Saturday, December 31, 2016

Have a great year!

Enjoy New Year's Eve 2017 as Mona Lisa celebrates... and recovers. Images from a blog post I did long ago:


Friday, December 30, 2016

Funny Little Food Essays

"Edible history is the most vivid testimony to vanished empires. ... Artifacts and institutions disappear, but the gastronomic archaeologist will still be able to trace the influence of India in the English addition to curry, and to find, as I did, that the most poignant evidence of our former glory is the survival of porridge in Pakistan." -- A Pike in the Basement, p. 57.

Sometime in the 1980's British wine merchant and writer Simon Loftus wrote "tales of a hungry traveller" (to spell it Britishly). He did go to a lot of places. Some in the depths of Asia. Some in the Deep South of the USA where his friend Calvin Trillin sent him in search of barbecue and catfish. He explains the word for hot food to use when ordering in Greece, and describes nightmarish train trips through obscure parts of the world. He also dined, sometimes with disdain, at widely acclaimed restaurants in big and famous cities like Paris, New York, Las Vegas, or London. He always has something clever (almost too clever) to say about the food and -- especially in the case of pretentious big-city restaurants -- about the people who served it.

In every case, he offers some sort of recipe connected to his tale. At times the recipe choice is bizarre, as in the case of a memoir of a duck named Donald. House pet Donald Duck was chummy with the family's pet cat during Loftus's childhood. Unfortunately Donald was killed by an aggressive pet dachshund. The recipe for this chapter explains how to bone, stuff, and roast a duck. Similarly, Loftus offers a long description (mainly quoted from an early 19th century memoir) of a pig that was trained to "point" to game, helping hunters just as a pointer dog would do, and demonstrating its great loyalty and intelligence. The recipe for this chapter: a sausage and bacon casserole. Oh well. I guess if you're an omnivore, you're an omnivore.

It's a mildly amusing book to read, not too long, the kind of little articles that once appeared in magazines like the late lamented Gourmet. If Loftus first published these essays one by one, I wasn't able to discover it. The illustrations -- black and white woodcuts -- are also amusing. A nice little book for a cold winter vacation day at the end of the year.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Chocolate, Tea, and Coffee at the Detroit Institute of Arts

"From Novelty to Necessity: This exhibit takes you back 400 years to the time when COFFEE, TEA, and CHOCOLATE were first introduced in Europe." So reads a poster as you enter a fantastic art exhibit currently at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

"Bitter|Sweet: Coffee, Tea & Chocolate" offers excitement to all five senses, not just the usual museum-goers' activity of seeing art. As we toured the exhibit today, we looked at maps and historic information. We viewed a wide variety of paintings, prints, artifacts, and tableware related to the three beverages. We smelled some coffee beans in one display. We listened to the background music: Bach's Coffee Cantata. And in the final gallery we enjoyed tasting some historic chocolate concoctions. 

Using my camera, the kind ticket-taker who admitted us to the exhibit even photographed us with our friends Elaine and Bob. On the gallery wall was a sign that said photography was not only permitted, it was encouraged. So...

Large blow-up posters of early illustrations showed historic coffee drinking events.
Smelling and seeing coffee beans.
"Madame de Pompadour as a Sultana," by Carle Van Loo, 1755. Two women with different levels of power
each have their hands on a cup of coffee, which was a new luxury product associated with the Turkish Empire.
"On the left, an African woman serving coffee is a reminder of two colonial commodities: coffee and enslaved people."
The exhibit had quite a few things to say about the role of slavery and colonialism in the rise of the three beverages.

A coffee grinder that once belonged to Madame de Pompadour.
A porcelain sultan riding an elephant, and a little Turkish coffee cup.
A bust of Joseph Addison whose newspaper, I learned, was one of the influences
encouraging English people to consume coffee.
"The Strong Family," (1732, detail showing tea table)
The exhibit included several wall-sized maps.
An amazing Sèvres tea and coffee service (1842-43)
Samples of chocolate from early recipes.
Outside the DIA cafe where we were about to have lunch: chocolate Christmas decorations.

Sacré Bleu by Christopher Moore

Author Christopher Moore has a very strange imagination, which is given free range in his novel Sacré Bleu. The principal character in this fantasy, which takes place between around 1870 and 1890, is a baker named Lucien who lives in Montmartre. Every morning his mother tests the quality of their just-baked bread by banging him in the head with a loaf; if it cracks just right, they're happy.

In addition to baking, Lucien is an aspiring painter. Though fictitious, he's surrounded by real painters and other figures in the artistic milieu of that time and place -- Toulouse Lautrec, Monet, Renoir, Theo Van Gogh (an art dealer and brother of the painter), Seurat, Gaugin, Whistler, Oscar Wilde and lots of others. An unusual feature of this novel: the hardcover version that I read is illustrated with paintings by the artists who appear in the story.

Sacré Bleu begins with the death of Vincent Van Gogh, and quickly moves on to Paris and many other real and fictional characters. When I started reading, I thought I would be bored by just another historical novel about the bohemian life of the Impressionists that's so well-known.

Jane Avril by Toulouse-Lautrec.
She appears in the novel.
Wrong!! It's a very strange and magical story about the color blue, the pigment ultramarine which comes from the stone Lapis Lazuli. It depicts a very vivid -- and imaginary -- figure called "The Colorman" and an even more mysterious woman who has many names and identities as she seduces one artist after another. These two supernatural beings, it appears, have interfered in the lives of artists throughout time. As the novel proceeds, the plot involves the efforts of Lucien, Toulouse-Lautrec, and a few others to discover just what role these evil spirits or maybe genies have played. More plot summary would spoil the suspense (yes, suspense!) as well as being kind of tedious.

I once heard a lecture about the amazing pigment ultramarine. It was extraordinarily expensive, and was especially desired for images of the Virgin Mary during the Renaissance. The fantasy that Moore weaves about it is much more amusing than the real history!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

2016, Year in Review Part 2.

In my year in review part 1 yesterday, I summarized what I blogged in January-June, 2016, about food, travel, and life in general. You can check out each month of blog posts as listed in the sidebar to the right of this post to see all the details. Part 2, here, continues with July through December.

July: At Home

We spent the entire month of July at home! A summer highlight of Ann Arbor is the annual Art Fair.
One of the artists we admire the most: Marvin Blackmore

August: Kauaii, Hawaii

We had a beautiful stay on Kauaii, including enjoying some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, birdwatching in the rainforest, and eating some really wonderful meals.

Len about to go scuba diving on his birthday.

September: Labor Day in Fairfax, VA.

Miriam and Alice heading for their first day of school.

September: Galway, Ireland and Nearby Places.

We visited Arny and Tracy who are on Sabbatical in Galway for the fourth time. They have really become almost natives, and are wonderful tour guides.
Rainbow behind one of the towers at Clonmacnoise National Historic Site, County Offaly, Ireland. 

October: London, England.

From Ireland we went on to several days in London, visiting our friends John and Sheila, with a side trip to their favorite Saxon village and the coast, and meals at several remarkable restaurants. For me, the visits to the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Tate Modern, the British Museum, and the Goldsmith's Fair were all exciting and wonderful elements of the visit.

October: San Antonio and elsewhere in Texas

We traveled to San Antonio for a reunion with a group of old friends, then went down to the coast for a few days of birdwatching, and finally visited another old friend in Austin.

The Alamo.
Two Whooping Cranes which we saw from a boat trip on the coast of Texas.

November: Thanksgiving in Pittsburgh. 

Family at the Thanksgiving table.

December: Fairfax, VA and Washington, D.C.

Beautiful December day in Washington, D.C.

December: Home for the Holidays

December 24: he first night of Hanukkah and also Christmas Eve. We roasted a goose!
Wishing everyone a Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

2016 Year in Review, Part 1

At the end of last year, I consolidated my blogging about food, travel, and life in general into this blog only. As a result, all travel posts have been here -- and we traveled a lot. Many of our trips had birds and wildlife as a focus, sometimes combining birdwatching with visits to friends or family.

I read a number of books this year, but I think fewer than most years. I didn't blog about all the books that I read. My favorite books this year were the four Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante, blogged here.

We did many things, ate some memorable meals, and visited quite a few new and familiar places in 2016. Below I've picked some highlights from January through July. For a complete description of the trips, check out each month of blog posts as listed in the sidebar to the right of this post. In my review part 2, I'll continue with a summary of July-December.

January: At Home

Maybe the most colorful dish I've cooked this year: from Ottolenghi's Jerusalem: Roasted sweet potatoes with green onions, peppers, figs, and balsamic reduction. On our later trip to London, we ate at Ottolenghi's restaurant.

February: Panama

Our travels in 2016 began in February with a week watching birds and other wildlife in Panama.
A sloth in a tree in Panama.

February: Florida

After returning to Miami, we rented a car and drove around in Florida for around 10 days, visiting relatives and watching still more birds.

Clown shoes at the Ringling Brothers Circus Museum, Sarasota, Florida.

March: Cape May, New Jersey

We spent one day in Lancaster, PA, with my brother and sister-in-law, then met Evelyn and her family in Cape May, N.J. for a weekend.
Miriam and Alice at Lobster House in Cape May.

March: Fairfax, VA and Washington, D.C.

After Cape May, we drove to Fairfax and spent a week visiting the family.
We viewed the cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C. during our visit to Fairfax.

April: "Birds and Art in Provence"

At the end of April and the beginning of May, we spent two weeks in France. First a tour titled "Birds and Art in Provence."

In the Camargue region near Arles: a flamingo and some of the famous white horses.
We not only went on a number of spectacular birdwatching and art-oriented tours
near Arles, we also enjoyed the open-air market in the town.
Above is a photo of a market stall selling bread and 15 kinds of macarons.

May: Paris

From Arles, we took the fast train to Paris and spent several days visiting friends and seeing a few of our favorite museums -- and one new museum.

The Musée du Quai Branly has been open for 10 years, but this was our first time at this unusual building, designed by Jean Nouvel. We enjoyed the collections of ethnographic materials.

May: Dinosaur National Monument and Provo, Utah.

Soon after we returned from Paris, we went to Provo, Utah, for a birthday conference for our friend Charlie. Before the conference we visited Vernal, Utah, to see Dinosaur National Monument and some very interesting prehistoric rock art.

A dinosaur bone with me for size.

Statue of Brigham Young at the Provo library where the conference was held.

May and June: Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Israel.

Just a day after coming back from Utah, we flew to Tel Aviv, Israel, for a memorial conference for a friend. After the conference, we visited Len's cousin for a few days, and did some sightseeing in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Caesarea.

The city of Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv. We walked along the sea front from
our hotel to the tower in the distance in this photo. Jaffa is the
oldest still-active port in the world.
Falafel at a restaurant in Abu Gosh near Jerusalem.
The second half of my Year in Review will be posted tomorrow!

Monday, December 26, 2016

Polish Christmas Dinner

We have often enjoyed a fabulous traditional Polish Christmas Dinner with our friends Michal and Anuska, and last night was as wonderful as ever. We love the fish in aspic, pirogis, borscht with mushroom dumplings, bigos (stew with several kinds of meat and two kinds of cabbage), and stuffed turkey roast. The dessert is very special too: pudding made from wheat, dried fruit, nuts and poppy seeds.

Fish in aspic, served with horseradish sauce. Delicious!

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas Goose-Hanukkah Goose

Last night, for the first night of Hanukkah and simultaneously for Christmas Eve, we cooked a goose and shared with friends. It's a pretty involved project that involves making a stuffing of apples and prunes, placing the goose on a large rack in the oven, and paying constant attention to removing the fat that starts to drip from the bird as soon as it goes in the oven. We're aware of both the English Christmas goose tradition, and also the traditional place of the goose and goose fat in Eastern European Jewish cooking. 

Len was the chief cook and also did the carving.
We ordered the goose a few weeks ago at a specialty meat market where we picked it up on Friday. It made a beautiful roast! We were aware of how goose was once appreciated in various traditions, especially in England, Eastern Europe, and Scandinavia, but is now no longer cooked very often. Our goose came from the one major farm in the US that raises geese commercially, which is in South Dakota. Other than that, if you want a goose you have to find a local farmer that's raising and slaughtering geese. Turkey and chicken and to some extent duck have replaced the goose that was once a much-loved centerpiece of celebrations.

Carving the goose is much more challenging than carving a turkey!
As it happens, the New York Times published an article about Jewish goose traditions which appeared just as we were eating our own goose: "Goose: A Hanukkah Tradition." According to the author, "Hosting a goose-centric holiday meal may sound like an attempt to make Hanukkah more like Christmas, but it’s actually a distinctive Jewish tradition and a way to support small-scale farms that practice sustainable agriculture."

Elaine making the first course salad of lettuce, clementines, avocado,
and walnuts.
The table ready for the seven of us.
We also had latkes -- potato pancakes -- the more familiar Hanukkah dish...
... and lit the candles for the first night of Hanukkah.
Dinner: goose with apple stuffing  and gravy, latkes with sour cream, weisswurst
(in honor of the Christmas Eve tradition of the Bavarian side of the family), red cabbage, and red wine. 

Dessert: our guest Linda brought a fabulous French apple tart, here seen in her kitchen.