oil
    1 14.5-ounce can fire-roasted tomatoes (plain or Italian style), undrained
    1 14.5-ounce Italian style tomatoes, undrained
    3 1/2 cups chicken broth
    1/4 teaspoon Kosher or sea salt
    1 tablespoon dried basil or 2 tablespoons fresh basil, chiffonaded (see note)
    1 cup heavy whipping cream

    Heat a Dutch oven; add olive oil and onion (or shallots and leeks), celery and garlic.  Saute 10-12 minutes until tender (do not brown). Add tomatoes and broth; cook over medium heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add salt and basil (only if using dried); bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for one hour.  Remove from heat; use a stick/immersion blender (or pour over into a food processor or regular blender) to puree until smooth. If serving immediately, gently reheat (do not boil) and add cream just before serving; if using fresh basil, swirl it in just before transferring to individual bowls.  Makes 6 one-cup servings.

    Alternatively, the soup can be frozen (without the cream and fresh basil), for up to a month.  Thaw in refrigerator for several hours or overnight.  Before serving, gently heat in heavy pan (do not boil) and add cream, heating just until warmed through, swirl in fresh basil and serve.

    Note:  Chiffonade is a fancy way of saying "cut into thin long strips."  Here's a link that explains how to chiffonade basil.  Now that fresh basil is available in the produce section year-round, it's a nice addition to this soup and will add a fresh, zesty flavor that dried basil cannot impart.  But if dried is all you have, you can take comfort in knowing it was the ingredient in the original recipe.

    Happy soup-ing

    Jan 17, 2011

    I believe I can FLY

    Not like Peter Pan. Or R. Kelly's song. Not even Elton John's "Rocket Man" or Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride" which are admittedly more generation-appropriate.

    No, this is FLY-ing, as in Flylady. For years I have heeded her basic admonition to shine my sink. It's a habit that has stood me in good stead, and it really does influence how clean the rest of the house tends to stay. But other than my initial enthusiastic effort to embrace her neatnik ways, I haven't really delved into the weekly flight plans with any regularity...and I've got some problem areas in the house that really need regular cleaning and organizing to make and keep them usable.

    I like her approach because she understands what makes us tick...why a lot of us will practically kill ourselves to super-clean our home, and then let it slide back into a state of unkempt-ness, almost overnight.  Her methods are logical and won't overwhelm us, no matter how bad our starting point is.  If we consistently follow her tips and schedule, she will break us out of the clean/clutter cycle and get us to the point where we simply maintain a cleaner house, all. the. time.  How great is that?

    Enough talking about it...I'm ready to FLY. Last week's focus was on the kitchen, which was right up my alley.  So from the grungy tops of the cabinets to the depths of the refrigerator and even that black hole known as "under the sink," my kitchen is now much more cleaned, organized, and sanitized. This week is bathroom and one extra room...guess it's time to focus on the laundry room!  If you haven't checked out her website, it's worth a little time to nose around in it.  If you do, don't be surprised if you find yourself shining your sink tonight.

    Happy flying,

    P.S. A special shout-out to my new resident housecleaner.  (She has agreed to a bi-monthly cleaning schedule in exchange for money to pay her Droid's data plan and earn some extra spending money.)  And since she lives here, she has a vested interest in a job well done. Thanks to her, the rest of the house got more than a lick and a promise while I focused on the kitchen last week.)

    Jan 14, 2011

    Fiesta Friday: A little history lesson

    While I'm focused (okay, fixated) on my beloved Fiesta dinnerware, I thought I'd share some insights and lessons I've learned. I hope these tips help others who are trying to find their way through the jungle of vintage vs. retired vs. new Fiesta pieces, as well as sort out the various Homer Laughlin vintage lines.  I don't pretend to be an expert, but I have stubbed my toes on a few purchases, and that led me to dig around for the following information.  Hopefully it will help you avoid making similar mistakes.

    But before we dive in, let's start at the beginning - if you're a history buff, this will be interesting.  If not, just skim it and glean a few quotable facts you can casually toss off to your friends (they will think you are incredibly knowledgeable, so just smile coyly and bask in their admiration.  If they press for more details, you can politely demur by refusing to bore them with all that old history stuff.  Yep.  That's how it's done.)

    To give credit where it's due, let's recognize the men behind the company and the design.

    According to the Homer Laughlin Company ("HLC") website, Homer and Shakespeare Laughlin were brothers in East Liverpool, Ohio.  Together they formed a pottery business in 1871 and quickly made a name for themselves producing high-quality dinnerware. When the younger brother moved on to other pursuits, the company became known as the Homer Laughlin China Works.  It moved across the Ohio river to its present location in Newell, West Virginia in 1902.

    Frederick Hurten Rhead was the designer responsible for the iconic dishes known as "Fiesta."  He was born on August  29, 1880 in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, Great Britain, moving to the U.S. in 1902. He became art director to HLC in 1927, and died in New York on November 2, 1942.

    Fiesta was first produced in 1936, in five colors.  Over the years, the colors and pieces offered changed, but by 1973 HLC discontinued Fiesta due to lack of sales.  However, they reintroduced Fiesta in 1986 and a completely revamped line of Fiesta Square dishes in 2009.  (Somehow I missed the advance notice, so I didn't get my square dish collection started until last year.)

    In the 100-plus years of its history, HLC has produced quite an array of dinnerware, but its fine china patterns could never be mistaken for Fiesta.  However, there are four distinct lines of vintage dinnerware, each having overlapping colors that are often lumped together.  While there's nothing wrong with mixing and matching pieces from the various lines, it's helpful to know the distinctions so you know what you're looking at when you come across a piece.  I highly recommend the following pages to give you a brief overview of each line:

    Fiesta history
    Harlequin history
    Riviera history
    Kitchen Kraft history

    And some special notes about two colors:

    Will the real green please stand up?
    Heidi does a wonderful job of explaining the various greens in that link  Chartreuse and Forest are easy to pick out from the original foursome, but medium green and original green are more difficult, and online photos can be extremely tricky.  While most sellers would not deliberately mislead their buyers on which green they are selling, it is truly a case of "caveat emptor" - proceed with caution if you are on the hunt for one particular shade.  Not to mention the huge value/price difference in certain pieces (like the much-vaunted green teapot.)  And these colors have come and gone (chartreuse in particular has come back into vogue) so determining new vs. vintage adds another layer of complexity.
    Was it really radioactive red? 
    Yes, indeed and the link above explains why this orange-y red color is called "radioactive."  You will come across vintage Fiesta, Riviera, Harlequin and Kitchen Kraft pieces in this color and despite its orange tint, it is the original red.  "Rose" was introduced later and newer pieces feature a truer red, along with scarlet and a brownish "paprika" color.

    Kitchen scene on Christmas morning
    How does mommy's piggy eat?
    On Fiesta, of course!
    (Sidenote:  In the 1983 holiday movie "A Christmas Story," Fiesta dinnerware is prominently featured in the kitchen scenes.  However, only the most eagle-eyed Fiesta lovers are likely to notice it because the plates and cups used in the meal scenes are in the pale hues (there are some bright-colored pieces in the Hoosier cabinet in the background.)  I'm not sure why the movie used only the pale pieces.  According to IMDB's trivia, the movie is set in 1940.  The uraniuim-based color wasn't discontinued until 1943, so all the the eye-popping red, yellow, turquoise, green and blue were being churned out.  Shrug.  Maybe Ralphie's mom just liked the pastels best.  We know she had a fondness for pink bunnies...)

    Okay, back to our history lesson.  If you skimmed the information in the above links, you've probably gathered that vintage Fiesta is a throwback to an earlier time, when even inexpensive, common "everyday" dishes had specific functions (Mustard pots? Egg cups?  Celery plates? Individual creamers?  Can you imagine hand-washing those mountains of dishes each day?)  Even casual meals "back in the day" seemed to have  more formality than we often give to special occasions nowadays.  I guess that's part of the appeal for me (and perhaps many other collectors) - it's a tip of the hat to an era when family meals were a daily celebration.

    Much thought and care (and labor) went into each meal's preparation, and it was anticipated and appreciated by those eating it--no "brown bag special" to be wolfed down in the car. Dinner time was set aside to gather family or friends to the table and enjoy the fellowship of breaking bread together.  Setting an attractive table was an art form that women and daughters prided themselves on learning well.

    Okay, enough meandering down memory lane.  Next time we'll dig into some nitty-gritty details and cautionary tales as you start down this fun collecting path.

    Happy Fiesta-ing!

    Jan 12, 2011

    Recipe of the Week: Crockpot Cheesy Potato Soup

    January is soup month, and this is recipe #2.  Potato soup has come a long ways from its humble beginnings.  Not too long ago, mentioning it conjured up visions of a thin, milky broth with grainy, mushy potato chunks floating around in it.  Poor folks' food as my husband referred to it.  ("My daddy always said we'd be eatin' tater soup and pintos," he laments any time those two foods appear on our dinner table.) 

    To my husband's chagrin, I like both potato soup and pintos, regardless of their humble qualities.  And sometimes I declare cook's prerogative and make them despite the groans.  Fortunately for us all, potato soup went upscale with the addition of cheese and some tasty garnishes, and is now proudly served at many restaurants.   Frankly, I've found a few versions to be a little thick...kind of like eating a bland queso dip.  But the restaurant versions, thick and cheesy, captured my kids' hearts and tastebuds and even convinced my husband that it could be a hearty and filling soup. So I've figured out some recipes that lighten the cheese factor and improve (IMHO) the taste and texture.

    This particular recipe was shared between me and a friend via Facebook.  Now, I'm pretty sure SHE shared it with me, but it might have been the other way around (which would lead me to question where I got the recipe to begin with.)  So for simplicity's sake, I'm going to give her credit for it.  She deserves it - she's got a house-full of hungry mouths to feed, and somehow she manages to feed them delicious meals on a tight budget and whip up scrumptious treats to give out as Christmas gifts.  She embodies the essence of frugality while maintaining a humorous and generous spirit.

    The soup is easy to put together, delicious to eat, and takes some of the stress from days when my schedule is a little too frantic for elaborate dinner prep. (Like, uhh, most days.) I have modified it a tad, and this is my rendition of the original.

    Michele's Crockpot Potato Soup

    1 32-ounce package frozen hash browns (Southern-style, not shredded)
    1 can cheddar cheese soup (I substitute 8-12 ounces of Velveeta, cubed)
    1 12-ounce can evaporated milk
    3 cups chicken broth
    1 medium onion, diced and sauteed in a little butter
    3 pieces bacon, fried and crumbled (optional)
    1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh chives (optional)
    Salt & pepper to taste

    This soup is embarrassingly easy to assemble.  You simply plunk all the ingredients in the crockpot - stir it (to the best of your ability, because the frozen potatoes are going to temporarily clump up when that liquid hits them), then stir it a few times while it simmers on low for 3-4 hours.  At the end, you can add some crumbled bacon, diced chives if you want o make it a "loaded" potato soup.  Makes 6-8 servings.

    Leftovers will re-heat, but a little more broth and/or milk may be necessary to thin it out to soup consistency after a night in the refrigerator.

    Happy soup-ing

    Jan 10, 2011

    Why I don't worry about SEO or key word searches

    Google's search results are eliciting some grumbles from influential bloggers.  (I certainly don't count myself among the "influential" crowd; but as a semi-serious blogger, it is interesting to hear their perspective, since they make their living off search engines like Google leading readers to their pages.)

    I am a bit of a statistics geek (I can hear my college professors roaring with laughter.) Seriously, I like taking a peek and seeing how much traffic a new blog post gets.  Every now and then I even get a wild hair to try to make sense of Google's analytics.  A friend recently asked about how my blog was doing, how many monthly hits it was getting, if I had plans to monetize it, etc. I felt somewhat apologetic when I confessed I haven't made it into a money-maker, but it's a conscious choice to not pursue advertising or sponsorship.  And  I am fortunate: I don't need it to return a profit at this point in my life.

    I also don't know if I will dally too much in the realm of touting products for compensation or freebies, either.  Although my Christmas venture with Shutterfly was pretty cool, and if you're a company who would like to offer me a fabulous product or service to showcase, I am definitely willing to hear you out :-)

    But by and large, I like being able to write from the heart, without worrying if my words are search-engine optimized. I like being able to write about whatever genuinely interests me, and hopefully it is of interest to those who read my posts. I have found some odd searches have led people to my blog, from reheating runzas, to potatoes au gratin, house wishlists, green bean bundles and stinky Dysons.) I hope those seekers found what they were looking for, because I sure didn't pen those posts to lure them to my blog and try to sell them anything.

    And I like following writers who blog about subjects they are passionate about, whether it's tied to their vocation or avocation.  Contrived posts full of strategically crafted phrases and wording....blech. The internet is bound to attract some spam, but thankfully we can snub it in favor of bona fide content written by people who care to share their real thoughts with the world.  And hopefully Google (or another up-and-comer search engine) will soon figure out how to weed out the spam for us.

    Happy blogging,

    Jan 8, 2011

    This month's resolution? So far, so good.

    As I mentioned on January 1, I'm approaching my resolutions a little differently this year, and focusing on one area of improvement each month.  (Trying to change too many things all at once has been my downfall in years past.)

    So, putting first things first, January is my time to get back in the routine of regular Bible reading, study, prayer and meditation. A couple years ago, I got halfway through the Bible, but when the summer swim team schedule shifted around, I let the daily readings fall by the wayside. So I'm picking up where I left off, and at a minimum, will finish what I started in about six months.  If the habit is ingrained enough by then, I'll simply start over and keep reading.  (The Bible is definitely not the kind of book you can read once and say you've gotten all there is to learn from it :-)

    I'm using a free online tool called habitforge.com to keep me accountable during these early days of re-establishing this habit, and so far it's working. Getting that email every morning and being able to press "YES!" every day is a good feeling. (It's a handy little tool for ANY habit you're trying to adopt - or quit, if it's something you're giving up.)

    And every so often, I'll post how I'm doing with the current month's resolution.  I hope everyone who is trying to become healthier, more spiritual, more organized, etc. is faring well with your resolutions.  And if you've already had a slip-up on a resolution, it's okay - every day is a new day to start over.

    Happy weekend - it's national bubble bath day!!!

    Jan 7, 2011

    I'm a Winner! (or, "Getting My Esteem from eBay")

    I love eBay - it makes me feel so...smart.  And powerful.  And successful.  And downright lucky!

    Over the holidays, I found myself casually scoping out the vintage Fiestaware on eBay.  But let me back up and start at the beginning.

    My great-grandmother had a modest collection of Fiesta dinnerware plates, bowls, coffee cups and saucers, teapot, and even juice tumblers.  I loved using the dinner plates and bowls as a kid, until my mom discovered the value of what we were subjecting to daily abuse and packed them up.  When we bought our first home, she gave me the best gift ever:  the carefully stowed away Fiesta dishes.    We went to an auction with some friends of ours and they bought a primitive oak hutch; when it didn't fit the spot they had in mind, we bought it from them.  I think it's the perfect backdrop for my Fiesta collection, so I've squeezed it into every home we've had since.
    And the best part is, there's a third shelf I can fill up as the collection grows!

    Pre-internet (yes, young'uns - there was life before the internet) I scoured estate sales and antique stores and added a few pieces here and there to my collection.    With the internet and eBay, pieces became easier to find, so I added several pieces including a trio of these nifty utensils:
    How cool are these?
    plus a second teapot, a water pitcher and a couple small Harlequin pitchers.  But no coffee pots. HOW could it be that a die-hard coffee drinker and Fiesta collector has no coffee pots? It was definitely an oversight that needed correcting.

    Don't they look fabulous with my teapots?
    And sure enough, two coffee pots - one in cobalt blue and one in pale yellow - hit my radar screen. I am an old-school bidder, waiting until the last minute to enter a manual bid and hope the other bidders aren't watching. And it worked - I won both of them!  Yay me.

    I was on a roll.  I spotted two vintage platters and three nappy serving bowls, and let's just say I paid more for shipping than for the items - in fact, I paid less for all five items than one new serving piece would have set me back.  They were truly a steal.  Say it again, A. STEAL.  Now please repeat it to Mr. Official so he will believe me.  Double yay me.

    Some of us watch bowl games, others buy bowls...
    And then I came upon a red #5 mixing bowl. Be still my heart.  Did I mention my Fiesta mixing bowl collection?  No?  Let me tell you, I love my bowls.  I know you're not supposed to have favorite pieces (or is that rule only for not having a favorite child?)  but these might be my favorites - just don't tell the others.  The bulk of the bowls came to me (via eBay) a few years ago. I have ivory, green, turquoise, cobalt and yellow bowls, but nary a radioactive red 'un.   These bowls can go for a king's ransom, but I snagged this one for a very reasonable price on a slow bidding night, too.  Triple yay.

    See it?  It looks like it was made to fit here, right?
    I assured myself (and Mr. Official) that was probably the end of this foray into eBay.  After all, vintage Fiestaware on eBay is like the cross-town bus - miss one, it's okay - another will be along in a few minutes.   But I spoke too soon.  Since then I spotted (and uhh, won for a song) some neat-o stacking refrigerator bowls.  And there are a few other interesting pieces that caught my eye.  Oh my, I really should just walk away (but I probably won't just yet.)

    As a semi-serious Fiesta collector (I do describe myself as a dilettante, remember), it's dangerously easy to covet nearly everything I see.  (You were already thinking that, weren't you?)  Fortunately, I have a short attention span, so after this burst of avid watching, bidding, and self-affirmation via my new acquisitions, I'll undoubtedly get sidetracked by something else.  But this latest round of Fiesta-stalking on eBay caused me to take an inventory of what I have, so I don't wind up with accidental duplicates. Unless it's just too good of a deal to pass up.

    Happy collecting,

    P.S. To my fellow Fiesta fanatic friends: check your calendars and maybe set aside a few days the third week of June. I hear the Homer Laughlin factory has an annual tent sale around that time, and if you're up for a road trip to Newell, WV  it's a mere 10 hours according to Google...

    Jan 5, 2011

    Recipe of the Week: Vegetarian Chili

    January is "soup month" (in addition to being apple, apricot, artichoke, asparagus, oatmeal, hot tea, prunes, whole wheat bread, hobby, mail order gardening, get organized and shape up month...I'm not exaggerating - I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried.)

    But let's focus on soup, shall we?  To celebrate, each Wednesday this month, I'll share one of our family's all-time favorite soups, starting with this sinus-clearing chili soup that I *think* came from my mother's copy of Anna Thomas' "Vegetarian Epicure" cookbook back in the '70s. It garnered a 2nd place ribbon in the vegetarian chili category at a recent charity cook-off (yes, there were only a couple of us competing in the category.  However, I suspect the voting was rigged by one of my fellow competitors, considering he had his entire extended family on hand to stuff the ballot box.)

    I digress.  At any rate, it's a winter favorite with my family and some new converts who tested it at the cook-off and came back begging for seconds.

    Vegetarian* Chili

    1 medium onion, diced
    1 clove garlic, minced (or 1/2 teaspoon jar garlic)
    2 tablespoons olive oil
    1 teaspoon paprika
    2 medium potatoes, peeled (or unpeeled, your choice), diced into 1/2-inch cubes
    1 14.5-ounce can diced stewed tomatoes
    1 can diced green chilies
    4 cups vegetable or chicken* broth
    1/2 teaspoon dried cilantro
    1/2 teaspoon cumin
    Salt & pepper to taste
    12-16 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

    In heavy Dutch oven, heat oil, add onion and garlic and saute over medium heat until softened.  Add paprika and continue cooking for a minute or two until it begins to caramelize (watch closely and don't let it scorch.)  Add remaining ingredients except seasonings and Monterey Jack cheese; bring to boil; reduce heat, cover and simmer for 30-40 minutes until potatoes are tender.  Add seasonings during last 5-10 minutes of cooking.

    Distribute cubed cheese among bowls (you can add as much or little as you like); ladle the piping hot soup over cheese and let stand for a minute to give the cheese time to soften and get wonderfully gooey. Makes 4-6 servings. Enjoy! 

    A few notes:
    *Obviously, using chicken broth will negate the "vegetarian" status, but it's good with vegetable broth if you have it handy.  I tend to substitute chicken broth because we aren't vegetarians and I always have a few quarts of chicken broth in the freezer.)

    I have substituted a couple cans of Rotel for the tomatoes and green chilies if that's all I have on hand.  Just keep in mind that either way, the green chilies can pack quite a punch if you pick up "medium" or "hot" instead of mild.  We like it spicy, but consider yourself warned.

    This soup can be doubled and/or cooked in the crockpot on low or high heat, just add more cooking time if you use the slow cooker.  It also reheats well (you may have to add a little more broth as the potatoes will absorb some of the liquid overnight); just keep the cheese cubes separate, as they will get rubbery or stringy if heated along with the soup.

    Happy soup-ing!

    Jan 3, 2011

    Back to our regularly scheduled programming

    Not sure where the last couple weeks went.  The days flew by, as we kicked off the holidays by keeping Sadie-the-grandpuppy the weekend of our anniversary, then I put Mr. Official in the hospital for a few days, springing him just in time to enjoy a whirlwind visit with the 'rents.  We celebrated Christmas Eve and Christmas as usual, quietly rang in 2011, then tucked away the Christmas decorations for another year. And here we are, back to our post-holiday daily routine.

    I freely admit January is my least-favorite month of the year: it's cold and bleak outside and the house always seems a little empty and forlorn once the decorations are tucked away. But a clean slate can be a good thing: it gives me a chance to evaluate our surroundings (and consider moving furniture, cleaning and organizing, or painting something...anything); look for new recipes to try, get busy keeping my new year's resolutions and start building up my running times again.

    This week also holds the promise of something new and exciting for our family. But...we're not quite ready to share any specifics with the world.  (Sorry, I know it's not nice to tease.)  If the next few weeks go smoothly, you'll probably hear our shouts of joy, no matter where you are.

    In the meantime, I'll focus on each day, relish it for all it's worth, and start counting down the days to spring.

    Happy Monday

    Jan 1, 2011

    New year, new resolve

    Like most people, I tend to make some resolutions each January 1. Some years, I do nothing more than make a casual mental list, and forget most of them as soon as the thought leaves my head.  Other years, I'm more formal in my approach, writing them down and trying really hard to to keep them. But either way, it's unrealistic to expect to create new habits, drop bad ones and become more spiritual, better organized and physically healthier all at once.

    This year, I'm approaching my resolutions a little differently.  Instead of writing out a list of things I want to stop doing, start doing, or do better, I'm going to tackle a particular aspect or area of my life each month, and focus on it for 30 days.  They (whoever "they" are) say it takes about a month to establish a new habit.  So over the course of 12 months, I can--at least theoretically--create 12 new habits by this time next year.

    To kick things off, I'm starting with my spiritual life, and committing this month to daily Bible reading and more time each week in study and meditation.  I'm using an ESV Bible laid out to accommodate a year-long study.  I started it two years ago, and stalled out about half-way through.  I'll pick up where I left off, and when I get to the end, I may simply start over.  Other monthly resolutions will delve into organizing, fitness, cooking and entertaining.

    Be sure to eat some black-eyed peas for luck today (here's my favorite recipe); and I wish for blessings on each of us who resolve to make the most of 2011.

    Happy new year!