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Sunday, December 17, 2017

Wine Ewer, 1590 CE, Japan


This vessel, made of laquered wood and decorated with alternating designs of chrysanthemums and Paulownia crests, may have been used by the powerful and flamboyant general Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536 – 1598), who unified Japan in the 1590s. His mausoleum, Kōdaiji, was furnished with lacquers produced by the Kōami workshop, featuring close-ups of autumn plants and Toyotomi family crests. Designed in what came to be known as the Kōdaiji style (referring to black lacquerware with sumptuous gold ornamentation), this container features a stunning contrast of two patterns — totally different in color, rhythm, and motif. This type of decoration was much favored at the time by artists working not only in lacquer but also in ceramics and textiles. 
 This is from the Momoyama Period, when feudal barons, or daimyos, began their struggle for control of Japan. The ensuing four decades of constant warfare are known as the Momoyama (Peach Hill) period. The name derives from the site, in a Kyoto suburb, on which Toyotomi Hideyoshi built his Fushimi Castle. Unity was gradually restored through the efforts of three warlords. The decorative style that is the hallmark of Momoyama art had its inception in the early sixteenth century and lasted well into the seventeenth. On the one hand, the art of this period was characterized by a robust and dynamic style, with gold lavishly applied to architecture, furnishings and art.   The ostentatiously decorated fortresses built by the daimyo for protection and to flaunt their newly acquired power exemplified this grandeur.  Toyotomi Hideyoshi instigated two devastating invasions of the Korean peninsula with the ultimate goal of invading China. The arrival of Portuguese and Dutch merchants and Catholic missionaries brought an awareness of different religions, new technologies, and previously unknown markets and goods to Japanese society. Over time, these foreign influences blended with native Japanese culture in myriad and long-lasting ways.


Saturday, December 16, 2017

Festival of Lights

To recap the story of Hanukkah, the historical events upon which the celebration is based are recorded in Maccabees I and II, two books contained within a later collection of writings known as the Apocrypha. In the year 168 B.C.E., the Syrian tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes sent his soldiers to Jerusalem. They outlawed practicing Judaism and the Temple was renamed for the Greek god Zeus.  Antiochus offered Jews two options:  conversion or death.  A resistance developed and a third option, war, was successfully waged against the Syrians, who had superior numbers but were none-the-less defeated.
Hanukkah, which means “dedication,” is the festival that commemorates the rededication of the Temple following the defilement caused by the Syrians.  When the Maccabees entered the Temple, they immediately relit the ner tamid (eternal light). They found only a single jar of oil, which was sufficient for only one day. The messenger who was sent to get more oil took eight days, and miraculously, the single jar of oil continued to burn until his return. The rabbis of the Talmud attributed the eight days of Hanukkah to the miracle of this single jar of oil.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

This is a very very painful movie that chronicles the story of Nat Turner, slave, preacher, husband, father, and eventually slave rebellion leader.  The bloody awful ending is almost a relief after the relentless grimness of slavery, even with a kind owner.  Worse with the worst of them, and when one begins out kind, it may turn when money gets tight, because the fact of the matter is that slaves were treated like property, not like people.  Property that you could beat and rape and starve and torture, all of which comes about.  It is just gruesome.  A true rendition of the past by all accounts.  What we see here is no different than what Frederick Douglass wrote about his experience as a slave and then a free man in almost the same time period. 
The rebellion that Nat Turner led, which killed 60 slave owners over a 48 hour period until the military stepped in and killed them all, it entirely understandable, if not exactly comfortable or right.  The movie is not for the feint of heart, but well done and accurate.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Pastéis de Nata, Porto, Portugal

This picture is from a bakery that we visited on our last morning in Porto.  It was fascinating to watch a whole crew of bakers churn out literally hundreds of these custard tarts, which are the national pastry of Portugal.  They sell for about a Euro each, as does the coffee, so a mid-morning snack is quite affordable.
The original pastry comes from Belém.   As the story goes, in 1837 a confeitaria there began making the original Pastéis de Belém, following an ancient recipe from the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. That secret recipe is a common theme around the making of these tarts, as is the fact that they are impossible to create in a home oven, due to the cooking temperature of 800 degrees.  However, if you are to try this at home, some tips to making spectacular authentic Portuguese custard tarts at home are few and simple. When making the pastry, make sure the butter is evenly layered, all excess flour is removed, and the dough is rolled very thin and folded neatly. This is puff pastry-esque dough.  As for the custard, you’ll need a thermometer to accurately gauge the custard. Once out of the oven, these pastries are best eaten warm the day they’re made.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Slower Earth, More Earthquakes?

The link between Earth’s rotation and seismic activity was noted in a paper by Roger Bilham and Rebecca Bendick presented at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America.
They contend that the  correlation between Earth’s rotation and earthquake activity is strong and suggests there is going to be an increase in numbers of intense earthquakes in 2018.
In their study, Bilham and Bendick looked at earthquakes of magnitude 7 and greater that had occurred since 1900.
They found five periods when there had been significantly higher numbers of large earthquakes compared with other times. “In these periods, there were between 25 to 30 intense earthquakes a year,” said Bilham. “The rest of the time the average figure was around 15 major earthquakes a year.” The researchers searched to find correlations between these periods of intense seismic activity and other factors and discovered that when Earth’s rotation decreased slightly it was followed by periods of increased numbers of intense earthquakes. “The rotation of the Earth does change slightly – by a millisecond a day sometimes – and that can be measured very accurately by atomic clocks,” said Bilham.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Far From the Madding Crowd (2015)

In some ways this should be called Right Next to the Madding Woman.  Bathsheba Evendene is a fascinating and somewhat headstrong woman who inherits a farm and goes about managing it herself.  Before this happens she meets a sheepherder, Gabriel Oak, who knows right then and there, on the spot that she is the woman for him.  She is not yet ready and she turns him down.  It would have been a shorter movie had she not, but a happier story overall. 
Gabriel soon losses his fortune while Miss Everdene gains hers and their paths cross again, with her in the driver's seat.  She needs him, she knows she needs him, but their circumstances are such that she feels she cannot love him.  It is a classic British story, told by Thomas Hardy, and it is beautifully brought to the screen here.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Sphinx of Amenhotep III, 1375 BCE

I have found the distinctiveness of the portraiture in Ancient Egypt to be remarkable.  Even without the inscription, the facial features of this faience sphinx would identify it as Amenhotep III. The graceful body of the lion transforms quite naturally into human forearms and hands. In this form, the sphinx combines the protective power of the lion with the royal function of offering to the gods. The even tone of the fine blue glaze and the almost flawless condition of this sculpture make it unique among ancient Egyptian faience statuettes.
The material this is made from is called faience, which is a “material made from powdered quartz covered with a true vitreous coating, usually in a transparent blue or green isotropic glass."  Notably, faience is considerably more porous than glass proper and can be cast in molds to create vessels or objects.  Although not properly pottery, as (until late periods) it contains no clay and instead contains the major elemental components of glass, faience is frequently discussed in surveys of ancient pottery.  So while I am not crazy about the color, the process to make it is kind of cool, and it was very popular in ancient times.
Amenhotep III, the subject of the art, made his greatest contribution to Egyptian culture in maintaining peace and prosperity, which enabled him to devote his time to the arts. Many of the most impressive structures of ancient Egypt were built under his reign and, through military campaigns, he not only strengthened the borders of his land but expanded them. He ruled Egypt with Tiye for 38 years until his death and was succeeded by Amenhotep IV, later known as Akhenaten.  He was the Hadrian of Ancient Egypt, and his building projects still abound.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Oriental Ramen Salad

This was a really nice addition to our Thanksgiving table, and it was brought by an out of town guest who did not make it at our house.  The reason I think that is important to note is that if you make the dressing ahead of time, or get a bottled Asian dressing when picking up the other ingredients, it is something you could do if you were staying at a hotel and wanted to bring a dish to someone's house.  It also would be great at a pot luck.  Assemble it at work at the last minute, but it would travel home just fine as well.
  • 1: 16 ounce bag coleslaw mix
  • 1 cup sunflower seeds, de-shelled/shelled/no shells
  • 1 cup  sliced almonds
  • 6 ounces ramen noodles
  • 5 stalks of scallions, sliced
  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/3 cup white vinegar
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  1. In a large bowl, place coleslaw mix, sunflower seeds, sliced almonds, crushed ramen, and scallions. To crush ramen, place ramen block into a Ziploc bag and using a rolling pin, gently crush the ramen into smaller pieces.
  2. In a large measuring cup, add vegetable oil, vinegar, and sugar. You can add the seasoning packet from the ramen noodles or not.  Whisk together. Don't worry if the sugar will not completely dissolve.
  3. Pour oil mixture over the coleslaw mix and toss everything together with a large spatula until everything is coated well.
  4. Serve cold or room temperature.


Saturday, December 9, 2017

My Life as a Zucchini (2016)

This is such a good movie.  In fact I like it much better than the winner in this category, and the fact that Switzerland submitted it as their Best Foreign Language film submission makes me like them just a teensy bit more.
You know you are not watching a children's movie even though it is animated when in the opening scene the child, in an effort to escape his enraged drunk mother, shuts the trap door to his room, causing her to fall down the stairs and die, leaving him an orphan. Amazingly, life in this particular orphanage is not terribly bad at all. The kids give him a hard time to begin with but their early rivalries grow into deep friendships. Soon Camille, turns up, and she and Zucchini find an immediate affinity.  The only glitch is Camille’s terrifying aunt who barges into the orphanage like the proverbial bull in a china shop to demand custody. The plot twist by which that danger is averted is a clever one, but this is not a very plot-driven film, which is unusual for an animated picture. That’s not to say the writing is lacking. The character work here is both intimate and nicely compressed. But the movie really gets to its most sublime heights visually. Spectacular.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Doc Restaurant, Armamar, Portugal

 We stayed at a wonderful quinta in the Duoro Valley on our recent trip to Portugal, and the most extraordinary meal that we had was at this restaurant, run by chef Rui Paula.
The setting is gorgeous.  We sat outside on a terrace that is right over the river.  The weather was perfect, and the awning over the table was magnificently made.  What impressed me about that was the level of detail the place went to in order to produce memorable food.
The cuisine is local to Portugal and much of it comes from the Duoro Valley itself.  The wines that paired with each of the courses were all local, including one that was just across the river from where we were seated.  If the grapes hadn't already been harvested we could have seen them from our seats.
The entire meal, from the amuse bouche to the desserts, were spectacularly flavorful, beautifully plated, and flavor sensations.  The price tag reflects all of that, but for us, that was all that we did the day we went there for a late lunch.  It took hours to finish the meal, and then we sat on the terrace just enjoying the weather and the aftermath of the food, eaten in good company, and to be remembered long after we get home.