Home by Design

The Knife at Rest

It’s the little things — and sometimes the finer things

By Cynthia Adams

We were lunching in rare style. Good food, good company, a splendid table before us — and everyone was in excellent spirits. The table? It looked like a page torn from Architectural Digest: heirloom china, delicate crystal and antique French silverware on creamy linens. 

An artist and her close friend paused mid-sentence, suddenly noticing a set of what turned out to be silver knife rests.

The artist’s mouth opened, then closed.

What are those? She pointed to the elegant silver rectangles positioned above the antique table knife. 

Our host, an enthusiastic collector, explained: they were, quite simply, a resting place for a used knife, which kept linens safe from the greasy slurry on the plate.

The artist began to speculate about tired knives requiring rest. 

“Too weary to cut it!” 

“Lying down on the job!” 

“Stop me before I cut in again.”

She held a handsome knife up for inspection. “After they rest, then what?”

“They obviously move in for the kill,” she quipped.

We laughed ourselves silly, enjoying the word play.

The fun added to a good meal at a great table. As the conversation evolved, someone mentioned how we, after all, eat with our eyes. True, yet times have changed. 

There’s always fashion and history at work in our kitchens and dining rooms, as good ideas come and go from favor. A knife rest is straight out of an Edith Wharton setting: a classic remnant of fine dining.

What other objects are from tables past, things once used and now idling in the drawer? 

Those who love Wharton will reel from the pronouncements of Bob Vila, a former Sears’ pitchman who rose to fame with This Old House.

Despite This Old House, Vila has very modern opinions.

Here’s a short list on his outmoded and, therefore, verboten picks: fancy forks — including oyster forks, fish forks, salad forks, pickle forks and dessert forks. All out.

Other things deemed pointless by Vila: butter picks. (The butter pick is used for choosing/skewering single pats of butter.)

Napkin rings are also a thing of the past, Vila insists. I am glad my mother did not live to read this. If she were not dead already, this news would doubtless kill her.

Dedicated stemware is also outmoded, he claims. He says that it is completely modern to use a stemless glass for all wines. In fact, one multipurpose glass twill suffice. Even, dear God, a Mason jar.

To all my friends and family, I am sorry to convey this, not only because we are all stemware-struck, but because I personally own tons of outmoded glassware by Vila’s standards, including champagne coupes. 

I shudder to imagine the Queen being served her beloved Bollinger in a pickle jar. The mind reels.

Also, Vila says egg cups are déclassé. 

If you followed The Crown, you already know the Queen takes a morning egg in an egg cup and toast in a proper toast rack.

Jelly spoons are another fatality of Vila’s list, and so he would banish little Lilibet from taking her marmalade with a proper jelly spoon. (BTW, did you know that the British call congealed salads and gelatins like Jell-O “jelly”?)

Table runners, something many of us have clung to long after parting with other life niceties, are vile to Vila. Try telling that to Williams-Sonoma.

The shocker on Vila’s list may require sitting down (in the event you prefer to read standing):  wedding china. He deems it outmoded. Dated. Unnecessary. He asserts that we are a nation of casual diners who no longer eat off of fancy plates.

But any Southerner with a thimble full of sense knows there is no separating a Southern gal from her wedding china. His claim is a step too far.

Like our grandmother’s Blue Willow, we know and love it from the mists of time. We eat off our ancestral plates, even if chipped.

We stand in line to admire the White House china patterns.

When the late Julia Reed was promoting the entertaining guide, Julia Reed’s South, she talked about using antique wine rinsers for flowers and old silver ashtrays for salt cellars. “Use everything,” she said.  If it chips, it chips

And the unpretentious Reed added something worth noting:

“What I love about the South in general is that there is nothing too small to celebrate, and if you’re really lucky you learn about grace and small joys, which are, after all, what make up big lives.”

The clincher? “Keep the beautiful things alive.”

Long live the knife rest.  PS

Cynthia Adams, a contributing editor of O.Henry, is looking for a set of antique knife rests.

Home by Design

Elbow Grease

Because the heart wants what the heart wants

By Cynthia Adams

Closing our eyes to our termite-riddled garage and a looming bathroom tear-out, we snuggled down by the telly, cuddling our dogs, and watched Escape to the Chateau

It is an ironic choice of escape from our to-do list.

The series offers comforting perspective from years of projects in our (almost) century-old home. These two do-it-yourselfers beavering away on an ancient, shuttered, abandoned chateau lend perspective to the months of sweat equity we poured into our own relatively modest abode.

This BBC program follows Dick and Angel Strawbridge, a British couple who bought a glorious French “pile” in 2015.

Pile is Brit-speak for a very large house. But the French call this a chateau. Larger than Sleeping BeautyP’s Castle (albeit smaller than the Biltmore), the couple’ ’s picturesque 19th century Château de la Motte-Husson is near the quaint village of Martigné-sur-Mayenne. They bought it for what they might pay for an unremarkable two-bedroom flat back in London: £280,000 pounds ($384,000) — a steal.

With 45 rooms, twin turrets, an actual moat and walled garden — all poetically set upon 12 acres of pristine countryside — it is a thing of singular beauty.

But one problem: this veddy beautiful chateau is in ruins.

No running water, heat or electricity. And after the purchase, the Strawbridges are left with an impossibly small budget for the kind of home improvements this pile will require.

Yet the couple dauntlessly ascribes to the motto “you eat an elephant one bite at a time” and rolls up their sleeves.

The Mister, 59, laughs like Santa and has the belly to match.

Meanwhile, the flamboyant and romantically inclined Missus, 40, twists strawberry-red hair into vintage curls and has a passion for red lipstick, arched brows, a hot glue gun, sewing, crafting and decoupage.

They are dauntless, energetic, cart-before-the-horse types — we were stunned by what they did with this moldering and long-abandoned property in just one season.

Years ago, I fell under the spell of an unusual Lindley Park home. It qualified as a “stockbroker Tudor” given that to afford its steeply pitched rooflines, many gables, brick and stucco features decorated with handsome half-timbers required a stockbroker’s bank account. As is unfortunately true of Tudors, the interiors were sunless. If the kitchen is the soul of a house, this one’s was dark.

The property was in a state of beautiful disarray that suggested its former splendor.

And I desperately wanted it.

Let’s just say, I should have a reality show titled, The Masochistic Homeowner: The Early Years.

One of the Tudor’s strangest interior details was a renovation gone wrong, so wrong you had to crawl out of an upstairs window and walk across a flat roof in order to access a room addition carved from an adjacent garage attic.

Whereas a smarter person would have viewed that matter alone as a deal breaker, I tried to figure out how to solve this dilemma, sleeplessly fantasizing about owning this home with a beautiful arbor and quirks. Which is why I so relate to Angel Strawbridge — sans her luridly done hair and turban.

When the Tudor’s home inspection report arrived, it, like the dour Strawbridge’s chateau analysis, filled a binder.

Leaking roof; problematic stucco; electrical and plumbing issues; even a terrifying problem with the fireplace and chimney.

If it wasn’t leaking, it was crumbling. If it wasn’t crumbling, it soon would.

I wanted it.

It took my practical partner to pry my fingers from the binder. My teary-eyed entreaties did not budge my engineer husband from NO to MAYBE.

Did I mention that Angel Strawbridge is an enchantress, 19 years younger than Dick?

Had she wanted my decaying Tudor pile, her besotted husband would have laughed nervously and followed her lead like a spellbound adolescent.

That is not my husband.

We did not make a counteroffer on the Tudor.

Which, by the way, sold anyway.

We found another house. One that had many issues that the inspection did not uncover, and which took all of our savings to salvage. It is the house we now live in and love.

This 1929 house renovation followed on the heels of a 1911 reno that was even harder and costlier. Yet, somehow, my husband was as taken as I was by its quietly stoic beauty including its thick windowsills, French doors, beautiful light and park view.

We both fell under its spell, even as we toiled.   

It was possible to bribe my husband into nightly work after our day jobs. He would plaster and paint; I would pick up pizza and bags of Twix bars before joining him. (If we carb-loaded, we could work till midnight, then do it all over again the next day.)

Like the Strawbridges, we undertook most of the work ourselves.

When the initial cosmetics were done, there was something . . . some indefinable something. As if the house warmly responded to our months of labor. It became a joy to step inside.

One day, my husband mused, “the house is smiling.” It liked being rescued from neglect; it reflected back to us the ministrations, the love.

No doubt, too, that Angel believes their French chateau is smiling at them having been liberated from decades of grime and neglect.

She is most definitely right.  PS

We agree that contributing writer Cynthia Adams should indeed have her own reality show. Go ahead and add The Masochistic Homeowner to your future Watch List.

Home by Design

In the Hotseat at Aunt Ruth’s

I served my time and, frankly, would have preferred the aliens

By Cynthia Adams

Truvy’s Beauty Spot in Steel Magnolias equipped its Natchitoches, La., patrons to meet life with sky-high hair. But the Franklin Beauty Shop in Monroe, N.C., where my aunt delivered hard truths and even harder hair, was a very different place.

My Aunt Ruth’s shop, which opened in the 1950s, was an assault upon all the senses. It possessed the stark ambiance of a morgue. And it taught me this: Beauty is in the eyes, ears and nose of the beholder.

It was as utilitarian as my father’s barber shop: stark, fluorescent lights, pea green walls, Army green vinyl floor, three mirrors, three stations, three chairs outfitted with massive dryers and two manicure tables.

Large windows with open metal Venetian blinds (Why was something so hideous called Venetian?) overlooked Franklin Street. Passersby could peer directly into her place, which, unlike the barber shop, emanated noxious chemical smells.

Incredulously, my aunt made a decent income and won devoted friends. It was ideally situated near the Oasis Sandwich Shop, which served fab sodas, floats, fries and burgers. There, I would idle while my mother got her “do.”

Even as a child, I understood that my mother was not improved by the ministrations of my aunt. Her hairdos might just as well have been created with tongs and barbecue tools.

Any fool could see she looked better going into the Franklin, as we called it, than she did leaving it. The drive home was confirmation as my mother dusted ditches raking a brush through her shellacked hair, “trying to fix this before we get home,” she’d scoff, as the green Olds swayed across lanes.

Mama was never, ever pleased by her sister’s work.

Ruth, a natural beauty, loved the natural world and could have been a botanist. But her school principal father stubbornly steered her into cosmetology, where she studied the darker arts of beauty.

Why oh why? 

He died before I was born or I would have asked.

Her customers’ hair was more often than not dyed or bleached an unnatural shade of blue-black, red or yellow, curled tight, then baked into place beneath oversized dryers suitable for flood recovery operations.

Clients emerged pink faced from the blasting heat of the silvery green stationary dryers and then submitted to the next step: a comb out. This involved teasing with a rat-tail comb before the requisite (lethal) final step: Spray Net.

Hair sprays of this era contained vinyl chloride, a propellant later proven to be carcinogenic. Hard fact.

Another hard fact: My aunt’s clients looked uniformly alike once they climbed out of the sturdy swivel chair.

By Ruth’s hands, my grandmother’s hair became a blue-black hue I rarely observed in nature, apart from a rare beetle specimen at the Natural Science Center.

It puzzled me why anyone paid Aunt Ruth at all.

Speaking of payment, I privately yearned to operate the large green cash register that stood at the entry with the appointments book, watching as customers wrote out checks and waved goodbye “till the next time.”  Instead, I thumbed through worn Photoplay and McCall’s magazines in the waiting area. 

At age 10, when many of my friends were getting a Toni perm in their kitchen, it was decreed: my straight ponytail was inadequate. Aunt Ruth would give me a professional do before my new school year.

She washed my long straight hair, then mixed toxic chemicals in a glass bowl. As they stewed, she clipped and chopped. 

Once the carnage was over, the remaining hair was tightly wound around bright pink perm “rods,” a term co-opted from nuclear physicists. Perm rods are to perms what uranium rods are to nuclear reactors. Either way, they’re volatile.

She applied chemicals to the perm rods. A black hair net held it in lock down.

I was walked to a dryer where this tragic concoction was to “set.”

Under the dryer, my eyes stung from the putrid reaction. When my scalp and ears began burning from the blasting heat, I jumped out. But Aunt Ruth ordered me back, lowering the dryer temp to nearly tolerable.

The timer pinged and I sprang free. As the rods were removed and my head cooled, I studied the clock: it was now half past my childhood.

Ruth swiveled the chair toward the mirror.

The shock caused me to bite my lip so hard it bled. 

I looked precisely like my grandmother.

My mother was tense as she swung onto the highway. A stifling ammonia cloud filled the car. I cracked the window to cool my face, still hot and now overwhelmed with the enormity of my strangeness. “Don’t worry. My hair can’t move,” I said.

Once home, my father took one look and moaned. “Dear Lord. The child’s ruined.”

Devastated, I shuffled out of the house to the barn in search of Trigger, a gentle pony who cocked his head quizzically before accepting a hug. I climbed into the loft, where I did my best thinking, cried a little, then concocted a story owing much to Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone

I was playing outside when a space ship landed in the pasture. Aliens zapped me. A lot of my hair burned off right there! I’m just lucky to be alive.

It wasn’t exactly original or believable, but an improvement on the story I invented about how I needed a life-saving operation after peeing myself on the playground.

Bus #15 swung down our road the next morning, where I waited in a plaid skirt and white blouse, holding a new book satchel, bracing myself. Johnny swung the bus door open; there it was — his open-mouthed surprise. But I turned away and searched the aisle for Martha or Kenneth.   

They would totally buy my story about my hair-today, gone-tomorrow alien abduction.  PS

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to PineStraw and O.Henry.

Home by Design

The Speed Queen

Let’s hope she’s as simple as advertised

By Cynthia Adams

Cliff Ginn was in a lather about washing machines.

He owns a small textile-related business and, having weathered many storms given the tumult of the industry, has mastered self-control.

But today he is more agitated than, well, his dying washing machine’s agitator. I listen sympathetically while handing over the UPS package I’d accepted for him while he was out at appliance stores.

“I want a dumb washing machine,” he states flatly. “I want the Volkswagen Beetle of washing machines!”

A Dapper Dan, Ginn could care less about washing machine style or function.

“Why should it care if my cotton is from Egypt or from Mississippi? Or, if my cashmere sweater is virgin or not? I do not judge.”

A de-wrinkling feature perhaps? No thanks.

“If I want to de-wrinkle something, I will just throw it in the drier with a wet rag.”

On he went with the questions.

“Must the washer and drier match?” he asks plaintively.


Well, maybe.

“I do like for my shoes and belt to match.”

Ginn complains about the steep learning curve for gadgets on his 2020 Volvo sedan. He definitely isn’t looking for a washing machine that requires him watching YouTube.

He was searching for the simplest machine to be found. One with an on and off button, he jokes. No fancy panels or electronic controls. Nothing that will die or confound him.

He even sat down and wrote an angsty rant about it:

“This is a year when I bought a new car with electronics that would make a 16-year-old-boy drool. And the prospect of having to buy a new iPhone . . . But back to the washing machine. It’s asking too much of me. Why so many choices and features.” (He was too distraught to insert question marks.)

Simplicity of design was what Ginn sought.

One such simplified machine still exists. It lacks the high-profile brand awareness of Maytag, Miele, LG or GE.

Its name is Speed Queen.

“Speed Queen!” he exclaims days later, over the phone. He was keeping me informed of his progress and had just discovered this brand at an old-school appliance store.

In a very short while, Ginn called to report back.

“I am on my way to do something every grown man dreads,” he says with the resignation of the already beaten. “And it’s not a colonoscopy.”

A long pause.

“It’s buying a washing machine.”

I knew appliance angst well.

An ill-fated encounter with a smart washing machine occurred more than 20 years ago in Genoa, Italy. I travelled with my friend, Dixie Hodge, to the home of Pat and Loren Schweninger. We were to stay there while they were away.

Arriving at the Genoa train station, my friend was suddenly distracted by a mob of gesticulating, chattering women who lifted her wallet. We were shaken, but gathered ourselves and trundled on with our cases.

The Schweningers’ rental, on a hillside overlooking the port city, was memorably reached via funicular.

I emptied all my clothing into their Italian-made, front-loading machine before dinner. I had no idea how to operate the machine, guessing at the foreign settings.

What seemed like hours later, my clothes — all my clothes — were still washing away.

Back home, my old top-loader would have been long finished.

After madly pressing buttons, it chugged to a stop — with all my soggy clothes inside clearly visible through the machine’s window.

The door could not be opened.

I knocked at the neighbor’s door, trying to explain that the machine was broken. Did they have any knowledge of washing machines? Or at least that’s what I attempted to ask, using a pastiche of English and terrible Italian.

Her reply was in English: “Call the Candy Man.”


Turns out the machine was by Italy’s most popular brand — Candy. Candy was the first to bring front-loading machines to the Italian market.

Their website states (in a convoluted translation) that the brand has been “part of Italian industrial history since 1945, when it launched the Model 50, the first washing machine thought for the households.”

The “thought for the households” is a charming touch — versus, what? Thought for use outside the home?

With my travel funds depleted and my friend’s wallet gone, I counted my lire.

How much was a house call going to cost?

Quick answer: all the lire I had.

The next morning, the Genovese Candy Man spent about two minutes looking at the machine. He pushed two buttons, the spin cycle began, and he grinned.

Clean clothes. Cleaned out pockets. Now both my friend and I were cashless in Genoa.

It was several years before I could be persuaded to consider a water-conserving front-loader.

As for Ginn?

It isn’t about the cash. He is a true believer in good design in both his wardrobe and his home. He admires and collects art. Italian-made shoes. Buttery-soft leather coats. German and Italian sports cars.

He and his girlfriend admire the finer things in life, and he has even written her poetry in Italian.

But Ginn has technology fatigue. He does not want to study the manual to decipher sleek electronics. He wants knobs to turn and buttons, as we say in the South, “to mash.”

Ginn has discovered he is a top-down kind of appliance man, one who believes — and plans to invest — in the simplest possible washing machine.

One that is top-loading, with an old-fashioned clothes agitator that stops whenever you open the lid to toss in one more thing.

Design simplicity at its finest.

“I don’t ask to save the planet,” he wrote to me later, “only to have white boxers.”

It will cost Ginn, of course. Simplicity doesn’t come cheaply.

But the smart money is on the Speed Queen.  PS

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to PineStraw and O.Henry.

Home by Design

Cooking for Julia

Cheesy olives and a smoky homage to one of the greats

By Cynthia Adams

When the spunky Southern writer Julia Reed died in September, it felt personal.

Reed was a character in her own stories, a real hoot and a holler, as my Mama Patty would have said. Her columns, design books and sassy cookbooks (one title was inspired by her mama’s spiking sangria with a kick of vodka) showed a penchant for storytelling and squint-eyed observations. 

Her New Orleans homes — one on First Street and a post-divorce duplex in the Garden District — were crammed with books, family heirlooms, paintings, antiquities but also found-objects like bird nests and turtle shells. She even called the new pad a “Cabinet of Curiosities,” a habit wealthy Victorians famously kept.

Reed’s memoir, The House on First Street: My New Orleans Story, was considered her best work. It was a love letter to post-Katrina New Orleans. (Reed’s Newsweek piece described a sign that advised NOLA looters: “Don’t Even Try. I am Sleeping Inside with a Big Dog, an Ugly Woman, Two Shotguns and a Claw Hammer.”)

Reed was classy — and wealthy — enough to upholster a pair of antique rattan chinoiserie sofas in hand-dyed silks. She bought vintage beauties from Magazine Street, where some of the South’s finest antiques wind up on offer. Her design sense was kicky and admired. 

She wrote One Man’s Folly about Furlow Gatewood, the gifted antiquarian who has restored several of the most beautiful homes to be found, gathering them all on his compound in Americus, Ga.

Reed not only knew Gatewood but stayed in one of his gorgeous homes, each of which are stuffed full of jaw-dropping treasures. They probably ate cheese straws, Gatewood’s favorite, and drank hard liquor. She no doubt brought her own deviled eggs and cheesy olives, which were touted in surprising places like The New York Times.

Cheesy olives, it was said, are the first party fare to be scarfed down.

The week she died of cancer at age 59, we were seeing two friends for Covid cocktails. It was time to drop my envy of Reed, her cool houses, great writing gigs and friendship with 95-year-old Gatewood, my celebrity crush.

I pored over her top five recipes, which the Gray Lady republished, determining to pay homage to Reed.

Even though her father was a Republican operative who worked for the Bush family, she was always diplomatic and her humor was bipartisan.

Once asked about a pol’s chances during a tony Washington, D.C. book tour, sipping vodka-infused sangria from a blue highball glass, Reed quoted Louisiana’s Edwin Edwards: “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.” 

The room dissolved in guffaws, because no matter where you stand on party lines, that was a bon mot.

(Actually, it qualified as a sangria-infused wet quip.)

But I digress. Cheesy olives sounded a lot like pigs in a blanket at first reading. Except, the dough, in addition to flour and egg, contains a block of cheddar and a hunk of butter. (And there is no pig.)

This was to be the virgin run of a stand mixer, bought years ago because of the rare color, a Chinese Chippendale green. It looked good on the counter. 

Thus, learning why, a dough hook, which this mixer didn’t have, is a thing. Cheesy dough clumped like a primordial life form to the beaters, with gleaming chunks of butter grinning through.

Wrestling the goopy dough from the beaters, I fashioned it around each Spanish olive. The results resembled The Little Prince illustrations.

I pried them off my fingers onto a cookie tray. The whole shebang required nearly an hour’s labor, the oven preheating most of those slow-moving minutes. 

The oven was hot enough to singe off my eyelashes, brows and fine facial hair.   

Next up: Reed’s exemplary pralines.

I substituted light brown sugar in the recipe. Measuring, mixing and anticipating the first taste of those olives — I beavered on with the candy.

The whining mixer was nearly up to the task of folding evaporated milk into butter, pecans and sugar. 

I mixed and mixed some more.

In the minutes stolen for a swift bathroom break, smoke had begun to billow from the oven. As in, call the fire station billows.

Turning off the oven I snapped on the oven light; the cheesy olives were pancake flat, bubbling in a screed of oil. That is, what oil wasn’t now pooled in the bottom of the oven. 

It was as if I had just laid eight ounces of cheddar cheese and two ounces of butter on the oven’s bottom and hit “incinerate!” 

The roiling smoke grew denser. I hesitated a second before opening the oven to grab the pan (rimless, another big mistake) and sprinted outside, our two dogs leaping and trying to get a good look.

After much swearing and flapping of towels and deployment of a floor fan, the kitchen smoke began to clear. 

“I have always said that danger — or at least the possibility of it — is a crucial element of any good party,” observed Reed. 

I was succeeding on that score. 

The pralines would cook stove top, thank God. 

I grimly set to melting sugar and copious amounts of butter in a double boiler. Standing over it with a cooking thermometer to gauge the perfect temperature, I couldn’t help but cuss a little. (I’d heard of good cooks who deliberately falsified recipes so nobody could steal their thunder.)

It was suspicious, how much fat burbled out of those disastrous olives, is all I’m saying. Then I noted: There was no mention of a double boiler. 

With lined pans waiting, I finally spooned up the praline goo. Being no fool, I knew better than to make candy on a rainy day; it was dry as a bone outside. But — the pralines never achieved the glistening appearance Reed described.

No matter, I scraped the last, suspiciously granular bits off the side of the saucepan and tasted, burning my index finger and tongue. Yep. They were granular alright.

Setting up rapidly, the pralines looked more like coconut stacks from Cracker Barrel. 

They did not look like pralines.

Earlier, we had made boiled peanuts, more Southern fare, and in a pique, I decided to make a cold soup.

The cheesy olives were misshapen lumps and the pralines were weird. But the peanuts were heavenly. I plunked them in a silver bowl and served up the whole shebang on good platters. Somewhere in the great beyond, Reed was having a belly laugh.   PS

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to PineStraw and O.Henry.

Home by Design

Kitchen Confidential

Damn this kitchen and its quarantineer demeanor

By Cynthia Adams

In 2020, we learned the new kitchen requisites: expansive, slick, lit like a Hollywood set for a Nancy Meyers flick, and/or the perfect set for your Zoom conference.

While most of us are scrounging around for whatever can be created with the random remains in the cupboards, writers at Fast Company breezily forecast the brave new world of future kitchens. Some boast smart fridges that sense what needs restocking — even possessing UPC barcode scanners that can transmit item info to your shopping list — and even order, if so desired. Extensive dry and wet food storage, cold storage that goes far beyond mere wine fridges, and specialized exhaust systems for both odor and virus removal, will be de rigueur.

But not for everyone.

We’re the fourth owners of a century-old house built by Ralph Lewis that has charm in spades. It also took an actual spade to chisel away four layers of kitchen flooring affixed with black tar, when we bought the place. An old photo shows me scraping madly with garden tools, including a weed claw.

We hauled away mismatched cabinets from a cheap reno.

Our vintage kitchen is still tiny. Most would have banged out more walls — at least two were previously removed in order to remove the butler’s pantry.

Allow that to sink in: a butler’s pantry. File that feature under “delusional thinking.”

There has never, ever, been a butler in residence. Sorry, Lord and Lady Carnarvon fans, to disappoint. (Although a Swedish chap at a Key West B&B offered to come be our “house man.” We had to decline, given the absence of downstairs quarters, no wages, not to mention our bewilderment concerning what a house man would even do.)

Ugliness slowly yielded to eccentric charm.

My brawny partner manhandled the stove from its dangerous location by a doorway. He installed tiles and created a cooking alcove, now one of the room’s best features.

Later I insisted upon industrial appliances. I envisioned a range like ones you see in celebrity kitchens, with names that sound like stealth weaponry: Viking, Vulcan, Wolf or Aga.

We wound up with what we could afford — a Frigidaire, unsuited to wartime maneuvers. “It looks pretty good,” I agreed, with indifference to actual performance.

We sold off stock to bankroll modest cabinetry and said appliances; the market value immediately skyrocketed.

“Enjoy your $100,000 kitchen,” Don groused. “Our retirement.”

But now clean, with the underlying wood floor refinished, it felt refreshed.

Just having a deep kitchen sink and a sexy range to twiddle with after months spent microwaving meals on the porch and washing dishes over the bathroom sink — positively made me want to get into that kitchen! And cook!

Mainly, we enjoyed having coffee in said improved kitchen. Also, pouring wine, and reading newspapers upon the retiled island.

And now?

“Now that people are in lockdown, there’s all this joy of cooking going on,” says designer Kim Colin. “People are rediscovering sourdough and learning how to grow useful kitchen herbs.”

What people? Those would not be my people.

A functional kitchen does not make me a cook, to paraphrase the joke, any more than standing in a garage makes me a mechanic. I have not, even once, produced a meal approaching ones enjoyed at (insert restaurant name here: ___________). 

Not at Print Works Bistro, Green Valley Grill, Pastabilities, Melt, Mythos, Osteria, 1618, Undercurrent, Fleming’s, Cugino Forno or even, God help me, Dunkin’ Donuts.

Miss Colin, it appears that I alone among quarantineers did not learn to bake sourdough. Nor master the art of martini-making, dehydrated snacks, or homemade dressings. But I did just coin a new word: quarantineer!

Oh, food pornographers. You are a fraudulent bunch.

I am talking to you, Giada De Laurentiis! Giada, of darling platform shoes, bohemian tops, cinched-waisted jeans, tooth veneers and dangly earrings. Star of Food Network’s Giada at Home 2.0.

“Worth the effort!” “So much better homemade!” “Easy as pie!”

Pie-making, for the record, is not easy. Who coined that phrase? Pie crust dough sticks to a rolling pin like dog poop sticks to white sneakers.

Also, I can spell the word umami but I have no idea how to deploy it. What is it, exactly? The “fifth sense?” Say what?

Food pornographers like Ms. De Laurentiis got me good: I’ve labored long, even risked Covid over chasing down odd-ball ingredients, only to find the outcome revolting. My fig jelly looked like pancake syrup. Thai Cooking for Dummies is not to be trusted. And don’t get me started on the inedible eggplant fiascos.

My partner became a studied liar.

Watching Don picking at the result disguised with cilantro (or basil; bigger camouflage and easier to keep alive in our quarantine herb garden) hiding the burned bits, he remains sturdily positive.

“Well, hey! It’s pretty good!”

I growl like a mean dog with range rage; a flour and grease splattered one. (A positive pandemic note: I don’t yet have Covid because I can taste and smell how revolting my concoctions are.)

When he commandeers the kitchen, wrecking every countertop and space, leaving the gas range (why, oh why, did I insist upon that?) blotched with more oil than the Exxon Valdez disaster — I survey the carnage from frying calamari in a too-small pot.

The calamari actually tastes good.

Grabbing the Windex and paper towel — there’s an upcoming Zoom wine tasting and this mess simply will not do — I disassemble the frigging oil-slicked range to scrub, blot and spray.

On second thought, just don’t Zoom me till the vaccine is ready.  PS

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to PineStraw and O.Henry.

Home by Design

Hello Kitty, Martha and Me

And the shattering fragility of life

By Cynthia Adams

My friend Martha “Mac” was a formidable woman; unceremonious, fiercely smart, irreverent. Standing 6 feet tall in her bare feet, she was what some might call “substantial” — think Julia Child in her later years. (That is, if Julia had never picked up a whisk and had become a business professor.)

Martha loved good design, but didn’t give a happy hoot for clothing.

Chief among her passions were American glassware, jewelry, antiquities, Mid-Century Modern furniture, British mysteries and biographies, travel, Kinky Friedman, Cook Out burgers, Duke U. and . . . Hello Kitty.

As the Sesame Street song goes, “one of these things is not like the others.” That unlikely thing was Hello Kitty.

Hello Kitty celebrated her 45th anniversary last year, bookending my friend’s final exit.  Martha, who died last May, would have hated missing the Hello Kitty Friends Around the World Tour, which kicked off last fall in L.A. I believe she would have been there.

She was a die-hard Pepper. As Martha’s health failed, she pivoted from Pepsi and Dr Pepper to diet Dr Pepper, but remained faithful as ever to the big plush feline with the pink hair bow.

Martha lived in stark contrast to Kitty, never one-dimensional, with the sort of intense presence that no one could miss. She did not suffer fools gladly. Martha’s academic achievements were serious but she adored understatement and devastatingly dry wit.

Also unlike Kitty, she was unpredictable. Martha once declared she would visit all the locales of books she enjoyed, including Franklin, Tennessee, where a Confederate widow buried nearly 1,500 dead soldiers. She sent me a postcard from the setting of Widow of the South. Typically acerbic, Martha scrawled on the back, “Lots of graves.”

She meandered on to the west coast of Florida, then wound up in Austin, Texas, where she earned her doctorate.

Another such junket led her to glass-making sites across the United States, stopping off in Weston, West Virginia, where she was a longtime board member of The Museum of American Glass.

At one time, she drove a two-seater Honda CRX, which required her to imitate a contortionist to get behind the wheel. Martha’s mind, formidably quick, far outpaced a body that slowed to a lumber.

Still, she traveled alone. “Intrepid” is the inadequate word that comes to mind.  The word “carapace” also fits. Martha had a protective shell.

An initiation preceded friendship. She allowed you into her world once you proved you were unafraid of her. My hubby succeeded by offering his delicious mashed potatoes in a pot straight off the stove. Delightedly, Martha plunged the spoon into the pot, declaring them the “best mashed potatoes ever.” They remained lifelong friends.

When Amazon evolved from bookseller to behemoth, Martha was an early adopter, and eBay became an obsession.

Both allowed her to indulge her Hello Kitty passion full on.

One Christmas, Martha gave me one of the most memorable gifts I have ever received: a padded Hello Kitty toilet seat. She kept a Hello Kitty toaster for herself.

The following birthday, Martha gave me a Hello Kitty notepad and a bag of assorted chocolates. Also, Keith Richard’s excellent autobiography, Life, which she had just hoovered down, as she did with books. The Hello Kitty gifts perplexed me given that I am a dog person.

She indulged a love of turquoise to the point she once bought a necklace — bigger than the coveted Squash Blossom design — and large enough to hoist a car engine with — but glassware was the thing that eclipsed all other passions.

The crematorium where her funeral was held last spring was beside a strip joint. As in strippers, not furniture refinishing. I smiled to myself as I parked, thinking how Martha would have appreciated the irony.

Friends and family gathered later at Martha’s townhouse, where she had slowly rid herself of the Mid-century Modern furniture, making room for more fragile collectibles. Now steel shelves and racks held hundreds of pieces of exquisite glass: antique, American, European, rare and some less so. Much of it was donated to the Weston museum where she had traveled often to pay homage to great glass design.

Sitting on lawn furniture among the glassware, we mourners sipped wine as a storm rumbled. Despite the gathering of folk with doctorates and high IQs, words failed. None of us was equal to the wit Martha’s remarkable originality demanded.

So, we shifted awkwardly on our webbed seats, swallowing down the bitter realization that there was no collectible so rare as our fine and fiercely original friend. 

Months later, invited to choose a piece of glass, I strained to admire an unfamiliar piece from a shelf top; it toppled and crashed as if pushed by an invisible finger.  “Oh, shit!” I exclaimed, stricken.

“Exactly what Martha would have said,” came the dry reply from Jim, her executor. 

Of course, I thought bitterly. 

Hemingway was wrong about the lucky growing strong at the broken places. I swept up the shards and took what remained of the piece home. PS

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to PineStraw and O.Henry

Home by Design

Simply Irresistible

Bitten by the design bug

By Cynthia Adams

Skimming the auto classifieds recently, an ad set in a retro font called Courier New tripped the circuitry of my brain to a repressed memory. I froze, slopping my morning coffee as I recalled another ad entry from the past, under “Antique Cars” (with a nod to the Robert Palmer song).

SIMPLY IRRESISTIBLE. 1971 Volkswagen Convertible; electric blue. New paint, top and tires. Restored. Garaged. Winston-Salem.

The price, a gulper, reflected its merit.

My eyes raked over the thumbnail-sized picture. The unfurled soft top combined with its rounded wheelhouses made me nostalgic for the, well, freewheeling days of the counterculture era. Not to mention the near indestructible, classic four-cylinder air-cooled boxer engine — a tribute to German engineering for sure — strategically placed in the rear of the car. It was love at first bug bite!

As I dialed, hand trembling with excitement, I feared it was already gone.

The owner, who sounded elderly (ah, perfect!) said I could see it that afternoon.

He had fielded several inquiries. If serious, “bring cash. Not many cars like this.”

“She’s anything but typical,” I heard Palmer singing in my head.

At that, I scurried off to withdraw the exact price (“nonnegotiable” the owner made clear), shivering with excitement.

I had long wanted a vintage VW convertible — what our architect friend, Greg Koester, jokingly tagged “a bitch bucket.” This was the one!

I hummed, “She’s a craze you’d endorse,” from Palmer’s song.

Leaving the bank, I called my husband. “I need for you to take me to Winston- Salem in a couple of hours.”

He agreed.

On the drive over, he negotiated. “Don’t do it,” he pleaded.

“Nonnegotiable,” I replied sassily, quoting the seller. Then I sang, “She’s a craze you’ll endorse, she’s a powerful force/You’re obliged to conform when there’s no other course.”

He gripped the wheel. “Look, it’s an old car. I think it’s a bad idea.”

Unfazed, I felt bubbling anticipation.

The owner’s hip bothered him, so he took a while ambling out when we arrived. He retreated to the garage, reappearing in the adorable blue car. Exiting stiffly, he patted the pristine white top.

“Cute, huh?”

He didn’t need to sell me, as I was silently singing, “She used to look good to me, but now I find her/Simply irresistible . . .”

As my knees weakened at the sight of her, the seller mentioned he was a Shriner.

“We take an oath; we cannot lie. Truth is, this car is worth a lot more than I’m asking.”

While I didn’t buy that line wholesale, I was still thinking of Palmer’s lyrics:

“It’s simply unavoidable/The trend is irreversible.”

“Can you drive a straight?” he asked, interrupting my silent singing. “Wanna drive it?”

I grinned.

He handed me the key.

I slowly circled the drive, singing, “She’s all mine, there’s no other way to go.”

“Hasn’t been out much,” he observed when I rolled back, having never gone faster than a few miles per hour. “Needs the carbon blown out.”

Of course, I thought, the old guy probably hadn’t driven it since 1975.

With that, I shook his hand and we were off to handle the transaction. My husband, looking beyond perplexed, tried again.

“You need to check it out,” he pleaded.

“He’s a SHRINER,” I repeated. “He can’t lie.”

My husband glowered.

The bundle of cash, all hundreds, was exchanged, for the title.

Back at the Shriner’s, I climbed into the car and cranked open the window. (A crank! How deliciously retro!)

“See you in Greensboro!” I shouted gaily, fumbling to find first gear. It had been a while since I’d owned a straight shift.

As I advanced uphill toward the road, the driver’s seat shot backward. It was all I could do to keep control of the car.

My heart pumped. When the car crested and I headed downhill, the seat suddenly shot forward, giving the adrenaline rush of Disney’s ill-fated Rocket Rods. When I pulled over to examine how to lock the bucket seat into place, I discovered it was not anchored — nor could it be.

It slid freely to and fro.

(No big deal, I thought. Missing a screw.)

On the open road, I tried to familiarize myself with the clutch while also trying to keep the seat from rolling back so far on hills that I couldn’t reach the accelerator.

I held onto the door in order to steady my seat, like a captain on the high seas.

But only a few miles down the Interstate, the car spluttered.

My husband had long since left me behind, eager to leave me to my stupid fate.

I slowed and pulled over.

The car gasped and died.

I noted the fuel gauge registered full. Not out of gas, then. Flooded?

I managed to restart it after a while.

(“She’s so fine, there’s no tellin’ where the money went,” I thought.)

Somehow, I leapfrogged back to Greensboro, driving straight to our mechanic.

He was outside the garage chatting to a customer.

He grinned at the shiny blue Beetle, which choked as soon as I downshifted, hurtling me forward. I gasped and caught myself.

“Sure is cute!” he greeted, as I rubbed my wrist, which had banged against the dashboard.

Explaining my conundrum, I handed over the keys — as the mechanic kept repeating how great the car looked.

Reluctantly, I called home to ask for a ride. Palmer’s voice grew louder in my head. “She’s unavoidable, I’m backed against the wall.”

One of my husband’s finest qualities is his ability to repress the words, “I told you so.”

The mechanic phoned later that week with a report. “It’s real unusual, this car,” he prefaced.

The car had died because the fuel tank was all-but-empty. All the dashboard gauges worked BACKWARD.

It was as if a mischievous chimp had restored the car. A Bonzo Beetle? “It’s not safe to drive,” he cautioned.

The Shriner may not have outright lied, but he was quite capable of omissions.

The bitch bucket held more surprises.

The mechanic called again. “I have a buyer if you’re selling.” A customer had seen it on the lift and had to have it.

“But the car isn’t safe!”

The mechanic replied slowly, “But she wants it.”

I spluttered. “It was overpriced to begin with and now there’s an additional garage bill.”

The next night, someone as smitten with the car as I had been phoned.

“Think it over,” I advised. “The car is simply irresistible.”

She thought briefly and called back. “We’ll pay your price and the garage bill. Consider it sold.”

The mechanic called too. “I could have sold that car several times.” The blue Beetle was the automotive equivalent of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct.

As soon as I had the title back from the DMV, the potential owner was eagerly waiting at the garage. I allowed myself a last look; “‘She’s a craze you’ll endorse, she’s a powerful force,’” I hummed sadly.

A month later, the Beetle was in the Fresh Market parking lot, top down, sporting an adorable vanity plate: WEEKENDS.

“Gosh, it’s cute,” I gushed in spite of everything. I had owned the car a few weeks and only driven it 35 miles. Now it became a sport to spot WEEKENDS around town. It presented as an electric flash of color, the top down, the driver’s blonde hair flying.

A few months later, we spied WEEKENDS being loaded onto a tow truck.

“Oh, no!” we both exclaimed passing it, then fell silent.

I struggled to not look back; then, in a low voice, I sang.

“‘She’s a natural law, and she leaves me in awe/She deserves the applause, I surrender because/She used to look good to me but now I find her/Simply irresistible.’”  PS

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to O.Henry.

Home by Design

A Room of Our Own

After years of open floor plans, design trend watchers see beauty in dedicated spaces with doors and actual walls

By Cynthia Adams

Every spring and fall, the High Point Market Authority handpicks a group of designers and trend-trackers to scour showrooms for top design trends and products. But how to get around the Market’s COVID-induced closure, the second in its 111-year history (the first being World War II)?

Like everyone else in America, the Market turned to Zoom in mid-May, bringing together tastemakers from around the country to highlight their chicest picks from websites and leading home-furnishing companies’ new product lines. In a virtual confab, Rachel Cannon, Nancy Fire, Joanna Hawley-McBride, Don Ricardo Massenburg, Rachel Moriarty, Ivonne Ronderos, Victoria Sanchez, and Keita Turner presented their finds and posted them for viewing on the Spotters’ Pinterest boards. 

Allow me to break down some key takeaways.

Recent lockdowns made us miss rooms. As in, rooms with walls and doors. Doors that close.

This is a reversal of many seasons’ worth of pooh-poohing discrete spaces. Season after season, tastemakers regularly demonstrated an aversion to them. And not only in print. On HGTV, home flippers would walk in and size up a fixer-upper. Right off the bat they would eye existing sheetrock or plaster walls with the sort of suspicion normally reserved for a sewage leak.

“We need to open this up!” the renovator would declare giving said wall the stink eye. “First thing we’ll do is take out that wall!” 

No matter if there was a 1911-era fireplace in that wall oozing charm, the problem was, that mantel and fireplace required a wall. And walls, if not absolutely essential and load bearing, a renovator term one quickly learned, were verboten.

Having flipped a few houses myself in my single days, I would wail at a hallmark Fixer Upper scene in which Chip and Joanna Gaines proceeded to take a sledgehammer to an architectural detail or quirk that gave a house character. The end result was an open-concept house erected within the gutted shell of a formerly unique structure.

But the times, Children, are a-changin’. 

After sheltering in place, working and home-schooling children, there were just so many days of hearing “Baby Shark” without losing brain cells. Or hearing one’s partner booming away on yet another Zoom call. Or clearing away the breakfast mess before a Skype call could occur.

Weary Mamas and Papas and empty nesters learned there is something to treasure about personal space when one had so little.

After years of open floor plans, the Style Spotters agreed, there is a great realization:

“Open plans are going to change,” one declared.

If you lack the skill set to build a wall in the time of a pandemic, buy a screen, the designers suggested in May. 

Something else the Style Spotters uttered grabbed my attention: comfort. Comfort and coziness are useful in uncertain times, they agreed unilaterally.

So, soft edges (featured on a cabinet by Theodore Alexander) or the organic (citing a Clubcu Oak French Console with a handmade look) were deemed pleasing.

Art and accessories with lots of texture also made the tastemaker’s cut. As did things “organic, creative, imperfect,” or “global and glam” — all reassuring design choices.

In a pandemic-scarred world, “Home is going to be the hub of everything,” one said. 

The humble entryway or grand foyer is changed and weighed with practical needs  (shucking off clothing or sanitizing our hands), as more than one urbanite designer allowed.

Rachel Cannon, whose Zoom space was neutral, tasteful and quiet, says she likes to design for introverts like herself. Though seeking calm in her color palette, she confessed she was not as enamored of the Pantone color of the year, Classic Blue, as her Style Spotting compatriots. Illustrating her preference for soothing elements, Cannon cited Hickory White’s case goods. 

On the opposite end of the personality spectrum, the boho-loving camp did not seek calm. They chose geometric, bold, sexy furnishings among case goods and furniture, as well as art and accessories. They liked candy colors that smacked of fun and games. The radical chic designers favored effusive and tribal-inspired designs in fabrics. Prominently mentioned was Shipibo textiles, created by the Peru’s indigenous Shipibo-Conibo people.

The Style Spotters responded unanimously to a question about favorite projects: The entire group expressed their enthusiasm for designing powder rooms. “You can take risks!” one suggested. As a bonus for extroverted designers, the style-savvy added: It can be bold!

So skip to the loo, my darlings! It may have a dearth of toilet paper, but it does have walls and lockable doors, suitable for when one simply has to shut out the noise. Or corona-avoid everyone.  PS

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to O.Henry.

The Style Spotters program is co-sponsored by Crypton Fabric and Studio Designer. More information about the Style Spotters program and the 2020 team can be found www.highpointmarket.org/products-and-trends/style-spotters.