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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Favored Daughter by Fawzia Koofi

This is a ghost written book, with a named ghost, but the story has the same limitations, problems, and pluses that you would expect--the story is not the one the writer would tell, but it is better written than the one that the subject would write.

That being said--that it is not a book of great artisanship--does not detract at all from the fact that it is a story worth listening to, and listening loud and clear, because this is about the country that we are about to pull our troops out of.  There is a lot said here that might lead you to think it was foolish to have entered in the first place (if you didn't already think that post-Russian invasion--but then we were never all that great at learning from the mistakes of others, and we have yet to find our post-Cold War place in the world). There is an equal amount said here that would make you think someone should stay and monitor the recovery.  Is democracy possible to create?  Can Afghanistan sustain a democracy after centuries of tribal culture and decades of political corruption.  The subject of this book would persuasively say that they should be given that chance.

The origins of the name of the book are a little unclear.  By her own telling, her father spoke only once to her in her life, and that was to tell her to go away.  Her mother shunned her at birth, leaving her unattended for 24 hours after her birth, essentially to die.  Girls are not valued in Afghani society, and even Koofi's forward-thinking husband refused to see her or her second daughter after she gave birth, such was the anger that it was not a son.

Koofi's stories of her mother, whom she says was her father's favorite wife, are quite shocking--she was regularly and severely beaten. Her hands had been crushed by her husband in his beating of her.  So deep was her pain that her mother considered leaving him, but that would mean leaving her children, so she remained--and he was assassinated by political rivals soon thereafter, leaving Koofi's mother a widow--which seems to be the best role a woman in this culture can attain.  Remarry and you lose once again, and your new husband does not have to take care of your children from your previous marriage.  Your new husband may have more wives, and your personal fate is not in good hands.  Best is that your husband has money and then he dies.  That way you are not left to starve, and you have some personal choices.  This is a bleak story at best--Koofi has hope for the future, but I held out very little by the book's end.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Kale, Mint, Tomato, and Feta Salad

I have been cooking from a Deborah Madison cookbook for over 30 years.  It all started with the Tassajara cookbooks.  She did not write these cookbooks, Edward Espe Brown did, but she was part of that movement.  I moved into a housing cooperative my sophomore year of college, and learned to cook, starting with the Tassajara Bread book.  She ran their restaurant at Fort Mason in San Francisco, and I have been in love with her work ever since.

This simple recipe for delicious kale is a keeper.  The feta can definitely be eliminated to make this a vegan recipe--the key interaction here is between the kale and the tomatoes.

  • 1 pound  kale
  • 1/8 cup olive oil
  • ~1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, as needed
  • 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 12 ounces red or yellow cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 6 ounces feta cheese, crumbled (about 1 1/2 cups)
  • 2 medium scallions, thinly sliced (white and light green parts only)
  • 2 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh mint leaves
  1. Wash and dry the kale. Cut out and discard the tough stems. Arrange the leaves into stacks, slice crosswise into 1/4-inch (or smaller) ribbons, and place in a large bowl. Add 2 teaspoons of the oil and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt and gently squeeze and toss the leaves with your hands until they’re coated with the oil and have glisten.
  2. To make dressing, add the vinegar and mustard, and whisk to combine. While whisking continuously, add the remaining oil in a slow, steady stream until fully incorporated.
  3. Add the dressing to the bowl with the kale and toss to coat the leaves. Add the tomatoes, feta, scallions, and mint and toss to combine. Taste and season with salt as needed. Serve immediately.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Conservative Talk Radio and Advertising Dollars

Conservative talk radio is popular, as talk radio goes.  The audience for shows like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are the biggest that radio can offer, which means that both carrying those shows and advertising on those shows is expensive.

Why is that important?  The most recent round of problems that began on February 29, 2012, when Limbaugh's remarks about th Obama administration mandating contraceptive coverage included statements labeling Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke as a "slut" and "prostitute". He was commenting on Fluke's speech the previous week to House Democrats in support of mandating such insurance coverage. Limbaugh made numerous similar statements over the next two days, leading to the loss of several national sponsors and Limbaugh's apology on his show for some of his comments. Fluke rejected the apology as dubious and inadequate.  The tension is that while conservative talk radio has a strong and loyal audience, they are no where large enough a group for advertisers to be willing and able to risk completely alienating those who are equally vehemently opposed to the views espoused by them.  In the age of the internet, it was exceedingly easy to find out who had advertisement on Limbaugh's show, and avoid those company's and their products, as well as write to them regarding displeasure at their support of him.

How did we get to this point, where public airwaves are filled with this?  It all started in 1987 with the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine.  The Fairness Doctrine was a policy of the United States FCC, introduced in 1949, that required the holders of broadcast licenses to both present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was, in the Commission's view, honest, equitable and balanced It escalated in 1996 with the Telecommunications Act, which allowed for the creation of very large radio conglomerates and thereby a national audience for radio shows.

So, if in fact Cumulus does cut Hannity and Limbaugh loose, how long before the next group that picks them up drops them?  I hope not long, because these guys need to be off the public airwaves.  Let people who want to listen to them pay for the privilege.  I hope that the majority of Americans who disagree with them communicate that to the advertisers who have supported them all these years.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

Chevalier chooses to set her latest novel in the area where she went to college--Oberlin, Ohio.  Honor Bright is a Quaker from Dorset, England.  When her fiance throws her over for another woman--a non-Quaker woman--Honor is so hurt and humiliated that she decides to emigrate to America with her sister Grace.  Grace is to marry a Dorset man who has a dry goods store in Oberlin--Honor is unsure why her sister chose this somewhat humorless man, but off they go.

The crossing is very hard on Honor, but the overland journey to Ohio kills Grace--she gets yellow fever and dies soon thereafter.  Honor is now alone and without prospects.  She continues her journey westward, hitching rides with strangers until she gets to her new home.

Honor has two things that distinguish her--she is an outstanding quilter.  Her sewing skills are outstanding, and while she sticks with simplicity in her dress, she puts all of her artistry in her quilts.  The second is that she is an ardent abolitionist in a land that is conflicted about slavery.  Over the course of the book Honor tries to stop helping runaway slaves, but she becomes physically ill as a result.  She feels loyalty to the family that takes her in but when she is made to stop her efforts, small as they are, she realizes that she has to leave them.  The book describes mid-ninteenth century life in the Midwest in a way that rings true while telling a good story.  The setting is just a decade before the Civil War, and even in a free state, the life of the African American was by no means good.  Very enjoyable read about a dark and difficult part of the American past that we have not yet resolved.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Poverty and Hope

There are so many things that have erupted related to Trayvon Martin, Stand Your Ground, race in American, and reducing gun violence.   There continues to be a deep divide about race and the role it does play in our country, as well as the role that it should play.  It seems that those who least want to talk about it also have the least to say about what to do about it.  What can be said that is so uncontroversial that everyone will participate?  That is very hard to gauge, and the fact that the POTUS is African-American has paradoxically polarized the discussion.  No one wants to admit that race is an issue in our country and politicians who are most vocally opposed seem to be those who also oppose immigration reform, a minimum wage that a person can live on, healthcare reform so that all Americans have access to affordable healthcare, support for education, and other things that to me seem very important in lifting our country back to the world class standing that we had during WWII.

 So if we can't talk about race, can we talk about poverty?  One thing that is inextricably associated with violence in general and gun violence in particular is poverty.  If you are poor you are more likely to be robbed, to be assaulted, and to be killed.  So, what are the chances that if you are born poor that you can raise yourself out of poverty?  The answer varies by where you live.  The problem with all these maps is that the bad news is clustered in all the same places.  The places where there is more poverty is where you are likely to be born into poverty and die in poverty.  If we must be a country where we use guns to shoot not just drug dealers and armed robbers, but school children, Congressmen, and unarmed black teens who we perceive as threatening, could we at least revisit the War on Poverty?

Friday, July 26, 2013

Ensalada Mixta in Andalucía

There are so many great things to say about the food in Andalucía, but one of the consistent favorites--something we had every day, sometimes twics a day, was ensalada mixta.  This can come in a variety of ways, but there are two things that are consistent:

The salad is always accompanied by a bottle of Spanish olive oil and one of sherry vinegar, and there is always tuna packed in olive oil on top.

Some have hard boiled eggs, some have asparagus spears, some have olives.  There are always tomatoes, and of course there is always lettuce, but the tuna, the olive oil, and the vinegar really make the salad wonderful.

Since we have been home we have not been able to keep up the tradition we had established while we were in Spain, but with all the summer vegetables that are rolling into the Farmer's Market, we need to get back to it.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Words (2012)

There is a famous story that this movie reenacts--almost everything that Hemingway wrote in the years leading up to 1922 was lost by his first wife Hadley on a train.  That is what happens here, but there is another layer to the story--one which I am not sure adds much to the overall plot, but it does get you thinking within a different framework.  I am just not sure that it is enough of an addition to justify its inclusion.

There are stories within stories here.  Jeremy Irons play 'the old man'--the guy who wrote the book that is left in a briefcase on a Paris train.  He has lost his wife and daughter, and he pours out his story in a feverish two weeks of writing that produces a manuscript.  He then tracks down his wife, gives her the story, and she decides to return to him after she reads it.

So, a long time later there is a good writer, Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) who borrows a lot of money from his father and does nothing but write--he produces a good book, but since he is a complete unknown, no one take a chance with him.  He goes to work in a publishing house, he still writes at night and on weekends, but he is moving on.  Until his wife buys him a briefcase in a Paris antique store, and he finds the old man's manuscript.  And he is blown away.

He can't stop thinking about how powerful the story is--he dreams about it, he obsesses about it during the day, and he finally types it up, word for word.  Then his wife finds it.  She thinks it is amazing--and she thinks it is his.  She insists he publish it.  To his credit, Rory is a very reluctant participant.  That guilt that the story is not his keeps him humble and likable, even after fame becomes routine.  And then it happens. The man who's story it really is tracks him down and confronts him with the truth.

The story within the story is written by Clayton Hammond (Dennis Quaid)--who is telling ROry's real story in a reading that is almost like a soliloquy.  I am not sure this adds much, but it does force you to think about the price Rory paid when he took someone's work, knowing he would never publish anything that good again.  It makes you think about that path.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

This is a wonderful book by the author of 'Olive Kitteridge' and I recommend it highly.

The story largely takes place in Shirley Falls, Maine, which, like many Maine communities, has been poor for centuries, but has seen it's best days in the past.  Young people leave, and those who stay struggle to make ends meet.  The only newcomers to Shirley Falls are Somali refugees.  They are not interested in assimilating into Maine.  They maintain their native dress, their strong ties to their Somali communities and they are Muslim, which is new for Shirley Falls.

The Burgess children (Jim, Susan, and Bob) grew up in Shirley Falls.  They suffered a tragedy very early in their childhood--all three children were left in in the car by their father, and Bob, age 4, was playing with the gears, set the car in motion, and it rolled over their father, killing him.  A tragic loss with Bob, a small child, growing up bearing the guilt of inadvertently killing his father.  Which does nothing good for his self esteem.  Heaped upon that is his brother's constant reminder that he is a far better man in every way and always has been.  Which Bob readily acknowledges.  Susan is unloved by her mother, left fatherless, and grows into a bitter and unlikable woman.

The story takes place when the siblings are well into their fifties.  Susan's son Zach has thrown a bloody pig's head into a mosque during Ramadan--this is a misdemeanor crime until zealous prosecutors decide to prosecute him for a hate.  As we get to know Zach it appears that he knew nothing about Muslims prior to his prank, didn't realize they didn't eat pork, and didn't know what Ramadan is--no matter, the town is getting national press, and there is an ambitious prosecutor with political dreams.

Poor Zach--but it gets worse.  His esteemed uncle Jim actually does him more harm than good by coming to his aid, which leads to a dramatic unraveling of his previously charmed life.  He makes a remarkable revelation to Bob, which changes their dynamics as siblings in a serious way, and provides a lot of food for thought--which should be true of any really good book.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Red Beans and Walnut Salad

While this recipe takes advantage of some summer herbs, you can make it with just celery and the celery leaves in the winter.  The pomegranate molasses adds a sweet and sour taste that is delicious. If you don't have the nut oil, substitute more olive oil.

2 cups cooked red beans
1/4 cup finely diced celery
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup chopped chives
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 small onion, diced
1/3 cup walnut, chopped
1 large garlic clove, minced
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon walnut oil
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil 

1. Place the beans in a bowl and toss with the celery and herbs. Season with salt and pepper.
2. If using the red onion, soak the onion in cold water for 5 minutes, then drain, rinse and drain again on paper towels. Add to the beans.
3. In a mortar and pestle, mash the garlic with a generous pinch of salt and the red pepper flakes or the Aleppo pepper. Add the walnuts and grind together until the walnuts are coarsely ground but still have some texture. Toss with the beans.
4. Whisk together the pomegranate molasses, the lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Whisk in the oils, toss with the beans, and let marinate 30 minutes. Serve.

Monday, July 22, 2013

La Alhambra y Generalife, Granada

I took this photo of the Alhambra, with the Sierra Nevada mountains in the background, from the terrace of the apartment that I was staying in one hill over.  It is a magnificent fortress, looking all the more magnificent in the evening sky.

Possibly encouraged to invade Spain in the first place by Hispano-Romans unhappy with the Vigigoths, the Moors came around 700 and stayed for about 700 years, leaving a definite imprint on the country, especially in Andalucia.  They came from north Africa, Muslims,a mixture of Arab and Berbers.  The name "Moors" comes from the name Mauretania, which at the time referred to the part of north Africa roughly now represented by Algeria and Morocco.

This was a huge change for Spain - a new language, religion, culture and a new name, for the part of the country under Moorish control was known as Al Andalus.  The Moors had a vicious way of dealing with enemies and made sure that people knew about it--they took a page right out of Genghis Khan's play book. As a result there was little resistance at first and they took over Toledo, the capital, within a year. Within a few years, they controlled most of Spain.

The Moors further developed agriculture, and in particular, irrigation, by channeling water to where it was needed- many of these systems are still in use today.  They also introduced citrus fruits, figs, pomegranates, sugar cane, cotton, silk and rice.  However, they were not universally loved--they were pushed out of Toledo in 1085, and gradually they only resided in Southern Spain.  A final push over a period of about 10 years defeated the Moors, who eventually relinquished Granada without a fight in 1492, not that long after the completion of the magnificent Alhambra.  The lack fighting left much of Moorish Granada intact, with much remaining today, which allows for great touring today.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Cloud Atlas (2012)

This is the best movie that could have been made from a very complex and thought provoking book.  I read the book when it came out  over a decade ago) and my husband read it the week before we watched the movie, so I can say unequivocally that reading the book in close proximity to watching the movie definitely helps with following the message being delivered.

The book consists of 6 separate stories that occur over a span of time that goes from the mid-19th century to the present to well in to a post Apocalyptic future.  The book goes from the past to the present, where something happens that shows that people are interconnected across space and time, and that what happened  in the past affects the future--so the book winds down by going backwards through time again.  So there are 11 time sequences and you start and end with the oldest one. The movie has chosen to present these stories in far shorter segments interwoven throughout the almost three hour film--in order to demonstrate the interconnected quality, the same actors play several characters in different time periods, which this brilliant poster so aptly demonstrates--they cross genders as well as times, and someone who is good in one time might very well be something else altogether in the next.

The movie might be best understood by someone who has neglected to read David Mitchell's fantastic book by the same title by doing a quick read of a summary of the book and then the movie, but I highly recommend the pair as well crafted bookends that tell the same story in a very novel and different way.  Spectacularly done.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Clams in Andalucía--Almeijas and Navajas

 My oh my are the clams delicious in Andalucía.  My very favorites are the teeny tiny clams, known as almeijas.  I would go into a tapas restaurant that had them on their menu, and when they told me they were out of them, I would leave without having a thing to eat--that is how important it was to me to have them each and every day--sometimes twice a day, and if it were possible I would have them three times a day.  You know how sometimes when you love something so much that you eat much too much of it and you then paradoxically become rather sick of it?  That did not happen with almeijas and I.
The flavor is really garlic and olive oil, so how could you really go wrong?  On top of that the almeijas are small and tender and it is an altogether wonderful experience.

The second best clam experience is with the razor clams--so named for their resemblance to the old style razors.  In Andalucía they are called navajas, and they are quite delicious as well.  They are more of a mouthful than the almeijas, but excellent, and they have the added bonus that if you fall in love with them in Spain, you can find them in the UK or the United States.  They travel internationally.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Standing Your Ground When You Are White and When You Are Not

It feels very much like Trayvon Martin is walking in 21st century shoes that Emmett Till left behind in 1955.  That is very disturbing indeed, that today we are that close to our history of lynching.  And it is perfectly legal to do so.  The more I think about it the sadder and angrier I get.   What has happened to civil rights and social justice?

The 'Stand Your Ground' laws are terrible, horrible, no good, very bad laws.  Why?  Because in practice it is unequal protection under the law.  If you are black and you use a gun on another person, there is every indication that you will go to prison for it.  Now, in the wake of the Trayvon Martin murder, we know that if you are not black and you use a gun you will not go to prison, at least not this week. 

The consideration for who is 'threatened' and who is not is entirely arbitrary, and I would very much appreciate a tallying of who stays out of prison after using lethal force reported by race.  I would love to be wrong about this, but I don't think I am.

The case that has been highlighted in the media juxtaposed to George Zimmerman not being convicted is the case of a Florida woman, Marissa Alexander, who is in prison for 20 years after being convicted of firing warning shots while in an argument with her estranged husband when she states she felt threatened.  She is black.  Please show me some cases where black people have used lethal force and not been found guilty.  Then show me a case where a young black man has 'stood his ground' with a white man and been acquitted.  It is just not believable and it is unjust.  Thankfully I do not live in a state where that is the law, nor do I spend much time in states where it is the law--and maybe there is a reason for that.  But I would love to see tourism boycotts for some of these places--where there are unjust voting redistricting, suppression of voters rights, anti-immigrant laws, and no marriage equality.  

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Searching for Sugar Man (2012)

The story told in this documentary is strange and sad and beautiful, not to mention that it will reinforce everything that you believe about a record label in the 1960's and 1970's.  It is a story that is so hard to believe that if it wasn't a documentary you would say it was too far fetched.

Sixto Rodriguez put out an album 'Cold Facts' in 1970, and another one the next year.  They were very good folk albums that remind me of Bob Dylan in that era, only he had a better voice.  They sold very little in the U.S. and his career quickly fizzled.  His record label cut him while he was recording songs for his third album, and he went back to where he came from and started working construction.

Unbeknownst to him, an early fan of his took 'Cold Facts' to South Africa with her in the early 1970's and it was a huge hit.  The government of the time was deeply entrenched in aparteid and very repressive of any kind of dissent.  There was censorship galore, and the music of Rodriguez spoke to the youth of South Africa.  So the story goes, his music became the style and tone of the protest music of a nation.  He was literally bigger than Elvis and the Rolling Stones.  What happened to all those royalties?  We will never know, but his record label probably holds the key to that story.  In any case, the second half of the movie is about how fans of his in South Africa contacted him in the late 1990's and as a 50 year oldman he became a performing rock star, playing to sold out stadiums full of people.  It is very much a feel good story, and his music is wonderful.  Do not miss this movie, which deserved the Oscar for Best Documentary that it won this past spring.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer

This is a wonderful book populated by quirky characters who you have oh so much affection for as the story progresses from beginning to end.  If someone has not bought the film rights to this book, that needs to happen immediately--it is just perfect for the big screen.

Sunny is a girl who was born bald, and she forms a friendship in childhood with Maxon, a brilliant but autistic boy who is severely physically and mentally abused as a child.  The only reason to think that Maxon's problems with concrete thinking and lack of spontaneity are genetic rather than acquired is that Maxon and Sunny grow up to get married and their son Bubber is also autistic.  Maxon's father beat him mercilessly when he was a boy--one might say sadistically even. He finds psychological and physical shelter with Sunny.  She is his sun and his moon, his stars and his everything.  Then she gives him the ultimate gift.  She comes upon his father in the woods one cold winter night, trapped under a log.  Even knowing that he requires rescuing he is abusive to Sunny, and she does the unthinkable.  She leaves him there.  As a result, he freezes to death and Maxon is freed. 

Sunny and Maxon are somewhere between lovers and siblings their whole life, but Maxon cannot see a life without Sunny and so he asks her to marry him and she accepts.  They both know that they are both damaged in serious ways, but they forge a life together.  The story largely takes place at the end of Sunny's second pregnancy--Maxon is in space and Sunny's mother, Emma, is dying.  The story is equal parts funny, wise, comtemplative, and sad.  I really loved every minute of it and I can only hope when the author writes her second book that it is this wonderful.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Spanish Landscapes

I recently spent two glorious weeks in Southern Spain and it reminded me of how distinctive the landscape is there.  This photo was taken by a Ulpi, a friend of mine who lives in Iowa but she is from Spain, and she took this picture on a recent trip there.

I have become an aficionado of different kinds of landscapes.  When I was younger I really didn't think much about the view outside my car window.  When I first drove through the Midwest, it seemed flat and agricultural.  Crops flew by with the miles and I did not think much about them.  Now, living in Iowa, I notice that there are rolling hills, that the corn is interspersed with soy beans, the barns are in various states of repair, and I find it much more charming. 

My favorite thing to do when I am traveling is to drive around a bit.  I like seeing the landscape.  I like driving through small towns and villages, stopping in bakeries and cafes, seeing how different people live.  In Spain we covered a very small area over a relatively long period of time, so we ended up doing less traveling between places and more time walking in cities--but it was still quite lovely to see the golden rolling hills, the dry landscape that is breath taking and so very different from where I live.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Brushy One String

Andrew Chin, better known as "Brushy One-String," flaunted a surprisingly diverse mix of musical styles and moods for Jazz Fest this year.  I had never heard of him before but I was really impressed--he demonstrated how one guy with one guitar string can create a multitude of sounds to hold a crowd captive.

Brushy is famed for playing just one string on an acoustic guitar, coupled with rhythmic taps on the guitar body to create the effect of a full band. Plucking his string while wearing an outfit best described as island cowboy chic, Brushy formed an eccentric stage presence.

The innovative performer hails from a musical family -- he's the son of late Jamaican singer Freddie McKay -- and has entertained Jamaicans with his offbeat style for years, He became an international YouTube sensation after appearing in  "RiseUp."  The award-winning documentary focused on the underground music scene in Jamaica.

Brushy's one-string guitar-playing could make him seem a gimmicky musician without much staying power, but his music proves too creative and interesting, too genuine and soulful for that.
I would describe Brushy's music as bluesy reggae, but his songs encompass a much broader range of influences. This one-man band somehow draws a mix of reggae, blues, and, traditional African rhythms.
His voice is husky and raw, capable of moving from rhythmic reggae raps to raspy blues howls. He sounded nearly breathless at times, but the slight struggle for air only made him push harder, put even more emotion and force into each note.   It was a lot of fun to see him perform, and I would seek him out again.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Bourbon Renewal

I was at the American Library Association annual meeting that was held in Chicago last week, and after a day of talking about the book you would like to see in every library across the country, elbowed your way to get a free book autographed by the author, accumulated enough truly fabulous bags so that you will never need another grocery sack as long as you can hold in to what you have, and viewed more ways to check out a book than you can shake a stick at, one needs to unwind at the end of the day.

This cocktail was a welcome end to one of those days.

2 oz bourbon
1 oz creme de cassis
soda water to taste

The original recipe calls for lemon juice and bitters, but the restaurant where I had this eliminated all bittering agents, and I really liked the results--it is refreshing and on the sweet side.  You can add an ounce of lemon juice if you want to counteract the sweet and fruity aspects of the creme de cassis, but that is what I liked about this drink.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Drink Small

The very first itme that I went to the New Orleans Jazz Festival in the early 1990's I saw many wonderful shows, but the very best of them all was when I saw Champion Jack Dupree.  At the time he was about 80 years old (the exact date and year of his birth were somewhat in dispute, but he was at least 80 at the time that I saw him, from all that I can figure out), and I had never heard of him before.  He had trouble with ambulation, but once he got in front of his piano he was unforgetable.  The energy and passion that he transmitted to his music was unforgettable, and that day I learned a very valuable lesson.  Hang out in the Blues Tent--you never know what treasure is going to be playing next.  Skip the big names and the big stages--focus on the people you've never heard of and you might just discover a treasure.

And over 20 years later, following that same sage advice, I returned to Jazz Fest and the Blues Tent, and saw Drink Small, yet another fantastic 80 year old blues musician that I had never heard of who was remarkable to watch and listen to.  Jazz Fest this year was a very wet affair, and on Thursday when Drink Small played it was a drenching downpour followed by impassable mud.  But safely tucked away in the Blues Tent, under cover and well protected, I listened to his performance and marveled.  I also hope that I can bring that qualtity to things that I do when I am his age (should I get there).  If you get the chance to see him play, don't pass it up.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Jazz Fest Food Highlights

Happy Birthday to my mother--she is definitely an afficionado of good food, so this post is dedicated to her--and she loves her seafood, so she would have loved to have been on hand to taste what Jazz Fest had to offer.

There is every possibility that returning to Jazz Fest meant that the foods would almost certainly disappoint--the memories of previous Jazz Fest food were almost certainly inflated in my memory.  On the other hand, most of what I ate over the weekend I was there was pretty darn good.  The real problem was wading through the mud to actually access the food--that part was largely unmanagable for me--my flip flops sunk into ankle deep mud, and I barely made it out with my food in tact--future trips were undertaken by those with more appropriate food wear and bolder souls.

Highlights of the food include the poboys, as sandwiches are known--the shrimp poboy, the cochon au lait poboy and the oyster poboy were all well worth the calories to enjoy.  I am not much of a day time drinker (in actuality, I am a teetoteller whil ethe sun is up), so iced tea was my beverage of choice and it was delicious.  The Rose Mint tea was my favorite.  Another highlight was the crawfish remoulade--served over a bed of cold lettuce, it was fantastic.  I liked the ettouffe, could have passed on the gumbo, skipped the pies, but a few of them were very tempting, and did not like the crawfish pie.  All in all, it was a very very delicious weekend at Jazz Fest.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Sazerac Bar, New Orleans

When my husband and I decided to go back to Jazz Fest this year, after many years away, we decided that we wanted to stay in relative comfort--this was in retrospect a very good idea because it was so wet and muddy at teh festival that it was a true pleasure to come back to our hotel.

In the lobby of this hotel was the Sazerac Bar,which is reminiscent of the Roaring Twenties, complete with a large painted wall and an equally impressive bar.  Here is a recipe that is thought to be authentic:
  • 1 sugar cube
  • 1 1/2 ounces rye or American whiskey
  • 2 dashes of Peychaud’s Bitters
  • Dash of angostura bitters

    • Dash of absinthe (can substitute Herbsaint, Pernod, or Ricard)
  • Twist of lemon peel

  • Here is the purported story: a Creole apothecary Antoine Peychaud, who moved to New Orleans from the West Indies and set up shop in the French Quarter in the early 1800s, is credited with the earliest version of this drink. He mixed aromatic bitters from an old family recipe with brandy, water, and sugar for his ailing clients. What precisely ailed them is not known, but enough people suffered from the affliction that the concoction became the basis for what some historians claim to be the first true cocktail.

    Wednesday, July 10, 2013

    Endeavour (2012)

    I loved the Inspector Morse books but somehow never warmed to the PBS series made from the series.  That has not stopped me from a devoted passion for the Inspector Lewis series, where Lewis, an ordinary cop with a lot of experience and a history with Morse--so he has learned a trick or two from the very best, is paired with James Hathaway, an Oxford graduate.  Somehow I like it better that the brainier cop is the one learning the ropes rather than the other way around.  Hathaway is a conflicted man--he was once in seminary, for reasons that we are not privvy to, nor do we know why he left.  He has no friends, one bad habit (smoking), and he prefers reading to the company of fellow humans.  He is not one to sit around a pub and chat, not even with Lewis.  In any case, I adore that series.

    So along comes 'Endeavour', which is about the young Inspector Morse.  He is wary of alcohol (probably because of his father), earnest to a fault, unable to bend with the crooked ways of cops in the mid-1960's, an opera addict, and a man without much insight into the politics of the cop shop but a good sense of the politics of people.  He is described as a bulldog by one of the characters, and while it doesn't exactly fit, I can't think of a better analogy.  This is a wonderful prequel to the Inspector Morse who we already are very familiar with.  Recommended--stream it on PBS today.

    Tuesday, July 9, 2013

    New Orleans Jazz Fest 2013

    I went to Jazz Fest in New Orleans this year for the first time in many many years.  My spouse said to me of the experience, "You know how sometimes you do things that you did when you were young, and when you do them as a much older person and you do them again that they just aren't as good as you remembered them?  This is not one of those experiences".

    That about sums it up.  There are dozens of bands that play over the 7 days of the festival, and they range from Preservation Hall Jazz bands that are playing old time New Orleans music to big name rock and roll bands, from gospel choirs to indie music, from traditional jazz to Cajun music, but the things that I love the very most are the ones that I knew least about.  It is always great to hear Marcia Ball or Germaine Basil or the Black Keys, depending on who you are and what you love, but the very best times for me are the ones where I sit listening to someone I never heard of who is absolutely amazing.  Those are the things that will bring me back.

    Monday, July 8, 2013

    The Testament of Mary by Colin Tóibín


    Any time that you mess with the ideology of a major religion, you are basically asking for trouble, no matter how masterful a writer you are.
    Colin Tóibín has never shied away from the subject of motherhood, and he is an author who takes on challenging characters with a fearsome energy.  So here he depicts the most famous mother of them all, the mother of Jesus.  Mary is depicted at the end of her life, being kept by the disciples who would like her to tell them what they want to hear, and while she is dependent on them for her keep, she cannot do their bidding.

    This is a novella, and much of it is a reflection on Mary's life, her family, some of the things that she remembers fondly--these are not the acts of grace, not the miracles, not the things that brought attention to her son, and therefore herself, and precipitated the abrupt and violent ending to his life.  They are the things that are a simple part of every day life as a Jew.  She prepared for the Sabbath, she enjoyed cleaning her house, preparing food, ensuring that there was adequate water, and then following behind her beloved husband and the son that they raised together to the Temple.  It is the rhythm of their life as a family that she mourns, and she is not all that keen on being seen as the mother of the son of God. 

    The most moving part of this book is her description of watching her son die and then seeing him in the afterlife appear before her.  Her heavy loss is palpable.  She has lost a son.  She is not moved by the role that he will play in the future of mankind.  She is reacting as his mother.  No matter what you think about Christianity, this is a beautifully written imaginary account of what the most famous woman of all time might have thought and done.

    Sunday, July 7, 2013

    Candles of Oaxaca

    Yes, these flowers are really made of wax.
    The churches of the Teoltitlan del Valle, Oaxaca region have these gorgeous candles in them, almost too beautiful to burn.  Every church we went into had lots of these magnificent candles on display, each of them handmade.

    I could not find out anything about the history of this craft--where it originated, is it inherently for religious purposes, or did it predate the Spaniards, and where it is primarily practiced.  I had never seen anything like it before, and the group that I was with had met a candle maker on an En Via tour the year before, but they could tell me little beyond the fact that the woman who made the candles came from a family that had been making them for generations.

    That seems to be the way of artisanal crafts in Central America.  The village has a reputation for producing a particular craft, and every one there learns said craft at an early age, then goes on to produce magnificent work at a low remunerative reward and without their skill being noticed or celebrated.  I just scratched the surface of what the artisans of Oaxaca have to offer in terms of beautiful additions to everyday life.  There is so much more to see and learn there, I have no doubt.

    On my next trip I would like to visit the workshop of a family that produces these candles to see how they are put together--not that I need to see that to appreciate how much work goes into them, but to be able to marvel at each stage.  People in Oaxaca have been living the way their ancestors have for thousands of years and while I have no wish to go back to the 17th century and relive my ancestors arrival in the New World, it is a privilege to have a window into that world.

    Saturday, July 6, 2013

    La China Poblana

    I learned this piece of history from a friend who I was in Oaxaca with this spring.  I love the cross-cultural apsects of it, and well as the idea that a really good idea can catch on in a big way, and be absorbed by another culture so completely it is as if it were it's own.

    This is the story of the origins of the classic dress worn by Mexican women, particularly in the Puebla region of Mexico.  'La China Poblana'  translates roughly to 'The Chinese Woman of Puebla'.  legend has it and most historians more or less agree that she was a woman from India named Mirra, who dressed in the brightly colored saris of her native land (the fact that history knows her as Chinese is probably because they just didn't know any better--all Asians may have been assumed to be Chinese without knowing better--the Spaniards at sea should have known better, since they were traveling to India on a regular basis after Vasgez showed that it could be done a hundred years or so beforehand, but no matter).  She was kidnapped by Portuguese pirates and sold into slavery in no time, and changed
    hands a time or two before she ended up in Puebla around 1620.   So, how did her dress spark a fashion craze? Historians say Mirra continued to wear her native saris over the years, but little by little adapted their designs to the culture of Mexico. Soon, her saris were sporting colorful flowers and even the country's classic eagle on a prickly pear cactus clutching a snake.

    Her saris eventually morphed into what would become attire typically consisting of a short-sleeved blouse (much like the shirt worn under a traditional sari) with vibrant silk embroidery, a billowing skirt decorated with sequins and beads, a white, lace-trimmed slip that dropped below the skirt's hemline and a shawl woven from blue and white thread.

    The "China Poblana look," as it came to be called, first captured the women of Puebla and then spread 80 miles northwest to become a hit in Mexico City and then in other parts of the country.

    Friday, July 5, 2013

    Embroidery and Traditional Tehuana Dress

    ,I have been an embroiderer my entire adult life, and for most of my childhood as well.  My mother did a counted cross-stitch and a few tea towels early on in her time as a wife and a mother, but it was not a craft that she really loved.  Her mother--my grandmother, was another story altogether.  She embroidered.

    Pillow cases, dresser linens, handkerchiefs--she really filled her house with the labor of her love (at least it was filled by the time I came along).  It was from her that I gained my love of the craft. 

    When I was in Oaxaca recently I had the opportunity to see a culture of embroiderers.  It is true that all folk arts are alive in this region of Mexico, but perhaps the most showy and austentatious of all these crafts is the embroidery.  These native costumes have 100's of hours of embroidery in each and every garment, and the flashiness is shown off to excellent results.  I saw a number of demonstrations of women and men in the costumes of their culture dancing at weddings and other celebrations--even the staff at our bed and breakfast dressed up for our farewell party.  These are not folded at the bottom of people's cedar chests--they are out and worn and part of the culture of today.  So magnificent!

    Thursday, July 4, 2013

    237th Birthday Reflections

    I have spent the summer reading the entire syllabus of Western Civilization from 1740-present this summer, and it turns out that there is a lot about politics and governments that I really do not know.  That revelation comes as no surprise.  I took one history course in college--which was an American History course with the Pullitzer Prize winning Professor Gordon Wood.  I learned a lot, but not about European history, and we read none of the classics in political theory.  I took a total of three political science course, but all three of them were related to the U.S. Supreme Court and the rule of law in the United States--again, wonderfully taught courses where I learned an awful lot, but the did not educate me in how we got to the democracy that we have today.

    This summer I have been reading some of the great and good (and occasionally terrible) political theorists that have endured since the Age of Enlightenment, and now I realize just how lucky we have beena s a nation to have begun as a democracy.  The pathway from absolutist monarchy to liberal democracy is one that is often fraught with difficulties that take generations, if not centuries to sort out.  Look at the French.  The outcome of the revolution was still playing out in the 20th century, despite happening in the 18th century.  That is a long gestation for change.  So this Independence Day I am celebrating that we managed to get it right the first time, or at least close enough that with a modification here and there, it continues to work for us all these many years later.

    Wednesday, July 3, 2013

    Fundacion En Via--The Power of Microfinance in Teotitlan

    This is a micro-finance organization that works in Tenochtitlan, Oaxaca, Mexico and makes very small loans to groups of three women. 

    I did not know this before I went to Mexico, but it is incredibly difficult to get a loan in Mexico.  If you look like a 'good credit risk' then you might be able to borrow money at about 25% interest, but if you are someone who is just starting out and have very little or nothing to put up as collateral, the it is more liek 75%.  That makes it almost impossible for small businesses to get started in Mexico.

    Enter Fundacion En Via--they loan very small amounts of money to groups of women without interest.  The deal is that if you get a loan, you need to be willing to have tours of people, mostly North Americans, come to your business, and you must be willing to show them what you do, and also to talk about your business--why you chose it, how you manage it, the challenges you have had, how you have coped with them, and what are the successes. It is a wonderful window behind the scenes of women's businesses in Tenochtitlan.  The money that the tours generate help to finance more loans, and so the program can grow.  I had a fantastic time on this tour--we began with lunch at a tacqueria that received a micro-loan, and between meeting some amazing women, we saw a few amazing churches as well.  The amount of money that is loaned is very small--$100 for the first loan--but the women can come back and get second and third loans and so on--they pay back the first and they are eligible for the second.  It is a way to help people help themselves,  It is very hard to find a tour that makes you feel this good--check one out the next time you are in Oaxaca.

    Tuesday, July 2, 2013

    Inferno by Dan Brown

     I know, I do not usually review books that are more pop culture than noteworthy, but the truth be told, I really read a whole lot more books that are like this book than I read anything else, and I felt like after the last Dan Brown book it would be reasonable to say a kind word or two about this one.

    The first review of this that I read said that Dan Brown fans would not be disappointed.  While on the one hand that might sound like damning with faint praise. However, if you really do like Dan Brown and his books that race through various European cities, highlighting the cultural and architectural sites while Robert Langdon and whoever he is fleeing evil with try to stay alive, then listen up.

    This is not the sequel to 'The Lost Symbol', which even a Dan Brown fan could find nothing good to say about.  This is a very readable thriller that is recognizably Dan Brown in the best sense of the word.  The book opens in Florence, moves after a bit to Venice, and more or less ends up in Istanbul.  If you have been to those cities it will evoke memories of those cities--again, far be it from Brown to veer off his very successful formula, and if I am truthful, it is something I very much like about his books.  They are not great literature. But I read plenty of not great literature, and have been a life long fan of the murder mystery genre, in all its permutations, so I have no snobbery.  As I have said before, I am as fond of pop culture as the next person.
    This book is very enjoyable, when viewed within that framework.

    Monday, July 1, 2013

    Casa Colonial, Oaxaca

    On my recent trip to Oaxaca I stayed at this wonderful place, which is somewhere between a hotel and a bed and breakfast.  It has a limited number of rooms, with a spacious inner courtyard and garden that buffer you from the heavily trafficked streets outside.  It is not in the center of the city, but it is only a several minute walk to the central plaza, and a 15 minute walk from several tourist sites--not to mention that cab fare is quite reasonable.

    The owner of Casa Colonial, Jane, is an American who traveled with her spouse to Mexico for many years, exploring the archeological sites as well as getting to know the folk art and the people who create it, before settling permanently in Oaxaca.  She has an exceptional collection of folk art which guests can marvel at throughout the common areas of the Casa.  Better still, she invites local artisans to come and sell their wares in the Casa--so you don't even have to leave the premises to buy local folk art (Jane has a little tienda as well, stocked with all sorts of tin work, pottery, animal carvings, weavings, jewlery and such, that is another excellent shopping option).

    The setting is gorgeous, but there are two additional features of the Casa that are exceptional.  The service is attentive and outstanding.  On my my recent stay, a fellow guest was taken ill and hospitalized--the Casa arranged for medical attention on sight, and the manager, Amado, went with her to the hospital.  They go above and beyond to provide service and care.  The other is that the food is excellent--breakfasts often feature excellent moles corn tortillas, along with fresh fruit and juices.  Delicious!