Sunday, November 20, 2016

Bread and Safety Pins

My Facebook feed is full of angst these days - all my progressive friends are filled with justifiable fear for the future under Donald Trump, and all the conservatives I know are scornful in their tone regarding the progressives. Both sides seem surprised by the outcome of the election - the progressives stunned and the conservatives gleeful.

As usual, I'm somewhere in between. I always feared that Hillary's long history in this country would overcome her obviously superior qualifications. I am aware that, despite great progress in women's equality during my lifetime, many Americans are not ready for a woman president yet, and that idea was borne out. So, I was not as surprised as some, although I was deeply disappointed and honestly baffled that anyone would vote for a man whose campaign rhetoric was uniformly negative, scornful of norms of polite discourse, and openly misogynistic, hateful, and frightening. I'm sad to say that white privilege and male privilege are safe in this country for the foreseeable future.

And I am in mourning for the upcoming loss of the best President of my lifetime. President Obama and his family have been so superior, have shown us how true gentlemen and ladies behave, have been so human and so lovely - I will miss them very, very much. As Mrs. Obama said, "When they go low, we go high." That philosophy has pertained to international as well as domestic affairs, and I have admired them during what had to be a very tough eight years of their lives. 

Like so many of my friends, I'm trying to decide what to do. I'm not one to take to the streets with protests - I'll leave that to those who lean in that direction. My protests will be quieter, and will probably take the form of sending donations to fight the ugliness I see coming, calling my congresspeople to let them know how I feel on various issues as they come up, wearing a safety pin when I go out to signal that I am a safe haven for anyone who needs one, and trying in some small way to understand the anger that ushered Trump into office.

When I'm in need of comfort and reassurance, I turn to things I know I do well. I make soup, usually hearty soup that warms from the inside out. I make dates to get together with friends who understand how I feel, people I can trust and with whom I can explore my ideas, people who will gently set me straight if my thinking is faulty. And, I will bake bread. I fall back on baking bread, good, sturdy bread such as the one I ate as a child. 

My mother always bought Pepperidge Farm bread - not the mushy nonsense that goes under that name today, but a firm, solid loaf that was so dense it could be sliced in half lengthwise, making a sandwich from a single slice of bread. It came wrapped in a thick, white waxed paper with the name and logo printed in red; this was well before plastic bags came on the scene.

When I was a young newlywed, one of my wedding presents was Margaret Rudkin's wonderful Pepperidge Farm Cookbook. Illustrated with colorful drawings and packed with homey recipes, it is still a favorite of mine nearly fifty years later.  Her recipe for standard white bread is that exact loaf that I recall from my childhood and, to my mind, it can't be improved upon.

So, today for the first time in a long time, I got out my flour canister, searched through my kitchen drawers for packets of yeast, and heated my oven. These days, I have a warming drawer, so proofing the bread is no longer an exercise in dodging drafts; I just slide the bowls into the drawer, cover them with my favorite dish towel like a baby being put to bed, and pull the dough out an hour later, plump and high and already smelling of comfort.

Punch it down, knead it again, shape it into loaves, and back into the warming drawer. My loaf pans are dark mahogany brown from all the years of use and they almost don't need lubrication any more, as they have a rich patina from all the loaves that went before. I have six pans so I could make six loaves at a time and freeze some. Today, I only had yeast for four. So be it.

I will wrap them snugly and freeze most of them for the days ahead when I need that solid reassurance of well made bread, full of old fashioned goodness. In the meantime, I'll keep one out to slice and toast and spread with the richness of butter. In times like these we look for the comfort of safety pins on people's collars and homemade bread to fuel our protests.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Can't Call It Carbonara

Last night, I made a delicious new (to me) dish that I can't call carbonara, because it's not, but it's a close cousin. 

Speaking of cousins, I have a few. Some are close in space or heart, like Jan and Sherry, Ted and Linda. Others are more distant, both in space and in heart, but probably just because circumstance has precluded our getting together much to build our friendship. Close cousins are the next best thing to siblings; they know you, your history, and your preferences well, but they are less likely to tease than actual siblings. Cousins are cool.

My very favorite cousin, of course, is My Beloved. I had always admired him, even when the three years of age difference between us as kids seemed an insurmountable barrier to friendship. He was one of the "big kids" for a long time. But, in our college years, that barrier melted away and we grew close even before we fell headlong in love.

Our love affair took a 25 year hiatus, thanks to parental disapproval and genetic fears back in the bad old days before we knew much about such things - all we knew was that the kings and queens of Europe that married their cousins often lived to regret it, or their offspring did. So, with many tears and a three-year mourning period, we separated for the childbearing years.

There is good news in this story, too. We both found spouses to love and admire, and had long marriages to them, although ultimately those relationships faded. My Beloved and his wife raised two terrific daughters, the mothers of our three delightful grandchildren. My first husband and I didn't have children, but we were a good uncle-and-aunt combo.

After those relationships had run their course, odd circumstance brought My Beloved and me back together and the result was as electric as when we were young. The rest is delightful history: when it's right, it's right.

But, I was talking about pasta, not partners, when I got distracted. My Carbonara Cousin did have pasta, egg yolk, and lots of pepper, but it diverged from the carbonara canon when I substituted flat noodles for spaghetti, Swiss chard for peas, and added mushrooms and (gasp!) cream. 

We loved the richness of the egg yolk, cream and bacon paired with the slightly astringent Swiss chard, plus garlic, mushrooms, and Parmesan cheese to give it funkitude. It was a match made in heaven, just like mine with my own sweet cousin.

Can't Call It Carbonara

4 strips thick cut bacon, preferably Nueske's, cooked and coarsely chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 large clove garlic, crushed
6-8 mushrooms, quartered
Black pepper
1/2 cup half-and-half cream
1 bunch (about 8 leaves) Swiss chard, ribs removed and coarsely chopped
1/2 package of wide, flat noodles
1 egg yolk, whisked with a fork

Parmesan cheese, freshly grated.

In a big pot, heat salted water to boiling and cook the pasta according to pasta directions. While that is proceeding,

In a wide frying pan, cook the bacon over medium heat, but don't crisp it. Removed to paper towels to drain. In the same pan, pour off some of the bacon fat, but keep about 1 Tablespoon.

Sauté the onion and mushrooms in the bacon fat until the onions are translucent (about two or three minutes), add the garlic and cook, stirring for a few extra minutes. Grind in lots of black pepper to taste - be daring! Return the bacon to the pan.

Add the Swiss chard and cook together, stirring occasionally, until it wilts and gives up a little moisture to the pan (mine were red chard, so the juices became pink). Add the half-and-half and mix thoroughly, then remove from the heat. Count to twenty before adding the egg yolk and stir immediately to blend with the pan sauces.  (If you don't wait, you may scramble the yolk instead of lending its silkiness to the sauce).

Drain the pasta and stir it directly into the pan, mixing until it is evenly coated. Serve immediately with Parmesan cheese to grate over the top.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

My Kind Of Art

I got a little carried away by the all the colors in our latest tagine attempt - all those oranges and purples and pinks! I'm getting a big kick out of combining different ingredients in the tagine to find out which work best. It's almost like composing an artwork when the colors are so bright. Having zero artistic talent, myself, I need to rely on vegetables for my fun.

I tried a few new things this time - cooking the rice right along with the meat; adding a new mix of spices; adding radishes to my usual carrots; pairing the sweetness of carrots and shallots with the tingly tartness of Meyer lemon, rind and all. So each time I assemble one of these, all kinds of possibilities are bouncing around in my mind.

What emerged from the tagine after 90 minutes, the last 30 of which were filled with intoxicating scents wafting out of the pot, was a huge success. If I do say so myself. Which I do.

The shallots became sublimely sweet and slippery-tender. The chicken hidden underneath was funky with spices. The radish retained some of its color and added a little hint of that indefinable radishness. The carrots were mellow but not mushy. And the rice!  Oh, heavens, people, I could have made a meal of just the rice and still have wanted to spread it on my body. Orgasmic rice! No kidding.

So, here's what I did - I'll be interested to hear your ideas on what else would go well into the magic tagine.

Sunburst Chicken Tagine

4-6 chicken thighs (bone in or not - this time, mine were skinless and boneless)
1 teaspoon each of ground coriander, ground cumin, ground ginger, sweet paprika, and allspice (this may seem like too much spice; it's not! Load it up!)
salt, pepper
2 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
2-3 Tablespoons tomato paste
3 carrots, peeled and cut into 4" chunks
1 onion, chopped coarsely
1 cup rice (I used brown jasmine rice)
2 cups chicken stock
4 large shallots, peeled but left whole
l or 2 large watermelon radishes (or regular radishes, a handful)
l Meyer lemon, sliced into 8 wedges (you could use a regular lemon, I'm sure)

Green beans (optional)
A handful of mushrooms, washed and left whole (optional) (I used brown ones)
Pistachios or cashews (optional)

Start the tagine on low flame (only for ones that are rated for stovetop use), and pour in 1 Tablespoon of the oil. Add the spices and s&p, whisking them together to make a slurry. Dredge the chicken pieces in the slurry, turning to coat, then set them aside. 

Add the other tablespoon of oil and soften the onions before adding the rice. Toss the rice in the slurry until grains are coated, then add the chicken stock and stir. 

Add the chicken pieces back in and place all the vegetables and the lemon wedges, except the mushrooms, green beans, and nuts, on top of the chicken. 

Cover and simmer for about 90 minutes. When the tagine starts to smell as if it dropped straight from heaven, add the mushrooms and green beans to cook for the last 20 minutes or so, until the beans are still bright green but tender.

Fill the plates with a little of each of the ingredients (especially that killer rice!) and sprinkle with the nuts for texture.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Ramping Up

We had such fun with our demure little tagine that when we saw a splendid big one in a super fancy kitchen store, we swallowed hard at the price but shelled out the shekels for this lovely big rust red one. I had dreams of cooking once to eat twice - always a bonus! - and of using larger cuts and vegetables. We are ramping up!

There were, serendipitously, lamb shanks at my local market, conveniently cut in two. What could be nicer? I loaded the tagine with all kinds of things that lamb loves (thyme, garlic, lemon), put on the lid, and set it on top of the stove; this new tagine works either on the stovetop or in the oven.

What emerged 90 minutes later was really tasty, but I must admit that it was even better the second day. The artichokes all but fell apart, the olives were as wrinkled as a little old man, and I didn't even have to peel the butternut squash - the skin yielded to "low and slow". And the leeks!  People, those leeks were worth it all by themselves. They were soft and sweet and limply heavenly.

If I did this again, I'd likely swap out the butternut squash for kabocha, as it is firmer and sweeter, but the squash improved the second day when we ate it, bite for bite, with some of the lemon peel. And the crisp nuts gave the whole dish texture and salty interest.

Everything was infused with the garlic and Meyer lemon that I added as perfume, plus the herbal/spicy notes that wafted up from the bottom. Oh, baby.

I'm pretty sure you could do this without the tagine, if you don't have one, but if I were you, I'd hurry out to get one. 

Lamb Tagine

2 lamb shanks - ask the butcher to cut them in half crossways.
2 leeks, carefully washed and toughest leaves removed
1 large artichoke, quartered and fuzz removed
1 small squash, sliced about 2" think and seeds removed (I used butternut but I think I'd try kabocho next time)
A handful of olives (I used calvestrano)
1 Meyer (or regular) lemon - squeeze the juice in, then cut the lemon into slices and add those to the pot, peel and all.
1-2 Tablespoons olive oil
3 or 4 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly crushed (or to taste - I'd add more next time)
Dried thyme to taste
Salt, pepper
About 1/4 to 1/2 cup water

A handful of salted cashews or shelled salted pistachios.

You could brown the lamb shanks before hand (and I think that would be an improvement), but I didn't this time and the meat was still tender and tasty.

In the bottom of the tagine, add the olive oil and heat over low heat. Add the garlic and thyme. Salt and pepper the lamb shanks and add them to the bottom. Pile the other ingredients on top, positioning the things that take longest to cook at the bottom and layering the rest in order of cooking time, ending with the things that take the shortest time. Pour in a little water.

Put on the lid. Over very low heat, cook for about 90 minutes. 

Sprinkle with the nuts to add texture to the dish. Serve with the goozle that forms in the bottom of the tagine, plain or with rice or couscous. The artichokes are great dipped in the goozle.

Friday, April 1, 2016


My next door neighbor and I have been trading food all winter - I'd give her the rest of a stew or soup, and she'd refill my bowl with something she made when she returned it. That way, neither of us gets tired of our "creations," and we get each other's opinions on the dishes. She is cooking for her elderly mother who has a tiny appetite to go with her tiny frame, and I am cooking for a "variety guy" who, while he is generally easy to please and hugely lovable, doesn't enjoy leftovers very much. Nice for us both to have a friendly way to pass along the extras.

Hard to believe this is the same neighbor we so resented when they first built the house next door about 10 years ago. I had wished I had the money to buy the vacant lot myself, to preserve the hill full of wildflowers, to keep the line of weedy trees that reached up to the window behind my desk where I could watch little birds flitting through at eye level while working at my computer, to retain the steep hillside where the neighborhood children slid down on flattened cardboard "sleds," screaming with exhilaration.

Instead, we got months of dirt and noise from the building site and a wall that rose up higher than our house not ten feet from our windows. No wonder we were resentful! It bugged me so much that finally I had to put my anger aside or let it eat me up. I went next door and asked for a tour of the house, so I could learn to love it.

I have to admit that I didn't learn to love it right then, nor for several years afterwards, but I did come to a place of acceptance. It improved when our neighbors added some screening vegetation on their decks and assented to preserving our view of Mt. Tamalpais by repositioning a trellis on their side. 

Slowly, over the years, small gestures of friendship were made, first by them, returned by us. When Peter was diagnosed with cancer, we reached out to help with drives to treatment and securing a place on the Peninsula when Peter had to stay down there for a month of serious chemotherapy. Peter passed away about five years ago.

But, maybe some good came out of all that, as we grew closer to his widow, Doreen, during and after that time. And, again, very slowly, we became better neighbors and, finally, good friends, taking care of each other's dogs or picking up packages when we were on vacation.

This week, Doreen gifted us with a hearty minestrone that she clearly put a lot of work into. The broth was rich with tomatoes, and the legumes and vegetables gave it interest and texture. And, it was doubly welcome because our furnace blower died this week and we were bundled up with socks and extra sweaters while we awaited the correct part arriving from the furnace guy.

Now, one can't really complain too much when a blown blower means only that the temperature in the house plunges all the way down to 60 - where I used to live in western New York state, this would have been a much more serious situation in early April. But, we are California wimps, and proud of it, so we have to kvetch at least a little.

Doreen said, when delivering the soup, "It's just okay," but we thought it was much better than "okay," especially when we grated a little fresh Parmesan over it and spooned up the resulting garden ambrosia. I'll happily accept her friendsoup any old day, even now that the furnace is happily humming again.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Learning To Ride

My Dad taught me to ride a bike. I had been on a tricycle, then a bike with training wheels for some time, but he thought it was time to ditch the safe way and fly. I can’t count the number of times he puffed along beside the hand-me-down bike I got when my older sister grew out of it, steadying the seat with one hand and the handlebars with another, calling encouragement as I wobbled along the sidewalk shrieking with a combination of heady exhilaration and sheer terror.  Then, on the next exciting try, I felt an extra push from behind to get me up to cruising speed and I AM DOING IT, DADDY!  I’M RIDING! I’M RIDING!

Of course, I fell off trying to stop, but he picked me up and brushed me off, commiserated over my scrapes and put me right back on. That time, I remembered that one pedaled  backwards to stop the bike. The seat still bumped me in the back when I slowed enough to hop down, but that was minor compared to the flush of achievement and pride. I was officially a big kid.

It was like that all through my childhood and adolescence. My Dad was always urging me to do things I was afraid to try, gently but insistently showing me the way. When I was about eight and all the other kids were jumping or diving off the high board at the pool, I was only comfortable with the low board. Somehow, he knew that I had a secret longing to be brave like the other kids, so he made a deal with me. “I’ll catch you when you jump,” he promised. “I’ll be there to make sure you’re okay.”

And that dear man treaded water underneath the high board for at least forty-five minutes, shouting encouragement up to me as I stood shivering with my toes curled over the end of the board and my heart in my throat. He even had to take a rest for a minute on the side of the pool and he warned, “I may not be able to do this much longer!” Finally, looking down - ‘way down! - into his warm, brown eyes, I screwed up my courage and HUGE, RIPPING SPLASH! I surfaced to his wide grin - “You did it!

Actually, he did it. All through boyfriends and algebra and hairdos and college applications and first jobs, his encouragement and gentle prodding were what spurred me to achievements I might not otherwise have even tried. So much easier to wail, “Daddy, I can’t” than to put some honest effort into learning something new.

He wasn’t always successful - my hairdos were never very stylish (they still aren’t) and I never did get the point or the practice of algebra - but he always assured me “Of course you can!” and didn’t let me off the hook. 

Life keeps handing me challenges - finishing college and grad school, learning a whole new set of job skills, finding my way through a divorce when everyone in the family was opposed, establishing myself in a new locale with new friends and challenging financial concerns - and each time another one pops up, I’m back on that bike with Dad’s wisdom and strength behind me, still learning to ride.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

A Winter For Soups

This has been a winter for soups. Nearly every week, I have made broth from a roast chicken and devised some new take on an old theme - and each pot of soup has improved over the last one as I learned the tricks of the soup maker's trade.

The first and most important trick is, of course, the stock. No, you don't have to make it from scratch if you are short of time but, if you do, let it simmer long and low, hours and hours, to extract all the goodness from the bones. Really good chicken stock will actually jell when you refrigerate it to remove the extra fat that congeals on the top and is easily scooped off and discarded. (That's the second trick, by the way).

The third trick is that soup, like stew, always tastes better the second day, when the ingredients have swum around together in the broth and rubbed shoulders for a time. Like a high school dance, they need time to get to know each other and to become a real "thing."

Another bit of advice is to add fresh stuff to the soup as you serve it. Fresh things add texture and interest to what might otherwise be nursing home food. When I make chicken soup with a Mexican bent, I add cubes of avocado, fresh chopped tomato, slivers of lemon or lime, chopped cilantro, and tortilla chips in little bowls for people to add what they like. When I make "American style" chicken soup, I add frozen peas to the bowls and ladle the hot soup over them - just a few minutes in the soup is enough to thaw the peas and they add a wonderfully fresh touch.

My final hint is to add ingredients that are unexpected - you never know what kind of serendipity you might stir up. A good example is the coffee I added to the pot of Portuguese Bean Soup I made on the last day of winter. 

Coffee?? In soup?

Sure, why not!

It added such a nice, deep "belly" to the soup. I'm sure it would have been delicious even without the coffee, but I had just been watching my hero, Jacques Pépin, on TV and he told us that he never wastes anything so, when I was cleaning up the kitchen after breakfast and had about two cups of coffee that we didn't drink, I opened the lid of my soup pot and poured it in.

Now, I wouldn't suggest that for chicken soup, but it worked like a champ with the spicy sausage in my bean soup. So, think about some interesting ingredients that you might add to your next potage. There's nothing like a big pot of soup to warm the cockles, to share with the neighbors, and even to freeze for the inevitable day when spring turns back into a winter for soups.

Portuguese Bean Soup, inspired by the soup we had at the Punahou Carnival in Hawaii one year.

1 Tablespoon olive oil
1/2 large onion, chopped
2 large carrots, chopped
2 ribs of celery, chopped
1 box of chicken stock, 32 ounces (or homemade if you have it)
8 ounces tomato sauce
salt, pepper
1 can black beans (or any beans, really)
2 andouille sausages, diced (fully cooked, smoked sausages)
1-2 cups black coffee (optional)
1/4 head green cabbage, coarsely chopped

Hot sauce to taste (optional)

In a large pot, sauté the onion, carrot, and celery in the olive oil until the onion is clear. Pour in the chicken stock and the tomato sauce, add salt and pepper to taste. Add the beans, the sausage, and the coffee. (Andouille sausages are rather spicy - if you don't have spicy sausages to use, you may want to add some hot sauce to give a little zing to the broth)

Bring to a boil and simmer over low heat for an hour or more. Let cool and refrigerate over night. To reheat, bring back to a boil, add the cabbage, lower the heat, and simmer until the cabbage is just transparent but still has some texture.

Monday, March 14, 2016

There's Still Time!

Last Friday, My Beloved and I made our annual trek to Costco to cash in his rebate check from his Costco credit card. It's always a fun trip (despite being there on a Friday when even the pouring rain and howling winds didn't discourage anyone from going - the place was packed!), where we marvel at the sizes of things and wonder how anyone could ever use up a gallon of mayo or two dozen bunches of asparagus before the darn things spoil!  We always check out the veggie department and consider the fancy meats (and lately they have had organic options in both those departments!), but we usually don't buy much due to lack of freezer space and the fact that we are only two. Big eaters, I will concede, but really just two.

We do get a cube each of TP and paper towels, and sometimes another cube of facial tissues or a block of a dozen bars of soap, but those things actually can last us the better part of a year, so we have to think carefully about garage space before making such purchases. The prices are always tempting but our storage space is always limited.

This time, it was the weekend just before St. Patrick's Day. Being half Irish in blood and wholly Irish in attitude, I always celebrate the saint's day with gusto. When I happened upon the display of vacuum-sealed corned beef, my heart leapt in my breast and I was drawn over, dodging giant grocery carts steered either by children who weren't paying attention or little old ladies who weren't paying attention, to the huge boxes filled to overflowing with corned beef briskets and rounds spilling out as from a cornucopia.

Once again, most of the offerings were 'way too much for two people to eat unless they were determined to finish it off even if it took a week. Since My Beloved doesn't really like to eat the same thing seven days in a row (nor do I, if truth be told), I was disappointed until I spied one very small package and pounced upon it with a glad cry.

It was corned beef alright, but a small one of about two pounds. Perfect!  Enough for St. Patrick'd Day dinner and a day or two of sandwiches, but no more. What's more, the label stated that this was American Kobe beef round from Snake River Farms in Idaho. I know nothing about SRFs, but I had heard from meat-loving friends that American Kobe beef is really good, so I was psyched.

I had read on the interwebs about champ, too, an Irish dish that combines finely chopped green onions and parsley into boiled potatoes that have been mashed with butter and cream. My Irish heart sang as I read that recipe. I left the skin on my potato (just one is enough for us both) and mashed it right in, which was a very good choice. And, as if that wasn't enough, I had a quarter of a head of cabbage to slice thinly and sauté until limp and sweet and just a little browned. I can't think of a more Irish meal than corned beef and cabbage with champ.

I was so eager to try it that I didn't even wait for St. Patrick's Day - I cooked it three days ahead and you will be glad I did because there is still time for you to rush right over to Costco and snag your own!  

So, drum roll, please...

This was easily the best corned beef I have ever or will ever eat. It cooked in half the time of a big roast, either brisket or round, and the only word to describe the meltingly tender slices that emerged from the scented water is "succulent." 

Oh. My. Heavens. 

We both did that little, muted moaning thing that people do when what hits their tongues is too good to describe, shaking our heads in disbelief at the pleasure. I'm sure the texture and flavor have a lot to do with the amount of fat marbled into the meat but my ancestral genes recognize and respond with alacrity.

My only question now is - if I brave Costco again tomorrow, will I be able to score another one?

Monday, March 7, 2016

Fall Color

We began our 11-week See America tour in the fall, departing in early October. Here in California, there is some fall color, but it's mainly the occasional glorious tree, rather than the blaze of color that other places get as the trees prepare themselves for winter.

Our first really spectacular color came from the aspens in Colorado, where the liquid gold of the trees is hard to capture in photographs. The yellow of the sun through aspen leaves has to be seen to be truly appreciated. Even when they fall, their confetti is gorgeous.

We dashed across Kansas, where the fall color was mostly from the pale gold of ripening fields of wheat, the stubble fields of harvested corn striped tan and brown, and vast stretches of maroon sorghum. But all other colors in Kansas are dwarfed by a sky so high and wide that it dominates all the other features. I understand now why people could enjoy living in Kansas, so far from the drama of ocean and mountain. It's that awe-inspiring sky that adds the spirit to that landscape.

Up through Missouri, Kentucky and Ohio, it was still a late-summer landscape, but almost as soon as we drove into western New York, the fall claimed the land again. 

Everyone told us fall was late that year; I like to think it waited for us. New York state was on fire with color from Buffalo until we crossed the border at Albany into Massachusetts, where the Berkshires took over with their own splendid colors.

The area around Boston was simply amazing. The Harvard campus with its red maples and colorful chairs in the quad, the trees lining every street, even the cemeteries were joyful with brilliant colors.

We don't think of New York City as a place for fall color with its looming skyscrapers and hurrying crowds, but even there we found touches of color. The startling blue of a crisp autumn sky glimpsed between the buildings, 

the heavy heads of goldenrod along the High Line, 

and even bright trees on a penthouse terrace, complete with (I imagined) a tycoon making deals on his cell phone.

In Connecticut, most of the leaves were already down, but they made for delightful sounds as we scuffed along through the colorful confetti.


We turned south and lost the colors through New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia. Only the produce in the farmer's markets spoke of fall as we dropped down through North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. In the South, I think the fall-blooming camellias are the spectacular color of autumn.

Our whole trip was a visual feast, and maybe I will find the words to describe some of the other pleasures, visions of colorful rock formations and dramatic desert plants. For now, however, I'm still enjoying the memory of all that autumn glory.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016


As My Beloved and I traveled around the country, we visited a number of places that could qualify as shrines. There were the occasional informal roadside memorials where people who had lost loved ones to car accidents have erected crosses, or left candles or flowers to mark the spot of the tragedies; those gave us a momentary pang as we drove by, wondering about the lost ones and their families. 

We also visited places that were more formal shrines, such as the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas; The Hermitage, Andrew Jackson's home near Nashville, Tennessee; or the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas. There are so many places in our country that mark historic or meaningful events.

The ones that stay in my memory now months later are not always the formal ones, but there are plenty of those. Vicksburg, Mississippi is one of the most powerful. During the Civil War, a battle was fought for Vicksburg because it was built on a critical bluff for controlling supplies up and down the Mississippi river. We happened to be in a hotel that was just across the highway from the battlefield so we decided to detour through it on our way out of town. Little did we expect to be so moved and shaken. 

The smooth, narrow, two-lane road runs through, with towering stone monuments on both sides to mark where troops from both North and South were positioned. Reading about the battle, we learned that nearly 20,000 young men died at that site, roughly half from either side. The woods crowd the lawns bordering each side of the road and the positions are very close to each other; it is easy to imagine the fear the soldiers must have felt when the woods concealed the enemy so well. What began as a lighthearted drive turned out to be a sobering lesson in the tactics of death. As we drove away, My Beloved remarked that before we are ever tempted to declare war again, we should fly our Senators and Congressmen down to Vicksburg to tour that battlefield.

Happily, there were also more positive shrines to enjoy. The Natchez Trace, a footpath that stretches from Nashville, Tennessee to Natchez, Mississippi was one we loved. These days, most people drive the route because there is a beautiful parkway that follows the route, but in the old days it was a major north-south trade route used first by the Native Americans  for thousands of years and later by the European settlers. We drove along on our way south, but we stopped and walked for a short time on the original trail. I literally got goosebumps thinking about all the history it had seen. The trail was beautiful, surrounded by woods and dished in the middle by the centuries of footfalls, with autumn leaves decorating the path like bright confetti.

One of the shrines that surprised me was Graceland, the home of the late Elvis Presley in Memphis, Tennessee. I fully expected that my snide side would emerge to sneer at this kitschy landmark; instead, I was oddly touched. I always enjoyed Elvis' songs - his were more or less the soundtrack of my youth until the Beatles arrived from England - but I am not the kind of faithful fan with whom we rubbed shoulders at Graceland, people who wept at his grave and keep pictures of him in their homes. But even I was touched and impressed by the "small town boy makes good" feel of the house and the sad ending for such a huge talent.

Sam Walton's daughter has created a shrine to American art in her home town of Bentonville, Arkansas. When we read about this place, we resolved to put it on our itinerary, and we are glad we did.  Crystal Bridges is amazing, both the collection and the architecture. The museum is built over a creek and the water pools around the "bridges" of the museum. We spent two days there, first enjoying the Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian house that has been moved to the site from New Jersey and rebuilt block by block, then going back for their permanent collection the next day. There is also a shrine in Bentonville to her father's success, the original store where he began Walmart.

We loved it all!

In Texas, which we liked far more than we expected, we stopped in San Antonio to visit friends and to re-visit My Beloved's days as an Air Force recruit in the mid-sixties when the Vietnam War was in full cry and the Alamo was a mostly-neglected, crumbling ruin. Texans have, in the meantime, decided that the Alamo is an important landmark of Texas history, so they have restored it, built a small park around it, and even established rules of conduct for those touring it. A sign outside goes so far as to outline what kind of attire tourists may wear, and urges them to speak in respectful tones. A shrine, indeed, with an atmosphere more churchlike than the original mission church the building was before the battle that made it famous.

Also in Texas was Big Bend, a desert landscape of awesome beauty with plants and animals weirdly adapted to the harsh environment down by the Rio Grande that forms a border between the United States and Mexico. From out of that flat desert rise "sky islands," mountain ranges so separated by the harsh desert that the animals and plants on them are adapting separately from each other, rather like the Galapagos Islands finches that fascinated Charles Darwin. It is a spectacular landscape. We visited because it is a "dark park," a place where in our rapidly developing country one can get far enough from city lights to see the amazing blaze of the Milky Way that was evident in my childhood every night but is now mostly obliterated by electric lights. Big Bend is a shrine to darkness and the miracle of adaptation. We can't wait to return to that amazing place.

We need shrines to help us remember and celebrate the people who built our country and the places that make it unique. In the months since we returned, I have gone back in my memory many times to relive the experience of appreciation and, in some cases, downright awe that such places give me.