Saturday, October 31, 2015

Happy Halloween!

Halloween in our neighborhood is a really big deal! We have the biggest pumpkins you can imagine, the Burns Park Halloween Parade, and ghosts hanging in all the trees. Something is happening all the time.

The giant Jack-o-Lanterns are back, bigger than ever. Jeff, posing with Jack is 5'10"-- nearly as tall as the pumpkin.

My photo of the same house from five years ago (above) shows a pumpkin that's barely above the level of the porch! The Halloween-loving inhabitants buy pumpkins from a farmer who is trying to grow the biggest pumpkin ever for a contest. I guess the farmer gets better every year.

The Burns Park School Halloween Parade today passed the giant pumpkins as it made its way through the neighborhood.

I particularly liked the tooth fairy.
Minions are very popular around here. I was also
amazed at the vast number of Star Wars costumes, including
many Princess Leias with the original hair style.
Ghosts hang in the trees, on the lawns...
...and spiders on the rooftops.
In my dining room -- I'm ready for trick-or-treaters! When it's all over, we'll eat the orange pumpkin.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Mable, Mable, Sweet and Able...

"The last heirloom tomatoes" with basil
and mozzarella. 
"Keep your elbows off the table!"
How many times have we heard this chant as we sat in a summer camp dining hall or junior high cafeteria? According to Miriam and Alice, it's still considered a terrible faux-pas to put your elbows on a dining table, and kids, I guess, still chant about able Mable.

I've been wondering if this is really still seen to be a defining characteristic of a boor: resting one or more elbows on the table while eating or while waiting between courses. Last night, we ate at West End Grill, a pleasant, pretty fancy restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor. It's a fairly popular place, despite rather high prices, and was reasonably full even on a rainy Wednesday. We enjoyed our food, and enjoyed the leisurely service.

It was definitely NOT A HORSE'S STABLE, but a first-class dining table.

Encrusted halibut on a bed of spinach.
Sable fish with oriental vegetables -- only Len's hand was
on the table. He is faithful to the elbow rule.
In fact, our table was in the center of the restaurant, which has one large dining area and a bar where they also serve food. From my seat, I could see about half the other tables, and I realized that I could unobtrusively observe quite a few diners: men in suits, women in reasonably nice clothes, dressed up by local Ann Arbor standards. I would guess that around half the tables were filled with professors entertaining speakers from other institutions, and the rest with couples like us, treating themselves to a good meal.

When we were waiting for our various courses, I realized that I could check up on the other diners, and see who was obeying or violating the elbow rule.

At almost every table I observed, at least one person had elbows on the table. Yes, men in sport jackets (didn't see any ties) rested their elbows on the table between courses. A woman in quite a nice outfit was eating with her elbows on the table. A man at the bar had the elbow of his drinking arm on the bar surface. Adults of all ages were included in my little sample. I'm not sure a single diner was innocent of this questionable act, though I think most did so only between courses.

If people who have dressed up to dine at such a formal place don't keep their elbows off the table, then when in the course of life in our admittedly permissive society does anyone actually observe the rule?

I spent a few minutes checking etiquette advice online. Most experts (whether self-appointed or professionals) suggest avoidance of elbows on the table, for the sake of tradition. Some point out what we found out many years ago: the rule is different in other countries, notably in France, where it's absolutely polite and standard to rest elbows on the table because your hands are supposed to be in sight at all times while dining. A few say that the rule has changed, and that American and British etiquette only requires elbow-absence during, not between, courses. I think my fellow diners last night illustrate that times have changed, though formal rules may persevere. I also think the no-elbow rule will survive because it's just too much fun to chant about Mable.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Breakfast and Dinner in Matisse Paintings

Henri Matisse: "Breakfast" (1920).
On my recent visit to the Philadelphia art museum, I took these two photos of "Breakfast" by Henri Matisse. I have always enjoyed Matisse's imagery of intimate interiors. He frequently incorporated the patterns in clothing, tablecloths, and wall hangings or draperies to create a multi-colored effect. The woman here is obviously having a quiet breakfast and reading or maybe writing in her diary after finishing her tea or coffee and eggs, and prior to her getting dressed for the day. Intimate indeed!

Detail of "Breakfast"
I looked for some contrasting Matisse paintings of food, and came up with two earlier works from Wikipedia art. While Matisse often later painted women who had just been eating, these clearly show servants setting a table. I enjoyed the contrast in style among the three paintings, and the way both the food and the women were depicted.

Henri Matisse, "The Dessert: Harmony in Red" (1908).
From an earlier time, where the patterns seem to have taken over entirely!
Matisse, "The Dinner Table" (1897).
Obviously an early work, which looks somewhat Impressionist.
Matisse was born in 1869. 
And: "Coffee" (1916) from the Detroit Institute of Arts -- one of my favorite of
Matisse's intimate scenes.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Farm Stand Produce

The season for wonderful Michigan vegetables is rapidly drawing to an end. Today we drove west towards Manchester, viewing the stunning fall leaves, stubble fields and fields of dried-up cornstalks, and the migration of various birds. We stopped at Fusilier's Farm Market on Herman Road, where there's a haunted corn maze and many pumpkins, some decorated, others waiting for customers who will decorate them.

Field tomatoes and bell peppers, picked before the frost, stored in the barn. Probably the last Michigan outdoor-grown
tomatoes we'll see this year. The entire market is suffused with the aroma of donuts.

Fusilier's Sign from their website.
Few plants remain in the greenhouse.
We saw flocks of ducks and geese at Thorn Lake on Arnold Road near the Farm Stand.
As you drive the last few miles to the lake, the bright yellow trees arch over the road -- illuminated!

The maple we planted in our own garden years ago has beautiful leaves now.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Senses

Grenouille, the central character in Patrick Süskind's bestseller Perfume, is missing something: something needed to make him fully or even minimally human. As a baby, born to an unmarried fishwife in mid-18th century Paris, he's rejected by his wet nurse. She perceives that physically what he's missing is any odor. "He's possessed by the devil," she says.

The priest who is responsible for the baby responds: "Impossible! It is absolutely impossible for an infant to be possessed by the devil.... Does some evil stench come from him?"

The nurse replies, "He doesn't smell at all." The priest demands details. She explains that the baby Grenouille doesn't smell "like human children ought to smell," which after quite a bit of questioning on the part of the priest she explains thus:
"They smell good all over. ... Their feet, for instance, they smell like a smooth, warm stone -- or no, more like curds... or like butter, like fresh butter.... And their bodies smell like ... like a griddle cake that's been soaked in milk. And their heads... smell best of all. [The crown of a baby's head] smells like caramel, it smells so sweet, so wonderful.... And that's how little children have to smell -- and no other way." (p. 12-14)
Odors, aromas, smells, stinks, miasmas, and above all perfumes dominate the intensely vivid descriptions of the book. It begins with all the stinks of the streets, markets, tanneries, stables, and waterways of Paris in that era, as the odorless baby and then child develops into a strange, unlikeable, and self-absorbed person. Having no smell himself, Grenouille nevertheless has a heightened sense of smell, a phenomenal memory for aromas and odors, and a vaguely inhuman way of reacting to them.

But Grenouille isn't just a man without his own natural smell, he's a man without humanity. In an effort to compensate for his missing human odor, he desperately apprentices himself to a perfumer, where he demonstrates remarkable abilities to create pomades, perfumes, elixirs, and other cosmetic preparations. He learns to capture aromas from both the inanimate (like a metal door knob) and the living (like a puppy). However, with a cold-blooded lack of compassion or any feeling at all, he grasps that it's necessary to kill in order to capture the aroma he finds most compelling -- that of a beautiful girl on the threshold of womanhood. The last part of the book turns into a horror story as he becomes an increasingly inhuman serial killer, and ends with a surprising and dreadful conclusion.

So many editions of Perfume in this screen shot from google images suggest how very popular it's been since publication in 1985.
Recent books I've read about the neuroscience of the senses of smell and taste and how the brain processes them often mention Süskind's book, which was published in 1985, at about the same time as the earliest modern studies of the subject. Süskind's descriptions of the mechanisms of smell are very interesting in this context. Grenouille can recall every smell he ever sensed. He can distinguish individual aromas in blended perfumes or streets full of multiple smells. These abilities seem to go far beyond what scientific tests show actual humans are capable of. 

Scientific studies usually focus on the interaction of smell and taste, what one author calls "how the brain creates flavors."  Süskind's character seems to find the taste of food unrelated to the complex and well-developed sense of smell that distinguishes him from other humans. In one long section, Grenouille lives as a recluse in a mountain cave, during which time he eats lizards and other vermin with no sense of disgust. Maybe his name -- meaning frog in French -- is relevant to this part of the tale. Other than his having been a very greedy baby (another fault found by the wet nurse) and despite his constant obsession with aromas, there's little about food, flavors, or cooking in the book at all -- only smells.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Eating Pancakes in 1625

"The Pancake Baker" by Adriaen Brouwer (WikiArt) 
At the Philadelphia Museum of Art last week, I enjoyed seeing "The Pancake Baker," attributed to Adriaen Brouwer (1605-1638). Brouwer lived in Antwerp, Haarlem, Amsterdam, and maybe other cities in Holland and Belgium. He and other painters of the Dutch Golden Age were fascinated by scenes inside taverns and kitchens, and their work is amazingly revealing about the way people in their time cooked and ate.

Here, you can see that the pancake maker is spreading the batter from a wooden mixing bowl into a pan. Near his feet is another pan, and a jug and crock of some sort. He's cooking over an open fire. And in the background are people scarfing the pancakes. I bet they were delicious!

I used the reproduction from WikiArt above, but I also took some close-ups of the painting with my camera:

Spreading the batter. 
The fire and the wooden bowl of batter. 
We love pancakes!

Another Dutch kitchen scene from my visit to the Philadelphia museum:

"Woman Plucking a Duck" by Nicholas Maes (1634-1693).
Close-up of the disordered kitchen items on the floor in Maes' painting.

Saturday, October 17, 2015


Cape May fishing boats once caught all sorts of fish, but now the most important catch is scallops. We ate some Tuesday night, and they were delicious! Bluefish and flounder are also caught in these waters, though the restaurant that has bluefish on the menu said it was out of season. (I don't know if this is actually the case.)

On the docks we saw quite a few fishing boats and warehouses where the scallops were being prepared for shipment to other places. Sport fishing and fishing from various docks also appeared to be quite popular. 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Birders, Butterflies, Boats

Sunset on the first of our several guided birdwalks in Cape May, NJ.
It's the season for bird migration here, and therefore birder season.
Yesterday I posted a few photos of our visit here. This post adds a few more.
Birders heading home at sunset. 
Early morning: looking for a rare Bell's Vireo. The bushes were swarming with little birds that had been flying over
the water at dawn, and then came in to wait for another night of migration. Around 50 birders were watching the birds.
More than 100 were watching for hawks and eagles overhead at the Hawkwatch Tower around 4 miles from this location.
Near the Hawkwatch platform:
A non-native black swan. Someone brought it from Australia or New Zealand,
it got away, and no one knows who let it go. 
Monarch butterflies are also in migration. Like the birds they fly down the New Jersey peninsula and then wait for
a good moment to start across the water and continue flying south. 
Tree swallows in large numbers were circling around and also resting on the beach and on fences yesterday before continuing their flight.
On the beach.
The "Osprey" -- the birdwatching cruise boat that we took yesterday.

This is really a travel post, but I wanted to share it here!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Today in Cape May, New Jersey

This morning: sunrise at Cape May lighthouse, just before our first birdwalk.
Three cormorants on a jetty, seen from a birdwatching boat this afternoon.

Sunset from another birdwalk -- the Cape May light house is inside the sun's glare.
Dinner at the Lobster House in Cape May last night: special Cape May scallops.
We arrived in Cape May, New Jersey, yesterday afternoon, and immediately went on a late-afternoon birdwalk. Today we were watching birds from sunrise to sunset, as illustrated.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Holiday Weekend in Fairfax, VA.

Sunday: Alice the Spy at the Spy Museum in DC
The Spy Museum displays many wonderful old cold war and earlier spy
devices like these glasses meant to conceal a poison pill. 
Lunch at Jaleo, a taps restaurant near the Spy Museum -- chicken croquettes in a shoe.
Monday: a walk at Occoquan National Wildlife Refuge near Fairfax
Looking for birds 
Occoquan Bay

Miriam's cross-country race on Saturday: her team collectively came in first!