Monthly Archives: December 2012

How to cook a holiday dinner in a construction zone

Cooking up a traditional meal is one of my favorite things to do at holiday time. Every year I eagerly anticipate devoting the whole day to wrestling a turkey with all the trimmings, or glazing the perfect ham … filling the house with delectable smells … somehow choreographing everything to come out on time. Then, after the enormous meal that only Eric and I are present to eat, I’m faced with mountains of cooling leftovers, potential botulism, and kitchen wreckage that resembles hurricane debris.

Many years ago when I was a proud new homeowner, I hosted Thanksgiving dinner for my parents and some friends. It was on that exact day that I lost control of my housekeeping. I have never regained the upper hand. Maybe that’s why I’m not going too crazy … yet … as our kitchen is torn apart. Maybe that’s why I’m foolish enough to slave over the hot stove this year, too. Never mind that the stovetop itself often represents the closest thing to a countertop and food prep area right now. If you dare to cook in the midst of remodeling, here are a few tips that I learned from my Thanksgiving experience.

vintage ornaments 2010

1. Guests? Are you kidding?? Don’t invite anyone over. Period. That’s easy for Eric and me, because our families are both thousands of miles away. This year, that has its advantages … next year will be a different story. If you can’t risk offending your family, when they ask what they can bring, suggest a palm sander. And when they ask what they can do to help, send them to the basement to sand and prime the face frames. Where would we put guests, anyway? All the former contents of the kitchen cabinets have taken up residency in the dining room for the winter (please, let them move back home by spring). The tabletop has disappeared under renovation books, countertop samples, paint samples, Home Show ephemera, and a cat bed. Of course, a cat bed. You don’t have a cat bed on your dining room table?

2. Embrace your dust. It protects the furniture. I truly fear our house will never be clean again unless I can turn the garden hose on the interior when this is all over. Despite continually mopping the food prep area every time we eat, I suspect we’ve consumed several ounces of dust apiece—wood dust, paint dust (lead paint dust?), 100-year-old dust. When I walk through the kitchen, little rooster tails of dust rise up in my wake. Who needs sticky notes when you can simply write on the furniture?


3. Think inside the box. When I packed our dishes away, I carefully labeled the boxes and interlocked their top flaps. We kept out a few things to get us by: two microwavable plates, two bowls, a couple of pots and pans and some basic cooking implements. But if I cook anything out of the ordinary, I have to dive into the boxes and root around for specific equipment. Consequently, the box tops now flap open, the labels are illegible, and the cats have scratched the corners so often that a pothandle is sticking out the side of its box like a zombie limb protruding from a grave.  The storage boxes double not only as scratching posts, but climbing jungle, lookout perches, and more cat beds. (I have even watched as one of our cats precision-vomited into the small open slot of a closed box top. I am not kidding. No worries, though—all the dishes will go through our new dishwasher before they go back on the shelf.)

Rosey's perch

4. Find your balance. It’s not easy to balance heaping plates of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, slippery cranberry, and viscous gravy on our knees, but we can do it! At our house, we have to perform this feat under the critical and focused stare of an optimistic boxer and several opportunistic cats. I remember the good old days when I could set the dining room table for a nice meal. So long ago …

vintage ornaments 2

Today, between sandings and coats of polyurethane, I’m baking Christmas cookies. Oh—another thing—I have to brag about my awesome temporary plywood countertops. They’re the ideal surface! You can put hot pans on them, cut veggies on them, park your grassy golf shoes on them, write on them … collect splinters from them. Anything goes. Now, where did I put those cookie sheets? I hope they’re not in the box with the … you-know-what.

plywood counters

May your holidays be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be dust-free.

Christmas 2012



Buying the bling

Who doesn’t love opening presents at this time of year (or any time of year)? Santa Claus—you know, the guy in the brown suit who drives a brown truck—has already paid us a few visits. I left the unopened boxes stacked on top of our kitchen-stuff boxes for days, until it dawned on us that perhaps we should open them and check to make sure Santa got our wish list. And he did.

While Eric toiled on the cabinets down in the shop and I held up progress in the Kit-Cat Room, beating the paint into submission, we were mentally down in the brushed nickel weeds, making design decisions. We are going with brushed nickel because it echoes the stainless steel appliances. I like to keep a consistent look when it comes to finishes because it contributes to a unified design.

But wow, what a lot of pieces to consider! Let’s start at the top: we’ll have two light fixtures in the kitchen (a new one over the sink–no more excuses for badly washed dishes … um … especially since we’ll have a dishwasher), and one in the breakfast room, ideally a combo light and fan. I wanted to go with classic semi-flush schoolhouse lights. I started my quest at Rejuvenation Hardware, just to see what I couldn’t afford. Sure enough, they had exactly what I wanted … at $124 apiece. I think not. I found this one locally at LampsPlus:

schoolhouse fixture

At 12 inches, it’s the perfect size for the large room. And best of all, I got them for $39.00 apiece, on sale. Is it solid brass? No. The base is probably made of recycled dog food cans, but it’ll be nine feet in the air, and you will never touch it, so that’ll be our little secret, okay?

I really want to replace the existing fan light in the breakfast room with another fan. Things can get hot in the Kit-Cat Room when the kitties dance the night away. Do you think I could find a schoolhouse light ceiling fan in brushed nickel? For under $440? No. So I’m hoping that the one we ordered from LampsPlus, with a smaller, rounder white glass globe, will blend and at least pass for a half-sibling.

Now, down to eye level. My original cabinet doors featured old-fashioned oval spring-action latches. I loved ’em. I can still remember their satisfying click. Why did I get rid of them? I have no idea, but I’m getting them back. These latches will see a lot of action, so this is no place to cheap out on dog food can metal. These babies are solid brass, and pleasantly hefty.

cabinet latch

Next are the hinges. Our cabinets will have inset doors, meaning the doors and drawers will fit flush inside the face frame openings. The hinges will be exposed, like this:

inset doors

Inset doors are typical of Craftsman kitchens, and an important element of creating our vintage look. Behold—brushed nickel, ball-tipped, full-wrap inset hinges. Aren’t they beautiful?

Ball tip hinge

Last but definitely not least, we need drawer pulls. Lots of them. I already have several in this basic style that I bought years ago, obviously waiting for this day:


Usually I’m most attracted to simple, clean lines, but since I saw the design below, I can’t get it out of my head. It’s slightly more decorative with its reed-and-ribbon pattern, but it’s still clean.

reed and ribbon bin pull

What do you think?  (I admit, this is a thinly disguised excuse to try this fun polling feature.)

Here’s a photo that shows pretty accurately what our white Shaker cabinets with the plain bin pulls would look like (except we’ll have latches, not knobs):

Shaker cabinets with bin pulls

So that’s the kind of jewelry I’m getting for Christmas! And this is just the beginning—soon we’ll be picking out the fancy storage innards for our cabinets! Oooh … I know you can’t wait to read about that. Right??


Payback is hell

The cats exact their revenge

When we last left the feisty felines, they were dancing the night away to the theme from Cabaret. The other day I caught the girls singing, in their shrill little voices, “The Cell Block Tango” from Chicago:

She had it comin’, she had it comin’,

She had it comin’ all along

Except, instead of hissing “Cicero!” they spit “Polyurethane!” which is a lot harder for a cat to pronounce than Cicero.

Strange, yes, but I’d forgotten about it by the time we went to bed. I fluffed and turned my pillow and slipped between the sheets … and caught a strong whiff of … cat pee. I flipped the pillow back over and it was soaked. Gross, you’re thinking? Yep, and damned inconvenient, too, having to get up and strip the bed and start the washer at 11:45 p.m.

I know cats live stressful lives, fraught with angst about their social status, perceived slights from other cats, and changes to their delicately crafted routines. I get that. But peeing on mom’s pillow?? Because she turned their Kit-Cat Room into a paint booth? The perp is still at large, although I’ve pretty much absolved anyone who regularly sleeps on the bed (Eric and the boy cats). Lucky for them they’re so cute, otherwise they’d be living on the streets.

When you live with seven cats, you don’t get much sympathy when things go cattywampus. Yes, seven is too many, but then again, they make an awesome chorus line.

kitty toes

And the paint goes on … and on and on …

I like to think I know a thing or two about painting. I even painted semi-professionally for a while, before my bifocals made it a pain. So after finishing Carcass No. 1’s interior, I was looking forward to slapping a coat of Chef White on the exterior. I had a half gallon of Chef White left over from the bathroom project a few years ago, and, since it seemed in decent shape, I decided to be thrifty and use it up before opening a fresh can. The painting process went something like this:

  1. Sand—a lot.
  2. Prime. Grain raises, not unexpectedly.
  3. Cuss.
  4. Sand.
  5. Prime again.
  6. Paint.
  7. Paint second coat. Not smooth enough.
  8. Cuss.
  9. Paint third coat.
  10. Cuss.

I’m resigned to the sanding, but I was hoping to cut down on the cussing, so I consulted an online paint forum, looking for the secret to a silky-smooth finish. (Yes, I’m that obsessed with this project—I actually read online paint forums). Apparently a paint additive called Floetrol was to be my salvation. I scurried to the box store to buy me some. Back in the lab, I mixed a little Floetrol with the paint and applied the third coat … but the brushed dragged and the paint felt gummy. @#$%^!!! In the time it took to add more Floetrol (hoping I was going in the right direction), what I’d already applied turned gummier yet. I couldn’t go back over it to correct the tacky portion, so I quickly painted the rest of the carcass, which seemed to turn out okay—and with the smoother finish that I’d hoped for. But dammit, now I have to sand and repair one end of the cabinet, all because I wanted to use up a can of $35 paint. I am NOT happy. The cocky painter is humbled … no, I’m pissed.  I almost feel like peeing on someone’s bed.

slumber party



Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome … to the Kit-Cat Room!

Our breakfast room would be a lovely place to enjoy morning coffee and read the paper, with sunshine streaming in the east windows, a vintage table cloth  and a vase of fresh flowers on my 1930s table. But no—that’s not what we use it for. It contains our sideboard (known as the “annex,”) but it has a more important purpose: It is the Kit-Cat Room—24-hour buffet, watering hole, herbal aromatherapy lounge, and restroom … exclusive hangout of the meow crowd.

Kit-Cat clock

Ideally, we’d put all these accoutrements in an attached garage, but the garage is out in the backyard, the back hall is too small, and the basement is off-limits to felines. Cat paraphernalia has to go somewhere, and let’s face it, the cats significantly outnumber us and have us well trained. This room is really theirs, and we rent space for the sideboard.

Patrons of the Kit-Cat Room:

the cats at home

You can imagine how hard I had to bargain to turn their private room into a sanding and painting booth. Now, I don’t recommend sanding and painting in the same space, much less in a space that contains a litter box, but we didn’t want to take the carcasses back downstairs, and anyway, the basement is less of a clean room than the kitchen. This is not the kind of curtain the cats had in mind for the Kit-Cat Room, but it does filter the light nicely, don’t you think?

behind the curtain

So I went to work with the sanding mouse. Eric coaxed one of the old windows open a couple of inches for ventilation (not an easy task). Later, we found it had swollen with the rain and would not be coaxed closed, so I rolled up a towel and stuffed the opening. Will we operate that way until spring? I spent hours sanding carcass #2, crawling halfway inside, trying to get it as smooth as silk. The house’s previous owner had painted the interiors of the original base cabinets a fashionable Chinese red (popular in the late 40s), which was so dark that I lost half my pots and pans in the murky depths of the corner cabinet. So, initially I’d planned to paint the interiors white, to match the exteriors and give me a chance to actually see what I had stored in there. But when I saw all that beautiful birch wood, I decided to use clear semi-gloss polyurethane instead. It’s light and bright, more durable than paint, and shows off the gorgeous birch grain.

The first coat of polyurethane fuzzed up the grain. Damn it. Back to sanding again (and creating another layer of dust). After three coats of polyurethane, the interior looked awesome.  The blond wood almost glows. This is what I will see every time I open a door. Besides my pots and pans.

carcass #2 interior

Meanwhile, on the other side of the curtain, Eric was mortise-and-tenoning his heart out, crafting the face frame for carcass #1 … up and down stairs from shop to kitchen all day, dry-fitting the pieces. He assured me the process will be more streamlined as he fine tunes it. We are both learning as we go. When I look around the room and visualize all the cabinets that must be built—nine carcasses and some 25 drawer or door openings—it’s more than a little daunting. Will we ever be finished, much less in a few months? Then it hit me: this is the state our kitchen will be in for many weeks to come.

face frames

Look closely and you can see Duke wiggy-wagging his approval.

duke and face frame

Please be patient, kitties. I promise, some day you’re going to have a beautiful new Kit-Cat Room, and you’re gonna love it!

PS –  Ever since I started writing this post, I’ve been unable to shake the vision of our cats dancing the cakewalk to “Willkommen.” I’ve got to get this song out of my head!