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Monday, May 31, 2010

Homer Plessy Memorial

On my visit to new Orleans, I visited the grave of one of the heroes of the civil rights movement, Homer Plessy.
Homer Plessy was, in many ways, an unlikely standard-bearer for the cause of black equality. Born in 1863 (months after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by Abraham Lincoln) to free parents, he had never known slavery. He had never worked in agriculture, instead supporting himself through artisanal (shoe making) and professional (insurance salesman) work in New Orleans. Homer Plessy was seven-eighths white. With just one African-American great-grandparent, the light-skinned Plessy appeared to be white but was legally defined as black under Louisiana law. The fact that Plessy didn't look black would make it easy for him to infiltrate the whites-only car without encountering any resistance, thus highlighting the arbitrary discrimination of the law.
Surprisingly, perhaps, Plessy and the Citizens' Committee organized their challenge to the Separate Car Law with the complete cooperation of the East Louisiana Railroad. The railroad was apparently less interested in defending white supremacy than in making a profit. It cost money to provide separate cars for whites and blacks on every train. So when Plessy bought a first-class ticket and boarded the train on 7 June 1892, the railroad hired a private detective to ride along to make sure that someone was on hand to arrest him.
Plessy, the Citizens' Committee, and the East Louisiana Railroad all hoped that the court would vindicate Plessy by overturning the railroad segregation law as unconstitutional. Instead, Judge John Ferguson rejected the Citizens' Committee's constitutional arguments and convicted Homer Plessy for breaking the law. The Louisiana Supreme Court then upheld the verdict, before the United States Supreme Court finally agreed to hear the case in 1896.
The Supreme Court's decision in Plessy v. Ferguson dealt a devastating blow to Homer Plessy and all other African-Americans. By a 7-1 majority, the justices upheld Louisiana's Jim Crow railroad act, ruling that the Fourteenth Amendment offered no protection to "social rights" and that, "if one race be inferior to the other socially, the constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane." The court explicitly rejected Plessy's argument that segregation was inherently demeaning, taking a gratuitous slap at Jim Crow's victims by describing as a "fallacy" the idea that "the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority."
Only one justice, John Marshall Harlan— a southerner and former slaveholder—dissented from the majority in Plessy v. Ferguson, recognizing segregation as a "badge of servitude" inherently degrading to black citizens. "In the view of the constitution," Harlan wrote, "in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law." But Justice Harlan's ringing defense of colorblind democracy was at least half a century ahead of its time. In 1896, the overwhelming majority of the American people, like the overwhelming majority of the Supreme Court, did tolerate classes among citizens, and Plessy v. Ferguson guaranteed that Jim Crow laws designed to enforce divisions among those classes would be protected from constitutional challenge. By so firmly and unambiguously endorsing the logic of segregation in Plessy, the Supreme Court all but encouraged states to pass ever more draconian laws to separate blacks from whites in all spheres of public life. John Marshall Harlan's more egalitarian interpretation of the law would, eventually, be vindicated—but not until 1954, when the Supreme Court reversed Plessy in Brown v. Board of Education. For the intervening 58 years, Jim Crow would be the law of the land. Plessy failed to achieve his goal, but he was brave to try.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Oak Alley Plantation

Oak Alley is named for the 28 oak trees that lead from the Mississippi River up to the house (pictured here). It is a spectacular setting. The last time I was in plantation country, I had just had a baby and was apparently not forming new memories all that well. My excuse is going to be sleep deprivation. I had forgotten just how overwhelmingly emotional it can be. We had stayed at Oak Alley, in the slave cabins one night and then in the main house the following night. Coming back to the spectacular setting brought it all back, though.

Throughout my stay in Louisiana I found that people had a difficult time talking about slavery. No one wanted to talk about the role of enslaved people in the "glory" of the South. This was not just an oversight. We asked. Everywhere we went. It is a very important part of the story, but the natives are not going ot put it together for the visitors. We are left to do that work ourselves.

I can tell you, the slave quarters at Oak Alley have been seriously upgraded since the days of their first inhabitants. There is plumbing. The walls are insulated. There is air conditioning. But despite these changes, all of which would undoubtedly have made the day to day lives of their original ocupants, they are not anywhere near as nice as the accomodations in the main house. We stayed in the attic room of a very grand house, which almost causes you to adopt a Scarlett O'Hara sashay as you walk the halls. The accoutrements of wealth are very powerful indeed, and no one had to tell us that they are alive and well.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Two Songs From the Parent of a Graduate

Teach your children well,
Their father's hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you'll know by.
Don't you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.
And you, of tender years,
Can't know the fears that your elders grew by,

And so please help them with your youth,
They seek the truth before they can die.

Can you hear and do you care and
Cant you see we must be free to
Teach your children what you believe in.
Make a world that we can live in.

Teach your parents well,
Their children's hell will slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you'll know by.

Don't you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful
And you may ask yourself-Well...How did I get here?

Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/water flowing underground
Into the blue again/after the money's gone
Once in a lifetime/water flowing underground.

And you may ask yourself
How do I work this?
And you may ask yourself
Where is that large automobile?
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful house!
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful wife!
Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/water flowing underground
Into the blue again/after the money's gone
Once in a lifetime/water flowing underground.

Same as it ever was...Same as it ever was...Same as it ever was...
Same as it ever was...Same as it ever was...Same as it ever was...
Same as it ever was...Same as it ever was...

Friday, May 28, 2010

Buying Art on the Streets of New Orleans

From eHow:
New Orleans has long provided talented artists with inspiration to create beautiful works of art. Local artists sell New Orleans-influenced pieces around the city. Though prices on some pieces can be thousands of dollars, many artists make their pieces affordable to the average buyer. By knowing where to shop, anyone can buy affordable art in New Orleans.

Step 1--On the last Saturday of each month, shop for a piece from one of New Orleans’ own artists at the Arts Market of New Orleans. This market, held in Palmer Park, features more than 50 artists selling paintings, photographs and a variety of other handcrafted pieces.

Step 2--Attend the Bywater Art Market on the third Saturday of each month to browse and buy affordable local and regional art. Set up at Royal Street and Piety in the Bywater neighborhood, vendors sell beaded jewelry, metalwork, paintings, drawings and furniture.

Step 3--Browse art created and sold by street vendors around the perimeter of Jackson Square. The greatest number of vendors set up during tourist season and on weekends.

Step 4--Hunt for hidden treasures in Magazine Street antique shops. Unique pieces often find their way to one of the city’s many antique shops.

Step 5--Check out vendor booths at city and neighborhood festivals. Festivals from the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival to the Bayou Boogaloo have areas dedicated to local artists selling their wares. Step away from the stages and venture into the craft areas to find a variety of affordable art.

I went for option 3. It is fun to walk through the art galleries in the French Quarter, but the prices are largely not affordable, and also quite variable (we found a four fold difference from place to place for one artist). I loved the Michalopoulos Gallery at 617 Bienville St. ( but his work is out of my price league. But I was happy with my Sunday morning Jackson Square purchase.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Grilling Season

Inner Beauty Hot Sauce
2 c. hot peppers
1 tsp. curry
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper
1 tsp. coriander
1 cup cheap yellow mustard
1 ripe mango chopped
½ cup orange juice
¼ cup brown sugar
Purée all ingredients in a food processor.
As quoted in the New York Times Diner's Journal:
For the first time in culinary history, I will release the original recipe for your summer grilling pleasure. Remember to warn your guests. It looks a little like mustard. Recipe will keep two to three weeks in the refrigerator.
I love the Schlesinger approach to outdoor cooking, and just had a well marinated grilled steak this week to be reminded that we have entered the season of cooking more comfortably out of doors than in--this sauce is a great accompaniment to grilled pork. Chris Schlesinger makes it with scotch bonnets, but it can be made with less spicy peppers, like jalapenos. I also highly recommend the grilled peaches idea. They are meaty enough to stand up to the grilling, and the sweetness melds beautifully with the smokiness. If you like grilled pineapple, this is another option.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Laura Plantation

I spent two days going from plantation to plantation in the area along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. This is the first place we went, and in a number of ways it was the most interesting. The house was by no means grand, so it differed from many of the palatial homes in the neighborhood. It was built entirely from swamp cypress, which was the norm. The family was of mixed race, and Creole. So they were catholic and they spoke French. But they also had slaves. Lots of them. Probably around two hundred at the time of the Civil War. The guide (who had read the memoirs of a previous owner, but may have been making this up, who knows) said that slavery was not about color but about class distinctions. I am pretty sure if I was a slave I would disagree with that assessment.

This plantation was a family run business for four generations, and three of the generations had women at the helm of the enterprise. The plantation went not to the eldest, or to a man, but rather to the offspring that was felt to be best able to handle the place. This caused considerable resentment--no surprise there--and impressive pressure from parents who were not chosen to raise a child who would be deemed worthy of inheriting the plantation, lock, stock,and barrel.

The construction of the house was fascinating. And not fancy. The house was assembled in the swamp with hole and peg construction, so it could be taken down, carried someplace, and reassembled. Voila! The foundation goes down 8 feet under ground and is set on a series of pyramidal supports under each pillar--so as to prevent it from sinking into the river sand upon which is was built. I liked the practicality of it, as well as the finished product.

They did a lot of painting on the doors--which I liked alot. It fit in the place--as did the brightly painted exterior--with not just three colors but bright ones. This is a part of the United States that reminds me of Nicaragua. The heat and humidity invite boldness, a lushly colored living space. Unlike New Orleans, which was where the city house was, there is no ornateness in this place. It is beautiful but utilitarian.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Iris Restaurant, New Orleans

I spent my 51st birthday at this restaurant--my husband had phoned ahead and the table was decorated with glitter, and had a nice bottle of champagne on ice waiting for our arrival. The guide book had given the restaurant $$/$$$$ for expense and Zagats gave it a 25/30. A very respectable profile. We found the price to be truth in advertising, and the food to be exceptional. In addition, the atmosphere was very charming, with wonderful sconses on the wall that I would like to find for my own house.

We both had two small plates, and it was more than enough food. I started with a duck confit salad with beets--delicious! The duck had been browned, and set on top of greens dressed in a traditional French vinagrette. It was familiar and unusual at the same time. For a second course I had the clams with fresh pasta and andouille sausage--again, both familiar and unusual. The pasta was clearly al dente, much like what we had in Rome earlier this year--I tend to cook it a tad longer than that, but this is traditional. Both courses went well with the champagne, and we would happily return.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Salad on a Roll

Pan bagnat is a classic southern French sandwich, essentially the makings of a niçoise salad inside a baguette or a round, hard roll. I suggest adding a tomato in the summer, but at any time of year there are plenty of great foods that can be included.
For the dressing:
1 garlic clove
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar, red wine vinegar or champagne vinegar
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

For the salad mixture:
1 small carrot, grated (about 1/4 cup grated carrot)
1/2 to 3/4 can water-packed tuna, drained
4 or 5 thin slices of cucumber
A generous handful of lettuce, arugula, baby spinach or spring salad mix
A few thin slices red or green pepper
1 slice red onion
A few leaves fresh basil, chiffoned
1/2 hard-cooked egg, sliced
1 bun or length of baguette
1. To make the dressing, mince the garlic with a generous pinch of salt. With a whisk, work in the Dijon mustard, lemon juice, vinegar and olive oil. Add pepper and set aside.
2. Combine all of the salad ingredients except the hard-cooked egg in a bowl, and toss with the dressing until thoroughly coated. Pile half of this mixture onto the bottom half of the bread. Push it down, and arrange the slices of hard-cooked egg on top. Season if you wish with salt and pepper, then pile the remaining salad on top of the eggs. It will look like a lot, but it will compress. Cover with the top bun, press down and wrap tightly in plastic. Allow to sit for 10 to 15 minutes, or for several hours in the refrigerator, before cutting in half. Wrap the half you don’t eat tightly, and refrigerate.
Note: In season, add 1 small tomato, sliced, to the mix. You can mix it with the salad, or layer the slices over the egg.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Eggplant and Tomato Gratin

1/2 cup grated parmesan
1 cup panko
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 teaspoons minced parsley
2 cup grape tomatoes
4 basil leaves, roughly chopped
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 1/4 cups tomato puree
5 large garlic cloves, minced
2 pounds eggplants, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup fresh mozzarella, grated or finely chopped.
1. For the bread crumbs: In a medium bowl, combine pecorino, panko, salt, pepper, olive oil, and parsley. Set aside.
2. For the eggplant and tomatoes: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a large bowl, combine tomatoes, basil, red pepper flakes, salt, black pepper, tomato puree, garlic, eggplant and 1/3 cup olive oil. Add half of the bread crumb mixture. With your hands or two spoons, gently mix the vegetables and bread crumb mixture until thoroughly combined.
3. Pour into a 9 x 13 baking dish and top with remaining bread crumb mixture. Sprinkle the mozzarella over the top. Bake, uncovered, until eggplant is tender and top is lightly browned, 45 to 60 minutes; if after 30 minutes the top is browning too rapidly, cover the dish with foil for the remaining cooking time. Remove from oven, and let rest for 10 minutes before serving. Drizzle olive oil to taste over each serving, if desired.
I am trying to make and eat more vegetables this summer, and read this in the New York Times Diner's Journal and thought it sounded great--a way to have the flavors of eggplant parmesan without the heavy oil and overwhelming cheese aspect.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Sauteed Radish Crostini

1 bunch radishes
9 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
dash of kosher salt
fresh ground black pepper
4 tablespoons butter
8 anchovy fillets, finely chopped
4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
Pinch red pepper flakes
8-12 thin slices crusty bread, toasted
4 teaspoons chopped parsley.
1. Remove leaves and stems from radishes; trim the tails. Cut larger radishes lengthwise into sixths and smaller radishes lengthwise into quarters.
2. Place a large skillet over medium-high heat until very hot. Add 1 tablespoon oil, radishes in a single layer (do not crowd) and salt and pepper. Cook radishes, without moving them, until they are lightly colored on undersides, about 3 minutes. Shake pan and continue cooking until tender, about 3 more minutes.
3. In a small skillet over medium heat, melt butter. Stir in anchovies, garlic, red pepper and remaining oil. Reduce heat and simmer about 4 minutes.
4. Brush each slice of toast with sauce and top with several radish wedges. Spoon additional sauce on top, sprinkle with parsley and serve.
At this time of year, when there is so little available at the farmer's market, a new thing to do with radishes is greatly appreciated. The salty richness of the anchovies melds nicely with the sweetness of the sauteed radishes--and they do take on an entirely different flavor profile with very little cooking time. Delicious!
Serve with crostini topped with the Asparagus Pesto and it will be a spring celebration of appetizers.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Not Becoming My Mother by Ruth Reichl

This book takes longer to sort out than it does to read. Reichl has written about her mother before, most notably in 'Tender at the Bone'. In that book she portrays her mother as iconoclastic, idiosyncratic, and a little bit of a nut. And a little bit dangerous. Reichl left home to save herself and her sanity, and no small piece of that was escaping her mother's sphere of influence.
In this memoir she revisit's her mother's life, not so much as a source of laughter but as a journey towards understanding someone that she really never scratched the surface on when she was alive. What she finds is both sobering and thought-provoking. The story doesn't excuse her mother's bad behavior, but it does shed some light on her, and a whole generation of women who came of age in the WWII era. Sadly, it is never easy to be a woman. The role is a complex one and you don't get an understudy, and if you either don't have birth control or choose to child bear, it becomes even more complicated. Reichl's book is more sympathetic and less of a story and more of a collection of impressions and feelings. She is sad to write it and that shines through. It did make me think about my life vis-a-vis my mother's and in the middle of life, that is a useful exercise to undertake.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


Woody Harrelson constantly amazes me. And it is not just because I had very low expectations of him. There was that aspect, but I have long since realized that his role on 'Cheers' did him a serious disservice. He is a wonderful actor with an astonishing range. The troublesome thing in this movie is that I am not sure what his psychiatric diagnosis is (really, I need neuropsychological testing to even make a viable stab at it)--he is too niave and engaging to be Aspbergers, we have no known history of head injury, and he seems more childlike than intellectually impaired. Hard to say.
In any case, he is the hero of this movie in every sense of the word. By day, Arthur Poppington is a construction worker with a below-average IQ. By night, he's Defendor, dishing out justice with unexpected weaponry. It happens that the movie starts out light and funny, but it quickly evolves into something both dark and sad. Real life, it turns out, is not all that it is cracked up to be. And it is not the way that Arthur sees it wither--there is a little bit of 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night' about this as well--we hear how Arthur thinks about his mission, but we see another truth through our own eyes.
A sub-story here is the unlikely friendship between Defendor and a drug-addicted teenaged prostitute, and in his ongoing mission to take down Captain Industry.
For this being his first directing gig, Peter Stebbings hits a bullseye. There's great cinematography and lighting, and Stebbings playfully throws out a few superhero flick cliches. John Rowley serves up a great movie score, with a powerful and dark superhero soundtrack. The supporting cast is also top-notch, from Elias Koteas and Sandra Oh to Clark Johnson (The Wire/Homicide). Recommended.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

August Restaurant, New Orleans

We had lunch at the Acme Oyster House, which is a place we have been going to for almost 20 years--and is now a kind of tourist detination, but for us it is just hitting old stomping grounds. We brought Tucker here as a 4 year old and he discovered his love of red beans and rice. But for our evening meal we had a pull-out-all-the-stops dinner at John Besh's upscale restaurant, August.
The restaurant itself is a gorgeous corner spot, the front room brick walled with elegant chandeliers, , and the back room paneled. It is a grand old house, or appears that way. When you go up the stairs to the bathroom, you can overlook the balcony down onto the entrance below. Lovely.
We had the four-course meal of the evening, with wine. The amusee bouch was a fish mousse served in an emptied out egg shell, topped with a bit of caviar and set into an egg cup. Rich, but delicious. The appetizer was a sous vide pork belly, topped with pickled radish and crawfish, atop a green gralic aoili. Delicious, and also very rich. It was served with a prosecco, which was crisp and dry and matched well with it. The fish course was a lemon fish, served with summer squash and avocado, also quite delisious, and a little lighter than the first two servings. The wine was an Ancien Chrdonnay--which was light on the oak, and meant to highlight the squash flavors, our server said. What flavors, Joel mumbled to himself. Well, it paired nicely with the course, when all was siad and done. The meat course was lamb three ways. The shoulder was braised, the loin was roasted, and the tenderloin was deep fired--all three were delicious, and paired nicely with a very light nebbiolo. We closed with a Two Hands Moscato, which I liked very much, but it was a bit dry for the dessert we had, which was biegnets stuffed with dulce de leche, drizzled with cinnamon ganache, amidst buttercream and toasted hazeluts. Outstanding and highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Herbsaint Restaurant, New Orleans

My first night in New Orleans we went to one of Donald Link's restaurants, Herbsaint. it is in the Warehouse district, an ever expanding area of restaurants that makes staying in the French Quarter seem less of a necessity from a food standpoint. The menu here is fairly short, and has equal numbers of small plates and entres--we chose four items, three of them small plates. Despite the calamity going on just off the shores of Louisianna, there was plenty of food from the water on the menu (admittedly half of it from rivers and lakes rather than the sea).

Donald Link owns another Warehouse restaurant we like, Cochon, and we did focus on dishes with an emphasis on classic cooking, since that is what this restaurant is about--in that vein, I had shrimp with grits and Joel had duck confit. The shrimp with okra has a classic preparation, with subtle spicing that complimented the richness of the roux and convinced me that I should buy his cookbook, Rustic Cajun, and make this at home. The grits were served not soft, but set and cut in a square, and were very good. The duck confit had a dirty rice accompaniment, and a delicious fruit-based sauce that was a delicious rendition of a classic dish. The non-traditional dishes were even better. I had a crawfish tagliateli that was divine, and Joel had grilled calamari with squid ink rice that was his favorite flavor sensation of the meal. The calamari were tender and scrumtious. Highly recommended. I ordered a half bottle of rose that was modestly priced and a perfect accompaniment to the food.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Crazy Heart

Jeff Bridges won the Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of fictional country western singer Bad Blake. And bad is not overstating his condition at the film's opening. He is driving his 1978 Suburban from bowling alleys to bars across the Southwest, staying in Super 8 Motel kind of accomodations, drinking throughout the days and nights, and sleeping with aging groupies. It has a ways to go to get up to seedy. But amazingly likable, considering.

There are two things that happen to turn him around. The first is that he meets a woman who he is interested in. The second is that he gets a break from a younger singer who owes Blake. Colin Ferrell plays Blake's mentee, and he is terrific. This will probably not sound like a compliment to a movie star, but he could be an excellent country western singer. The movie is a bittersweet tale. Bridges is gritty, and the most like the Big Lebobowski of any role he has done over the past decade. Great soundtrack--T Bone Burnett does another terrific job--and a good story.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Bone Fire by Mark Spragg

This is a good book, not a great book. That said, I liked it. More importantly, it made me think beyond the confines of the novel and it's story. The title alludes to a practice that appears to have roots in many cultures--the building of a huge ceremonial fire to burn bodies. There is something to that in that the characters in this novel are gradually falling apart. They could use a few culturally bound exercises to help them contextualize what they are going through.
Here is the setting: The town is Ishawooa, Wyoming and the protagonist is Sheriff Crane Carlson. The book opens with him finding the corpse of a teen amidst the wreckage of a meth lab. We never really solve that one, but it is emblematic of Crane's personal dissolution, his bonefire of sorts. Crane has just learned he has ALS, which he reacts to in two ways. He plots his suicide, and reconnects with his first wife, who it becomes clear he should have worked harder to ahng onto. His current spouse, Jean, is a nasty vulnerable drunken pothead outraged that her husband is reaching out to her predecessor and not her--and she knows how to get even. She is a great example of borderline personality disorder, adult sub-type.
This drama is juxtaposed against someone who is dying at an expected time of life and who is struggling to do it right. Jean's daughter, Griff, a bone sculptor drops out of her eastern college to return to Wyoming to care for her dying octogenarian grandfather Einar Gilkyson. Einar loves her but pushes her away--in a nice way that allows her to find a path forward in her life. Instead, Einar asks his estranged lesbian sister Marin, whose long time love just died, to come care for him--and repair their sibling relationship. There are cautiously hopeful moments in the book, despite overwhelming obstacles.
The book lays out the challenge that death and dying present, but it doesn't do as nice a job of answering the questions that it raises. That is the flaw of the story, but it is raw and real and emotive, and worth reading.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Double Comfort Safari Club by Alexander McCall Smith

I read as many murder mysteries as anything else and I rarely blog on them--they are diversionary rather than thought provoking for me. Which is not to say that they have not shaped my view of mankind and the world. They have. But those are mostly thoughts that I keep to myself. I am breaking that rule for this book, which is not so much a murder mystery as a parable about life.
I loved the first book in this series, and the first few that followed it. Precious Ramotswe is a fresh voice in an old genre, and the investigations are not so much about clues and forensics but rather human nature and what motivates people to do the things they do. Somewhere in the middle it got a little bit less wise, but this book is a return to the early days, and in fact there is little in the way of mystery about the story. It is more about the choices that people make.
The part of the story that hit home for me is that Mma Ramotswe comes to the conclusion that it is not so much what happens to you in your life that really matters, bt rather how you respond to it. Her assistant is faced with a very difficult situation, which Mma Ramotswe helps her with, but in the course of events she realizes that happiness is what you make of it, not what happens. We could all learn from that.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Leap Year

There is a lot about this movie that might be arguable or objectionable. Like one of the opening tenets, that it is an Irish tradition that women can ask men to marry them on February 29th. Like that anyone traveling by small boat in a storm from Wales to Ireland would ever end up landing in Dingle. And that what passes for Dingle is in fact the Aran Islands. Agreed. It is a fiction, a movie, after all. The scenery, while not accurately attributed to place, is phenomenal. Gorgeous. The kind of place that makes you question why you are not on vacation there this very minute rather than watching a movie about it.
The love story is one that is formulaic but agreeable. The current boyfriend is someone we dislike immediately--from the start we are routing for someone else, anyone else to capture the imagination of our heroine, Anna. She displays an impressive ability to walk in her 4 inch heels on any terrain, but isn't very sympathetic until Declan takes a few cracks at her and she starts swinging back. Then the sparks fly, and blossom into fireworks. An enjoyable romantic comedy, with scenery that will lead to a vacation destination.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Egg Sandwich with Sorrel Sauce

2 scallions
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups sorrel, stems trimmed (can use spinach if sorrel unavailable)
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, more to taste
Ground black pepper
2 tablespoons heavy cream
dash of crushed red pepper

1. Thinly slice scallions, separating darker green parts for garnish.
2. In a skillet over medium heat, heat olive oil. Add light green and white parts of scallion and sauté until wilted, 2 minutes. Add sorrel leaves, salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until sorrel wilts and starts to break down, turning olive-green in color, about 3 minutes. Stir in cream and let simmer for 1 minute to thicken a bit.
3. Carefully crack eggs into skillet. Lower heat to medium-low and sprinkle eggs with salt and pepper. Cover pan and let cook for 2 minutes, then turn off heat and let eggs rest, covered, until done to taste, about another 30 seconds for very runny yolks (the whites should cook through). Flip and cook on other side if you want yolks harder.
4. Carefully scoop eggs and sorrel sauce into two bowls. Season with chili and flaky salt; garnish with scallion greens. Serve with toasted bread and arugula salad.
I got the idea for this fried egg sandwich from the New York Times Mother's Day brunch suggestion--but it is with a poached egg, and I prefer fried. More caramelization. Sorrel is a wonderful idea for an accompaniment--it is lemony and has some of the characteristics of hollaindaise but with a touch of spring thrown in. We added bacon as well, and it was a successful dinner all around.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Fordlandia by Greg Grandin

The subtitle of this book should be "What We Didn't Learn From Building the Panama Canal, But Should Have". I think it is always easier to look back and identify mistakes. So not to be too harsh. But mistakes were made.
In 1927 Henry Ford, flush in the feeling that he was on top of the world, that he could solve any problem that came up in his professional life with a little ingenuity and a little generosity in the cash department. So when Winston Churchill announced monopolizing rubber to stave off plummeting prices, Ford responded with an idea of bringing rubber trees back to the Amazon in order to ensure his supply. He bought a plantation the size of Delaware and started hiring men to carry out his vision of "growing your own".

Which ended up being only a vision. Or a nightmare. As you might imagine, bringing a bunch of Norteamericanos into the deepest Amazon had some perils associated with it. Not the least of which was that they knew nothing about the ecology of the rain forest. Or about how to grow rubber trees. Somewhere in the midst of the first series of disasters they brought in some botanists and fungus-resistant root stock from the Firestone, which helped, but wasn't enough to stem the disaster.

What you would imagine to be problems were problems--the bugs, the heat, the unpredictable and very tropical weather, the lack of Western supplies, the prostitutes, the disease. Then when they realized they could do better with families than single men, there were all the problems associated with that--children filled the graveyards, there was inadequate food, medical attention and schools. Yet Ford persevered, and built a very Western style settlement, at great cost, which rotted almost as soon as it was finished.
One thing I did not know about him--he was adamant about treating his workers well--he paid them above average wages. He demanded and got loyalty, and it was successful for him for a very long time. His weakness was an inability to know when in fact he had made an error in judgement. But there was a lot about him that was remarkable.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Asparagus Pesto

1 pound asparagus, trimmed and cut into 2-inch segments
1 clove garlic, or more to taste
1/4 cup toasted nuts
1/4 cup olive oil, or more as desired
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Freshly ground black pepper
Juice of 1/2 lemon, or to taste.
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Add the asparagus and cook until fully tender but not mushy, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain well, reserving some of the cooking liquid, and let the asparagus cool slightly.
2. Transfer the asparagus to a food processor and add the garlic, nuts, 2 tablespoons of the oil, Parmesan, a pinch of salt and a couple of tablespoons of the cooking liquid. Process the mixture, stopping to scrape down the sides of the container if necessary, and gradually add the remaining oil and a bit more of the reserved cooking liquid to moisten if necessary. Add the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper to taste, pulse one last time, and serve over pasta, fish or chicken (or cover and refrigerate for up to a day)--we had it over halibut--yum!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Arugula, Pear, and Blue Cheese Salad

1/3 cup coarsely chopped scallions
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon honey
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 c. olive oil (salad dressing quality)
Sea salt and ground white pepper
2 tablespoons
8 ounces arugula
4 ounces Gorgonzola or other creamy blue cheese, crumbled into small dabs
2 ripe pears, cored, quartered and cut in wedges, or 4 fresh figs, quartered.
1. Combine the onion, mustard, vinegar, honey, lemon juice and grapeseed oil in a food processor or blender. Purée until onion is very fine. Season with salt and pepper. Whisk in olive oil.
2. Rinse and dry the arugula. In a large bowl, season arugula with salt and pepper and toss with the dressing. Arrange cheese and fruit on four salad plates and top with watercress.
I linked to the recipe in the New York Times that inspired this, which has watercress in it. I prefer arugula, and also usually add some toasted nuts as well, maybe even some dried fruit. But it is a salad that is quick and delicious and let's you know that spring indeed is here.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


Michael Chabon summarized my feelings best. It is so much easier to be a good father. The bar for success is just much lower. I harken back to my spouse and his experiences getting up on Saturday mornings after our fourth son was born. He would awaken with the baby, feed him, then bundle all four kids into various car seats and set off to do the weekly grocery shopping. And it never failed. Someone would invariably comment on what a fabulous father he was. What would it take for a mother to get a similar rise out of a stranger? Chabon postulates she would have to perform an emergency tracheotomy on one child while simultaneously breast-feeding another. While I think that is an exaggeration, only by degree. He is in the right ball park.
And yet, despite it all--the inflated expectations, the propensity to fail to meet even minimal standards for performance, the lack of an adequate play book from which to choose, and the daily challenges to that seem impossible to unknot--this is the very best job I have ever had. Thank you, Joel, for making me do it.

Saturday, May 8, 2010


I was completely underwhelmed by this movie. It is long on EFFECTS. That part of the movie is truely eye-popping. The meticulously drawn and colored world of the planet Pandora is exceptionally gorgeous. We see far too much of it over the 160 minutes of the movie, but it is beautiful. The movie was four years in the making. The screenplay could have benefited from more attention over that period of time. It is incredibly weak on two fronts: the overall plot and the dialogue itself. There is nothing new here. In fact, it is kind of cartoonish in many ways. The military guys are as two dimensional as 'Small Soldiers' and the avatars are equally uninteresting, think 'Dances with Wolves'. It is a tremendous example of what can be done with visual effects, but pretty underimpressive in all other aspects of film making. What, besides revenue stream, qualified this for a Best Picture Oscar nomination?

Friday, May 7, 2010

It's Complicated

Admittedly, this movie is aimed at the over 40 crowd. So no wonder I liked it. But I watched it with two of my sons, and they both appreciated it as well. The story is that a divorced couple, who have three children, all of them now leaving home, flirt with an affair. And what happens.
The couple are in their late 50's (nice to see Alec Baldwin playing a character who is older than his stated age), who are in New York for their son's college graduation, first share a drink, then several more, and one thing leads to another until whoops, they are in bed. He is glowing. She is vomiting. Which largely sums up how they continue to view the liaison.
Meryl Streep has tremendous capacity as an actress, and she is able to convey the nuance of what she is struggling with in this film--yes, she is enjoying sex, and yes, she is enjoying it with her ex-husband. And while she is very clearly sleeping with a married man, she has slept with him more than his current wife has--which only makes it familiar, not exactly okay, but somehow she is ok with it until she realizes that she isn't. She loves being sexy to someone, but she is deeply unsettled by it being him.
There is a lot to quibble about with this movie, but there is also a lot to like, and I think the deconstruction of what might have gone wrong in their marriage is well written and also a good model for how to make things emotionally stable between two people who share immense amounts of a past and present with each other.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Live Well. Live Simply. Live Hygge.

The Danish word Hygge (hu-gah) is a feeling or mood that comes from taking genuine pleasure in making ordinary everyday things simple and extraordinary; whether it’s lighting crystal votives for a week night dinner or breaking out the good wine when friends come over. It’s about owning things you truly love or that inspire, being present in yourself and your life, putting effort into your home. It’s about being conscious and authentic from home to work to friends to celebrations and making all events {no matter how big or small, mundane or exciting} matter. Words like cosiness, security, familiarity, comfort, reassurance, fellowship, simpleness and living well are often used to describe the idea of Hygge.
Some refer to Hygge as the Art of Creating Intimacy (with yourself, friends and home). By creating simple rituals without effort (such as brewing tea in the evening or stopping at the farmers market every week) brings hygge to both the domestic and personal life, an art form and not drudgery to get away from.
Taking pride in what you have now and not just what you dream are part of hygge. Basic, uncomplicated, un-exaggerated – Hygge!
This is part of what I am striving for in my blog.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Young Victoria

Sumptuous costuming. Gorgeous palace depictions and English gardens. The setting is the 1830's and the story of the making of a queen. And it is a good story. Emily Blunt does a good job of portraying the pre-throne Victoria. The backdrop is not all that dynamic, and yet it is necessary to set the stage--the film could have shored this up a bit more quickly, and allowed us to watch more of the early years unfold. In any case, Victoria is the only child of three brothers, one of whom is the king. So at a very young age, it is clear that she is to ascend to be queen.

At a very tender age her manipulation begins. Initially, as all good adolescents do, she believes she can handle it more or less on her own. She has an uncle who is eager to attach her to a Germanic prince, and sends Albert to woo her. The timing of that relationship is critical--not only does Albert truly care about her, once she is queen, all future relationships are subject to increased scrutiny. And it works. Not without fits and starts, an assassination attempt and a tiff with the people. Albert and Victoria share an interest in the greater good, of being part of social change--that is the piece of the movie that is summed up in a couple of lines at the end, and I would have enjoyed seeing more of that story unfold.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Don't The Sunrise Look So Pretty

There are so few times that one can quote Little Feat lyrics and be thinking of French Impressionists, but this is one of them.
I saw two paintings from Monet's Rouen Cathedral series recently at the National Gallery of Art and I haven't been able to stop thinking about them. I purchased two postcards of the paintings and have them hung up in my office. This isn't new. I have had this feeling before--in the early 1990's saw a series he had painted in London, as well as the better known series of sunlight on haystacks that he painted at a Monet exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute and thought about it for a year afterwards. It is not the subject matter that holds my imagination--it is the sunlight. And the variations therein. The moment in time that is captured, just as it was.

I really think he is onto something that is very primal about the human perception of beauty as it relates to the outdoors. Somehow, the changing color with the changing time of day is very dramatic on a building face. The thing I find most captivating about these paintings is that it is something that I notice all the time when I am travelling. When I take the time to sit and watch things in a way that I cannot seem to manage at home. I can't deny that I am an inverterate people watcher. I am. I spend an awful lot of time on days off doing just that. It is the single greatest feature about the 1905 house we bought last year--the front porch and the world that it puts at our doorstep to watch. However, the changing of light over time is gorgeous to behold.

And while reproducions are evocative of the original work, they are a poor second best. The originals are three dimensional and emotional in a way that the photograph is not. Maybe it is the interplay of light on the surface of the paint itself that makes the difference. I have always enjoyed paintings that really lay it on thick, so it might be that it appeals to the love of texture that I am hard wired for.
Monet left 2000 paintings, a remarkable life's work, and almost all of it painted out of doors. Emphasizing sunlight. Magnifique!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Beet and Bulgur Salad

The N.Y. Times had a great section on sauces to have over vegetables, and this one struck my fancy. the oranges require a bit of preparation, but it is otherwise very easy. I love beets and this is another way to have them. The aioli can be used on other vegetables as well. Before you start, cook the bulgar, roast the beets, and sautee the beet greens.

Orange Aioli
2 oranges
1 egg
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 large garlic cloves, green shoots removed, mashed in a mortar and pestle with 1/2 teaspoon salt
2 to 3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice (to taste)
1/2 cup canola oil
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Using a potato peeler, remove the orange zest, without the pith, from the oranges, and place on a baking sheet in the oven for 45 minutes or until completely dried. Check often, and be careful that it doesn’t burn. Allow the peel to cool, then grind in a spice mill. Measure out 1 tablespoon.
2. Mash the garlic in a mortar and pestle with the salt, and add 1 teaspoon of the lemon juice. Let sit for 10 minutes. This will soften the sharpness of the garlic.
3. Place the egg in a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Add the mustard, and turn on the machine. When the egg is frothy, begin to slowly drizzle in the canola oil and then the olive oil with the machine running. Stop the machine, and add the garlic, remaining lemon juice and orange peel. Process until well blended. Taste, adjust salt and remove to a bowl.
Yield: 1 cup

Sunday, May 2, 2010

New York, I Love You

New York, I Love You is a collective work of eleven short films, with each segment running around 10 minutes long. Some of the actors have international status (Natalie Portman, Shia LaBeouf, Hayden Christensen, Orlando Bloom, Rachel Bilson, Uğur Yücel, Irrfan Khan, James Caan), with each shooting their part in one of New York's five boroughs. Similar to the previous film, Paris, je t'aime, the shorts presented together may interweave slightly, however they will all tie into the common theme of finding love. New York, I Love You is the second episode of the Cities of Love franchise created and produced by Emmanuel Benbihy.
I agree with reviewers that this is a movie that is not the sum of it's parts--it is the parts. I also agree with the slam that there are no New York directors represented--this is what outsiders like about being in New york, not why New Yorkers live there. Almost more than any other place I have been, this would be two totally different movies. New York, I Love You and couldn't live anywhere else. Or the estate grown version of New York, I Love You. This is something those of us who would struggle to live there can relate to.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Roasted Asparagus with Garlic

It is spring! I know. Birds are everywhere, actively remodeling their winter abodes or creating new ones. My husband and offspring have oiled up the chain saws and started on wood for next winter. Daffodils, lilacs, tulips, and flowering fruit trees abound. But the best sign of all is when the price of asparagus drops to a point where I can make it regularly. For me, simple is best.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Asparagus, trimmed and placed in a 9 x 13 pan.
4 cloves of garlic for every bunch of asparagus, crushed and sprinkled over the asparagus.
Toss with a minimum of olive oil--less than a tablespoon per bunch--then salt and pepper,
and roast for 20 minutes. Some tips will be crunchy--if you want to avoid that, roast 16 minutes.
Serve as is, or toss fresh lemon juice or aged balsamic vinegar on them and serve.