Meal plan: Week of 5/18/14 – 5/24/14


Welp, last week’s menu was a rousing success in terms of getting back on plan, so this week I’m letting it ride. I’m so close to my 5% goal I can taste it, and it tastes a lot like Garden Vegetable Soup. It’s also going to be warm this week, so I’m working more salads into the rotation.

Mmmm...cheesesteak

Mmmm…cheesesteak

Sunday: Cheesesteaks (can’t be a monk every night!)

Monday: BBQ Chicken salad

Tuesday: Rainbow peanut noodles (I’m making brownies for book group and am going to try very hard not to eat any)

Wednesday: turkey lettuce wraps

Thursday: chickpea & sausage minestrone (this might not happen, as the BK has baseball practice — he made the All-Stars team again this year — and the LK and I will go see Michael Pollan speak)

Friday: Almond, berry & chicken spinach salad

Saturday: Memorial Day weekend begins! Dinner TBD.

 

Meal plan: week of 5/11/14-5/17/14


 

soup

It’s bathing suit season, which means it’s zero-point veggie soup season. Because nothing inspires wolf whistles at the beach than a cabbage-bloated belly. Wooo-hooo!

Seriously, though, I’ve been back on Weight Watchers in earnest for about five months now and I’ve been on the threshold of my first goal (losing 5% of your starting weight) for weeks now. Lots of things derailed me — I didn’t track or exercise during SXSW, I had Foodways Texas, followed by the Austin Food & Wine Festival. I work out A LOT, but I’m also super sloppy in my tracking, going over my daily points allotment every day.

I’m really ready to get serious again with this partly because I’m paying to be a member every month, but also partly because this is the most progress I’ve made with weight loss since before I got married. (I lost 40 pounds back in 2003.) And it’s not so that I can look good in a bathing suit, but because I want to be healthy for a long, long time. I also am looking to clean up the family’s diet, especially because I’ve been letting too much sugary junk slip through the cracks and ends up sliding down my gullet. It’s better for the entire family’s health if I’m holding the line with healthy foods.

Along with having a vat of zero-point veggie soup on hand for afternoon snacks, I’m committed to weighing and measuring all of my portions and staying within my points target every day. No more borrowing from my slush fund of 49 weekly “extra” points, since I have no intentions of giving up my Saturday cheat day.

To that end, this week’s meal plan is carefully planned to speak to all of those concerns — cutting back on the sugar and junk, carefully measured on-plan portions, with a little wiggle room for wholesome treats.

Sunday: Build your own tostada night, with refried pinto beans, shredded chicken, cheese, veggies. The kids loved this.

Monday: Bacon and Shrimp Pasta Toss (10 points per serving); apple crisp for dessert

Tuesday: We’re going to a 6pm UT baseball game, so there will probably be sausage wraps or Frito pies or nachos or something (I’ll have a big helping of veggie soup during the LK’s dance class, which ends at 5:30)

Wednesday: Easy Crock Pot Chicken and Black Bean Taco Salad (7 points per serving)

Thursday: Edamame Salad with Crispy Steak Bits (7 points per serving)

Friday: Mom’s Spanish Chicken and Rice (9 points per serving)

Saturday: TBD. Not sure what we’ve got going on this weekend — maybe nothing, but that’s typically our dining out night.

What’s on your healthy eating plan for this week?

Foodie Field Trips: Treebeard’s (Houston)


Back in the late ’90s/early ’00s, I worked as the Music, Arts, and Movies editor for Houston Citysearch. In many ways, it was the perfect job for me, back before the site was a Yelp-like, user-curated city guide. I got to create all sorts of content, previewing and reviewing movies, records and concerts, and exhibits at places like the MFAH. My work days were filled not only with writing these pieces, but also planning an editorial calendar, attending movie previews and private gallery tours complete with catered lunches. My nights were spent in various clubs and music venues, or at the theatre or the opera. Yes, I was working 50-60 hours a week and only making $27,000/year, and it was super corporate, but dang, it was fun. Our office was on Main Street in downtown (not too far from Minute Maid Park; I could have walked to Astros games after work. In fact, I’m not sure why I didn’t.), very close to lots of cool restaurants. (I was a big fan of Mission Burrito, which had a location about a block away from the office.)

One of my most favorite places to go for lunch was Treebeard’s, which was just around the corner at Market Square (and two doors down from Warren’s, one of my all-time favorite bars). Now then, given that I wasn’t making more than $500/week and had student loans, credit cards, and a car payment, Treebeard’s was a total splurge, as the daily lunch plus cornbread and a drink was about $12. I hadn’t really had much exposure to Creole food before living in Houston (at least that I can recall), and I remember being completely blown away by the red beans and rice (my absolute favorite dish there; it’s their signature dish for a reason). It’s a cafeteria-style setup, with a rotating menu of three mains (stuffed pork chops, chicken fried chicken, pot roast, blackened catfish, and the like) and assorted sides (black eyed peas, grits, mac and cheese, etc.).

Baked catfish on dirty rice, topped with étouffée.

Baked catfish on dirty rice, topped with étouffée.

Work-related travel found me in Houston last week and as I was considering my lunch options — there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in Houston, culinary-wise — I seized on Treebeard’s and didn’t look back. I left Citysearch and moved away from Houston in August 2000, so a good decade-plus had passed since I’d last eaten there. I was so pleased to walk in and see that nothing had changed. I grabbed my tray, my glass for iced tea, a fruit cup, and went full-bore with my order of baked catfish atop dirty rice, with a side of jalapeño cornbread. The picture here doesn’t do it justice — this was an enormous portion (I must have stretched my expensive lunches into two servings back in the day), and I couldn’t finish it despite my best efforts. Everything tasted just as I remembered it, flooded as it was with memories of a very different time in my life.

In all honesty, my return to Treebeard’s  — among other things — has made me somewhat circumspect. Dang, I loved all the writing I got to do then, and all those perks sure were nice. And I left Citysearch to go to graduate school, ostensibly so that I could become a better writer (also, working at Citysearch could sometimes be … a bit of a you-know-what-show, especially once Ticketmaster bought the company, or Barry Diller bought Ticketmaster or whatever). I don’t think a job like that will ever come up again, but when I boil that experience down to its essence — writing about things I was (and am) passionate about, I get a little thrill. Who knows what else is out there? Who knows what’s possible these days? All I know is that I want to get back to that m.o. of Always Be Writing, even when it’s hard.

Oh, another thing about Treebeard’s: they have a pretty sinful assortment of desserts, and I was eyeballing the saran-wrapped squares of butter cake for the drive home. But since I’ve been making some progress on the Weight Watchers front, I opted to stick with my fruit. Of course, later, my Houston-based friend recommended that I get some butter cake to take home, d’oh! So on Friday, I made this. It were tasty.

butter cake

 

Do you have any restaurants that define a certain time in your life? If so, are you still able to visit them?

Foodways Texas Symposium: A Recap


chickens

This past weekend, I had the extreme privilege to attend the fourth-annual Foodways Texas Symposium. This year’s “Farm to Market” program was held at the Agrilife Center on the Texas A&M campus and provided attendees with the opportunity to explore and learn about agriculture through various lenses, from logistics to oral histories to the connections between Texas food and swing music.

The event commenced on Thursday night with a welcome dinner at The Veranda, with a “Texas Spring Picnic” dinner provided by Molly McCook of Ellerbe Fine Foods in Fort Worth. The menu included chicken-fried quail and a potent whiskey pound cake, showcasing Texas ingredients from start to finish.

oyster

Indeed, each meal over the weekend laid bare the embarrassment of Texas riches in terms of both ingredients and culinary talent. Friday morning’s breakfast, courtesy of Brian Light of Ronin Cooking, featured empanadas made with Longhorn beef (because College Station), while breakfast on Saturday was curated by Austin’s Stephanie McClenny of confituras, who paired her spring jams (including the brand-new ruby red grapefruit jelly) with irresistible rafts of grilled Texas toast from Dallas’ Empire Baking Company and goat cheese from Blue Heron Farm. Friday’s lunch, courtesy of Randy Evans of Haven in Houston, featured Gulf Coast delights including briny appellation oysters and a mouthwatering sauce piquant plump with Texas shrimp. (Our table also tore through three servings of dessert, a tipsy strawberry trifle stuffed into large mason jars.) On Saturday, Jesse Perez of Arcade Midtown Kitchen in San Antonio offered up a “Winter Garden Luncheon” featuring an absolutely stunning plate of roasted chicken and sweet potatoes, along with lamb shank, meaty mushrooms, and coarse yellow grits. On Friday night, dinner came courtesy of Lenoir’s Todd Duplechan, who wowed us with a smoked porchetta dish accompanied by a hearty peasant bread and refreshing end-of-season beets.

tipsy

While our bodies were nourished by Texas ingredients, our minds were nourished by the various thought-provoking topics. Friday’s program was more loosely organized, focusing on agricultural products like wine, olives and grapefruit, as well as an introduction to Robyn Metcalfe’s intriguing new project, The Miracle of Feeding Cities. I was particularly moved by Saturday’s program, though, which hewed rather more closely to a single topic: the rice industry in Texas.

First, Todd Romero, a history professor at the University of Houston, gave a talk on Saito Saibara, a turn-of-the-century ex-samurai who became a successful rice grower in South Texas before the racist immigration policies of the early-to-mid-20th century squelched his ambitions. Next, MM Pack moderated a panel dedicated to teasing out the nuances of water usage and conservation in Texas and how that relates to the rice industry.

Perhaps the most profound example of this troubled relationship came when Jack “Jacko” Garrett, a Houston-area rice farmer who founded Share the Harvest, a charitable organization that has donated millions of pounds of rice to the Houston Food Bank, accepted his Lifetime Achievement award. He explained that because water consumers in urban areas fail to conserve water in any meaningful way, this will be the first year in decades that his father’s farm will produce no rice because there simply isn’t enough water available. As a result, the Houston Food Bank will receive 800,000 fewer pounds of rice from Share the Harvest this year, which adds up to 8 million servings. It is profoundly humbling to reflect upon the connections between hunger and people’s dedication to maintaining their emerald-green lawns. It’s easy to think of water being a problem people in third-world countries have, but we can no longer deny that it’s a social justice issue here in Texas as well.

Also of note was the closing panel, moderated by Austin’s Kristi Willis, who led three urban farmers in a discussion of their operations. Max Elliott, of Urban Roots in Austin, James Jeffers of Eat the Yard in Dallas, and Colleen O’Donnell of Plant It Forward in Houston all described the ways that their farming programs yield positive change in their communities. Not only does Urban Roots teach at-risk youth critical leadership and life skills, but the farm also donates thousands of pounds of produce to the Capital Area Food Bank and Caritas each year. Eat the Yard, which was founded by two Army veterans, reaches out to veterans who are in need of immediate therapeutic interventions, and Plant It Forward helps out immigrants and refugees through its gardening programs.

In between all the eating and the learning, there was community-building to boot. There were many lively discussions floating around, from how to best manage one’s cast iron collection to what the best thing on the menu at El Patio is. I can’t imagine a better way to spend a weekend than surrounded by people who love food: the growing, preparing, and sharing of it. Here’s to many more weekends like this one.

Baked Sunday Mornings: Classic Creme Brûlée


SXSW is finally over. It feels like it’s been going on for months, maybe because I started working on it back in February. This year was a particularly weird festival, with what felt like way more crowds than usual, that horrible crash on Wednesday night, nightmare train rides, and a general sense of things being out of control. 

Naturally, my defense mechanism was to hide out at home as much as possible and do nest-y things like read a soapy novel, fold laundry, and try a new kitchen project. That’s where the creme brûlée comes in, thanks to Baked Sunday Mornings.

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I love creme brûlée. We go have dim sum once every few months and I always choose this French custard from the dessert cart. If it’s an option on the dessert menu when the husband and I are dining out, I’ll order it. It’s a special-occasion treat for me, to be sure. And that’s why it was so surprising to me that it was so easy to make. It was also my first time using a kitchen torch, which was pretty fun, although I wish I’d caramelized the tops to order instead of all at once so that I could get a bit more practice with it. Some of the sugar came out a bit more torched than I would have liked (although not scorched). 

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However, ease of preparation will probably not entice me to make this at home very often. I made five portions instead of four, and as I was eating mine, I realized that I was eating (and enjoying greatly) a half-cup of heavy whipping cream. The smaller portions made for a whopping 13-point dessert; if I’d divvied it into four portions, the Weight Watchers points value would have been 18 (!!!!), making this a serious splurge indeed. That said, this recipe was DELICIOUS, and I really loved seeing the flecks of vanilla bean in there. (And it was nice to use one of the vanilla beans I’ve had sitting in the pantry for an age.)

That said, sometimes you need to indulge in some dessert therapy, or at the very least, demystify a special treat. And now I’m curious as to whether I could develop a low-fat creme brûlée (although what would be the point of that?). 

Check out what the other bakers had to say about this recipe. 

Downton Abbey, episode 8


Hello, my dearest readers. So sorry to have abandoned you last week, but I was overwhelmed with deadlines and unable to make our usual Downton Abbey appointment.

Here’s what we missed:

  • LG was called to America to help get Cora’s brother out of hot water.
  • Isobel nursed an ill Violet back to health, which deepened their friendship.
  • Mary flopped around in pig filth with Mr. Blake, which means that in some countries they’re married.
  • Tony “Lord” Gillingham came back to Downton with his evil rapist valet, whom Mrs. Hughes confronted about his evil raping ways. Of course he denies it, and Anna is deeply uncomfortable.
  • Aunt Rosamund smells a rat re: Edith, and says, “you seem so préoccupé lately.” (That’s French for “rich people’s affectation.”) Edith spills the beans, goes to get an abortion, but changes her mind.

Got it? Good. Let’s proceed with Part 8. This is a pretty juicy episode, being the season finale of sorts, so strap in. [Well, the “Christmas special” is technically the season finale, but that is typically a standalone episode.]

partytimeexcellent

Turns out Cora’s brother has gotten embroiled in the Teapot Dome scandal. Turns out Mr. Levinson owns one of the companies caught paying bribes to Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall to drill for oil on government land in Teapot Dome, Wyoming. Thanks, Downton Abbey, for this American history lesson! This, of course, leaves Cora to plan the church bazaar without LG’s help. Because I’m sure he’s always a huge help in every way.

Tony "Lord" Gillingham just wants to be loved by Mary. Anna just wants him to stay away, please.

Tony “Lord” Gillingham just wants to be loved by Mary. Anna just wants him to stay away, please.

Mr. Blake, with whom Mary is much more comfortable now that they’ve thrown pig shit into each other’s faces, has reached the end of his study time in Yorkshire and is headed home. And just so that we don’t forget that this is a soap opera to its very core, Mary tells Anna that Tony “Lord” Gillingham is returning to Downton to break his journey home. When Anna turns green around the gills, she’s forced to tell Mary that it was Mr. Green, the valet, who attacked her. Mary is understandably shocked and wants to tell the police, but Anna’s hell-bent for leather to keep it under wraps, and keep Bates away from Green because she knows he’ll figure it out, kill Green, then get himself hanged. Yes. We know this. You tell us this every episode since it happened. WE GET IT. (P.S. Bates can totally tell that something happened with Mr. Green, because Anna no longer jokes and laughs with him when he’s around.) (P.P.S. Tony tells Mary he plans to call off his engagement, but Mary tells him that she’s not on the market, for realsies.) Later on, Mary decides to tell Tony to dismiss his valet so that Green can’t terrorize Anna at Downton on future visits. Tony later arrives at the bazaar to report that Mr. Green is dead, having fallen into traffic in Piccadilly.

Related: Bates takes a mystery day off while Anna is in London with Mary.

Ivy receives a letter from Alfred reporting that his dad’s died and also inviting her to a.) marry him and b.) leave Downton and join him in London. She does not want. Despite sending him a letter to this effect, he plans to come to Downton anyway. Mrs. Patmore takes this opportunity to let Daisy take the day off to go see Mr. Mason, who advises Daisy to say goodbye to Alfred. “Leave nothing jagged, nothing harsh between you,” he says. Aw, he’s salt of the earth, that Mr. Mason. I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE, JULIAN FELLOWES. She brings back a basket of goodies for Alfred, and promises lifelong friendship to him. He leaves and dear god I’m glad to see the back of him and this tortured storyline.

On a trip into Thirsk, Branson spies Rose having tea with and stroking the face of Jack the Black American Jazz Singer. He reckons this situation will make some people unhappy. (The narrative also presents him with a potential love interest-philosophical sparring partner in Sarah Bunting, a local schoolteacher whom he met at a political meeting in the previous episode.) Anyhoo, he tells Mary what he saw; Mary confronts Rose about it and warns her not to lose control of her life. Rose fancies herself progressive and anti-imperialist in that she plans to marry Jack and have lots of progressive mixed-race babies in 1920s England and is going to tell Mummy of her plans straight away. Yep, totally in control of her life, that one. She later tells Mary that she’s engaged to Jack. Mary goes to visit Jack in London, where he tells her that he plans to break off the relationship because he is realistic about the world they live in.

edith

Meanwhile, Edith reckons she can have her baby, then adopt it out to some tenant farmers at Downton who have been trying unsuccessfully to have a child (and who are also charged with the running of the new pig operation). Aunt Rosamund thinks this is reckless and reckons Edith should have the baby abroad and adopt it out there, but Edith wants to be a part of its growing up. This gives rise to a rather hilarious scene in which Rosamund says to Cora, “I have this plan. I’ve always wanted to … speak better … French than I do. [Ha! Because her daily speech isn’t affected enough!] So I thought I’d take a few months off and go to … Switzerland … and really learn it.” She’s totally making this up on the fly, a la Jan Brady and her boyfriend George Glass.

She wants to take Edith with her because it’s cleaner than France, is void of French people, and has good hospitals. You know, in case they get ill. Cora, such a sanguine lady, is all for it, exclaiming, “Golly! Life is full of surprises!” If she suspects anything, she masks it well. Violet compares Edith’s upcoming sabbatical to Lord Gillingham “thinking his way around the Highlands.” If only it were that simple for women. (P.S. Violet totally groks what’s up with Edith and calls her and Rosamund on it at lunch. Sharp old lady is sharp.)

Speaking of women, as Mr. Baxter, Evelyn Whatsis, and Tony “Lord” Gillingham all depart from Downton, the women (Mary, Rosamund, Edith, Cora, and Rose) are lined up outside to see them off. You see that the women’s color palette is shifting from purples and mauves to shades of blue, gray, and pewter accented with creams and browns. I’m not sure if the costume designers are making these choices a la Vince Gilligan and Breaking Bad, but it is noticeable and I’m hoping someone somewhere will write a think piece about it. Anyhoo, the ladies tease Mary about the carful of suitors driving away, calling it a “desire of suitors.” Har-dee-har-har, says Mary, plus whatever the genteel version of “go eff yourselves” is.

Isobel is invited by Violet to stand in for the family at luncheon with Lord Merton, who seems interested in her. He later sends her a magnificent bouquet of flowers, and the two old-lady friends have a bit of a giggle over it. (But is Violet a wee bit jealous? Surely not.)

weknownothing

LG returns from America just in time to enjoy the bazaar. BECAUSE OF COURSE. Mr. Baxter also comes to the bazaar, under the pretense of just having come from a conference nearby, in order to make his feelings for Mary known. He, too, vows to fight for Mary’s love, which means that season 5 will invariably feature a cage match between him and Tony “Lord” Gillingham. (My money’s on Tony, mostly because he way sexier than Blake.) Tony asks Blake for a ride home to London, Mary sees them off, and LG  says, “What sort of menage has that turned into since I’ve been away?” Everyone shrugs disingenuously and we’re done here.

See you next time for the “Christmas special,” which features the triumphant return of Shirley Maclaine with bonus Paul Giamatti! Yay!

Dowager Countess Zingers: To Isobel, who enters the room saying, “It’s only me.”: “I always feel that greeting betrays such a lack of self-worth.” To Edith, discussing the trip to Switzerland: “Switzerland has everything to offer, except perhaps conversation, and one can learn to live without that.” Of Rosamund’s plan to act as Edith’s patron during her baby-having sojourn: “She’s done quite enough as it is. Take any more, and she’ll start exacting annual tribute.”

Downton Abbey: “Come to bed and dream of Ragtime”


Here it is, folks, the most boring episode of Downton Abbey that ever bored us. Onward through the slog, shall we?

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Did someone say toast?

Daisy gives Alfred first crack at the hot toast. (Not a euphemism, but should be.) Why is Alfred getting special treatment? Because he’s staying, of course. Oh, Daisy. Don’t you know the rules of Chekhov’s rejection letter? Naturally, Alfred learns that he’s gotten a spot at the Escoffier school after all, blurts an expression of gratitude to the family that embarrasses everyone, and breaks poor Daisy’s heart. Later, as Ivy moans about Jimmy having tried to make it beyond first base after a night out, saying “I suppose he was sweet-talking me so that he could have his way. All this time I thought he was so nice.” Mrs. Patmore responds drily, “I wonder how many women have said that since the Norman Conquest.” Ha! Daisy tears Ivy a new one, accusing her of having driven Alfred away through her flirtation with Jimmy. Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore reckon Ivy had that one coming. 

Alfred’s departure creates a space for Mr. Molesley, who is brought on as footman despite Carson’s misgivings (he thinks Poor Molesley is ungrateful). No one knows his first name, though (duh, it’s “Poor”), make an educated guess that it’s “Joseph” (wrong), so he remains Molesley despite his reduced status. Ha-ha.

Downton as a business is expanding into agriculture in the form of raising pigs. LG is nervous. Mary is smug because Downton is doing so well, but we get some clues that maybe that’s not the case. She exchanges barbs with Mr. Blake, Evelyn Napier’s boss, so you know they’re totally going to do it. 

Anna is better, but not 100%. She and Bates decide they need a mini-break to make some good new memories together and go out for dinner at a fancy place. The maitre-d is snooty and tells them that there’s no table available for them despite their having made a reservation. Cora enters from the dining room, her face arranged into a creepy rictus meant to be a warm smile of friendship; this association convinces the maitre’d to change his tune and finds the Bateses a table. 

Violet keeps losing knick-knacks in her house. She thinks it’s the new gardener and sacks him, but they keep turning up in odd places. Either Violet is going a bit senile or someone is messing with her head (or both; I don’t trust her shifty-eyed butler, Spratt, who seems to have very conveniently found the netsuke figurine in the maid’s cleaning bucket). The previews for next week suggest that maybe she’s not well. 

Edith is sad and worried because Michael has gone incommunicado. Making matters worse, she receives a letter from her doctor informing her that the mole she had checked out is actually pregnancy, which is why it’s a good thing I’m not a medical doctor. Escandalo! Look where your feminist fantasies of having it all have gotten you now, Edith! 

Thomas pumps his spy, Miss Baxter, for dirt on the family. I’m not sure where this storyline is going. 

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Nothing bad can come of this.

Cousin Oliver Rose has secretly hired a band to play for LG’s birthday party. Surprise, it’s Jack Ross, the guy from the night club in London who is a — black American! This does lead to a funny scene wherein a scandalized Carson (first an Australian opera singer, now a black American jazz singer? What is this world coming to?) suggests that Jack visit Africa. “Why would I? I’m no more African than you are. Well not much more.” He goes on say that while his people came over from Africa in 1970, the circumstances of which are too ghastly to articulate, there’s really not more of a connection than that. Mrs. Hughes congratulates Jack on finding the one thing about the past that Carson doesn’t agree with (slavery). Har-har. Despite the initial shock of the band, LG loves his birthday surprise and offers to pay the bill for their performance. When Mary goes downstairs to pass along this information, she catches Rose and Mr. Ross smooching in the dark. Oy. Such a renegade, that Rose. 

Dowager Countess Zingers: To Isobel, who suggests Violet is too focused on material possessions rather than on justice: “I wonder you don’t just set fire to the Abbey and dance around it, painted with woad and howling.”

 

Downton Abbey: The Holy and the Broken


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Don’t worry, Anna. You’ll feel better before the hour is up.

You guys, I can’t even with this Anna’s Rape storyline, so let’s get it out of the way up front, shall we? Bates wants to know what’s gone wrong between them, and Anna continues to shut him out. He overhears Mrs. Hughes telling Anna that she needs to be honest with him, so he goes to Mrs. Hughes and offers her an ultimatum: tell me what’s up or I’m peacing out. Mrs. Hughes knows this would devastate Anna, so she spills the details, but pretends not to know the identity of Anna’s assailant. Once he finds out, he tells Anna that she’s found out. “But I’m spoiled for you now,” Anna weeps. Quite to the contrary, says Bates, “you are made higher to me and holier for the suffering you have been put through.” Oh, sweet fancy Moses, are you kidding me with this? What actor in his right mind can utter these lines without decking the dope who wrote them? Over on Salon, Daniel D’Addario argues that Downton Abbey is, at its heart, a deeply conservative show in its portrayal of “benevolent rich people caring for servants.” This particular storyline reinforces that idea for me, in that Julian Fellowes chooses to portray the servants as so noble, so pure in their suffering; the peerage would be downright monsters not to make sure these poor rubes are taken care of. Gah. 

Moving on, Miss Baxter, Cora’s new lady’s maid, is ingratiating herself nicely with the family, serving Cora orange juice for breakfast and reporting that the staff speak highly of Sybil. She’s also making friends downstairs, wowing the youngsters with her newfangled sewing machine and repairing Mrs. Patmore’s torn apron in advance of a visit from Cora. She and Thomas clearly have a history, and we see that he’s using her as his ambassador of goodwill in the house in order to consolidate his power for an inevitable coup d’etat in which he challenges LG to a duel, wins, declares himself Thomas the Lord of Yorkshire, banishes everyone but Tom and Baby Sybbie to Siberia and begins a slow march of domination across the English countryside. Or something. 

Mary is getting on with the business of running Downton with Tom and LG and receives notice that Tony “Lord” Gillingham has, as he said he would, gotten engaged to Mabel Fox, the heiress of the season. She seems unruffled, but we see when she turns away that she is stricken by the news.  Mr. Evelyn Napier, whom you might remember as Mary’s suitor from the first season (he’s the one who brought the doomed Mr. Pamuk to Downton), pops by for a visit while in Yorkshire working on a government project regarding the rural, postwar economy. Mary is quite glad indeed to see him, and Crawleys invite him to stay a while so that Mary can have a another melodramatic love plot. 

Aflred takes his cooking test at the Ritz, much to Daisy’s chagrin. While he’s away, Carson offers Poor Molesley Alfred’s job, should it come open. Poor Molesley, in a fit of hubris, gets a bit puffed up in a “don’t do me any favors, bro” kind of way. Naturally, Alfred doesn’t get in to the newly formed Escoffier school, setting the stage for an awkward encounter in which Molesley accepts a job that is no longer available. Yawn. 

Edith goes to the doctor in London, probably to get a mole checked out. Rose will help Cora throw LG a birthday party in a few weeks. Zzzzzzzz.  

I’ve lost track of the Dowager Countess Zinger Count, because every scene she had with Isobel this week was a series of parries and ripostes, meant to signify that Isobel is emerging from her own vale of shadows, post-Matthew.

52 X 2014: A People’s History of the United States (Ch. 1-5)


Well, my plan to read Good Omens fell apart when it became apparent that my husband’s copy had walked off, and I didn’t get a chance to go pick it up from the library or the bookstore. Instead, I’ve been reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, an undertaking that I will post here in installments because it is mammoth. 

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I’ve read the first 5 chapters and, while I appreciate the level of detail Zinn includes in the account of Europeans’ first contact in the Americas, plus the run-up to the Constitution, I find myself losing track of dates and significant events. I do really like the fact that he’s telling an alternative/radical history of the United States, one that departs from the “Columbus and the Founding Fathers are heroes” party line, and I look forward to seeing what he has to say about the Gilded Age, Vietnam, and the Reagan administration. 

For next week: Homeward Bound, by Emily Matchar. 

Downton Abbey: Let’s talk about sex, darling


This week’s Downton Abbey is interested in the women, both upstairs and downstairs. There is soapy deliciousness and infuriating capitulation to tired tropes — something for everyone?

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The angel in the house.

It’s the morning after the rape and tragic Anna goes up to the big house alone, freezing out Mr. Bates at every turn. Bates, who is not a dummy, knows that something is up, but can’t put his finger on it. Anna tells him she just needs space, that they’re in each other’s pockets, living and working together. To that end, Anna asks Mrs. Hughes if she can move up to the big house because she can’t even look at Bates — she thinks she’s soiled and damaged goods, and probably brought her rape upon herself (ugh). Mrs. Hughes asks what will happen if Anna winds up pregnant, and Anna says she’ll kill herself (double ugh). She refuses to consider telling the police because she knows Bates will surely murder Mr. Green and it’s better he have a broken heart than a broken neck (triple shot no-foam four pumps of give-me-a-break because way to believe in your husband, lady!). 

Meanwhile, Edna wants to make sure that Branson will marry her if she winds up in the family way after getting him drunk and seducing him. I don’t understand this approach. When I was in high school, there was a girl who faked a pregnancy in order to get her guy to marry him, which he was totally willing to do until he found out there was no baby. Then he hated her forever. And that’s the moral of the story: don’t fake pregnancies or even talk about maybe being pregnant if you want the object of your affections to reciprocate. I’m just not sure of Edna’s end game here, other than that she’s a garbage person who wants to elevate her station in life. Anyhoo, Mrs. Hughes, who is basically the hero of the dual-rape storylines, discovers Edna’s copy of Marie Stopes’ Married Love, which is an early birth-control text, in addition to a handbook for sexual pleasure within the marital context. (If you’re interested in how birth control changed the way women viewed their sexuality, you should totally read When Sex Changed.) Mrs. Hughes kicks Edna to the curb, and thank god we’re shot of this terrible, terrible character and story arc.

The juxtaposition of these two story lines is straight-up maddening. While I think it’s interesting that Julian Fellowes chose to portray the rape of a man alongside that of a woman, but the way he’s chosen to handle it is so cheap and one-dimensional. On the one hand, you have a woman who’s a victim of sexual assault but uses what limited agency she has as a way to intensify her own suffering and to make her husband suffer as well out of some misguided attempt to protect her him. On the other hand, you have a woman who perpetrates a sexual assault on a man and is totally brazen about it, using her agency in a wrongheaded attempt to elevate her social class. Because that’s what this is about — these are women of a certain class position who have limited access to the protective structures available to the women they loyally serve, and the difficult choices they have to make in their vulnerable positions. I thought that Fellowes explored the issue of women’s sexuality and socioeconomic class quite beautifully in the Ethel story line, but here he’s just gone for the tawdry, low-hanging fruit in the form of an angel and a viper. Like I said last week, this is straight-up laziness. 

Speaking of women and sex, Aunt Rosamund is not well pleased with Edith for her 6am walk of shame. Yep, she and Gregson did the deed — after he gave her power of attorney over his estate on the eve of his departure to Germany. So, at least she’ll have a safety net should she find herself knocked up. 

(Gee, I wonder which of these three women will find herself pregnant this season.)

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Seriously, how could you turn this guy down?

And then, the bombshell: TonyLord” Gillingham cuts to the chase and proposes to Mary after just a few days of being reacquainted. I suppose that back then, going out to “a night club” and dancing to “jazz” is tantamount to swearing an oath of undying love. I’ll admit: I loved this so much. It’s so outrageous and ridiculous and precisely what a soap opera should be.  Anyhoo, she turns him down, explaining that she simply isn’t free of Matthew yet and doesn’t want to be.  and Michelle Dockery plays Mary’s shock and confusion and longing for Matthew so beautifully, I couldn’t help but fall in love with this storyline. I really hope these two crazy kids can make it work — they have really beautiful chemistry. 

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Daisy makes a choice out of jealousy that pushes Alfred to pursue studying at the newly formed Escoffier school in London. Mrs. Patmore reckons it’ll be for the best because, “you can spend too long on a one-sided love.” Thomas enjoys his fly-on-the-wall activities, watching smugly as Edna goes down in flames. Apparently, he’s got a candidate in mind for Edna’s replacement. I’m sure nothing but good things will come of that. Mrs. Hughes gives Carson a frame for his picture of Alice because … well, that’s just weird. I wish these two would kiss already. 

Dowager Countess Zinger Count: 10ish (the zingers were a little light on the ground this week). To Isobel, “If we only had moral thoughts, what would the poor churchmen find to do?”; To LG, who is dressed somewhat down for dinner (black tie instead of white): “Why are you in your rompers?”

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