Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Argus Farms Finally Here!

For weeks I've been watching as a somewhat derelict building quite near my house was being renovated.

At last: Argus Farm Stop is open for business!
Local farmers bring their produce to Argus. Each bin identifies the producer and the product.
I think I will be shopping here often! Today I didn't need much because I bought a lot at the Farmers' Market Saturday.

Some of my Farmers' Market produce from Saturday's trip. I've made Caprese Salad from the basil, tomatoes, and
fresh mozerella, I've made apple sauce, I've made pesto, and more.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Solar Eclipse with Mona Lisa

Here's Kazimir Malevich's painting "Solar Eclipse with Mona Lisa" -- surrealist, of course:

Also titled "Composition with Mona Lisa," dated 1914.
A photo that I took on May 20, 2012, during a partial eclipse in Santa Barbara, California.
In the photo, the little gaps in the leaves of a tree are projecting crescent-shaped shadows because of the slit effect. When the sun is its normal disc shape, the projections are circles. The shape of the light source is projected no matter what the shape of the slit between the leaves.

Leonardo Da Vinci wrote about the slit effect in Codex Atlanticus:
"I say that the front of a building -- or any open plaza or field  -- which is illuminated by the sun has a dwelling opposite to it, and if, in the front which does not face the sun; you make a small round hole, all the illuminated objects will project their images through that hole and be visible inside the dwelling on the opposite wall which should be made white; and there, in fact, they will be upside down, and if you make similar openings in several places in the same wall you will have the same result from each. Hence the images of the illuminated objects are all everywhere on this wall and all in each minutest part of it. The reason, as we clearly know, is that this hole must admit some light to the said dwelling, and the light admitted by it is derived from one or many luminous bodies. If these bodies are of various colors and shapes the rays forming the images are of various colors and shapes, and so will the representations be on the wall."

Saturday, August 19, 2017

"Barbecue" -- new documentary available on Netflix

"Barbecue" is a newly-released film by Australian director Matthew Salleh. It begins with a portrayal of a South African who created the barbecue stand shown above by cleaning up a trashed corner shop.

The life of the hard-working black man makes a considerable contrast with the white South Africans who are shown barbecuing and having picnics on their beautiful lawns as a social activity. Their attitudes reflect their privilege, in contrast to the working man with his hard-earned livelihood.

One unusual feature of this documentary: there's no narration, only the voices of the people who are interviewed. Sometimes their words seem a little strange and out-of-context, but on the whole it's an effective way to convey the contrasts among the 12 cultures that are represented in the film.

The focus jumps from culture to culture and continent to continent -- Japanese yakitori chefs, Maori pit barbecues, Mexican mescal preparation, young Swedish men & women with disposable grills, older men in Uruguay, central Texas pit masters, and many more. You watch fire-building, charcoal-making, animal slaughter, meat being chopped with axes and beaten with mallets, whole animals being placed on skewers, and much more. Occasionally a vegetable sneaks into the action, but mostly it's meat, meat, meat.

This is a Mongolian family, one of the most interesting segments of the hour and 40 minutes of the film. 
Another scene in Mongolia -- preparing a marmot for the cooking fire.

Mongolia: yurts, trucks, motor cycles, and the open sky.
In Armenia, several men talk about how they enjoy cooking over a fire.
In a refugee camp on the border of Syria and Jordan, we watch a schwarama cook preparing and flaming the meat,
and talking about how he would like to return to his home.
Maoris in New Zealand prepare a barbecue...

And one of the very few women who is interviewed in the course of the 12 cultures describes how women used to be
the ones who cooked over open fires, and how people didn't sit down for fear they would be attacked.
Netflix just released this documentary a few days ago. It's too long to watch in just one sitting: we stopped after approximately the first half, and then watched the rest later. Some of the segments are definitely better than others, but on the whole it's quite interesting.

Also, I found the music weird -- often it seemed to have nothing at all to do with the content of the visuals and interview topics. In one scene, you see street Mexican or South American musicians and dancers, but the music is entirely different and not synchronized or at all related to the action.

Art Institute, Chicago, A Brief Tour

Walking towards the facade of the Art Institute with its iconic lions last Saturday morning.
Famous painting: "Paris Street; Rainy Day" by Gustave Caillebotte.

Even more famous: "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" by Georges Seurat
Renoir: "Fruits of the Midi." I love the eggplant and peppers in this still life.
Special exhibit: "Gauguin, Artist as Alchemist." A fabulous collection of his art, including works in wood, ceramics, oil,
and other media. His works from Paris, Brittany, Provence, and the South Pacific were all included.

Ceramic vase in the foreground, and a painting of the same vase on the wall. The exhibit had a number of illustrative examples of how Gauguin often explored the same image in multiple media.

The Art Institute seen from the Willis Tower, 103 stories up and at least 1/2 mile away.
Souvenirs: a magnet of the lions out front, and a magnet of one of the
paintings from the Gauguin exhibit.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Poké and other Chicago Treats and Trends

Poke Poké is a new restaurant in Chicago which follows what I understand to be a hot new trend! We've seen the traditional Hawaiian version in grocery-store counters and local eateries in Hawaii, though I don't recall trying any on our many visits to the Big Island and elsewhere. The title of a Washington Post article says it all: "Hawaiian poke has never been trendier. But the mainland is ruining it."

Publicity photo from Poke Poké restaurant in the Palmer House building in Chicago.

Neon Signage in the restaurant -- Miriam's photos.
We all enjoyed various poké bowls for lunch as we were about to drive back from Chicago to Michigan last Sunday. I had a vegetarian bowl with some quite delicious sauces. Authentic? Well, I really don't care about that as much as Maura Judkis, the WaPo writer!

"It’s not just that poke tastes better when you’re in Hawaii," says Judkis. "It’s that mainland restaurateurs, bandwagoning on what they see as the biggest trend of the year, have changed it into something altogether different — something that people from Hawaii say doesn’t respect their cultural heritage. It plays into an impassioned debate in the food world now about whether a dish prepared outside its original context is an homage or crosses the line into appropriation."

I find that debate pretty tired. Trends are trends, and poke from Hawaii was already a type of fusion cooking with ingredients and flavors from several sources. According to The Food of Paradise, Rachel Laudan's encyclopedic book on Hawaiian cuisine, "Hawaii's unique contribution to fish cuisine... is considered to be poke." (p. 37)

However, the first appearance of poke in Hawaiian cookbooks and references, Laudan says, was in the 1970s; Hawaiians who left the island prior to that did not remember it, though earlier raw fish preparations like lomi and also sushi were known and probably influenced the invention of poke. Laudan says: "The Hawaiians contributed the name and he seasoning with salt and seaweed" as well as the natural love of the local ocean fish, "the Japanese contributed seasonings of soy sauce and the preference for deep-ocean fish," while other Asian and local influences contributed flavors like hot sauce, sesame oil, green onions, and more. (p. 38)

Besides our trendy lunch, we had a very enjoyable dinner on Saturday night at a gastropub called The Gage. Here are a few of our menu choices -- all good!

Thai curry. My main course was trout with delicious roasted vegetables. Len had halibut.
Venison burger and fries (and Evelyn's shirt). 
Strawberry-rhubarb cheesecake.

A sundae with chocolate chips and a chocolate chip cookie. Our third dessert: chocolate creme brulee.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Colorful Chicago

Red rug in front of the Peacock Door, Palmer House Hilton Hotel where we stayed in Chicago last weekend.
Crown Fountain, Millenium Park, bathed with color at night...
By day: boy in red playing in the water at the Crown Fountain.
"Flamingo" by Alexander Calder, Federal Plaza.
"Flamingo" viewed from 103 stories high on the SkyDeck at the Willis Tower.
Red curtain, Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park. 
At the Art Institute, several paintings and Chagall's famous stained-glass windows impressed me with their use of vivid primary colors.

One of the Chagall windows.

Gino Severini, "Still Life (Centrifugal Expansion of Colors)."
Alexis Jawlensky, "Girl with the Green Face."

Otto Dix, "Pregnant Woman."
Max Pechstein, "The Red House." 
Lyonel Feininger, "Carnival in Arcueil."

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Arsenic and Strychnine at the Reform Club

"Alexis Soyer (1810–1858) deserves to be far better known than he is. ... He was the first real celebrity chef, a brilliant, inventive cook and a shameless self-publicist. In style, one might describe him as part Heston Blumenthal, part Jamie Oliver." So writes M.J. Carter (Miranda Carter, born 1965) in the "Historical Afterward" to her mystery novel The Devil's Feast, published earlier this year. Soyer, a chef from Paris, is best known for creating the kitchen and the brilliant meals and banquets at the Reform Club in London.

While most historians might create a straightforward biography of such an underrated figure, Carter did something more creative. Although no crimes are recorded in the history of the real Reform Club, Carter's version of Soyer is plagued by a mysterious poisoner. Under the pressure of an upcoming banquet of great importance, the mystery is investigated by two Victorian detectives: the narrator, a Captain Avery, and his shadowy and less-socially-acceptable colleague, a man by the name of Blake. These characters also featured in Carter's two earlier mysteries, which I haven't read.

In The Devil's Feast events proceed very quickly. The two detectives must establish a motive for the poisonings, as well as try to find the culprit in the complex social atmosphere of the Reform Club, which was a political club of great importance in Parliamentary politics in 1840s London. Besides detecting, the two have to protect themselves from various plots against their own lives and freedom. Thus there's quite a bit about politics in the novel, as well as brief portrayals of some of the still-famous real-life members of the club and their political machinations.

Above all, Carter's detectives must learn all they can about Soyer's kitchens and menus at the Reform Club -- Who prepared each dish that the victims ate? What is the hierarchy in the kitchen? What equipment and utensils were used? What was the food like? Which tradesmen supplied the raw materials? Were bills paid on time? Carter's details were very fascinating -- we learn lots about the food and how it was prepared. My reaction is that the combination of accurate descriptions with a need to know how they work because of the mystery makes this a really exciting book to read.

Here are some of my favorite food quotes from the extremely numerous passages in the novel, beginning with the first meal Soyer serves to Avery, the narrator:
"A waiter served each of us with a morsel of lobster in a buttery sauce flavored very gently with Indian spices laid inside a small, crisp, layered pastry case or vol-au-vent. ... a soup of early asparagus, light yet intensely flavorful, then turbot in a delicate pink sauce of lobster roe, then a whole salmon trout, remarkably suspended in aspic as if at the moment just before it took the hook.... 
"After this there was a warm terrine of quail and chicken; peas stewed with lettuces; small, buttery omelets flavored with herbs; and a delicious dish of tripe between unctuous layers of leeks, onions and carrots, which I would have thought would be far too rustic for the Reform’s table. From Soyer’s special cupboard, bottle after exquisite bottle emerged." (p. 39-41)
And another meal:
"The fare was simpler than Soyer’s dinner, but no less satisfying for that. A velvety vegetable soup, followed by three small plates of French olives, anchovy filets and crisp, bitter radishes with butter. Jerrold and Mayhew ordered roast beef served with early spring vegetables, some small potatoes basted in butter and chopped herbs, and I chose Soyer’s famous dish, lamb cutlets à la Reform, as well as a late winter salad of herbs and cress. Percy, who periodically patrolled the Coffee Room, came to carve their beef, a great roast of which rolled up on a silver platter, his knife sliding through the meat like a diver penetrating water." (p. 162). 
Soyer's provides to Avery information on some of the kitchen workings, including his own inventions:
"The staff are divided into sections. One, for example, prepares sauces, another roasts, another sees to the grilling and frying of meats, another prepares fish, another the soups and vegetables; another, known as the garde manger, prepares cold savories, such as aspics, terrines, hams and salads; and, finally, we have the pâtissier for sweets, desserts, ices and special cakes, as well as our own baker. Heat, light and ice are produced with the help of our six-horse-power steam engine, which sits in a purpose-built room well below the kitchens. We have gas pipes throughout the kitchen and the club. I can tell you that the club spent the sum of six hundred and seventy-four pounds on pots, pans, knives and utensils." (pp. 62-63). 
But Soyer's also a realist about the staff:
"Bah! Any kitchen is thus. Every apprentice wishes to be a commis, every commis to be a cuisinier, every cuisinier to be a chef de partie. That is what galvanizes the kitchen, making each strive to do better. Those with real talent rise over the heads of the others. It is conflict, it is life."(p. 195). 
I particularly enjoyed a description of Soyer preparing an omelette aux fines herbs -- here's an excerpt:
"It occurred to me that I had never seen Soyer cook. He took a long phosphorous match and placed it against a pipe in one of the compartments on the top of the vast stove. In a moment, a flame danced up. He did the same with a second compartment, and set a frying pan on each. With nonchalant elegance, he cracked a dozen eggs one by one into a white china bowl, then filled his fingers with salt from one of the little crocks nearby and cast it across the mixture. He did the same with a pinch of ground pepper, then poured from a jug a stream of thick cream into the eggs. He beat them briskly with a fork in wide circles.... The eggs seemed almost to leap into the air as the whisk lifted them up and brought them back into the bowl. ... For a few seconds he simply watched the mixture settle, then he added a pinch of herbs to both and began carefully to agitate the pans, one and then the other, and, taking up a metal tool rather like a flat spade, worked quickly around the edges of each, prodding, scooping and tucking. After some minutes he picked up each pan and tapped it on the stove... .  
"He set down the pans where the flame had been. The egg mixture continued to sizzle and steam. When the hissing ceased, he took his metal tool and folded each omelet upon itself. Then he tipped each pan, letting the concoction slip elegantly onto a large blue plate. This he brought to the table: two perfect, soft, unblemished yellow semicircles, smooth and shiny as porcelain." (pp. 237-238). 
The final scene in the Reform Club kitchen takes place during a very important banquet for a visiting dignitary -- amid the fear that the poisoner will strike again. As a result, Avery and several high-placed members of the club volunteer to taste the dishes that are being prepared and thus attempt to prevent another disastrous tragedy. Thus the food is tasted with both fear and enjoyment, and the descriptions become amazingly vivid!
"The sense that every mouthful might be one’s last added a kind of zest to the occasion, and I sat down with a peculiar sense of anticipation. I was reminded of the battlefield in the moment before a skirmish. ...
"We began with the soups. For me, potage à la Victoria, a pale golden, thickened veal broth garnished with parsley and cockscomb seeds. My spoon trembled slightly as I brought it to my lips. I grinned and took it. It seemed to me the acme of warmth and meaty fragrance; made the more so, I suspected, by the lingering sense of danger. I took another mouthful." (p 372)
Needless to say, the conclusion of the book is a triumph for the detectives. If you are a lover of mystery AND good food writing, don't miss this!

A brush with fine dining: Chicago's Palmer House Hilton last Saturday.
Not the Reform Club, but I loved seeing the waiters lining up on the stairs to welcome a wedding party.
My culinary reading group read a biography of Soyer, Relish: The Extraordinary Life of Alexis Soyer, Victorian Celebrity Chef. by Ruth Cowen. The Devil's Feast was much less historical but much more fun to read! To conclude, here is a more complete quotation of Carter's brief sketch of the life of Alexis Soyer.
"Alexis Soyer (1810– 1858) deserves to be far better known than he is. ... He was the first real celebrity chef, a brilliant, inventive cook and a shameless self-publicist. In style, one might describe him as part Heston Blumenthal, part Jamie Oliver. He had a line in crazy (and, to our palates, probably slightly disgusting) fantasy dishes (for example, desserts made to look like roast lamb with all the trimmings) and, at the same time, a genuine mission to educate the British— the British poor, in particular— to eat better and more nutritiously. From his early thirties, he was in London and involved in improving the food in hospitals and workhouses. He published a series of best-selling cookery books ... .  
"He was a champion of seasonal and simple dishes: the energetically sociable writer W. M. Thackeray would cancel prior arrangements in order to eat his bacon and beans. ... Soyer was also, for his time, unusually generous to female cooks. He said he liked having them in his kitchen; they were better tempered and less dramatic than men.
"He comes over as an irrepressible, joyous, sometimes ridiculous figure, manically energetic, dreadfully sycophantic to the rich and titled (who were often unpleasantly snooty in return), appallingly pretentious (he called the gas stove he invented the Phidomageireion— apparently, Greek for “thrifty kitchen”) and barely literate— in English, at least, relying on a series of secretaries to transcribe his words. He seems to have been terrible with money.  
"He was also a brilliant logistician, inventor and innovator on a grand scale. In 1855, he went out to the Crimean War at his own expense to overhaul the desperate state of army catering, and ended up completely reorganizing the entire provisioning of the British Army. ...  It is, perhaps, not surprising that he died aged only forty-eight, in 1858." (The Devil's Feast pp. 413-415). 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Chicago Light and Darkness

Sunday morning in Chicago: a view from the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower).
Chandelier in the Empire Room of Palmer House Hilton Hotel where we stayed.
Wall sconce, Palmer House lobby/bar.
Chagall's stained glass windows, Art Institute.

Sunlight on the fountain in the courtyard of the Art Institute.

View from a window of the Art Institute.

Night view of the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park, designed by Jaume Plensa.

As we walked through Millennium Park we heard music -- Tchaikovsky. It was a free classical concert in
the Pritzker Pavillion, attended by a huge crowd. We listened for a few minutes and continued around the park.
"Cloud Gate" -- also called "the bean" -- a sculpture by Anish Kapoor in Millennium Park.
Day and night it reflects the admiring and fascinated crowds and the facing skyscrapers on Michigan Avenue.

In 24 hours we saw quite a bit, ate several good meals, and walked until I, at least, was ready to drop. I will be posting more photos of the Art Institute, the food, and the Willis Tower -- especially the glass-bottom balconies where one is suspended 103 stories above the ground.