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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Irene Destroys Vermont Covered Bridges

Hurricane Irene dumped 11 or more inches of rain as it traveled through Vermont on Sunday, leaving severe flooding in it's wake. Already called the worst storm in the past 70 years in Vermont, it took away a part of Vermont that I love--covered bridges.
Here is a video of the Bartonsville Covered Bridge being destroyed:
The Bartonsville Covered Bridge was a wooden covered bridge in the village of Bartonsville, in Rockingham, Vermont, United States. It was built in 1870 by Sanford Granger. The bridge was a lattice truss style with a 151 foot span across the Williams River and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And now it is gone.
But what is the most important thing to remember about this? I think my friend Jeff Joslin is right--the most important thing is that we as a people kept this bridge as long as we could. It was preserved as a part of our history until Mother Nature (probably assisted by the hand of man as the globe warms and our weather becomes more unpredictable as a result) took it away.
So what should we do? What can we learn? Preserve what we have as long as we can, so that our shared past can be seen and appreciated. Learn about our architectural past. How were these bridges built? What was innovative about their engineering and design? I love these bridges and now there are significantly fewer of them, but let's keep the ones that Irene left intact. These are not just picturesque, they are a part of our national heritage, to be treasured and understood.
I am acutely aware of this as I live on an historic property that has been extremely poorly cared for over the past several decades. May I heed my own words...

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Goodnight Irene

The motto of this hurricane was "Prepare for the Worst". Storm tracking has gotten much more predictable, and so when the projected pathway of Hurricane Irene included major Atlantic seaboard cities, those cities responded. They closed airports and public transportation early. Newark airport was closed before even the edge of the storm reached it. It was not even raining. The call for taking cover was heeded well in advance.
I had planned to be on the East coast, but when United who hadn't initiated travel offered to let people rebook for another time, I took it--I couldn't afford to be stuck in New Jersey.
My family members, on the other hand, were more adventurous. They left on Friday knowing that they were headed into the eye of the storm, and they went anyway. And their flight home was canceled. As expected. Not as hoped for, but as expected. Not a huge problem--they were all prepared with a plan B--they had a car rental reservation for both Saturday and for Sunday (always cover your back in a natural disaster). My husband, a life-long lover of severe weather, was disappointed not to be able to experience a hurricane--we do not live in hurricane country so this was his opportunity to be in one. Category 1 was right where he wanted to be. But he chose the more conservative choice--to get back to work on Monday. The best part was that no one was even a little bit surprised or upset to have to drive 18 hours to get home. When I asked my youngest son about it, he noted that he spent his entire childhood on long car rides in the summer, to places he can't even remember, so this really seemed like no big deal. I thought we were showing them the great National Parks of the west, but apparently we were giving them the life skill to sit still in a small space for long hours and not be miserable. Maybe that was the better experience.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Rango (2011)

I really loved this smart, funny, animated, yet otherwise classic Western movie. Two things are evident immediately.The script is smartly written and the drawing is phenomenal. But it gets even better from there.
The overall story is immediately recognizable (young naive outsider enters a town owned by one man who is used to getting his way, and the newcomer inspires hope, rises above himself for the greater good, and triumphs). So it is not great because it tells us something new--it is great because the telling of an old story is so deftly done that we are happy throughout the movie. It is entertaining. Johnny Depp's voicing of Rango is spectacular, but all the characters have wonderful personalities that shine through. It is not 'G' rated, and that is deserved. People get sassy in this movie--it is gritty by animated standards, but not mean. The violence is plot driven, and classic Western fare, with exceptional characters (I especially loved the bat-riding moles as bad guys). A perfect family movie.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

This is a masterfully told tale that is all the more notable because it is also an oft told tale. The setting is immediately after WWII in a battered and beaten England. Rationing is worse than during the war. Medical care comes out of your pocket and the grand old estates of England are in the hands of their ancestral families and most are well on the road to decay.
Dr. Faraday is our eyes on this scene. He is the country GP and Hundreds Hall is the grand old estate of his area. His mother worked as a servant there when he was a child and he fell in love with it's grandeur. As a result, he has a romanticized view of the place and the people who live in it--unfortunately, this seriously clouds his judgment, a mistake that repeatedly comes back to haunt him. Oh, and by the way, the house is also haunted.
One of the great pleasures of the book is the way the author combines spookiness with sharp social observation. She is at home in a convincing postwar setting; however much we pity the family at Hundreds Hall, as their ancestral pile and their sanity collapse about them, Waters never lets us lose sight of their repulsive social attitudes--they feel they are better than others, and take advantage of Dr. Faraday's acceptance of this inequality at every turn. It does seem, at one point, as if it is the spirit of snobbery that may be haunting them.
The doctor himself and the tone of the book overall is slightly morose, tinged with a mixture of hope and regret. He is blinded to the situation he is in, so as the plot reveals itself and the family unravels, he is taken unawares but we are not. It is an outstanding book.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Our Last New Driver

My youngest son got his driver's license. There are many stops along the highway of parenthood that clue you in that time marches forward, often at a pace that you are not comfortable with. The first day of kindergarten is one. When my eldest went I cried--he seemed so serious and grown up, yet not many months before he was still in diapers and not walking. When my youngest went to kindergarten I cried. It was the last time we would have a child at home full time. Our years of changing the aforementioned diapers were officially over. We were parenting children that others would now teach. It also makes me realize why middle children feel persistently left out--I had no emotional denouements associated with their kindergarten days--they just happened. Maybe that shelters you from a lot of emotional baggage, and maybe it creates it--or maybe we all feel a little bit put out by our birth order and there is no escape.

In any case, the route to being a driver was more complicated for my youngest son. The last child to be able to drive is probably always momentous--it gives everyone a little more freedom, and is therefore much anticipated (and perhaps more than a little feared--with good reason. We have only had to purchase one vehicle as a result of a teen-aged driving mishap, but one is enough. Parenting is not for wimps). But for Ethan it is more of an accomplishment than that. He had a brain tumor at age 5, and that leaves a mark on you. Everything is more complicated as a result, and driving is no exception. He approached driving as he approaches many tasks he has to face-with confidence, persistence and no sign of disappointment when it is harder than anticipated. He is remarkably patient with himself (not so with others, I might add). And he succeeded. So it is with great joy, a touch of trepidation, and a bit of sadness that I welcome him to the road as an independent driver.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Afternoon Tea

We went to afternoon tea at the JW Marriot at Grovesnor Square in London--it was elegant, expensive, and very atmoshpheric. Also ridiculously expensive--$60 for some tea and sandwiches? Really? Well we did it to do it, and for the clotted cream that came with the scones (while I am sure this is somehow worse for you than butter and cream put together, it is so sinfully delicious that I suspended any qualms one might have and piles it on). We also had gorgeous desserts, but the tea sandwiches were really quite divine.

2 cooked whole chicken breasts*
1/2 cup halved seedless red grapes
1/4 cup finely-chopped pecans
1/2 cup finely-diced celery
1/4 cup dried cranberries
Salt and pepper to taste
Mayonnaise (just enough to moisten)
16 slices best-quality white bread**
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
* Poached, baked, steamed, or barbecued until the center of the chicken is no longer pink and reaches a temperature of 165 degrees F. on your meat thermometer. You could even use canned chicken, if desired.
** Choose the best-quality white or wheat bread as possible. Never serve end slices. Freezing the bread before cutting and then spreading makes for easier handling.
Place cooked chicken in the food processor and process just until very small, but not a paste (watch carefully).
In a large bowl, combine chicken, grapes, pecans, celery, and cranberries. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add mayonnaise, a little at a time, to your taste. Note: All the ingredients can be added this way so you get the amount that you prefer.
Spread one side of each piece of bread very lightly with butter. Top the buttered side of 8 slices of bread with some of the chicken salad mixture and top with the remaining bread slices, buttered side down.
Carefully cut the crusts from each sandwich with a long, sharp knife. Cut the sandwiches in half diagonally and then cut in half again.
Yields 8 whole sandwiches or 16 halves or 32 fourths.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Hobart Shakespeareans (2005)

This documentary, just under an hour in length, is inspirational. It is both hopeful and frank. But most of all it sticks with you.
It tells the tale of a teacher in a fifth-grade classroom in a poor ethnic Los Angeles neighborhood. Hobart Boulevard Elementary School pupils (mostly Latino and Asian) are doing "Hamlet." And they are doing it well.
In Mel Stuart's fine and passionate documentary several things are clear. The 49-year-old teacher, Rafe Esquith, is a genius and a saint. The American education system would do well to imitate him. These children's lives have been changed by their year with this man. And it is not all about Elizabethan drama.
They are learning in every modality--verbal, kinesthetic, visual. Their classroom is incentivized with money. They get rewarded for their work, and they get penalized for not doing it. But it is the yearlong study of a single Shakespearean play that symbolizes Mr. Esquith's methods and his success. It is thrilling to hear a student read a speech of Ophelia's beautifully, to watch one express Gertrude's pain and to see yet another tackle the title role of the melancholy Danish prince. At the outset, Mr. Esquith does not cany coat Hamlet--he explains what "Hamlet" is about death. But more importantly, he links what is happening in the play to things that they can understand, so when these pint-sized actors read their lines, they actually know what they are talking about.
The children in the play come in every day to work on it, regardless of vacations. Mr. Esquith tells the camera that this is teaching them discipline, teamwork and sacrifice--he does not say it is easy, and he is clear that they do not all buy into it, but he is relentless and optimistic and resourceful. He gets well known actors to come to his classroom, and he raises money to take his class on trips, so they can see a world beyond their own. If they are going to get out of there, they need to see what they are aiming for.
Esquith is a man fond of mottoes: "Be nice and work hard." "There are no shortcuts." As Hamlet says: "Words. Words. Words." But words have impact. When he takes them to a college campus he tells the children: "This is the life you're working for. You can do this." He has former students that he has inspired who have made it contributing money to his current students' educations. Great to see.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Not Untrue and Not Unkind by Ed O'Loughlin

This is a book about what makes photojournalists who report from the front lines tick. No surprise, it is adrenaline, and a bottomless ability to see themselves as the truth-tellers, and everyone else as being unable to measure up. They require few entanglements, boundless courage, and a little bit of denial that things ae as bad as they seem. This is a quick read that takes one trough all these emotions and out at the end of the book we are a bit thrilled and a bit jaded.
The author knows what he is talking about--he has reported from Africa for the Irish Times and from the Middle East for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, so we can be fairly certain that many of the events and some of the characters are based on reality. Which won't exactly make them feel flattered. O'Loughlin is most scathing about the "bigfoots" - those high-profile senior broadcasters and journalists who arrive at trouble spots in their neatly pressed safari jackets and casually bounce the local correspondent out of the frame before zooming off home again.
It is a book that provokes, but it also makes one pause and reflect. At one point, back in Dublin, Simmons remarks to a colleague that "most people who live vicariously do it through other people, but what if you tried to live vicariously through yourself?" His colleague wonders what he means by that and so does Simmons, although he thinks it sounds quite clever. Perhaps it is. Perhaps Simmons has captured, in that thought, the seductive essence of being a foreign correspondent. Wonderful read.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Train, Train

The majority of time that I have spent on trains in my life has been on the Atlantic seaboard, which is not a very nice place to ride the train--it is a very utilitarian way to get from one urban center to another, and it is often very economical to do so (for instance, the Mark train between Washingron DC and Baltimore is just $6), but it is not an experience that moves many to wax elloquently about the experience. It is just not very nice as vacations go.

The train from London to Glasgow is a different story. Soon after pulling out of Euston Station one is in rural England, where the sheep outnumber the people in terms of the view. The train itself is civilized--in addition to the tables and the drinks cart and the food trolley, all providing far more service than anyone has seen on an airplane in more than a decade, they have modern conveniences as well. Wireless throughout the train, and plugs at your seat so that you can recharge while you travel. I loved the 4 hours spent in this way--being able to see the countryside at an affordable price that did not include having to drive was such a luxury in all ways except for the price.

Monday, August 22, 2011

West of Here by Jonathan Evison

This book is an adventure--capturing some of the energy that it took to settle the west. It is set in the Pacific Northwest in a fictional town of Port Bonita on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. The story jumps back and forth between centuries, from the end of the 19th century, when the town swaggers with a "crude and youthful vigor" and a "laughing, belching, bawdy can-do spirit," to the early years of the 21st century, when Port Bonita is more of a shadow of it's former self rather than on the brink of breaking loose.

The story has subplots as well as a main point, and it reminded me of Louise Eldrich's 'Plague of Doves' (easier to follow than that, but equally well written, and with the inter-relatedness of the people in different time periods)--the stories are also linked by a sense of place and rugged terrain that looms over everything. It's populated by a crowded cast of characters from then and now. Most are misfits, inventing and reinventing themselves--much as you would suspect from the settling generation, but the characteristics persist into the present.
In 1890, Ethan Thornburgh, a self-styled "idea man" and failed accountant from Chicago, dreams of damming the mighty Elwha River and building an empire in the middle of nowhere.
By 2006, his great-grandson, Jules Thornburgh, is the sad-sack manager of the town's last fish processing plant. The town's big festival is still Dam Days, "proudly presented in part by your neighbors at Wal-Mart." But the days of Thornburgh Dam are numbered. It's being demolished as part of a river restoration project. We get to know the two men well by book's end, and it is a very pleasant journey.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Summer Tomato Sandwich

Now that real vine-ripe tomatoes are finally in season, the best sandwiches are tomato. How to prepare them is a bone of contention, a sea of possibility with several land mines--whatever your choice, someone is bound to disagree, or lobby vociferously for their option.
In all things related to vegetables and specifically salads, I generally veer toward Mediterranean flavors, spice profiles and sensibilities.
I got this idea from the New York Times and modified it a bit because I am not a huge anchovy fan (theirs has it, mine does not)--Tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, capers, and basil. A splash of red wine vinegar. It goes together quickly, but the ingredients need to stay inside the bread slices for at least an hour. That way, the juicy tomatoes and all the tasty aromatics permeate the bread in a soggy, heavenly way. Use the best bread you can lay your hands on (I recommend the Prairie Flour Bakery bread for those in Iowa City--undeniably the best bread for miles around). Eat it outside. Savor the taste of summer.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

This is a spectacular novel that has a magical underbelly. It hints at the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, it is that good. The author is from Belgrade, and while she emigrated to the United States as a child, there is a war-torn weariness to the country that she describes in this book.
Natalia is a physician who is very close to her grandfather, who is also a physician--he has filled her childhood with wonderful and sometimes quite sobering fairy tales. While they seem fantastic, unreal, and dark, truth and fairy tale do have a way of blending in this book--which is real and which is imaginary--and sometimes it is really a bit of both. I found the story captivating, and wanted to read the slender volume in one sitting, so leave yourself time to do that.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Red Cabbage and Orange Salad

I love cabbage salad that does not have a mayonnaise based dressing. This one is very simple.
Red cabbage shredded
Orange pieces
Diced onions
Minced garlic
The dressing is a light one:
Olive oil
Orange vinegar
salt and pepper
The amount varies based on how much cabbage you use, but I use equal parts oil and vinegar (you can even go 2/3 vinegar, 1/3 olive oil if you want to lighten it up a bit) in the dressing, and just enough to coat the cabbage--stir vigorously so as to thoroughly mix before adding more dressing. The salad is crispest immediately, but gets more flavorful by day two.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sister by Rosamund Lupton

This book did not have the tell-tale 'Mystery' label on the spine when I took it off the shelf at the library, but the plot does center on the suspicious death of a character (who we never meet, but the book is written with her sister as the first person narrator, and it often addresses her spirit as if she were watching over what happens after her death). In the wake of Steig Larsson, perhaps we will see more of this--the book that is not solely a murder mystery. The new genre doesn't rise to the level of great fiction, but it does elevate the murder mystery genre.
I very much liked this book. It centers on two sisters, one wild and carefree, the other cautious and staid. The wild one dies (of course) and her sister carefully, slowly, but relentlessly unravels the inconsistancies in the stories tell about her sister to uncover the truth as it relates to her death. Well done.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Red Velvet Cake Trifle

I have recently come into some wonderful cake scraps, which were created when a cake was trimmed to make it perfectly flat and perfectly round, and made a trifle.
What a wonderful dessert! It is simple, delicious, and elegant--not tomention that it uses cake that would have been thrown away otherwise.
The layers are as follows:
cubes of cake
a sprinkling of brandy (just to moisten the cake)
a layer of non-fat vanilla yogurt (a traditional trifle uses a creme anglaise or a custard, but I decided to make this a little less rich)
a layer of sliced strawberries
a layer of whipped cream (I use a tablespoon of powdered sugar and a tsp. of vanilla for a pint of whipping cream)
Then repeat until you reach the top of the bowl you are using. The ideal bowl is clear, so you can see the layers, and had a straight side--the one pictured here was a gift, but you can get them at Target for under $20, and you can use it to serve fruit salad as well. Make the trifle at least 4 hours before serving, and 8 is ideal.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Live and Become (2005)

We are in the midst of the worst African famine in my lifetime, and this movie demonstrates that there have been bad times before now. Set in the mid-1980's, the movie opens with a boy, Solomon, dying in the arms of his mother Hana in a Sudanese refugee camp, having walked away from the fmaine in Ethiopia. Hana agrees to smuggle another boy, a Christian boy, out to Israel under a Jewish guise. Hana tells him that he can never reveal this secret, and he lives a Jewish life in Israel, being adopted after Hana dies early on.
The movie is about his secret, the racism he is subjected to, and the suspicion that he has pretended to be Jewish to get a better life--which is actually true. The politics of race and religion are complicated in Israel, and 'Schlomo' (as he is known) grows into an angry man, longing for the other who gave him up, and having a hard time committing to the woman who loves him and is having their child. Israel is a country of immigrants, and this movie highlights some of the difficulties faced by an entire people who have left their homes, many experiencing significant trauma, and who are tied together by religion.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Carrot Salad

I recently got restarted on a run of cooking with legumes and grains because my SIL was visiting and she went totally vegan about a year ago, and I wanted to make food that she would enjoy--which is also food that I enjoy. I find that when I am cooking for my children rather than solely for myself that I do not tend to make the same sort of foods, but while cooking for her I was also cooking for myself.
This salad is very simple, and focuses more on the sweet than the strictly savory. I used a back of pre=grated organic carrots, which really makes this very easy. I added some minced dried apricots and currants, then tossed the salad with chiffoned mint, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper.
It was delicious, and a nice contrast with the cabbage salad and the chickpea salad I served it with.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sex on the Moon by Ben Mezrich

This book is all about hyperbole--subtitled 'The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History', it is meant to get us interested ASAP. The author wrote the books that led to two major motion pictures: 'The Social Network' and '21', so he is no stranger to writing what Hollywood wants--and this book was optioned before I even got a chance to read it.
The things I found interesting about this book were probably not what the author was heading for--the ease with which Thad Roberts went from college drop-out with a young wife to NASA employee with a research career. That part of the story is not well-fleshed out, except to say that Mr. Roberts did not leave college because he couldn't handle the material--Mr. Mezrich is the self-proclaimed teller of stories that involve crack-pot geniuses, and Mr. Roberts sought him out to tell his story as a result. The character of the man who engineered the moon rock heist is not well described--he is portrayed as almost a Robin Hood, a man with no nepharious aims other than to 'give his girlfriend the moon'--but that doesn't sit well with the facts (I disagree with the across-thepboard pan the New York Times review gave this book, but this point we agree on), but if you like action movies that glide along the surface of the truth, and a very short summer beach read, this is a fun book to crack.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

World Pipe Band Championships

My nephew, Eli is a bagpiper. I have always thought that was so cool. I do not think my love of bagpipe music has anything to do with the Scottish blood from my father's side nor the Irish from my mother's side--both are sufficiently overpowered by the Norman and Anglo-Saxon majority, but maybe it does. There is something that resonates with me from an instrument that has essentially only an octave of range. The bagpipe is an ancient instrument, going back to 1000 BC (that we know of), and maybe it is like klezmer music--anything that old strikes at a primal level for us.

Today is the world bagpipe championship competition on Glasgow Green--of the two major cities in Scotland, Edinburgh is the classier one and Glasgow is the industrial one. I prefer the former, but as a result, I know Glasgow less well, so a chance to return and explore a bit is an upside, but we are really there to see Eli and other world-class bagpipers compete.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Mediteranean Kasha Salad

I ran out of bulgar recently and wanted to make a tabbouleh-like salad--so I read a few things on kasha (the fancy name for buckwheat groats, which is a name that does not conjure up delicious images), how to cook it (it has been so long since I have made kasha with varnishkes that I couldn't remember the recipe), and made a summer salad with them.
Kasha is highly nutritious--the proteins in buckwheat are the best known source of high biological value proteins in the plant kingdom. Buckwheat contains all essential amino acids (eight proteins that the body cannot manufacture) in good proportions, making it closer to being a 'complete' protein than any other plant source.
So I toasted up a cup of kasha, then cooked it in two cups of stock for about 15 minutes, then cooled it. I added what I would usually add to tabbouleh--cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, parseley and mint, tossed with with some lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper, and had a hearty, nutty flavored vegetable and grain salad.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


RAGBRAI is the stuff of legends. It is not because it is the longest, oldest, biggest ride of it's kind. No. It is because people love to tell their stories of random acts of kindness that occur along the route. How complete strangers made them breakfast at 4:30 am or let them shower or even to stay in their houses.
We created one such story this year. I met them at their campsite in Carroll. Carroll as a community was not prepared for the chaos that was RAGBRAI--their volunteers were immediately overwhelmed (but very kind) and camping quickly filled up. So I was glad to have a site and to have good neighbors. As was true in most of western Iowa, cell phone reception was at a premium, and in my campsite I had none. Not to worry, our neighbors had a working phone and not only did they allow me to use it, they took messages for me, and very happily passed the phone over to me if I was right there.
At first I thought the only repayment of such kindness was 40 pounds of ice we got them when we went into town--but another opportunity presented itself three days later in Grinnell. They were eating at the same Chinese restaurant that we did, so we caught up a bit. They noted with great pleasure that they had had a hotel room in Altoona, but were again camping in Grinnell and Coralville. I have a house on the market that is mostly empty, but still has electricity (so air conditioning--it was blisteringly hot that week, and no relief for those of us who camped), a dining room table and several chairs--plus a pool, so I offered it up to them, and after several 'are you sure's" they accepted.
I left them a welcome sign on the door, and a list of some recommended local eateries and the way back onto the route in the morning, and got a wonderful thank you note back from them--it felt great to be able to do have someone use something that is mostly just a burden to us now and enjoy it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Quinoa, Corn, and Swiss Chard Chowder

This is a hearty soup, which can be made with any sort of greens.
8 cups stock
1 cup quinoa
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 green chili, minced (other sources of heat can be substituted--jalapenos are in the original Deborah Madison recipe)
1-2 c. corn
one bunch of swiss chard, sliced
salt and pepper to taste
I put the quinoa and stock in to boil a bit, then add the other incredients, and cook until the chard is soft. The original recipe adds feta at the end, which is good too--but I was going more for a vegan soup--having just spent a week with my SIL, who is vegan, in western Iowa, where it is practically impossible to avoid animal food products, I thought about what I love to cook that would work for her, and this is a long time favorite (as is the cookbook it originated from, 'Vegetable Soups').

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Pie on the Prairie

What is it about homemade pie that says wholesomeness and rural farm life? I do not know, but pie is the signature dish of RAGBRAI. As thousands of bicyclists make their meadering way across the state of Iowa each summer, they consume pie in various towns along the way, and it somehow becomes the stuff of legends. We found our RAGBRAI ecxperience no less than that--there was pie every day and memorable pies at that. We focused largely on the fruit pies--strawberry, raspberry, apple, peach, blueberry, cherry, rhubarb, even gooseberry. We occasionally threw in a pecan, or a coconut pie, and we did not stick to two crusted pie by any means. We were very flexible there--crumbles, open pies, lattice-topped pies, we tried them all. The gooseberry pie was one of the very few that used a sprinkle of sugar on the top crust to finish it (you really never see that in a commercial pie) but they all had at least elements of being made at home.
I have lived in Iowa for over 20 years, and I love the landscape, farm after farm, with a low density of people, but a highly cultivated landscape. Family farms still predominate, and people live in small communities, they know their neighbors, and they are largely good humored and open in their approach to strangers--which is one of the things that makes RAGBRAI so fun--the communities are eager to have 10,000 people roll through town--they sit on their porches to watch the riders pass by. They bake for them. They hold spaghetti dinners in their churches, and they seem genuinely happy to have the size of their town doubled, or quintupled, or whatever it is, for the moment that it happens. And yes, they make money on it--but it isn't outrageous. I paid $2 for my piece of pie--they aren't getting New York City prices for this pie, and it tastes all the better for being eaten near a corn field.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Greater Journey by David McCoullough

This book is subtitled 'Americans in Paris'. It is unlike other books that I have read by this author--he tends to write biographies, or books about a particular evern (the Jonestown flood, 1776, the building of the Panama Canal)--this book is about a city and the Americans who inhabited it and what they took from it. The book spans the nineteenth century, and goes into the early 20th century, which is when most of think of expatriots living in Paris after The Great War and through Prohibition--but that is not the focus of this book--he covers it, but with the same even hand that he begins the book in the 1830's, when Samuel Morse and James Fennimore Cooper (close friends, it turns out) were in Paris, not as diplomats but to broaden their experiences--to be in a city of art and imagination and to learn from that. The book is not as sleekly put together as is usual for the author, but the story is strongest when it is rooted in the experiences of particular people rather than in the description of the atmosphere of place, and is overall a good read.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

One Hundred Miles is a Long Way to Go

The history of the century ride I do not know, but as it pertains to RAGBRAI, there is always an option to ride a 100 miles one of the days--this year it was on the third day, from Carroll to Boone. There is a 'loop', known as the 'Karras Loop' (after John Karras, one of the two Des Moines Register reporters who started the ride across Iowa--they had a 110 miles ride that very first year--no options--you had to do it), which added 28 miles to the 72-mile day. My husband and my SIL elected to do it this year, despite the oppressive heat and the need to ride well into the day in order to complete the ride, which they did. Looking exactly like this once they arrived in our campsite about 7+ hours after they started.
It is a long ride, in any conditions, and this year was a scorcher. The nice thing about RAGBRAI in general is that there are food vendors and water along much of the route, that enables the rider to travel lightly--unfortunately the Karras loop this year had no such amenities, so the riders got back on the regular route parched--luckily they got some nutrition at the stop where they got their patch for doing the extra loop, so they had energy for the final hill into Boone. They were clearly beat when they pulled into our beautiful campsite, but once rehydrated had many a tale to tell of the day. Hats off to the two riders on our team who managed the feat this year!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Railroaded by Richard White

This book is subtitled ' The Trancontinentals and the Making of Modern America' and that is the truth. It is a book not so much about the rails themselves, but about the men behind them, the men who borrowed the money, left the government holding the debt bag, and shaped the country in a way that was not all to the good. This book could really be subtitled 'Capitalism Goes Off the Rails', because it really shows what a mess these guys made of the rail system. A planned federal approach could have been better.
The take home message of the book gets transmitted early, and that is that greed has run the country--and in this case, it's infrastructure--for a very long time, and the placement of the railroads, the financing of them, and the environmental consequences is no exception to that rule.  The men who were behind them were ruthless, immoral, mean-spirited, and as White portrays them, stupid and incompetent to boot.  No wonder the rail system is no good!  The only caveat I have is that the book does go into an extraordinary amount of detail about each and every one of them that goes on long after you get the message--but in a well-written way, and with good stories as well.

Friday, August 5, 2011


RAGBRAI has come and gone, but the memories linger. At dinner the other night, where we were meeting the parents of one of our son's girlfriend, we were talking about priorities (which is another way to say we were exchanging information on values--what is important to us), and vacations that make memories was a value that everyone around the table shared. That is what the 39th RAGBRAI felt like to me.
Pictured here are my husband and number 2 son--they had done almost no preparation for biking 450+ miles across Iowa as of the 4th of July weekend. Thank goodness my BIL brought bikes with them to Vermont, where both father and son woke up to the fact that they would never make the journey in one piece if they did not start doing some serious riding ASAP--which they did. To a remarkable degree, and while there was much soreness to go around at the end of RAGBRAI, they both made it and had fun doing so.
Why is this important? I think it matters because there is a limited amount of time we have together as a family, and these intense trips (beyond the physical activity, it was also impossibly hot and humid throughout the week--all that was missing was some severe weather, which we know Iowa is more than capable of supplying--it did so the two days before RAGBRAI started, but mercifully held off on while we were living in the out of doors) make for intense memories. For that, I am quite proud of them both. And my brother and his wife for making the whole thing happen.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Sorcerer's Apprentices by Lisa Abend

This is subtitled 'A Season at elBulli'--which is what it is--a book that is a highly detailed account of the last season of stagiaires at elBulli on the Costa Brava in Spain.
It is not so much a book about Ferran Adrià as it is about his technique. Her approach is to tell the reader everything. I mean everything. And while some of this is fascinating – the revelation that El Bulli's highly qualified apprentices are made to wash the rocks that surround the car park by hand at the start of every season is like something out of Kafka.
Every year, 3,000 young men and women apply to become El Bulli stagiaires, a job for which they will not be paid, in spite of the fact that the majority will leave acclaimed kitchens elsewhere for the privilege. "We're like the Barça," Adrià tells them, on their first day. "Maximum seriousness, in order to have a good time." On the plus side, their stage is almost bound to guarantee future success (among many other star ex-stagiaires is Noma's chef, René Redzepi). The restaurant's "family meals" – the food the cooks eat together before service – are considered the world's best. But beyond this, the regime is brutal and bewildering. Apprentices are expected to perform the same task – preparing milk-skin yubas, removing rabbit brains from rabbit skulls – for weeks on end.
Abend reports all this dutifully. For the reader, it can get frustrating. On the one hand, we learn everything about some of the stagiaires--socioeconomic backgrounds, prior expereinces, the works. But not enough about the food itself. Oh well. If, as Adrià and his close colleagues believe, El Bulli's adventures in gastronomy really are history in the making, then at least Abend was there to capture the moment.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Mao's Last Dancer (2009)

This is a dramatic re-telling of the story of Li Cunxin, a man from rural China who came to dance ballet in the United States. He is a peasants' child who became an international ballet star, but not before his 1981 defection from China to the United States sparked a diplomatic showdown and front-page headlines. He married for love, but his refusal to go back to China was handled poorly on both sides (and in the movie as well--the villains were hard to discern).
The script compresses and simplifies events, moving between Li's upbringing in Maoist China and his arrival in Reagan-era Texas. In the lead role, screen newcomer Chi Cao, a principal with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, dances with an elegant athleticism, as well as acting out the troubles of his love life. He's convincing too as a country boy bewildered by the everyday excesses of American capitalism. An exchange student with the Houston Ballet, Li flourishes under the tutelage of artistic director Ben Stevenson, played by Bruce Greenwood with an intriguing ambiguity that stands out amid the film's otherwise unambiguous characterizations. This is a bit two-dimensional, but the dancing is gorgeous, and the story is a good one.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Glorious Pasta of Italy by Domenica Marchetti

I know. Another book about pasta. Well, despite the fact that I have at least four pasta cookbooks and a dozen italian cookbooks, I am feeling pretty strongly that I need to add this to my collection. Marchetti hits a pitch perfect note for me with this book. There is a modern approach to making fresh pasta--the recipes all contain food processor friendly instructions. The author acknowledges that fresh pasta is not an option every night--she uses purchased pastas on week nights, and the recipes for those occasions are separate from the recipes for fresh pasta. The range of recipes is wonderful, and I especially like the sections on stuffed pastas and baked pastas, because those are not as common as I would like. Finally, there are sumptuous pictures that abound. The balance between presentation, effort, and flavor is especially wonderful.

Fettuccine with Sausage, Mascarpone, and Sottocenere al Tartufo
Note: From Marchetti: "Who says you can't have luxury on a Monday night? Sottocenere al tartufo, a semisoft cow's milk cheese flecked with shavings of black truffle, dresses up a classic cream sauce, infusing it with truffle aroma and flavor. If you are unable to find sottocenere, substitute Fontina Val d'Aosta and, if you like, a drop or two of truffle oil."
Makes: 4 servings

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 sweet Italian sausages, 8 ounces or 225 grams total weight
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup cream
8 ounces mascarpone cheese, room temperature
Kosher or fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound dried fettuccine
3 ounces sottocenere al tartufo cheese (or fontina with a touch of truffle oil)
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil and salt generously.

2. While the water is heating, put the butter in a large frying pan placed over medium heat. Remove the sausages from their casings and pick them apart over the frying pan, allowing the chunks of sausage to drop directly into the pan. Sauté, using a spatula to break up the large pieces of sausage, for 5 to 7 minutes, or until no trace of pink remains and the meat is cooked through. The sausage should still be moist and only very lightly browned.

3. Raise the heat to medium-high and pour in the wine. Let it bubble for about a minute, or until most of the liquid has evaporated. Reduce the heat to low and stir in the cream and then the mascarpone. Continue to stir until the mascarpone is melted. Taste the sauce and add a little salt if necessary. This will depend on how salty the sausages are. Add a generous grind of pepper. Cover and keep the sauce over very low heat while you cook the fettuccine.

4. Add the pasta to the boiling water, stir to separate the noodles, and cook according to the manufacturer's instructions until not quite al dente; it should be slightly underdone. Drain the pasta in a colander set in the sink, reserving about 1 cup of the cooking water.

5. Pour a little of the cooking water into the cream sauce to thin it out a bit, and then add the cooked pasta to the frying pan over low heat. Gently toss the pasta and sauce to combine thoroughly. Sprinkle the sottocenere al tartufo and half of the Parmigiano over the sauced pasta and toss again, making sure the cheeses melt into the sauce and are well incorporated and the pasta is al dente. Add a splash more water if necessary to thin out the sauce. Transfer the dressed pasta to warmed shallow individual bowls and sprinkle the remaining Parmigiano over the top. Serve immediately.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Illusionist (2010)

This is a wonderfully charming animated film from Sylvain Chomet (who brought us 'Triplets of Belville', a raucous animated film that was neither Disney nor Miyazaki in style or content, a decidedly adult amimation effort) that is largely without dialogue--we couldn't get the subtitles to work, but after 20 minutes realized that between what we inderstood of French and the overall lack of dialogue, we really didn't need them.
The story is simple and charming--the illusionist is an old-style magician who travels from theatre to theatre. While it is gradually dawning on him that the era for his sort of entertainment is waning, he meets a girl who believes that he is truly magical. She is so taken with what she sees in him (hope, relief from her life of drudery, a friend) that she follows him, and her belief in him works. It does save her--and he is better for trying to save her (although she is the clear winner in the relationship). Lovely story, well told, with pictures rather than words.