Month: January 2019

Don’t Get Rid Of That Tiny Ketchup Packet

The other night at supper, we ran out of hot sauce.

My husband said, “That’s okay. We have the leftover packets from Taco Bell.”

After supper, I raced to the drawer to see if I had discarded the tiny hot sauce packets from earlier in the week. I wouldn’t want to be accused of throwing out something valuable.

For years, we saved all the leftover condiments. They filled an entire kitchen drawer. A few were at least ten-years-old. Something had leaked and dried up in the middle of the collection. No telling which one.

When I Googled condiment packets for this blog, the autofill gave me,

Do Fast Food Sauce Packets Expire?

Apparently, they are only good for several months. But who knows when the clock started on the expiration? It isn’t printed on each individual packet. They could be expired before I even get them. Eeeew.

In college, I knew someone who didn’t even bother with regular size ketchup and mustard. At meals, she pulled out a gallon sized condiment bag stuffed with tiny packets. Why buy big ketchup when restaurants gave it out for free? College student logic.

And, by the way, is it Catsup or Ketchup?

As a child, I learned to spell it Catsup. What a cool word. Not at all like it sounded. A cool version of “Cat what’s up?”

Turns out both words have a long history, dating into the 1700s, although tomato ketchup didn’t come around until the 1800s. “Catsup” was popular in North America for a time—the time when I learned to spell. Then, the big manufacturers changed it to Ketchup, leaving my kids wondering why I don’t know how to spell such a common word.

Interestingly, the standard package design for tiny condiments is older than me! An antique, patented in 1955. Every time you squeeze out the trickle of catsup, you are living history.

You can actually buy these packets online (Amazon has everything). For a time, I purchased small salad dressing packets to put in my lunch. I thought I was fancy. Alas, even those grew old after a while, and when one leaked, I couldn’t find the culprit. So they all had to go.

You can even make your own little condiments. There is a YouTube video describing how to make them with freezer pop packets. Click on the picture to see the video.

This guy lets the kids eat the freezer pops and then uses the plastic. He refers to it as “food grade.” Once they’re full, he uses his wife’s hair straightener to seal the end (when she isn’t looking). Hilarious . . . And ingenious. I would totally do this.

I’m not sure what I’ll do about my husband’s expectation that I keep these in case we run out of something. Maybe write dates on them with a Sharpie?

Nah. I’ll just toss them and make sure the big bottle in the fridge never runs out.

What Is It About Gardens?

I love parks and gardens, although I’m not patient enough to grow flowers or vegetables myself. I gave up on indoor plants years ago, saying I had enough living things to take care of. I didn’t need another one.

The rowhouses in Philadelphia sit in the shadow of the skyscrapers, yet window boxes and potted plants abound.

These displays take over most of the sidewalk.

I’m not sure what to make of the mismatched tall plants flanking this door.

In Philadelphia, they don’t need to plant in special containers. These pictures of alleyways show what happens naturally. But no one wants greenery to take over like this. Instead they turn vegetation into works of art.

All the homes with potted gardens are an easy walk from a city greenbelt. But no matter how many trees and flowers live in nature or how close a city park is, people want to tend their own plants.

Why is that?

Perhaps it’s something primal. A faint echo of the hunter-gatherer mentality. Growing up, I spent summers on my grandmother’s farm. Each morning we weeded the garden and picked the vegetables for the day. I would eat plumbs and apples straight from the trees in the orchard.

But most of the gardens I see don’t grow food. They are decorative. And, why aren’t vegetables decorative? Last year, something sprouted in my garden that looked like corn. Curious, I let it grow.

Sure enough. Corn.

One of my Facebook friends speculated that a squirrel pooped out a corn kernel in the garden. A distinct possibility.

Not only do we plant gardens outside. Indoor gardens exist as well. I visited the fanciest hotel ever, and the common areas resembled a “fake outside.” Carefully tended vegetation filled the space. Not a bug to be found and no dirt out of place.

I wondered about the purpose of “fake outside” until I stepped into “real outside” on a sweltering August day in Nashville. I went right back into the artificial (comfortable) environment.

Less fancy hotels decorate with large potted plants.

And smaller ones grace homes. My daughter received a plant as a gift, and her attitude is like mine. Too much work. She put it in the window and waited for it to die. After several months when it didn’t die, she found out her husband was watering it.

I guess I shouldn’t comment on other’s people’s gardens. I live in a desert, yet roses and non-native plants grace my patio, creating an oasis for bees and birds. I don’t tend it, but my husband does.

And recently, I filled my home with silk greenery and metal plants.

I don’t know why they make me happy, but they do. I suppose the same thing is true for the owners of the sidewalk gardens in the shadows of the skyscrapers.

Historical Research – Not For The Fainthearted

Research is part of the fun in writing historical novels. For me it’s often an excuse to go on a rabbit trail—in other words, “squirrel!” The heroine of my story in Mending Sarah’s Heart (which releases in the Thimbles and Threads Collection in July) is a seamstress.

I typed the words. “Sarah pushed one last pin into the sleeve.”

But wait, did they have pins in 1884?

I Googled the history of pins. While not the most accurate resource, Google is a start.

The short answer is yes, my heroine would use pins. But I didn’t stop reading there. The design and manufacturing process caught my attention. Pretty soon, I found myself reading about something completely unrelated.

Google is a secondary source because it gathers information from other places and presents it in some type of order. I like order. Most reference books are also secondary sources. They present the information with some modern interpretation, whether intended or not.

I wanted to get information directly from the source. Primary source research. For the late 1800’s, newspapers give me a glimpse of everyday life. Not only do they contain local happenings, but most include national news, housekeeping tips and health advice. Advertisements give ideas of what people considered normal.

A wonderful archive of historic newspapers is available at I can read them from my recliner.

I decided to set a story in Silverton, Colorado in 1877, two years after the town was founded. To pretend I was there, I could read all of the local newspapers for that year.

But those newspapers hadn’t been scanned to the website. So, I went to the local historic archive (which is only open on Thursdays) and met some nice people. They told me that the Silverton 1877 newspapers were housed in the library on Microfilm.

Then I went to the library, where I learned that the microfilm resided in the basement with the black mold. No public allowed.

A year later, I checked back. Still no luck.

This fall, I read in the current paper that the mold had been cleaned up. Yay.

So, I went back to the library and learned that the Microfilm now sits at the archive building where I started my search a few years before. It was a Wednesday and the archives are only open on Thursday.

Primary source research is not for the faint hearted.

Meanwhile, I gather tidbits from the newspaper in nearby Lake City because those are online. Some of the articles are confusing without context. And some of the papers didn’t scan very well, causing my eyes to cross.

Makes me appreciate the secondary source research, where someone else has already located and read the microfilm. They added background information and put it in a context that makes sense to me, the modern reader.

I will continue to study both and enjoy the meandering path they take me on. Because, who doesn’t want to know that Mrs. Green came into town for New Years’ Eve or the price of morphine laced tonic?

Deja Vu In A Foreign Land

As I stood in the Christmas decorating section of Target looking for replacement light bulbs, a sense of deja vu washed over me. But, how? I’ve never been to this Target before. I only recently moved to this city. I searched my brain for the memory that eluded me—like a fuzzy dream that had disappeared in the morning.

Finally, I realized I had been in another Target, in another city a couple of years ago, looking for the same thing. The display hadn’t changed.

Big box stores and chains build cookie cutter stores in every city. When I walk into the Walgreens in rural New Mexico, I might as well be in downtown Washington, D.C. Although the skyline is unfamiliar, I feel at home. The refrigerated section covers one far wall. Make-up and curling irons cover the other. The actual pharmacy is way in the back and closes earlier than the rest of the store. Puzzling.

Marketers study my habits. Milk, bread, and produce hide around the perimeter of any grocery store, ensuring the maximum number of steps on my Fitbit. I need those items. Cookies, chips, and candy fill the center aisles waiting for me to take a short-cut to the checkout stand.

I find it creepy when Facebook recommends products I might want to purchase, but the idea of watching shoppers is nothing new. Marketers have done it for generations. New technology simply allows sellers to fine tune their efforts. I don’t mind seeing ads for cute skirts and coffee mugs that say “Writer at work” in my news feeds. I wish there was a way to tell them I already bought a kitchen faucet. Stop showing them to me.

Good thing I’m not a true crime writer. What would they try to sell me then? It might be fun to type in some key words to see what they offer.

Yes, Big Brother is watching. But his strategies are predictable. I put on sneakers and hike the perimeter of the grocery store. I get some squats in as I grab generic items from the bottom shelf. I use public computers at the library to research true crime.

The proliferation of big box stores creates a common experience. I can meet any woman in my demographic and immediately have a bond.

My new friend from another city says, “I have that same shirt.”

Together we say, “Costco. Fifteen-ninety-nine.”

Then we have a good laugh.

I can travel to a foreign land, like New Mexico or Nebraska and know which way to turn once I get inside. And, more importantly, know where they hide the restrooms.

When my daughter chose to have her wedding in her new husband’s hometown, I volunteered for the Target runs. A little piece of home.

Deja vu in a foreign land.

Living Large at the Laundromat

Due to unexpected circumstances, I spent a day at the laundromat near my daughter’s apartment in Philadelphia. Not in the suburbs, but in the city. I would say inner-city, but she assures me that her neighborhood isn’t sketchy, and it seemed alright to me.

As a writer, I took pictures of everything. Someone checking the security camera footage would have found me suspicious. But the camera only served as a canvas for graffiti and place to drape extension cords.

Nothing on the outside tipped me off to the treasure trove of oddities that awaited inside. The door was purple. Nothing better than a purple door.

A young woman, who seemed quite normal, sat outside on the steps. I soon discovered why. On this hot August day, the two fans and air conditioning unit appeared to be inoperable. Good thing I live in New Mexico and know how to dress for the weather.

The walls were covered with seventies vintage posters about keeping the laundromat clean. The cartoon character looked like the guy who explained to school children about the four food groups and how library catalogs worked.

An eclectic assemblage of thrift store art work, dusty artificial greenery, and trophies from days gone by decorated the space.

And a rug covered a piece of plywood on the floor. A trapdoor perhaps?

There were normal things too, like magazines and books for people who had forgotten to bring their phone to entertain them while they waited. And change and laundry supply machines.

While there, I had a conversation with an odd man who told me how much he paid for his house (a row house, apparently without a washing machine) and how property values were rising. I kept him talking, because I might write him into a story someday.

Apparently the latest trend in laundry bags are big, over-the-shoulder IKEA bags. Had people stolen them from IKEA? The cute young women with the bags didn’t seem the type. So, I checked IKEA’s website and found them for sale, even listing laundry as a possible use.

I, however, didn’t have one of the handy blue bags. I had a roller cart I’d given my daughter to schlep her groceries from the car to her apartment. A roller cart which sat awfully close to the ground. I had just washed everything. Did I want to roll it for four blocks only inches from the grimy city sidewalks? I lined it with what I had readily available—the giant plastic bag from a Costco sized package of paper towels.

I looked like a bag lady as I pulled it down the street, even if I fit in with the décor of the laundromat.

Finally, I arrived at my daughter’s apartment with the clean cart of clothes. Mission success.

If the washing machine in her new apartment weren’t broken,

and, if she hadn’t gotten the stomach flu while I was visiting,

I never would have had a laundromat adventure.

I take my adventures where I can find them. You never know what will trigger the idea for a story.