Thursday, August 30, 2012


Brasso metal polish. From the moment I laid eyes on it, it worried me. Who cares about metal polish, and what am I going to write about it? Do I actually have to polish metal? Reckitt Benckiser plc, the makers of Brasso, holds a Royal Warrant from Her Majesty the Queen as Manufacturers of Antiseptics, Air Fresheners, Polishes, Cleaners, and Laundry Products.

As it turns out, my fears about cleaning metal turned out to be entirely unfounded. I came home from work one night to find a victorious-looking Adam standing in front of the sliding wooden doors that separate our living room and dining room. “Doesn't it look great?” he asked me.

It wasn't immediately clear to me what he was talking about. Most of our condo—a four bedroom, three bathroom, fixer-upper we bought back in March—falls far short of deserving the adjective “great.” It is massive, but that's almost a liability. I feel like I'm always walking circles around here trying to find anything, and it's not unusual for visitors to get completely lost and try to exit through the closet or the spare bedroom when they try to leave.

It's also a work in progress. It still needs a ton of work but, at the same time, what haven't we done to it already? We got new windows and new appliances in the kitchen and laundry room, redid all the hardwood floors, replaced all of the window coverings, removed rusty bars from the back windows, installed new toilets, painted every bit of black trim an off-white color and painted the living room, dining room, kitchen, hallway, and all of the bedrooms. But still I come home to festering projects like this, which involves us removing the myriad layers of paint from the cherry doors with a heat gun. As I run the heat gun—which reaches temperatures of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit and reminds me of picking a thick, juicy scab—I sometimes fantasize about taking a heat gun to the face of the person who first painted over these beautiful doors.

Adam had noticed that the metal pulls inset into each of the doors were tarnished. He remembered the Brasso and was thrilled to find it did such a great job cleaning them. The sight of the bright, shiny brass hiding underneath the doors cheered us both up a little, and it inspired me to see what else Brasso could do for our house.

The good news about our house and about living with a toddler in general is that you can throw a rock around here and hit something that desperately needs scrubbing. With metal can in hand this morning, my eyes landed on my filthy stainless steel dishwasher.

To use the Brasso, you place a cloth over the bottle and turn it upside down to wet it with just a little of the greenish-brown fluid. Instantly a spray paint-like smell wafts into the room, and your job is to finish cleaning before you faint. The Brasso did a fabulous job on my dishwasher, but the smell was so intense that I decided to actually read the back of the can, which contained bold warnings that it is DANGEROUS FOR THE ENVIRONMENT as well as “Toxic to aquatic environments, may cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment.” Huh. If Wikipedia can be trusted, the formula for the Brasso cleaners you buy stateside has recently been changed to comply with volatile organic compound laws. The American version also comes in a plastic bottle, not the traditional British metal can.

Since I've spent the past few months curious if our new condo will ever be anything but a well-priced hovel, it sort of encouraged me to read that Queen Elizabeth once faced similar circumstances. In December 1936, her Uncle David famously abdicated the British throne after serving only a few months as king so he could marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Historical memory has oversimplified his abdication and ignored that he was a worldwide celebrity and already pretty tired of the intense limelight and overwhelming responsibility that came with his job. But his actions still earned him years of bitterness and hatred from the royal family. They also propelled Princess Elizabeth's father, Bertie, into the unexpected role of king and her into the role of heir presumptive. As if that weren't enough change for a ten year-old, her family also had to move from its home at 145 Picadilly, which you'll remember as the kind of home where you'd eat Colman's Season & Shake meals for dinner (Alright, fine. Fine. None of them ever ate Season & Shake for dinner), and into Buckingham Palace. Robert Lacey quotes Princess Elizabeth's nanny, who remembered how much this news stung:

“When I broke the news to Margaret and Lilibet that they were going to live in Buckingham Palace, they looked at me in horror. 'What!' Lilibet said. 'You mean forever?'”

Lacey describes the palace on the eve of World War II as a surprisingly dismal place—long, bleak corridors that were always filled with all manner of household staff; outdated electricity; poor lighting; and, in general, an aura of mandated residence instead of comfortable family home. Even after living in the palace for several decades, Queen Elizabeth is always described as feeling that Windsor Castle is her true home. Buckingham Palace—with its 775 rooms, many of them incredibly formal—is merely her headquarters in London.

In that respect, I suppose Queen Elizabeth and I are different. My own oversized hovel has started to grow on me. With every outdated light fixture we replace, ever ribbon of lead paint we strip, and every door pull we restore to its former glory, I get a little more attached. That's why when our contraband can of Brasso runs out we'll be replacing it with the less toxic American version. I'd like to be alive twenty years from now so I can actually enjoy this place when we finish remodeling it.

Where to Buy: Brasso seems pretty ubiquitous in the States. You can order from Wal-Mart, Amazon, or Even from here. One of their most useful products, GadgetCare, appears to only be sold in the UK.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


There used to be a time—long before we had small children and a mortgage and a car with more than 100,000 miles on it—that Adam and I would come home exhausted on a weeknight and order takeout. Even typing the word makes me feel a little bit excited. Takeout means no dishes, no fight over what to make for dinner, and no need to pay attention to nutritional information. How many calories are in butter chicken, basmati rice, naan, and samosas from the Indian place around the corner? Who knows. Who cares? Now that we have two kids in daycare, takeout has been relegated to an occasional luxury, and I think that’s why I got so excited about Colman’s Season & Shake chicken tikka masala. It’s Indian food at a fraction of the takeout cost. Colman’s is one of many brands owned by mega giant Unilever, which holds a Royal Warrant from Queen Elizabeth as “Manufacturers of Food and Household Products.”

Colman’s of Norwich is most famously associated with mustard, and the company’s 200-year history makes it one of the oldest food brands in the world. That’s why I think Colman’s acquisition by Unilever in 1995 was somewhat unfortunate. Colman’s has retained its signature bull’s head logo, but you could argue that Unilever has done away with much of its storied past. That’s why it’s so great that a local Norwich preservation organization now runs the Colman’s Mustard Shop & Museum independent of Unilever. The website explains the museum, which displays objects like antique mustard tins and old advertisements and includes a shop meant to replicate a Victorian-era one. The website also features some interesting and unexpected recipes you can make with Colman’s products.

Don’t have time for cooking during the week? No problem—neither do I. Colman’s now also makes a host of meal kits with the Season & Shake name that seem a little more accessible for working families. For chicken tikka masala, you simply add cut-up chicken, yogurt, tomatoes, and onions to the bag of seasoning, shake it up, and then toss the whole thing into a pan in the oven. When the bag balloons so big that you think it might explode, it’s done.

Convenience food seems like a funny addition to our list of Royal Warrant holders. Its place seems to make more sense on my pantry shelf than on the dining table at Buckingham Palace. I suspect that Queen Elizabeth has never consumed a Season & Shake meal in her life and that if she ever wanted takeout she could afford it...and I’m probably right. But that’s not to say that the British royal family has never had to think about money.

During the Great Depression the British economy grew so weak that it was forced to go off the gold standard, and unemployment climbed to a staggering 25%. King George V, Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, asked the government to cut his income in half, and he requested that his four sons—among them Elizabeth’s father Bertie—also make cuts in their extravagant lifestyles. Bertie gave up expensive hobbies like hunting, and he sold his prized horses. He also located his family—which consisted of four people after the birth of Elizabeth’s sister Margaret in 1930—in a comparatively modest townhouse at 145 Piccadilly in London. I picture it looking like every other house on the block—like the kind of place where you’d eat Colman’s Season & Shake meals for dinner. Alas, a Google search showed me (as you can see from the picture below) that I am probably wrong.

Queen Elizabeth grew up at a time of economic distress that bred frugality among even the wealthiest members of society. I think this goes a long way to account for her simple taste in so many products from groceries to cosmetics to clothing. Certainly she knows nice things, but she also seems to realize that you shouldn’t always have to spend a lot to get a good quality product.

It was Adam who made our chicken tikka masala one night while I hung out with the boys in the living room. He ended up substituting salsa for tomatoes since we didn’t have them (I would make more of this if it weren’t totally something I would do too), so the final dish could best be described as...interesting. It could not best be described as chicken tikka masala. My advice? Stick with the mustard.

Where to buy: These Season & Shake meals are made for the British market, but you can find them on Amazon. Colman’s mustard is available in most U.S. grocery stores.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


After a week of HP brown sauce making our food “tangy,” it seems time for something sweet. We turn somewhat reluctantly to the bright package of McVitie’s chocolate digestives that have been sitting on the back shelf of our pantry inspiring curiosity for the past couple of weeks. McVitie & Price—part of an agglomeration called United Biscuits since 1948—holds a Royal Warrant from Queen Elizabeth as “Biscuit Manufacturers.”

Like every other American I understand that the English word “biscuit” translates to the American word “cookie.” But it’s a little more nuanced than that, especially when you start talking about digestive biscuits. McVitie’s have kind of a wholesome, wheaty taste best described as a cross between a Wheat Thin and a graham cracker. If that doesn’t sound good to you, consider that ours were covered on one side with a thick layer of milk chocolate. It works somehow. McVitie’s premiered in our house one morning as a special treat to accompany breakfast. Nathan liked them as much as I did, but he seemed skeptical about my use of the word biscuit. “This a cracker, Mommy,” he told me twice, a puzzled look on his face.

I had a great time researching McVitie’s, in part because the company’s website is so fun. You can check out either the distinctly British site or the international site, but it was at the latter that I found a page featuring their commercials from different countries. My favorite is one designed for the French market that points out English oddities and uses the self-deprecating slogan "They're English, but they're good." From the historical timeline I learn that this company’s roots trace back to 1830s Edinburgh (shout out to Scotland!) and that it baked the wedding cake for Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten in 1947.

I was born in the early 80s, so I'm only familiar with footage of the wedding of Charles and Diana and, more recently, of William and Kate. It seems strange to envision a 21 year-old Queen Elizabeth at her own wedding. I admit I know very little about her early life and upbringing, but spending the last few weeks sampling her favorite bath soap and tea and preserves has helped to make a public persona seem much more personal. I find myself wanting to know much more than I do about Britain's monarch.

To satisfy my curiosity I made a trek to the Chicago Public Library one day on my lunch hour to browse royal biographies. There were dozens. I finally selected Robert Lacey’s Monarch, which was published more than 10 years ago in the wake of Princess Diana’s death. Lacey's detailed account of Queen Elizabeth's early years explains a lot about her. The Queen comes across as so formal and dignified and even standoffish in her public encounters, and it's been interesting to read that she was like this even as a toddler. In 1927, Princess Elizabeth's parents were dispatched by then King George V on a six-month tour of Australia. They left the eight month-old princess behind to be looked after by her grandparents and an aged nanny. Lacey suggests this shaped her character from an early age: she was constantly surrounded by very dignified grown-ups, so she too behaved like a miniature grown-up. In her formative years and as an older sister to Princess Margaret, Elizabeth always seemed to do the right thing, always seemed to model best behavior and do what was expected of her. After meeting her in 1928, Winston Churchill described the two year-old princess to his wife as having "an air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant."

I find myself having a hard time relating to an even-tempered, abstemious child who always set a good example and did the right thing. That sounds like the opposite of a juvenile Chelsey, who had her mouth washed out with soap as often as she washed her hands, who once lost a bet made by her cousin at Easter dinner because she really couldn't keep from talking for a solid minute. Queen Elizabeth's life at times reads just as bland and boring as a wholemeal McVitie's digestive biscuit...but then you turn it over and see there are moments of intense joy, scandal, celebration, love, and crisis that are just as interesting and deep as a layer of milk chocolate. I can't wait to share more.

And I can't wait to buy more McVitie's chocolate digestives. My first package came from England (thanks again, Mom), but I hear you can pick them up at World Market. Fingers crossed that they sell the dark chocolate kind there...

Where to Buy: You can find McVitie's digestives at World Market.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


With the London Olympics in full swing, we’ve been inspired to try some traditional British cooking here at home. Enter HP brown sauce, a British condiment whose closest American equivalent is A1 sauce, or maybe barbecue sauce. HP sauce was invented in 1899, and the “HP” stands for Houses of Parliament, which began serving the sauce in its restaurant in the early twentieth century. Today HP calls itself “the best” brown sauce and “everyone’s favourite.” Certainly Queen Elizabeth agrees; HP Foods holds a Royal Warrant as “Purveyors of HP Sauces.”

Let me begin by saying that—if I’m going to eat something with a name as dubious as brown sauce—it had better be the best brown sauce. I don’t want to eat the one everyone agrees is the worst brown sauce. You see what I’m saying? When I first got my hands on a bottle of brown sauce, I regarded it with no small amount of trepidation, and I think that’s due entirely to the name. What exactly is brown sauce anyway? The simple answer is tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, and seasonings. Add to that some tamarind (that one came out of left field, don’t you think?) and you get the complex flavor combination that is brown sauce.
I like this stuff. I’m not exactly drinking it out of the bottle, but I’m also not opposed to the flavor it adds to my cooking. When I was first looking over the bottle and trying to decide what to do with it, the back label suggested some ideas. Why not try it in cottage pie? Why not, indeed? For those of you already confused by this dish called cottage pie, I’ll explain to you what was explained to me last summer: this is shepherd’s pie. Our friends used to make shepherd’s pie all the time until they moved to London and realized that shepherd’s pie there is made with lamb, not ground beef. The version with ground beef is called cottage pie in England. Technically we didn’t even make that. We’ve been funny about ground beef lately, so we used ground turkey and called our version pilgrim pie. I made up my own basic recipe (below). It was a crowd pleaser—even picky Nathan ate three helpings. Warm British comfort food isn’t the best food to eat in Chicago in August, but we’ll definitely recycle this recipe for the fall.

After our successful attempt at pilgrim pie, we decided to check out more recipes on the HP website. For dinner tonight we tried the recipe for “Bacon Buttie.” Even though the accompanying picture depicts a sandwich with about a quarter of a cup of brown sauce dripping down its sides, the recipe proclaims this sandwich “delicious to eat on the go!” (Maybe if you’re wearing a maroon shirt and don’t mind smelling like vinegar and tamarind for the rest of the day). These recipes are written in a kind of conversational slang that I find very entertaining. Take, for instance, the directions in the “Bacon Buttie” recipe that you should “get dry-cure bacon if you can so you’re buying bacon, not water and getting you the tastiest bacon in your buttie.” The recipe also suggests making a salsa of tomatoes, parmesan cheese, coriander, salt, and pepper to go on top. I guess that’s one way to make salsa. We made our bacon sandwiches with lettuce and tomato on whole wheat bread, but in the end, only Adam was brave enough to douse his with brown sauce.

“It’s tangy,” he said after the first bite.
Part of me totally wants to recommend HP sauce to you. Still, I’m troubled by something I noticed on the bottle the first time I opened it: it’s made in the Netherlands. That struck me as strange since there’s a picture of the Houses of Parliament right on the front label. It turns out that this move to Dutch production is quite recent. HP Foods was bought out by Heinz in 2006, and the company sought to consolidate all of its food-making operations. Heinz soon announced plans to close the longstanding HP Foods factory in Birmingham and lay off its 120 employees. Despite a huge outcry in Great Britain and calls to ban the sauce from the restaurant in Parliament, the company moved forward with the closure and exported all production to Holland. This is made more complicated by the fact that Heinz is also a longstanding Royal Warrant holder.
Even though the Royal Warrant is displayed prominently on bottles of HP sauce, I don’t see it on the Royal Warrant Holders Association website. I couldn’t figure out why, so I emailed Chris Page, the company contact listed on the RWHA website. Ms. Page wrote me back quickly and assured me that the company’s warrant was renewed in 2010 and will be valid until at least 2016. I was surprised to see in her email signature that she is vice president controller for Heinz Europe but still took the time to answer a customer query. And her office? It’s in the UK. From the politeness of company personnel to the renewal of the warrant four years after Heinz moved its production to another country, I get a sense that HP remains a decidedly British brand.
If the Queen is still enjoying HP sauce in her cottage pie, I suppose we can too.
Where to buy: My bottle came from England, but you can find HP brown sauce stateside at World Market.  
Pilgrim Pie
2 T butter
1 pkg. ground turkey
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
4 green onions, chopped
½ cup chicken stock
4 T HP brown sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
3 cups mashed potatoes
Saute celery, onion, and carrots in butter over medium heat for about five minutes. Add ground turkey and cook until meat is no longer pink and vegetables are tender. Stir in brown sauce, chicken stock, and green onions. Cook for an additional ten minutes over medium-high heat, until sauce has thickened slightly.
Pour mixture into the bottom of an 8” square baking dish. Top with mashed potatoes and cook in 350 degree oven for 20-25 minutes.