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Not all who wander are lost. March 31, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. “Not all who wander are lost” has taken on a life of its own as a motto, message, and reminder for our day. I have a silver bracelet with this line engraved on it, and often wear it, perhaps as a corollary to the bumper sticker on our faithful old VW Golf, “Boldly going nowhere.”

But the danger with catchphrases like this is that they become detached from their originators and their context. In the case of “not all who wander are lost,” the phrase originated with J.R.R. Tolkien in The Fellowship of the Ring, where Gandalf writes it of the nondescript ranger Strider, who later turns out to be Aragorn, the King of Middle Earth. In context, it reads:

“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.” 

A great deal more profound than just the one line, don’t you think?

On the other hand, the advantage of reducing a complex thought to a one-liner is that then everyone can interpret it for themselves. Or as our friend Ben, a fan of the phrase, would say, “My thoughts often wander, but my mind is not yet lost.”

Of course, like the original phrase, this is open to interpretation.

               ‘Til next time,

                             Silence

Taking culinary pretension to new heights. March 30, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I’ve been meaning to write about this since I first read about it in the March 5-6 weekend Wall Street Journal, but have been putting it off because, frankly, I didn’t know what to say. But yesterday’s post by our friend and fellow blogger Richard Saunders (“Good news for history-loving gardeners”) finally got me off my duff. If Richard could write about a dozen or so books, surely I could write about one. Even one as outrageous as this.

(Our friend Ben, reading over my shoulder about how I didn’t know what to say, says that this may be the first time I’ve ever lived up to my name. Shut up, Ben.)

The book, or rather books, in question are collectively called Modernist Cuisine, and for only $625 (or $461.62 on Amazon, what a steal!) you can add it/them to your collection. Sound steep? That’s only the beginning. If you have to ask how much it will cost to equip your kitchen like a laboratory so you can make the dishes in Modernist Cuisine or buy the innumerable exotic ingredients, you can’t afford them.

The title is the first hint that this book/set is putting its pretentious face first. Note the use of Modernist versus Modern Cuisine. This brings to mind the Cubists, the avant-garde artists of the early 1900s through 1920s, who reduced portraiture, still lifes, and landscapes to a series of two-dimensional geometric interfaces. What geometry was to the Cubists, chemistry is to Modernist Cuisine. The Cubists finished the work the Impressionists had started, freeing art from its long connection to literal depiction. But though many artists of the time, including Picasso and Braque, dabbled in Cubism, they ultimately moved on. Nonetheless, it was worshipped by the edgy collectors of the day, defining them as fast and trendy, not stodgy like their rival collectors who just weren’t “with it,” and still provides subject matter to students of art history.

I have no problem with Cubism. I’d rather own a Leonardo, Vermeer, or Durer, or a Fra Angelico or Giotto, or a Van Dyke or Holbein, or a Modigliani, Klee, or Magritte, or an El Malek or Demuth. But should someone choose to bestow a Cubist painting (or, for that matter, a copy of Modernist Cuisine) on me, it’s not like I’d scream and run. Far better Cubism than the ultra-realism that transforms paintings into what looks like revolting copies of photographs, not unlike those dingy, horrendous photographs of food displayed over the counter at low-end Chinese restaurants. But I can’t help but hope that “modernist” cuisine, like Cubism, ultimately proves to be a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

Getting back to the book(s) themselves, let me quote from the product description on Amazon: “In Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, and Maxime Bilet… have created a six-volume, 2400-page set that reveals science-inspired techniques for preparing food… [and] have achieved astounding new flavors and textures by using new tools such as water baths, homogenizers, centrifuges, and ingredients such as hydrocolloids, emulsifiers, and enzymes… Imagine being able to encase a mussel in a gelled sphere of its own sweet and briny juice… including hundreds of parametric recipes… Extensive chapters on how to achieve amazing results by using modern thickeners, gels, emulsions, and foams…”

One Amazon reviewer, who loved the book/set, summed up my feelings best by saying “Probably the most relevant criticism I have encountered is the notion that the recipes it presents are unapproachable.” Noooo. How could you say that?

Well, let’s try the recipe selected by the reviewer in the Wall Street Journal just for starters: a cheeseburger. Now, cheeseburgers don’t strike most burger aficionados as especially expensive or challenging, whether you’re buying yours at Mickey D’s or making them at home. Little did you know! Here’s what lead Modernist Cuisine author and former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myrhvold and his team can do to your basic burger:

“Prepping the lettuce and tomato requires a vacuum sealer. The cheese is restructured—heated with ingredients like carrageenan and cooled in a mold—for a gooier texture. And making the burger itself requires hand-grinding the beef and using half-cylinder molds to catch the strands and gently form the patties. Total time for the recipe: 30 hours, including time for the bun dough to rise…”

This description literally just scratches the surface. Check out the article, “Making a 21st-Century Hamburger,” at www.wsj.com to see the extraordinary photo of the deconstructed cheeseburger and the callouts of all the steps involved for each ingredient. Just as an example: “Tomato: Specifically, a large beefsteak tomato, quickly blanched, peeled, cut into slices and briefly vacuum sealed.” The lettuce is also vacuum-sealed in plastic, the Holy Grail of modernist cuisine, a technique called sous vide. (“Sous” means “under” in French, “vide” means “empty,” but the phrase has come to mean “under vacuum” when applied to cooking.)

As the WSJ article says, “Many of the recipes involve sous vide cooking (in which ingredients are sealed in airtight plastic bags and slowly cooked, often in water), and the book’s list of ‘must-have’ tools includes liquid nitrogen, a centrifuge and a tabletop homogenizer.”

Now, as someone concerned about the proliferation of carcinogens, I’ve noted with alarm the trend in today’s grocery freezer cases towards boil-in-bag and microwave-in-bag products. I’d rather just boil the veggies in a pot and avoid consuming molecules of plastic that have migrated into my supper (or consuming microwaved food, for that matter), thank you. The sous vide technique sounds suspiciously similar to these so-called “convenience products,” except for the price: It costs $469 on sale (down from list price of $548.97) for a sous vide setup, including the special “water oven,” vacuum sealer, plastic vacuum pouches, and stainless steel pouch rack.

Okay, I’m a self-proclaimed Luddite. Though I hate the preciousness of the phrase “slow food” (coined in opposition to “fast food”), I entirely agree with its principles: Good food takes as much time as it takes, and rushing it with chemical, plastic, mass-produced, adulterated, tasteless shortcuts destroys not just the flavor, texture, appearance, and nutritional value of the food, but the pleasure one gets from preparing it. Apparently—given that 30-hour cheeseburger—the proponents of modernist cuisine and the slow foodists have at least one common ground. Those from-scratch hamburger buns point to other areas of commonality, as well.

Modernist cuisine (formerly called molecular gastronomy, making the connection of chemistry and cooking in its approach more apparent) has been pioneered and/or embraced by some of the foremost chefs of our day, including the man many regard as the foremost chef of our time, Ferran Adria of elBulli fame. I have not sampled the fabled fare at elBulli, or consumed one sous vide-prepared product (or boil/microwave-in-bag product either, for that matter). Perhaps chemically adulterated, vacuum-cooked food really is the greatest thing since, well, vacuum cleaners.

But frankly, I hate vacuum cleaners. I hate anything that requires noise to do what you could do in silence (such as, say, sweep). No doubt science enthusiasts will embrace modernist cuisine with the same enthusiasm with which they adapted the scientific approach to breadmaking detailed in books such as The Bread Builders. Modernist Cuisine, the book set (which is universally described as having six books but very prominently shows five cased volumes plus a spiral-bound booklet in every depiction), with its lab-rat approach and astonishing deconstructionist photographs, will have chemistry and art majors drooling. For my part, please keep your pretensions and your gloved, sterile, lab-friendly, elitist approach out of my kitchen. I have better things to do with $625. And what, exactly, are “parametric recipes,” anyway?!

            ‘Til next time,

                       Silence

Good news for history-loving gardeners. March 29, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, gardening, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about a real treat for gardeners who also happen to be fans of Early American history, such as yours truly, our friend Ben, and Silence Dogood. A new book, Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation (Andrea Wulf, Knopf, $30) was released just today, March 29. I was happy to see that Amazon already has it in stock, and you can buy it there for $17.64 (with free shipping, if you add a second item to your order to bring it to at least $25). It’s also available on the Barnes & Noble website (www.barnesandnoble.com).

This is far from the first book about America’s Founders and their passion for agriculture and gardening, as we’ll soon see. But Ms. Wulf, a British garden design historian, has done us all a service by bringing all the “Founding Gardeners”—Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, even our own hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin—together in a single volume. And she adds a new spin by focusing on how their travels abroad and exchanges with fellow plant-lovers across Europe enriched their own views of America’s gardening and agricultural potential. (Of the Founders, only the frail, sickly Madison never traveled abroad; Washington didn’t get as far as Europe, but did venture off to Jamaica with his brother Lawrence as a young man.)

We think of today’s internet access, services like Skype, and the Global economy as making today’s world a lot smaller and more accessible than the world of the Founders. But in some ways, this is a fallacy. In their day, everyone who was anyone knew everyone, or at least everyone who shared their interests and passions. True, it may have taken longer to get a letter or package, or to get from place to place. But if you were a well-connected plant enthusiast, you’d be in constant correspondence with everyone from John Bartram, America’s first nurseryman, to the great botanists, plant explorers, nurserymen, and garden enthusiasts across Europe, exchanging plants, seeds, techniques, successes and failures, plant gossip, and, of course, the latest styles.

Let’s say you’d barely made it through elementary school when your father, who’d planned to send you to college but was furious at your refusal to become a minister, instead forces you to go to work as a gopher at the local newspaper. Fed up, at 17 you move to a distant state and end up running a paper of your own, along with creating a number of useful societies and institutions and displaying a passion for experiment and invention that causes you to create a lifesaving device used by everyone, which you decline to patent or trademark and allow to pass into the public domain, profiting not a cent or a sou from your work.

Now, imagine that, your eighth-grade education and lack of social standing—not to mention your irregular domestic situation and acknowledged illegitimate child—notwithstanding, you regularly corresponded with Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, President Obama, the Dalai Lama, and pretty much every major figure in science, medicine, technology, literature, music, and philosophy around the world. Possible? Maybe. Likely? Not very. Yet that was Benjamin Franklin, and his contemporaries also had access to the global network of fellow enthusiasts, generalists, and specialists.

I can’t quite see myself—or, say, our friend Ben, with his advanced education, eager mind, and broad-ranging interests—engaging the attention of a Bill Gates, Michelle Obama, or Ekhart Tolle to discuss ideas. Despite our “small world,” there are simply too many of us, and specialization is the order of our day, preventing those who are interested in everything (or even many things) from even finding each other. In today’s world, generalists like Dr. Franklin who were good at many things would be ridiculed rather than revered like folks who kept their interests confined not merely to, say, medicine, but to the most specialized forms of same, such as bariatric surgery.

But I’m straying from the point here. Fortunately, back in the Founders’ day, it was viewed as perfectly reasonable to be, say, a surveyor, soldier, Freemason, landowner, politician, avid plantsman and agricultural innovator, and Father of Our Country, like our first and greatest President, George Washington. Nobody thought it peculiar that someone with Ben Franklin’s stature would take the time to introduce plants like rhubarb to America while off on diplomatic missions.

Anyway, we here at Poor Richard’s Almanac have added Founding Gardeners to our must-have lists. If you’re a gardener who’s also a follower of the Founders, we suggest that you do likewise, or that you suggest that your local library purchase a copy for its collection.  But let’s get back to the other books on the topic. A quick scan of our collective libraries produced some other books you might be interested in checking out*:

Early American Gardens “For Meate or Medicine” (Ann Leighton, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970, $10)

American Gardens in the Eighteenth Century “For Use or For Delight” (Ann Leighton, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976, $17.50)

Thomas Jefferson: The Garden and Farm Books (Robert C. Baron, ed., Fulcrum, 1987, $20)

Everyday Life in Early America (David Freeman Hawke, Harper & Rowe, 1989, $9.95)

Colonial Gardens (Rudy F. Favretti and Gordon P. DeWolf, Barre Publishers, 1972, no price)

For Every House a Garden: A guide for reproducing period gardens (Rudy and Joy Favretti, The Pequot Press, 1977, $4.95)

Eighteenth Century Life: British and American Gardens (Robert P. Maccubbin and Peter Martin, eds., Special Issue, College of William & Mary and Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Volume VIII, n.s., 2, January 1983, $10)

Herbs and Herb Lore of Colonial America (Colonial Dames of America, Dover Publications Inc., 1995, $3.95)

Gentle Conquest: The Botanical Discovery of North America (James L Reveal, Starwood Publishing, Inc., 1992, no price)

The Art of Colonial Flower Arranging (Jean C. Clark, The Pyne Press, 1974, $8.95)

Farmer George Plants a Nation (Peggy Thomas, Calkins Creek, 2008, $17.95, a wonderful children’s book about, who else, George Washington)

We know we have others, too, but—how embarrassing!—all of us have so many books, we’re just not putting our hands on them right now.

Here are other books I found on Amazon that we need to add to our collections*:

Washington’s Gardens at Mount Vernon: Landscape of the Inner Man (Mac Griswold, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999, $40)

Colonial Gardens: The Landscape Architecture of George Washington’s Time (American Society of Landscape Architects, United States Bicentennial Commission, 1932, from $52)

Thomas Jefferson’s Flower Gardens at Monticello (Peter J. Hatch, Edwin Morris Betts, and Hazelhurst Bolton Perkins, University of Virginia Press, 3rd ed., 1971, $12.95)

Jefferson’s Garden (Peter Loewer, Stackpole Books, 2004, $21.95)

Thomas Jefferson: Landscape Architect (Frederick Doveton Nichols and Frank E. Griswold, Univeristy of Virginia Press, 2003, $14.95)

Plants of Colonial Days (Raymond L. Taylor, Dover Publications Inc., 2nd. ed., 1996, $5.95) 

Flowers and Herbs of Early America (Lawrence D. Griffith, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Yale University Press, 2010, $24)

Plants of Colonial Williamsburg: How to Identify 200 of Colonial America’s Flowers, Herbs, and Trees (Joan Parry Dutton, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1979, $12.95)

The Gardens of Colonial Williamsburg (M. Kent Brinkley and Gordon W. Chappell, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1995, $29.95)

Williamsburg’s Glorious Gardens (Roger Foley, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1996, $19,95)

From a Colonial Garden: Ideas, Decorations, Recipes (Susan Hight Rountree, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2004, $19.95)

Whew, that’s quite a wish list. And we’re sure we’re still missing plenty! Please let us know if you have favorite books on Colonial, Revolutionary, and Federal gardening in our Colonies/States that I’ve overlooked!

                 Warmly,

                             Richard Saunders

* Note that prices are list prices, not Amazon prices, typically considerably lower, unless noted.

Fo shizzle! Creating a catchphrase of one’s own. March 28, 2011

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“Fo shizzle! Snoop Dogg coming to Allentown’s Croc Rock!” proclaimed the headline in Friday’s Allentown, PA Morning Call. Hip-hop superstar Snoop Dogg will indeed be appearing at the Allentown franchise of the famous Crocodile Rock venues, and so, presumably, will his trademark comment, “Fo shizzle!”

Well, as it happens, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood own a rather snoopy dog of our own, our beloved Pioneer Hawk’s Haven Shiloh von Shiloh Special. So our friend Ben suggested that we add “Fo shizzle!” to any comment interpreted as coming from Shiloh. (Around here, she has plenty to say for herself, believe me.)

Silence was willing to play along, but she took the conversation in a more serious direction. “You know, Ben, I’m sure plenty of folks have signature phrases, tag lines, catchphrases, or whatever you’d like to call them. We just don’t know about them because we’re such Luddites and don’t watch TV. But the only one I can think of offhand is Emeril, with his ‘BAM!’, ‘Kick it up a notch’, and ‘Feel the love’.”

“Well, there’s always Ah-nold with ‘I’ll be BAAACK!’ and James Bond with ‘The name’s Bond. James Bond’ and ‘Shaken, not stirred’,” I pointed out. “And what about Sherlock Holmes and ‘The game is afoot!’?”

“Ben, those are fictional. Can you imagine former Governor Schwarzenegger announcing ‘I’ll be BAAACK!’ every time he left the statehouse floor?!” Silence was giving me her ‘What are you, some kind of mental cockroach?’ look. “Imagine Emeril or Snoop Dogg having to insert their trademark expressions into every public appearance, interview, and show, sort of as if Jimmy Buffett had to break into ‘Margaritaville’ every time he stepped out of his door.”

“That could get old fast,” I noted.

‘Righto, Einstein,’ I could hear Silence thinking. But unfortunately for all concerned, this train of thought had already left our friend Ben’s admittedly rusty mental tracks and was rapidly picking up speed. “Say, Silence, why don’t we come up with our own signature catchphrases?” I asked.

Silence slapped a hand dramatically over her eyes—a gesture I’ve come to know well over the years—but quickly saw the advantages of the scheme. “Okay, good plan,” she said. “Mine will be ‘Shut up, Ben!’ and yours can be ‘Great idea, Silence!'”

“Um, I’d sort of been considering ‘Isn’t that brilliant?’ as my tagline and ‘Another brilliant idea, Ben!’ as yours.”

“Another ‘brilliant’ idea, Ben!”

“Maybe you could practice a bit so it sounds more sincere and less sarcastic. Ow! Ow!!!”

“Maybe this is a bad idea, and you should forget about it before I kick it up a notch in the direction of your rump, fo shizzle!”

Geez. Clearly some people just don’t understand the mechanics of greatness. A memorable line can take you a long, long way. Right, Shiloh?

“Another brilliant idea, Ben. Fo shizzle!”

I knew you’d think so.

Reviled, revered: Gandhi, Taylor, Wintour March 27, 2011

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Our friend Ben was struck by this weekend’s Wall Street Journal coverage of three disparate but unforgettable characters who all share the good fortune/misfortune of being both reviled and revered: Mohandas Gandhi, called Mahatma, “Great Soul;” the movie legend Elizabeth Taylor; and Anna Wintour, the stylemaker and editor of the American edition of Vogue magazine.

It may seem inconceivable to contemporary readers that anyone could revile Gandhi, the architect of the nonviolent Ahimsa movement and the figure behind India’s achievement of independence and self-rule. For most of us, it would be like throwing stones at Mother Teresa.

Yet Gandhi the man was indeed a bit different from Gandhi the icon, as a new biography points out. In Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, Joseph Lelyveld reiterates well-known but usually suppressed facts about the man behind the legend: Gandhi’s numerous sexual peculiarities; his inherent, unvarnished racism (especially towards Blacks and what were then called Untouchables); his cruelty towards his long-suffering wife, relatives, and followers; his endless self-promotion. Our friend Ben is not about to belabor any of these in detail; this is a PG-rated blog, after all. But should you wish to see the truth for yourself, buy the book or at least read the review on www.wsj.com (“Among the Hagiographers” by Andrew Roberts). 

Let’s take on Anna Wintour next. Ms. Wintour, for those like our friend Ben who might not be aware, is the scion of a powerful British publishing family and the prime determinor of who’s hot and who’s not in the world of fashion, fashion writing, fashion photography, and modeling. She is herself the model for Meryl Streep’s character in the film “The Devil Wears Prada” and its inspiration, a book by the same name by a completely unlikeable ex-assistant of Ms. Wintour’s (rendered adorable for the film by Anne Hathaway).

Ms. Wintour, who wore Prada to the film’s premiere, comes across in the article (“The Business of Being Anna” by Joshua Levine) as a consummate businesswoman with an eye always fixed on the bottom line. With her perfectly plastic 20-year-old—oh, wait, that would be 61-year-old—face, lush pageboy wig, and trademark outsized Chanel sunglasses, it would be easy to dismiss Ms. Wintour as a ludicrous parody. But this would be a gross injustice, given her acumen as a business tycoon and her ability to make her own vision of fashion become everyone’s (or at least, everyone who counts) vision. This has doubtless contibuted to her enduring presence in a field where “ephemeral” is typically a better descriptor.

Mr. Levine points out Ms. Wintour’s finer qualities: her unshakeable loyalty to her industry friends, her dedication to Vogue, her tireless efforts to promote causes she believes in, from raising money for New York’s Metropolitan Museum to filling the coffers for then-future President Obama’s campaign. He also sums up her attitude towards her underlings in a trenchant quote that goes a long way to explaining “The Devil Wears Prada:” “Work is work.”

And he shows that loyalty and sensitivity can be very far removed, as in her comment on hearing of her protege John Galliano’s firing from the House of Dior for making repeated, hateful, drunken anti-Semitic comments in public: “This is all so tragic.” (Speaking of Galliano’s downfall, not his comments.)

Another popular icon that people loved to love or loved to hate was Elizabeth Taylor, the stunningly beautiful movie star whose personal life ultimately eclipsed both her beauty and her movie roles. (Our friend Ben’s parents revered Ms. Taylor, the glamorous movie star, but our friend Ben chiefly recalls her from perennial National Enquirer headlines—“Liz to remarry!”—and can’t recall seeing her in a single movie role.)

Ultimately, our friend Ben has no idea if Elizabeth Taylor the movie star or Liz Taylor, the beautiful, feckless socialite, will endure in the public imagination. But I feel certain that something will endure. Like Ms. Wintour, Ms. Taylor’s loyalty to such dubious characters as Michael Jackson and Larry Fortensky as well as to friends and fellow actors like James Dean, Montgomery Clift, and Rock Hudson is legendary. And like Ms. Wintour, she stuck by her favorites in good times and bad.

But unlike Ms. Wintour, though her behavior shocked a nation brought up in the straightlaced ’50s and not ready for female stars like herself, Marilyn Monroe, and Ingrid Bergman who went their own way, Liz Taylor was never once viewed as a cold, heartless monster. A spoiled, degenerate, drunken sexpot, maybe. But never an ice princess, power-mad and devoid of humanity. The diminutive actress was truly larger than life, in every sense.

Roger Ebert says in his WSJ tribute to Ms. Taylor, “What Stars Make Us Swoon? First Loves,” “Most of us choose our favorite movie stars before we turn 18.” Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood beg to differ. Before we turned 18, our favorite movie stars were Mr. Magoo, Vincent Price, Black Beauty, Old Yeller, Peter Sellers, Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre, and Groucho Marx. Not that we have a bad thing to say about any of them now. But Alan Rickman, Gabriel Byrne, Geoffrey Rush, Johnny Depp, Helen Mirren, Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, Hugh Jackman, Morgan Freeman, Robert Downey Jr., Hugh Laurie, Rowan Atkinson, James Earl Jones, Geoffrey Holder, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Lee, Michael Caine, and many others would have remained shadow figures were Ebert’s comment true. Instead, we’ve added them to our list of faves as we’ve enjoyed their performances through the years.

True, our perception of Ms. Taylor will always be colored by our parents’ veneration of her. Our perception of Ms. Wintour, unjust as it may be, will always bear that tinge of “The Devil Wears Prada.” And our view of Gandhi will always be seen through the lens of his wife, forced to adapt to deprivation, hard work, and celibacy by default, and humiliated daily by the very public bizarrities of her celebrity husband. 

What, ultimately, matters? The umatched beauty and great heart of Elizabeth Taylor, the loyalty and empire-building of Anna Wintour, the international recognition and freedoms gained by Mahatma Gandhi?  Or their all-too-human failings? Our friend Ben deplores cruelty, ambition, weakness, and vanity in all their forms. But I also believe we all fall prey to these lowly, degrading human traits, or others like them. For those like Ms. Taylor, Ms. Wintour, and Mahatma Gandhi, who can turn personal weaknesses into global triumphs, our friend Ben can only say, onward and upward! Would that we all could overcome our personal failings and transform them into service for the good of all mankind.

Fine Arts & Craft Festival this weekend! March 26, 2011

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Silence Dogood here. One of my favorite shows of the year, the 2011 9th Annual Juried Spring Fine Arts & Craft Festival, is being held today and tomorrow in nearby Kutztown, PA.

The show is held on the beautiful Kutztown University campus in Keystone Hall (Trexler Avenue/South Campus Drive and Baldy Street) from 9 to 5 today, March 26, and from 10 to 4 tomorrow, the 27th. In addition to the truly marvelous arts and crafts, you’ll find live music, refreshments, a raffle, and hourly door prizes. Admission is $4 for adults and free for kids 12 and under.

I’m always especially drawn to the handmade jewelry, beads, clothing, and exquisite watercolors and nature photography. But there’s plenty more. As the organizers say: “You’ll be delighted by the selection of quality handcrafted traditional and contemporary work. This year’s festival features traditional wood turning, Shaker boxes, braided and penny rugs, scherenshnitte (elaborate paper cutting), folk art and theorem painting, calligraphy, basketry, tinsmithing, redware, folk art Santas, block printing, quilting, felting, and weaving, as well as contemporary ceramics, glass, jewelry, dried florals, wearable art, photography, and fine artwork produced by juried master craftsmen and fine artisans.”

Check it out at www.RBcrafts.org. And if you go, especially today, make a day of it: Stop by Renninger’s Farmers’ Market and Flea Market (turn onto Noble Street from Main Street and look for it a few blocks up on your right). Check out the carefully chosen selection of used and rare books at our friend Brendan Strasser’s Saucony Book Shop, enjoy the marvelous artisanal jewelry, ceramics, and other wonders at Made gallery and the exquisite clothing, jewelry, and sundry delights at Adam N’Eve Boutique (all three are on Main Street, on the right-hand side).

There are plenty of other fun shops—including antiques stores—to explore while you’re there. And let’s not forget food! Enjoy lunch at one of our favorite local restaurants: TC’s Food & Spirits, La Cocina Mexicana, Betty’s Wraps, Valentino’s, the Kutztown Tavern, or the White Palm Tavern or The Market Cafe in nearby Topton. Above all, have fun!!!

          ‘Til next time,

                        Silence

Sweet potatoes: the perfect food?! March 25, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. While our friend Ben and I were vacationing in Asheville, North Carolina, our friend Kathy mentioned that she’d read that sweet potatoes were the perfect food. Sweet potatoes?!

OFB and I love sweet potatoes in (almost) all their forms: baked with butter and salt, sliced and roasted with olive oil and herbs, as sweet potato fries, in sweet potato souffle, as sweet potato chips. (We can’t abide the nasty, marshmallow-covered casserole, however; for us, the natural sweetness of sweet potatoes is plenty sweet enough without sugar added and glop on top. This is a vegetable, not dessert, folks.) But the perfect food?! I’d have thought it would be eggs.

Determined to get to the bottom of this, I headed to my good friend Google. I already knew that, besides being naturally low-cal, sweet potatoes contain significant amounts of fiber and vitamins A (as beta carotene) and C. But plenty of veggies are low-cal and high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. And while we love sweet potatoes’ luscious flavor and naturally rich, creamy texture (the secret is cooking them long enough to bring the texture out), plenty of other veggies can claim “delicious” as part of their job description.

I found plenty of good press for sweet potatoes. They were listed as high in antioxidants and rate the lowest of the root veggies on the glycemic index, making them an excellent “anti-diabetic” vegetable and putting them on the “good carbs” list on carb-restricted diets like South Beach, Atkins, and Sugar Busters. In addition to being high in vitamins A and C, they contain significant amounts of vitamin B6 and the minerals manganese, copper, iron, potassium, and calcium. They’re recommended to protect smokers from emphysema and those at risk from heart failure and stroke from the onset of symptoms, thanks to their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich properties.

I’m still not convinced about the “perfect food” business, but we love sweet potatoes and try to incorporate them in our meals at least once or twice a week. We don’t eat the skins when we bake sweet potatoes—our black German shepherd, Shiloh, Amazon parrot, Plutarch, and chickens are all lined up for their share—but we do eat the skins when we roast thick slices of sweet potatoes, and find them tender and delicious (not to mention an excellent source of added fiber).

Okay, great. Sweet potatoes have wonderful flavor, are high-fiber, low-cal, and packed with vitamins and minerals. But what about protein? A super-vegetable, sure. But as for the “perfect food,” what about dried beans, soy and soy derivatives like tofu, brown rice, whole grains—those staples that have supported human life since the dawn of the agricultural age—not to mention yogurt, cheese, and those eggs?

I’d have said sweet potatoes, like dark, leafy greens, tomatoes, and the like, are excellent eat-withs in terms of promoting optimal health and well-being. So I was relieved to finally find that the whole “perfect food” business originated with a 1992 Center for Science in the Public Interest report that ranked sweet potatoes as highest in nutritional value compared to other vegetables. That I’m very happy to believe! (Note that the #2 vegetable was the much-maligned true potato, but it came in a distant second to the unrelated sweet potato.)

To enjoy sweet potatoes as much as we do, it pays to follow a few simple tips:

* Buy deep orange sweet potatoes, which have the highest nutrient value. Choose long, relatively thin sweet potatoes that have smooth, blemish-free skins. Avoid thick, lumpy sweet potatoes or those with sunken, dark spots. Long, thin sweet potatoes cook fastest and most evenly, so you’re sure to end up with delicious, melt-in-the-mouth sweet potatoes rather than hard, underdone, unappetizing specimens.

* Sort out the sweet potato/yam confusion. Yams are basically long, whitish Polynesian roots, not the orange, red, or whitish tubers (specialized swollen underground stems) that characterize sweet potatoes, an entirely different species. You’ll often see the words used interchangeably, especially in the South and on cans (“candied yams” and etc.), but these are almost always sweet potatoes. True yams are all but unobtainable in the U.S., and their starchy, flavorless, unappealing nature (think poi) makes them undesirable in any case, except for those who’ve been raised on them and thus love them.

* Bake washed whole sweet potatoes at 350 degrees F. for about an hour and a half. Your goal is to bake them until the flesh literally separates from the skin and begins to caramelize, bringing out their inherent sweetness. To keep sweet potatoes from exploding in the oven, you need to punch holes at 1-inch intervals in the top with a fork so the steam can escape. When you see thick brown fluid oozing from the holes, it’s a good indication that the sweet potatoes are ready to serve. Another way to make sure you’re not serving them before they reach their peak of creamy goodness is to remove one from the aluminum-foil-lined cooking sheet, wearing an oven mitt, of course,  and squeeze it to see if it’s really, really soft. If so, it’s good to go!

* Roasted sweet potato slices are easier to time; put them in the oven at 350, topped with olive oil, salt (we like RealSalt) or Trocamare, lemon pepper or fresh-ground black pepper, and a mix of herbs, including dried oregano, basil, rosemary, thyme, and marjoram. Yum! Start checking for doneness after 1/2 hour; when a fork easily penetrates the flesh, the slices are done.

* Store raw sweet potatoes in a cool dry place, not in the fridge. They prefer temps of 55-65 degrees F. Our mudroom’s the perfect place for sweet potato (and potato, squash, cabbage, apple, and citrus) storage. The veggie crisper in your fridge will make them miserable and cause them to rot.

* In our experience, sweet potatoes don’t keep nearly as well as true potatoes. It’s not long before those dark, sunken spots start to appear, even if you’ve bought beautiful tubers and stored them properly. So I suggest that you decide how many sweet potatoes you’re likely to cook each week, and buy exactly that many. Sound sweet potatoes will keep perfectly for at least a week, as long as you don’t put them in the fridge.

Now that you’ve mastered the basics, let’s move on to a truly gourmet form of sweet potatoes: sweet potato souffle. We first encountered this luscious, decadent dish at our favorite high-end restaurant, the Landis Store Hotel. Given our financial circumstances, we rarely find ourselves at Landis Store these days, but if we do happen to go there, we can never resist their sweet potato souffle and corn cakes. Yum!!! Landis Store is also the only place where I’ll actually order dessert: Their fresh blueberry tart, loaded with whipped cream, is more than I can resist. But I can’t manage it and a meal, so I order it to go and indulge in the most decadent breakfast imaginable the following day.

But I digress. Fortunately for all of us who enjoy sweet potatoes, Landis Store has posted its sweet potato souffle recipe on its website, along with its delicious corn cakes (fritters). Check out the recipes for yourself by Googling Landis Store Hotel. You won’t be sorry!

              ‘Til next time,

                            Silence

When the movie is better. March 24, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are great readers, but we try not to be book snobs. People love to belittle movies by comparing them, unfavorably, to the books on which they were based. (The Lord of the Rings movie series comes to mind as a justifiable example of this, reducing a wonderful trilogy to a two-dimensional endless battle sequence worthy of a video game.) But sometimes the movies are better.

Perhaps it was the death of Elizabeth Taylor, possibly the most beautiful woman who ever lived, certainly the most beautiful we ever saw, that brought the topic to mind. Or watching the first episode of “The Pallisers” last night, or comparing the recent version of “True Grit” with the original. But whatever the case, we challenged each other to name some movies that were far superior to the books that inspired them.

First on our list was “The Running Man.” The novella that inspired the movie was little more than a two-dimensional sketch by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman). For whatever reason, the scriptwriters managed to flesh the story out with real characters, lots of color, and actual depth. Ditto for Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun versus the Sean Connery-led film “Rising Sun.” Silence would add the Timothy Dalton version of “Jane Eyre” and both the Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale versions of Jane Austen’s “Emma” to the list. Certainly, “Gone with the Wind” and “The Godfather” were far better on film than on paper. Ditto most of the James Bond movies and the Conan movies. “The Commitments,” the marvelous fleshing out of a very slight novella by Roddy Doyle. And “Slumdog Millionaire,” the brilliant bringing to life of an Indian novel called Q&A, a first effort by Vikas Swarup.

Plays are not immune, either. “A Man for All Seasons” and “Amadeus” are two cases where the film trumped the play; ditto “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” 

Sometimes, we feel that the film versions and book versions come out as a draw. We both love the Tony Hillerman mystery series featuring Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn. But we also really enjoyed the Robert Redford-produced dramatizations of the series. We feel the same for the movie “Smoke Signals” and the Sherman Alexie short stories on which it was loosely based. And we really enjoy both Alexander McCall Smith’s delightful No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and its TV adaptation.

Then there are the film versions that fall short. Besides the Lord of the Rings movies, there is the issue of Sherlock Holmes. Silence and I love Basil Rathbone as Holmes and respect Jeremy Brett’s interpretation of Holmes as a twitchy, ADHD-bipolar genius enormously. But we are still waiting for the ultimate interpretation, the one that truly lives up to the stories and books. Silence enjoys the various interpretations of her favorite Jane Austen book, Pride and Prejudice, from the BBC version to the Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth film to “Clueless” and “Bride and Prejudice,” the Bollywood version. But she still thinks the ultimate interpretation has yet to be done.

And of course, there are the books that should be made as films but are still waiting: Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne and Tigana; Joan Vinge’s The Snow Queen and The Summer Queen; Sheri Tepper’s Grass and The True Game trilogy; Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting; Mary Gentle’s Ancient Light and Golden Witchbreed; Wendell Berry’s Port William novels; Sharon Kay Penman’s Here Be Dragons and Falls the Shadow; Hope Munt’s The Golden Warrior.  Directors, producers, scriptwriters, where are you?!!!

Readers, we know you have additions to our various lists. Please share them with us!  And meanwhile, let’s take a moment to honor those often-invisible, overlooked entities, screenwriters, who can turn run-of-the mill text into great cinema.

Romance of the ring. March 23, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. At the Morning Glory Gallery in Asheville, North Carolina, I fell in love with a bracelet, and bless his heart, our friend Ben was kind enough to buy it for me. It’s by Sergio Lub and has an intricate pattern of matte braided silver, copper and brass. I thought it was exquisite; see for yourself at Sergio’s website, http://www.sergiolub.com/. (It’s the Quilt Magnetic Brushed bracelet.)

The bracelet looks just gorgeous on my wrist, but once we returned to our home in scenic PA, I realized I had a problem. The combination of silver, copper and brass plus the matte/brushed finish was challenging to match in a ring. I’d assumed I could simply wear one of my two copper rings, but their Native American design and finish clashed badly with the bracelet. What to do?!

Fortunately, help was close at hand, and in the form of a ring I want to tell you about, a ring with an old and very romantic past. My beloved mama bought it for me at an antiques store years ago. It is silver and copper, and its age has given it a “brushed” finish that goes perfectly with my new bracelet. But this ring has much more than looks going for it. When it was new, wearing it was a matter of life and death.

You see, this is a Jacobite ring, made for those Scottish Highlanders who supported Bonnie Prince Charlie against the Hanoverian usurpers after James II (Jacobus in Latin, thus the Jacobite Rebellion) was thrown off the throne of England in 1688 because he was Catholic. From that time until the Jacobites’ crushing defeat at Culloden Field in 1746, the Highland Scots and their French allies (James, Charlie, and the rest of the family had fled to France after he was deposed) attempted to restore the Stuarts to the British throne. Sometime between 1688 and 1746, this ring, and others like it, were made to help the Stuart sympathizers recognize each other.

The ring, worn one way, is an unobtrusive heavy silver band. (And yes, back in the day it was certainly a man’s ring.) But turn it over, and there is the fleur-de-lis of France wrought in copper, showing support for the “King over the Water.” If discovered by the wrong (and ruling) party, wearing this ring would cost a man his lands, his status, and his life. But raising a hand in greeting to a fellow sympathizer would reveal the fleur-de-lis and with it, the promise that, as Sherlock Holmes would say, “the game was afoot.”

History tells us that Bonnie Prince Charlie was forced to flee the field at Culloden and return to France to end his life in exile, and that his followers were brutally punished, to such an extreme that wearing a Highland clan kilt was a crime until the rule of Queen Victoria, who seemed to have a soft spot for all things Scottish. It’s amazing that any of the Jacobite rings survived. I wear mine with the fleur-de-lis up on proud display. It’s perfect with my new bracelet, history and artistry coming together.

             ‘Til next time,

                         Silence

Food prices soar: locavores, rejoice. March 22, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, critters, gardening, homesteading, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. As usual, we Americans don’t know how lucky we are. While people in some countries spend as much as 70% of their annual income just putting food on the table, we typically just spend 10% of our income on food. But the pundits are proclaiming that this is about to change, and change dramatically.

I’ve been expecting this since gas prices started shooting up. Gas, after all, is what enables us to fly, truck, and otherwise ship food here from abroad and across the country. If it suddenly costs more to ship stuff because of rising gas prices, the costs are bound to be passed along to the consumer, and that means us.

This is bad news for most of us—especially for folks like me and our friend Ben who are on a tight budget—but it’s really bad news for people who insist on eating strawberries and asparagus in November and watermelon and corn on the cob in March. The more out-of-season a food is in your area, the more it’s a luxury, likely to be shipped in from afar. We Americans are so used to having cheap tomatoes in December and grapes in April that we’re not used to thinking of out-of-season produce in the same category as lobster and caviar, but it is. Finally, we may be about to find that out.

But sure enough, this cloud has a silver lining. It may drive home the point that folks who’ve been trying for at least a decade to persuade us to support local agriculture and locally made artisanal foods have been making: Food grown locally and eaten in season requires minimal gasoline to produce and ship. Yes, it’s a major adjustment for most Americans to eat the way their grandparents did back in the day: asparagus, radishes, peas, and strawberries in spring; tomatoes, corn, beans, and melons in summer; potatoes, winter squash and grapes in fall; keeper crops like onions, garlic, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, apples, turnips and rutabagas, pumpkins, and those potatoes, sweet potatoes, and winter squash in winter.

No asparagus, watermelon, green beans, and strawberries in winter?!! Yes, all of the above, if you’re willing to preserve them in season: pickled asparagus, green beans, and watermelon rinds; frozen strawberries, asparagus, and green beans; dried beans and strawberries; strawberry jam; canned green beans. Eating locally need not mean deprivation between growing seasons, but there is a trade-off, and that trade-off is the time spent preserving food when it’s cheap and plentiful versus the cost of buying food out of season. You’ll need to learn how to “put up” food like Great-Grandma did during the Depression, and you probably won’t have generations of relatives lining up to show you how. But books, step-by-step online instructions and videos, community colleges, cooking schools, and your local CSA (community-supported organic growers) can all step in to fill the gap.

Eating locally also involves finding local sources of goods you might otherwise buy from afar. Our friend Ben and I are very lucky in this regard, living as we do in farm country/wine country/Amish country in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. There are five vineyards almost within walking distance of us (one actually is within walking distance), and Yeungling brewery is local. We have four farmers’ markets and numerous farm stands, plus a marvelous organic CSA, within a 20-mile radius.

We can buy homemade cheeses, jams, jellies, and so on from the farmers’ markets or from local farms, along with produce, fruit of all kinds, mushrooms (it’s amazing how many kinds are locally grown), baked goods, herbs, etc.etc. Eggs, raw and pasteurized cows’ and goats’ milk, cream, butter, yogurt, chicken, beef, and every conceivable kind of meat, both fresh and made into sausage and the like are close at hand as well. The farmer just down the road will even deliver!

Admittedly, we don’t take advantage of all of this, because we grow and make so much of our own food. (Let me just note again that raising a few backyard chickens for eggs is easy and fun!) But I do take advantage of local bounty whenever I need to, buying free-range eggs in the off-season when our own hens aren’t laying, and buying the raw materials I need to cook and preserve my own food: raw milk to make yogurt, flour for bread, apples for sauce and butter, paste tomatoes in bulk for sauces and salsas, cukes for my famous sweet/hot pickles, and so on. And I must say, it’s hard to beat Amish butter and cheese, or a Chambourcin from Pinnacle Ridge.

Not that I’m gloating, I’m just lucky. But I’d be willing to bet that, wherever you live, you could find locally grown produce and local artisanal foods. In the past, the cost of these foods versus mass-produced and mass-shipped stuff has meant that people needed to make a real commitment, either to their communities or to the freshest, healthiest organic produce and products or both, to support their own neighbors’ efforts. Our friend Ben and I are hoping that rising gas prices will finally bring about a revolution in our thinking and eating that will enhance our health, restore our connection to nature, and support our communities. God knows, it’s about time.

             ‘Til next time,

                         Silence

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