Monday, February 14, 2011

Before continuing with my list of favorite places to eat in Tuscany (minus Florence) and Umbria, I can't wait any longer to enthuse about a terrific book I've just read: A Perfectly Kept House is the Sign of a Misspent Life by Mary Randolph Carter (Rizzoli, 2010). Aren't you intrigued by the title? I was, and as it turns out, the title comes from a real doormat at the entrance to Muskettoe Pointe Farm, where Carter grew up. The mat was discovered one Christmas Eve on a last-minute shopping spree -- three members of Carter's large family (she has six sisters and two brothers) saw a pile of doormats in a big discount store, and they decided immediately that the mats were the perfect gift, for one another and for their parents. Thus, "A perfectly kept house is the sign of a misspent life" was born as the family motto, as well as the future title of this wonderful book.

Carter writes that she and her siblings never questioned who might have coined this phrase, but she believes it may have been Dame Rose Macaulay (author of one of my favorite books, The Towers of Trebizond; Macaulay lived from 1881-1958), who apparently opined "At the worst, a house unkept cannot be so distressing as a life unlived." I admit that part of the reason I love this book is that I was relieved by the title. Whether I've lived in an apartment or a house, it has never been perfectly kept, at least not at the same time. I may have managed to really clean one or two rooms on occasion, but never once, for a single day, can I honestly state that every room has been thoroughly picked up and cleaned (I often go to sleep at night wistfully thinking of one of those retro, circa 1950 postcards I have on my refrigerator, the one where the woman says, "I dreamed my whole house was clean"). While I still wish that one day my entire house will be clean, if only for the novelty of it, I'm now psychologically much happier embracing my sometimes cluttered existence.

The subtitle of the book is 'how to live creatively with collections, clutter, work, kids, pets, art, etc..and stop worrying about everything being perfectly in its place,' and through various "case histories" with other people (including photographer Oberto Gili, artist and fashion designer Daniela Kamiliotis, and Carter's sister, Liza Carter Norton) she shows us brilliantly. Truly, I am rarely so inspired by books of this type. There are simply dozens and dozens of great ideas and tips here, as well as tons of words to live by. Among these are a question, "Do you clean for yourself or for company?"; a great quote for collectors, "Never stop to think, Do I have a place for this?"; and just plain old wonderful phrases: "...beautiful homes bring up beautiful people, in every sense of the word" and "I wanted this to be the house my children and their friends always wanted to come to" and "keep passing the open window," which Carter explains is taken from the last sentence of John Irving's The Hotel New Hampshire (the final lines read, "Coach Bob knew it all along, you've got to get obsessed and stay obsessed. You have to keep passing the open windows."). Carter and her sister used to end their letters to each other with this sentence, which in the book "had a dark but slightly optimistic message to it, something like pass that open window, don't jump!" Between the sisters, they used it in a lighter way, and Carter mentions it to emphasize that so many contemporary buildings today have windows that don't open, and "for me, one of the simplest pleasures of life is opening a window." I completely agree, and one of the happiest moments of the year for me is that very first warm spring day when I open all the windows in the house after they've been closed for four months.

Carter closes her book with the final thought that no matter where we live, we fill our homes "with memory and dreams, and possibly too many things, but whether cluttered or clean we do our best to be good housekeepers, making our homes that perfect place for living." Now, it may seem that this book doesn't have much to do with travel, but it does in that you can tell that the people who inhabit these featured rooms and homes are either well-traveled or dream about travel. And Mary herself looks like a person who likes to travel (she also just looks cool and interesting, like someone you could sit down and have a great conversation with).

And, in a lovely serendipitous twist, my good friend Arlene gave me some terrific olive oil recently, and the label on the bottle identified it as being from a company called Carter & Cavero. It was some weeks later that I learned the 'Carter' in the name is the very same as Mary -- I love when that happens! It turns out that Mary is "a special part of our company and a big personality in the company" according to Carter & Cavaro's public relations director. It seems to me that anything Mary is involved in is something I want to know about, so I'm not at all surprised that I love this olive oil so much. I think you will, too: there are about a dozen different oils, some flavored with things like Meyer lemons (and the lemon rinds and the olives are crushed together; I probably used the word 'flavored' incorrectly) and a whole bunch of incredibly appealing products from Italy, France, Greece, Spain, and California, including soaps, Herboliva skincare products, vinegars, and ceramics, including a broad selection of cazuelas, classic Spanish terracotta cookware (these are great because they can go from the oven or stovetop to the table and are attractive and not expensive; I have several, but I admit I first heard the word 'cazuela' in 1991, when my friend Louise and her housemates hosted a Cazuela Party, which meant that you showed up with any kind of vessel you could find and that was what you drank out of all night. I think I only saw one cazuela, but I did see a mixing bowl, a glass fishbowl, and a large plastic beach bucket). Top selling items at Carter & Cavero include sea salts, notably the Himalayan pink variety (great on meat, tomatoes, and potatoes); 18-year aged balsamic vinegar; the Herboliva skincare products; and Hojiblanca olive oil, which is the next item I'm going to acquire (it was described to me as "rich, robust, and beautiful").

A number of Carter & Cavero products are from Spain, which isn't surprising as the four founders are well traveled throughout Spain and, indeed, are Spain enthusiasts. The founders, a group of friends who wanted to create a retail company they really believed in, are Chris Ortiz, Chris Wall, Sam Berg, and Cesar Colliga, who, importantly, is an expert olive oil taster. 'Old Word Olive Oil Company' is the company's motto (even though there are all those other products for sale as I mentioned), and if you are lucky enough to live near one of the three C&C stores, you have the first-hand opportunity to taste all their oils and vinegars. Tasting oils and vinegars side by side, like tasting wines, is an amazingly eye-opening experience, and there is no better way to discern the differences between them and of course to discover which ones you like the best. C&C stores are currently located in New Jersey, in Red Bank, Princeton, and Long Branch, and I believe the founders would like to open more (should we start a write-in campaign?). I have not been to a store yet, but I am planning a journey next month and will report about it here! To quote from the website, Carter and Cavero "stands for everything that is not artificial, mass-produced, common or mainstream," the same attributes I look for in travel. A Perfectly Kept House is the Sign of a Misspent Life indeed, and 'the world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page" .