Up The Valley: Smart women, foolish contractors

It’s embarrassing to admit, but I once had exceptionally poor judgment in selecting home contractors. Despite my best efforts at due diligence, I made choices in handymen that would rival Cher’s taste in husbands.

And while I have now settled into numerous harmonious and mutually beneficial relationships with local experts in the construction, brick and tile laying, plumbing, gardening, irrigation, painting, roofing, screen-installing, back-flow device inspecting and pump pressure tank maintenance industries, this was not achieved without real suffering.

I recently re-read “A Year in Provence,” which is essentially a book about adorable contractors who don’t show up and annoying summer guests who do, set in a location not unlike our glorious Napa Valley. It left me wondering: Why is it so much more charming when the French plumbers disappear than when our local contractors dematerialize? Living without heat, toilets and a sink must be more glamorous in the Lubéron than it is in St. Helena.

And unless you can afford a majordomo to whip workers while you vacation abroad, letting a contractor into your life can create tricky, sometimes intimate, virtually familial relationships. So please learn from my mistakes, because sooner or later you’ll be dealing with these guys:

The Front-Man: Never hire a contractor who drives up in a sports car, who has perfectly manicured hands, or who smells really good. Chances are he is the contracting world’s version of a pimp — not there to work, just to take his cut while exploiting the countless hard-working, honest, talented immigrant contractors you could have hired directly.

The Celebrity: Much like the celebrity hairstylist, this contractor will put you on a waiting list, charge ludicrous fees, and give you no input whatsoever. You didn’t want a birdbath in the kitchen? Too bad. And asking for a budget is cause for termination in his contract — if you care about costs, you should hire someone else.

The Hunk: I formerly employed an incredibly handsome plumber — picture a young, non-ranting Mel Gibson — whom I would call for basic repairs and who, regrettably, could not perform any of them with even a modicum of skill. But he was seriously cute. So the minute he left, I would shut off the water to the now-leaking pipes, and then call …

The Skunk: My incredibly grimy plumber — picture Peanuts’ Pig Pen as a paunchy, middle-aged repairman with saggy pants and a giant, filthy tool box always strategically placed on my white chairs, although he could easily have stored his tools in his giant gaping butt crack. But he could perfectly fix whatever The Hunk had broken.

The Big-Box Installer: At the behest of Sears or Home Depot, you’re held hostage for a six-hour delivery “window” (starting at

7 a.m., even though they are still in bed at this time), then charged extra because every room isn’t at precise right angles or you hadn’t specified that the cabinets should actually open.

The Old-Timer: I love this guy — he knows everyone who owned your house before you and where he left the little screws to your light fixture when he installed it in 1957. The only problem: he’s moving a bit slow, and at $175 an hour you’ve spent $350 watching him get in and out of his truck.

Contractors always have creative excuses for their absence: they’ve gotten a bigger job, the city building inspector’s car was seen on my block, Central Valley has run out of something essential but can order it and it will be here a week from Tuesday at which point they’ll be back (they won’t).

But given my former history as a magnet for the worst-of-the-worst, I’ve also heard them tell stories of being unable to turn up to finish the job because they were arrested, imprisoned or extradited; because they’ve had fingers and hands severed; had a seizure driving home from the dentist; and because Dad, who was helping install electrical outlets, accidentally electrocuted himself.

Perhaps the truth is they are just sick and tired of my asking them when they are going to finish.

You’ll notice that I use the term “he” when referring to contractors above. This is because I have not been lucky enough to hire any of the reputedly excellent female contractors in town. My fantasy female contractor is less grimy, less prone to incarceration, and less likely to flash a butt crack. And that’s a gender stereotype I can live with.

(Laura Rafaty is the owner of Pennaluna on Main Street, a resident of St. Helena, a former attorney and Broadway theatrical producer and an author and columnist.)

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Saturated Splat

July 7, 2011

Up The Valley: Saturated Splat

I recently read an advertisement for Chicken Fried Steak Night at one of my favorite restaurants, Farmstead. As this seemed likely to combine several things I love — fried food, mashed potatoes and alcohol — my friend and I reserved a table. And it’s lucky we did, because we found ourselves, arriving fashionably late, the last two diners seated at a long community table running the width of the establishment.

Every seat was taken except for the two next to us. Not recognizing any of our fellow patrons, we settled in and prepared to strap on the feed bag. I noticed right away that this was not your usual St. Helena restaurant crowd. I’m not accustomed to being one of the thinnest people at the table, and this group was clearly no stranger to the ways of biscuits and country gravy. Whereas Napa Valley diners, particularly female, tend to resemble their French counterparts, we Chicken Fried feeders would have fit right in at any of the all-you-can-eat establishments along the Interstate in America’s Heartland.

Our long table being in the center of the restaurant, I started to wonder whether the other diners at tables all around us were watching and perhaps taking bets on how much each of us could consume in the time allotted — kind of a binge eater’s Bingo — the winner to be awarded a complimentary plate of steamed asparagus, butter on the side. If this is indeed what occurs during these marathon eating events at Farmstead, I would urge future betters not to underestimate my dinner companion who, while small and slender, can knock back an impressive amount of food in record time, clearly the result of having as a child peddled hot dogs at a racetrack concession stand.

Meanwhile back in the Center Ring, copious amounts of food started to appear piled high on huge plates: potted pig on toast, caramelized meatballs on picks, delicious cheesy biscuits and potato rolls on skillets, a well-dressed shredded kale salad (the lone green vegetable of the night, if you don’t count chocolate) with toasted grana.

Then came the side dishes, a symphony of starches: creamy mac’n’cheese, thick, garlicky mashed potatoes, barbecued baked beans. Our sharp fellow diners noticed that the advertised coleslaw was missing, and when it appeared later, like water in the desert, we all dug ravenously into the blue cheese–drenched vegetable as a much-needed cooling antidote to hot starch saturation.

Suddenly more plates arrived piled high with tasty breaded chicken fried steaks, and enormous bowls of black pepper cream gravy, all passed around “family-style,” if your family was populated entirely by complete strangers who looked likely to take your arm off if you helped yourself to an extra cheesy biscuit. The prim-looking lady sitting next to us was particularly concerned about missing something, suspiciously evaluating the potential superiority of our bowl of baked beans over the bowl sitting closer to her.

At this point the fat and starches started to congeal in our stomachs, and we all shifted and squirmed uncomfortably. Our wooden chairs made the sound that boats do as they expand and contract in the water, bumping up against the side of the dock with a moan, a grind, and a final thump. We began to suspect that two chairs were left empty next to us in case our collective backsides expanded to a point that threatened to exceed the maximum seating capacity for the premises.

Before we had time to belch, dessert arrived in the form of warm, sweet cookies and a chocolate concoction with mousse on the bottom, a crumbly middle layer and whipped cream on top.

All of this was washed down by our fellow diners with liberal amounts of red wine (we were amateurs and could barely finish our beers). I referred to this previously as a marathon, but it was really more of a sprint, the dinner having been consumed, checks presented and paid, and dizzy gaseous diners thrown out into the cold in under two hours.

Not since I was wined and dined for a week in Knoxville, Tenn., have I experienced such concentrated gravy-laden chicken-fried caloric overload. All that was missing was a basket of garlic bread wrapped in tinfoil.

Was it delicious? I think so; almost certainly some of it was excellent, but it was kind of a blur. All I know for sure is that, like the famous Farmstead beef, I’ll be eating grass for the foreseeable future.

(Laura Rafaty is the owner of Pennaluna on Main Street, a resident of St. Helena, a former attorney and Broadway theatrical producer and an author and columnist.)