Thursday, March 31, 2011

Swamp Floor Pantry

‘John Folse, born in St James Parish in 1946, learned early that the secrets of Cajun cooking lay in the unique ingredients of Louisiana’s swamp floor pantry. Folse seasoned these raw ingredients with his passion for Louisiana culture and cuisine, and from his cast iron pots emerged Chef John Folse & Company.’


The above comes from the 2004 book by Folse & Company, The Encyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine, a huge collection of Louisiana history and culture and hundreds of recipes from the world famous chef and restauranteur, John D. Folse, CEC, AAC. The book has had nine printings since 2004, the most recent June of 2010.


Raised in Louisiana, I am a big fan of Cajun-Creole cuisine but only now beginning to test the waters of preparing it myself. Having read by now only a handful of pages in the 9.5 pound 852 page ‘Encyclopedia’ my understanding and appreciation of Louisiana’s native cuisine is not yet very deep. The book’s first 125 pages are a history of Louisiana and the origins of people, ideas, and culture that so heavily influenced the region’s development of a unique cuisine.


But why not just open the book to one of many ‘delicious-looking’ recipes and jump into preparing it? I expect there are many who do just that, but my guess is it leaves the cook with little to say about the recipe other than a recitation of ingredients and method of preparation. In all probability, if the ingredients and cooking are accurate the dish will turn out good, but there’s a chance that a deeper appreciation of Mr Folse’s recipe will be difficult without an understanding of the origins and culture that produced it. A more thorough reading of the book’s early pages will give the cook a certain degree of fluency in Creole-Cajun history and opportunity for interesting mealtime conversation.


With this thought in mind, I will skip including here one of Chef Folse’s recipes until I can comment more knowledgeably on its background. But there’s little problem in offering a drink recipe from the book’s beverage section, one that has long been famous in New Orleans. One of my lasting memories of visits to the Crescent City’s French Quarter is the sight of so many people wandering the streets with the familiar large tulip glass from Pat O’Brien’s containing the bar’s renowned Hurricane cocktail.


From the book…

‘Everyone who visits New Orleans eventually goes to Pat O’Brien’s for one of the bar’s famous Hurricanes. The drink, with its fruit punch taste, has packed a wallop on many unsuspecting parties. To my knowledge, this is the original recipe and not quite the same as the one served at Pat O’Brien’s today.’


INGREDIENTS:

1 ounce lemon juice

4 ounces dark rum

4 ounces red passion fruit cocktail mix

crushed ice

orange slice for garnish

cherry for garnish


METHOD:

Pour lemon juice, rum and cocktail mix into a cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously 1-2 minutes. Pack crushed ice into a 10-ounce highball glass. Pour drink mixture over crushed ice. Garnish with an orange slice and cherry.


Cheers! Salud! Prost! Santé! Saluté! (and Campai! to those in Japan)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Inescapable Red & White

Can’t say that Coca-Cola is a regular item on my shopping list. More times than not it’s missing from my refrigerator, but there are also those late afternoons when I enjoy rum with a splash of Coke, and when that Cuba Libre feeling is upon me a few cans of Coke will be found in the pantry. My fondness for the drink comes from Nelrose English, a whiskey-voiced chanteuse working the piano bar at Sammy’s Bar & Lounge, often singing that Andrew Sisters favorite, “Rum and Coca-Cola” on Friday nights many years ago. I also remember the hot summer afternoons of youth when we bought a bottle of Coke for 5¢ and for another nickel a bag of Planter’s peanuts to pour into the neck of the bottle. Like so many other American boys I was halfway raised on Coca-Cola. Many years later it finally got through to me that Coke, with all its sugar, etcetera was not the best thing for one’s health.


In 1886 druggist John Pemberton, with the assistance of fellow pharmacist Willis Venable, brewed the first batch of Coca-Cola in his Georgia backyard. On May 8th of that same year it was first sold at Jacob’s Pharmacy in Atlanta as a patent medicine for the treatment of morphine addiction, dyspepsia, neurasthenia, headache, and impotence, among other things. The ‘medicine’ was served for five cents a glass at the drugstore soda fountain.


The recipe for Coca-Cola was a reworking of an earlier tonic concocted by Pemberton called Pemberton’s French Wine Coca, and like the popular French Vin Mariani, included alcohol among its ingredients. In the years immediately following the Civil War morphine addiction, depression and alcoholism were not uncommon in veterans, and nearly equaled by neurasthenia (fatigue, anxiety, headache, neuralgia and depression) among highly-strung southern women. Ads for Pemberton’s wine-tonic described it as beneficial for “ladies, and all those whose sedentary employment causes nervous prostration, irregularities of the stomach, bowels and kidneys, who require a nerve tonic and a pure, delightful diffusible stimulant.”


Newly enacted temperance legislation put a stop to alcoholic drinks and Pemberton was forced to re-work his tonic and find a substitute for the wine. The result was Coca-Cola, an alliterative name chosen by an employee of Pemberton’s reflecting its two key ingredients, cocaine from coca leaves, and caffeine from kola nuts. Pemberton called for five ounces of coca leaf per gallon of syrup, a significant dose, and at one time the drink contained nine milligrams of cocaine per glass. It continues to include coca flavoring, but cocaine was removed from the recipe in 1903. Instead of using fresh leaves, Coca-Cola began using “spent” leaves—leftovers of the cocaine-extraction process containing only trace levels of cocaine. Today Coca-Cola includes a cocaine-free coca leaf extract made by a New Jersey chemical company.


Coca-Cola was sold in bottles for the first time on March 12, 1894. The original bottles were very different from the later hobble-skirt design that appeared in 1915 that everyone now recognizes as Coke. Cans of Coke first appeared in 1955.


Coca-Cola has become in the 125 years since its birth inextricably tied to American identity. Ads were painted by Norman Rockwell, the Andrews Sisters sang about it, Ozzie and Harriet endorsed it, Andy Warhol painted its trademark hobble-skirt bottle (designed to make Coke easy to find when customers groped for a bottle in a bucket of ice and water). Even the traditional American depiction of Santa Claus is sometimes said to be based on a Coke ad from 1931—Altogether an indelible stamp upon the culture of most countries around the world. Few are the places where you can escape Coca-Cola.


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Cartier Platinum 1847

Few can seriously doubt the quality of anything made by Louis Cartier. History and reputation almost guarantee that jewelry or otherwise bearing the Cartier logo is going to be of the highest quality, made by top craftsmen of the finest materials. There is no blurring of that line when it comes to a Louis Cartier fountain pen, especially a limited edition fountain pen commemorating the company’s 150th year.


The 1997 Louis Cartier Art Deco stylo plume in platinum finish with blue lacquer is a pen many might call a formidable handful. It’s big, it’s heavy and it’s expensive, a lot to pay for a fountain pen. I have no doubt it’s worth the high price, but the one on the desk before me now is not my fountain pen. In September of last year I wrote (here) about a friend who collects fountain pens, a collector who rather than using his pens enjoys looking at them, and from time to time holding them and admiring their design. When it comes to writing I have the feeling he is probably satisfied with a plastic giveaway ballpoint from the AAA Insurance Company. No criticism there; many of us do the same with things other than fountain pens.


Luckily for me this friend loans me his fountain pens to try out and pass on my impressions of how they perform. It’s pleasure enough for me to use, fiddle with, play with and research the pens for a couple of weeks. I doubt there are many who would freely hand over a valuable pen and say, “Here…have fun with it and tell me later how it writes.”


The platinum finish and blue lacquer Art Deco pen from Cartier is first of all a beautiful creation. (apologies for the poor photos.) The platinum finish almost makes sterling silver look like a weak sister and the two blue lacquer rings are a perfect measure of contrast. The base of the clip has the cartier ‘C’ in relief, and the bottom of the cap has the name Louis Cartier engraved, as well as the registered number of the pen. This one shows it is number 0499 of 1847 made.


The very large nib is platinum-plated 18 carat gold, also with the Cartier logo. This one is a medium nib, which happens to be my preferred size. The pen uses both cartridges and a converter, both included at purchase. Interesting to me were the instructions to always put two cartridges in—one into the feed and another on top to hold the open cartridge snug against the feed. I passed on the supplied black cartridges and instead filled the converter with Noodler’s Bay State Blue. Like other cartridges I have encountered the Cartier cartridge (most certainly made and supplied by someone other than Cartier) is difficult to fill. In the end I took it out and filled it with a needle-nose dropper.


The pen measures a shade over 5.5 inches (14.2cm) with the cap on, and a little under 6.5 inches (16.5cm) posted. I was unable to determine the exact weight of the pen, but with all the platinum plating it is weighty—heavier than any of the other forty pens around this house. It’s too heavy for a shirt pocket and I expect it might be uncomfortable in small hands. Possible I am mistaken about that, but it is nonetheless a hefty consideration.


On the subject of ink…

There is a lot of excitement in the pen and ink community over Noodler’s Bay State Blue. A couple of comments: This ink will stain everything it touches—hands, clothing, eye drop fillers and converters. Be careful about using it. It will leave your pen’s converter stained blue even after a thorough washing, and the same with any demonstrator (clear) pen. The color? I could name five other blue inks that are identical.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Fit for King & Prince

Browsing in a Winter Park men’s store last week the saleslady (a friend) tried to interest me in some plain white boxer shorts. Not recognizing the maker, I ask who they were and for an answer got an elegant blue company card explaining the history of Royal Highnies. Can’t say that what I read made me buy any new underwear, but it did make me laugh and also wonder why there isn't more of this kind of clever, literate and enticing copywriting in merchandising.


Once upon a Highnie…

The story began as a quest to create the perfect boxer short. We viewed it as locating the perfect home for the family jewels. It needed to be a custom home, handmade, including a spacious ballroom with full seating and a sturdy front entrance so that no one slips out unexpectedly. This home should be built with the finest 400 thread count Pima cotton with virtually no shrinkage (on out part).

So behold, we present to you the “royal highnies” the only place that deserves to house the family jewels.

These boxers have been personally tried and tested for over five years on family, friends, acquaintances and a few rock stars. Enjoy your first Royal Highnies experience.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Cityscape, Seascape


For many years the background in my life was a near constant rush of people moving against a neon and concrete cityscape, sights and sounds always shaped by the human element in action with an architecture of steel and stone. But sight and sound are vastly different now and several months in a small town coastal setting has altered my perception of that around me and I have come to see sand, ocean and sky with the same degree of clarity that once defined a view of Tokyo.


According to the calendar the days have tilted toward spring, season of my arrival in Florida last year. Not quite a full cycle of days and seasons since that arrival, but the one-year mark is drawing near and sights around here begin to look familiar, begin to show a hint of the colors and textures I remember from my first month at the beach. It’s clear to me now that whatever tilt the earth and season take along this windy southern coast the palette is constantly shifting in ways that require more than casual observation to gain the fullest appreciation.


Winter has faded from the ocean water off this coastline and deep currents of blue-green have returned, swelling up from the south and bringing to the ocean a look of verdigris, a color I remember from my first week here last May. Along with that are bleached white ruffles of foamy surf spilling clean onto the sand. During these days of spring break and larger numbers of beachgoers, swimmers with a tolerance for cold water are not in short supply, though most recoil from the shock of a chilly 66°.


No signs yet of the cumulous cloud heaps that characterize warmer days, but at least the gelid skies of January have given over to what could be called a spring blue. On this Saturday we’ve had to make do with thin striations of white cloud all high above the horizon. A pretty sight this afternoon, three vintage planes flying in low formation back and forth across a long stretch of greeny ocean stirred by the play of dolphins, seven in all.


For long weeks the beach has every day been an unsullied reach of pure white, with rarely so much as a dropped drinking straw. So too have the numbers of jellyfish washed ashore grown small. For consecutive days I walked my three miles without sight of more than one or two stranded jellyfish, a mere scattering of shells and complete absence of litter. The last part of that description has changed with the crowds arriving over spring break. Litter is to be expected from children on holiday with parents in holiday mode and relaxed discipline. On the good side, we are fortunate to have regular patrols of trash handlers who do an excellent job.


For reasons I can’t explain, the pelicans have been flying in record numbers, more than I can recall ever seeing before. Is it a late March-early April phenomenon? What makes the usual summer flock of about ten, swell to three times that in early spring? I watched a line of almost twenty earlier today flying in a staggered line, six inches above the water without a wingbeat.


What once was a city-mapped perception of the scene around me has now become attuned to landscape on a different scale. I enjoy now a slowly developing appreciation of the monthly changes in this oceanfront environment I still call new.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Murder Japanese Style

Mystery writers in Japan enjoy a wide audience. Translations of well-known western writers in the genre fill shelves of Japanese bookstores, but most of the readership is given to a homegrown list of Japanese writers who crowd the bestseller lists. For years writers like Seichô Matsumoto, Jirô Akagawa and Natsuo Kirino have been writing books that achieve blockbuster sales in the murder mystery vein. It all started with Edogawa Rampo (a playful rendering of Edgar Allan Poe) sometime in the 1920s, whose ‘mysteries’ caught the attention of young readers. Jirô Akagawa was my first turn at a Japanese style murder mystery but struggles with the language probably dulled my appreciation of his story. Some time later I came upon another mystery writer in English translation and was floored. The impact of Natsuo Kirino’s 1997 mystery Out was so strong that I read it a second time in the same week.


Currently, one of the top-selling names in Japanese mystery writing is Keigo Higashino. He won the Mystery Writers of Japan award for a 1999 book titled Himitsu (The Secret) and after five earlier nominations, in 2006 he won the Naoki Prize for his novel, Yôgisha X no Kenshin (The Devotion of Suspect X), which became the second highest selling book—fiction or non-fiction—in Japan. The Naoki is roughly equivalent to the National Book Award or The Man Booker Prize. In 1985 Higashino quit his engineering job at 27 after the success of his first book, Hôkago (After School), a book that won the Edogawa Rampo Prize, awarded annually to the year’s finest mystery book. Since then he has written thirteen bestsellers.


Browsing in Borders last week I came across a just released English translation of his prize winning book, The Devotion of Suspect X. I bought the book without a moment’s hesitation, hungry for some Japanese-style murder, familiar settings and recognizable character types. No disappointment with that purchase.


Yasuko Hanaoka is a divorced, single mother and when her abusive ex-husband turns up in another attempt to extort money from her, he ends up strangled on her apartment floor. Yasuko’s next door neighbor hears the commotion, guesses the outcome and offers to help. Ishigami, the neighbor is a high school teacher and something of a mathematical genius, but one with romantic interests toward Yasuko. Not only does he dispose of the body but he also plots a cover-up to misdirect the police. Unable to find any holes in Yasuko’s alibi (concocted by the math teacher), detectives still have a feeling something is wrong with the story. The head detective calls upon a university friend, a physicist with a knack for unraveling police puzzles. The interesting twist is that the physicist is also an old classmate and friend of the math teacher. It becomes a high level battle of wits between mathematician and physicist, but one with a murderous twist.


True with many Japanese mystery stories, the ‘who and how’ aspect of The Devotion of Suspect X is given up in the first twenty-five pages of the book. The book’s tension derives from trying to figure out if and how the police will crack the case, meanwhile showing the murderer and her accomplice in a mostly favorable and sympathetic light. There is a simple elegance to the way mathematician (accomplice) and physicist (sleuth) come to grips in their struggle toward lack of proof and proof positive. We need no special knowledge of either field—Higashino keeps his story mathematical in the layman’s sense.


There is no striving for ‘literary fiction’ in Higashino’s writing, nothing like what we might encounter in the work of Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith or Dorothy Sayers. But this is by no means a negative observation, and Keigo Higashino does things with his style that we don't find in other mystery writers. Spare is the word that first comes to mind in trying to describe it. Economic is a word I like, and when that is achieved along with tension, momentum and sympathetic characters in a mind-twisting dilemma, well then I’m hooked.

Friday, March 25, 2011

A Lost Art

Letters arriving in the mailbox are always a welcome treat, especially those that display themselves as the real thing, or at least real in the sense of being handwritten in fountain pen and ink and with a stamp that isn’t merely faint red lines from a postal meter. No doubt many people lament the fact that these mailbox surprises are growing rarer by the year. Truth is, I’m surprised much of the time that my local post office is able to get anything delivered in semi-accurate fashion. Last week my houseguest sent five postcards to Tokyo. Not knowing that it wasn’t necessary, he included a return address (mine) on the cards. The following Monday all five cards were delivered—postmarked—to my mailbox.


Apart from receiving ‘real’ letters from time to time, I also enjoy reading the published letters of writers and other people with a special talent for interesting communication. In the letters of someone like E.B. White, Dorothy Parker or John F. Kennedy we can almost sense through the published typescript that their thoughts and comments were originally brewed and steeped in pen and paper. It’s not usual that we find letter collections that include the writing of a wide range of diverse names and personalities. Easy enough to find individual collections, but an ‘anthology’ of letters from a long list of familiar names is more uncommon.


America 1900-1999: Letters of the Century is just such a book. Naming only a few on the list, this book includes the correspondence of James Baldwin, Clyde Barrow, George Bush, Truman Capote, Albert Einstein, Cher, George Washington Carver and Janis Joplin. Editors Lisa Grunwald and Stephen Adler have done a good job of compiling an ecletic view of American thought during the decades of twentieth century America.


One of my favorite letters was written by the author of the Uncle Remus stories, tales that gave us the indelible characters of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox. On Thursday, April 5, 1900 Joel Chandler Harris wrote to his twenty-two year-old son Evelyn…


Dear Evelyn: Your letter was waiting for me when I came home, but was not the less interesting because I had seen you in the meantime. We usually say more in a letter than we do in conversation, the reason being that in a letter, we feel that we are shielded from the indifference or enthusiasm which our remarks may meet with or arouse. We commit our thoughts as it were, to the winds. Whereas, in conversation we are constantly watching or noting the effect of what we are saying, and when the relations are intimate, we shrink from being taken too seriously on one hand, and on the other not seriously enough. —But people no longer write letters. Lacking the leisure, and for the most part the ability, they dictate dispatches and scribble messages. When you are in the humor you should take a peep at some of the letters written by people who lived long ago, especially the letters of women. There is a charm about them impossible to describe, the charm of unconsciousness and the sweetness of real sincerity. But in these days we have not the artlessness nor the freedom of our forbears. We know too much about ourselves. Constraint covers us like a curtain. Not being very sure of our own feelings, we are in a fog about the feelings of others…


Poet, Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) was an unusual man in that he pursued lifelong careers as both a businessman and as a poet. Until his death he was an executive of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, and in the meantime winning one Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards for his poetry. On March 21, 1907 he wrote to his future wife…


Dear Elsie—

I am so full of misery to-night that I am ridiculous. Every Spring I have a month or two of semi-blackness and perhaps the mood is just returning. Perhaps, it is simply a revulsion against old things—habits, people, places—everything: the feeling the sun must have, nowadays, when it shines on nothing but mud and bare trees and the general world, rusty with winter. People do not look well in Spring. They seem grimy and puffy and it makes me misanthropic. Spring fills me so full of dreams that try one’s patience in coming time. One has a desire for the air full of spice and odors, and for days like junk of changing colors, and for warmth and ease, and all other things that you know so well. But they come so slowly. Earth and the body and the spirit seem to change together, and so I feel muddy and bare and rusty.

…………………


Unrelated to anything but spring bloom is a photograph of my pet geranium, a small clump of leaves planted in the white urn about three months ago, and now….




Thursday, March 24, 2011

German Jellyfish

I can always depend upon my Louisiana cousin to surprise me with a new and appealing stationery product. Carolyne keeps up with what’s cool and new in the field of cards and stationery much more avidly than I’m able to do, and that is probably because one of her passions is writing cards and notes to everyone she knows and many she has only briefly met. This requires a sizable array of material in her stock room, which I believe was at one time a guest room in her house. A big box arrived here from Carolyne yesterday, and among the various treasures inside was a ‘Blend and Send’ stationery set, a collection of twenty-four stationery sheets, twelve envelopes and twelve seals, all in what teNeues calls a Sea Life theme. Splendid—just what I would expect from a German designer and manufacturer of stationery goods.


The name teNeues will not be new to many whose passions include fountain pens and ink. Directly in line with that is a love of fine paper, notebooks and stationery. teNeues (ta-no-es) was founded originally as an offset printer in Krefeld, Germany in 1931 by Dr Heinz teNeues. Today they publish a wide range of books and also produce calendars, greeting cards, stationery, posters and blank notebooks or journals. In 1982 the company opened a New York subsidiary, followed by subsidiaries in London and Paris. teNeues products are available through their online store, as well as through several dealers in paper and stationery, including Amazon.


The Sea Life set is all in dark blue and khaki brown, with four distinct page designs of sea life, from seahorse to jellyfish and starfish, and including sea shells, starfish, coral and sea anemones, with the back side of both paper and envelope plain white. The word that comes to mind is ‘striking.’ This is not a set of writing paper and envelopes you are likely to find at your local stationery store, or among the offerings at Staples or Office Depot.


Probably a wasteful indulgence, but I wanted to test the quality of the paper, so used one of the twenty-four stationery sheets to write out a sample passage from a favorite book, using a Pelikan Souverän 600 filled with Noodler’s Lexington Gray (this month’s favorite ink). The result was good. No feathering or bleed through and smooth flowing all the way.


I’m eager now to try one of the many teNeues blank notebooks that I found on their website.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Scent of Roses

Tuesday was a half-day of horrendous traffic across what seemed like most of central Florida, and by the end of it I was ready to swear off driving and seclude myself in a cloister of quiet calm. My houseguest returned to Tokyo today and halfway to the airport we encountered a crash on the interstate that slowed everything to a crawl before detouring all traffic in a wide loop that had us worrying about reaching the airport in time. Avoiding the interstate on the return trip I ran into the same thing on an alternate route back to the beach. Those several hours of fractious driving among tailgating madmen left me eager to park the car, put my feet up and with a quiet view of the ocean read something of a soothing nature. And that’s just the way it turned out.


Robert Bly is the author of twenty-two collections of poetry and has translated thirteen books of poetry as well as one novel. The translations are from Swedish, Norwegian, German, Spanish, Persian and Urdu. He is also the author of nine non-fiction books. Mr Bly won a National Book Award for Poetry with his 1967 collection, The Light Around the Body. He describes his writing as a wish to describe modern American life through powerful metaphors and intense imagery. In 2006 the University of Minnesota purchased Mr Bly’s archive, more than 80,000 pages of handwritten manuscript, his journal spanning nearly fifty years and his correspondence. The university paid a price of $775,000 to acquire this archive. The poem below is from a collection to be published in May, Talking Into the Ear of a Donkey.


THE BLIND OLD MAN

I don't know why so much sweetness hovers around us.
Nor why the wind blows the curtains in the afternoons,
Nor why the earth mutters so much about its children.

We'll never know why the snow falls through the night,
Nor how the heron stretches her long legs,
Nor why we feel so abandoned in the morning.

We have never understood how birds manage to fly,
Nor who the genius is who makes up dreams,
Nor how heaven and earth can appear in a poem.

We don't know why the rain falls so long.
The ditchdigger turns up one shovel after another.
The herons go on stitching the heavens together.

We've never heard about the day we were conceived
Nor the doctor who helped us to be born,
Nor that blind old man who decides when we will die.

It's hard to understand why the sun rises,
And why our children are mostly fond of us,
And why the wind blows the curtains in the afternoon.


A highly regarded poet, Ted Kooser was the US Poet Laureate from 2004-2006. For his book of poems, Delights and Shadows (2004) he won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. Mr Kooser is the Presidential Professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the author of twelve full-length collections of poetry. In reviewing his 1994 collection, Weather Central, from which “A Ghost Story” is taken, The Bloomsbury Review described Kooser this way: ‘He sits on his porch, uninterested in academic cant or the fashions of poetic schools, and takes in the world around, praising its quiet beauty…’

A GHOST STORY

Her life was plain, her death
a common death—a girl
sewn into the watery shroud
of pneumonia. She was only
another Mary, there
in Illinois, and it was only
another April—the buds
of the honeysuckle folded
in prayer. Forgotten eyes,
forgotten smile, the cowlick
in her hair forgotten;
everything gone. Yet for
seventy years her grave
gave off the scent of roses.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Five Star Squash


On an early evening a couple of weeks ago, not really paying much attention to the time I innocently 'dropped in’ on some friends and caught them in the middle of dinner. My apologies got ignored as they dragged me to the table saying I was just in time and pouring me a bumper of cabernet. Even with good friends the feeling of barging in can be awkward for a few minutes, but both friends quickly dispelled all that with their usual warmth.


Not the first time I had enjoyed food at their table, and whatever the menu for this unexpected dinner there was little chance it would be anything but delicious. There was a platter of something unfamiliar in the center of the table and I was wondering what it might be when the host said, “Try some of the roasted butternut squash.” Squash is one of my favorite vegetables but usually it’s only summer squash or zucchini that my modest kitchen skills can handle. Thinking about it, I wasn’t even certain my imagination was painting an accurate picture of butternut squash. Was that the one that looks like a pale orange gourd and hard as a rock? “That’s the one,” said Fred. “Nothing complicated really. Pretty much stock ingredients except for the Chinese Five Star spice, and you can get that at Publix.”


Wonderful flavor, light with the exotic hint of Chinese spice. I asked for and got a written recipe and the next day went off to buy what I needed, mainly the squash and the Chinese Five Star. Aside from the big and rock hard butternut squash being slightly hard to cut, de-seed and peel, the preparation of this roasted squash turned out exactly as described—simple.

ROASTED BUTTERNUT SQUASH
Here’s what you need:
1 butternut squash (Peeled, with seeds removed a large squash will serve three or four.)
1 to 1½ tablespoons of olive oil
salt
pepper
1 teaspoon of Chinese Five Star spice
parchment paper

Preparation:
Cut the squash into 4-5 manageable sections.
Scrape the seeds and somewhat stubborn fibers out.
Peel the 4 or 5 pieces and then cut them into evenly sized chunks.
Put them into a large bowl, add the olive oil, salt, pepper and Chinese spice.
Toss and mix well until the pieces are well coated with oil and spices.
Pre-heat the oven to 400° and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Spread the chunks of squash out on the baking sheet.
Bake until soft and lightly browned, usually about 30 minutes.

This vegetable will match pretty much any main course, meat or fish and likely produce a hearty, “Hey, this squash is great!” from one or two at the table. Simple, inexpensive and healthy—what more can you ask for?


Monday, March 21, 2011

Azalea Bloom!

I am privileged to offer a guest post from a very good friend, one who has given me hours of delightful and stimulating company. Knowing that Kathleen writes, I threw out a hint wondering if she might want to scribble up something I could share with readers here. Not too much later I got this engaging story about the joys of life in two small Florida towns.


Hi! My name is Kathleen and B has graciously asked me to write a guest post here on Scriblets. My husband and I also share B’s love of the seashore, especially the small seaside town of New Smyrna Beach. We are not full-time residents, however. We split our retirement between New Smyrna and DeLand. It’s only about thirty-eight miles—a mere forty minute ride between—but the two towns are worlds apart.


DeLand is a lovely, historic, Main Street USA town—home to Stetson University, the Athens Theatre, the Museum of Florida Art, as well as Skydive DeLand, one of the world’s leading skydive centers located at our municipal airport. During WWII, the Navy built the property as a naval airbase, later turning it over to the city. DeLand is also the county seat of Volusia County, Florida with an estimated population in excess of 25,000.


After an exhaustive twenty-year search for just the right spot, we came across this little piece of heaven which we have fondly named Southern Oaks, honoring the hundreds of magnificent Live and Laurel oak trees that adorn the acreage. We have never regretted our move and are still enjoying every inch of it. Right now, Southern Oaks, as well as the entire town of DeLand, is experiencing one of its most beautiful seasons—Azalea bloom! While the ocean and all its majesty is difficult to compete with, Azalea bloom is one of God’s most dramatic exhibitions. It’s brief and magnificent and a must-see.


Azaleas are cold-hardy flowering shrubs rarely found along coastal areas. They especially love shade from oak trees and are not tolerant of salt air or salty well water. They create a dazzling display of springtime color here at Southern Oaks and are one of our main reasons for being in DeLand this week.


Southern Oaks is a 2.5 acre work in progress. There are vegetable and herb gardens to tend; a plentiful array of citrus trees; a small vineyard and a large assortment of flowering shrubs and roses—not to mention a variety of out-buildings constantly demanding with their needs and our wants. It requires a significant amount of planning and energy and real hands-on work to keep it up, but we truly love every minute (well almost every minute). However, aging joints, a dwindling supply of vitality and basic get-up-and-go tend to slow us down more quickly than they once did. It’s then that we close up the house, set the timers to auto, and head to our cozy beach retreat.


And it’s exactly that—a retreat. It’s a sanctuary, a place of beauty, a safe harbor in a busy world, our refuge where we can go to renew ourselves and our well of vitality and energy. We spend our days watching the pelicans swoop and play atop the waves and plan our walks according to tidal whims. There is a timelessness that envelops us and a relaxation that truly soothes aching muscles and calms scattered thoughts. We are truly blessed with the best of both worlds!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Winslow Tries Trevanian

Don Winslow is a writer I have long enjoyed, starting with his 1997 Death and Life of Bobby Z and continuing on with six of his later books. Savages, which came out last year was especially impressive and one that I reviewed here last August. The impression was that Mr Winslow had reached a new plateau, creating a prose style very unlike his earlier novels, sparkling, razor-edged and economic. But now comes Satori, his latest release and I have to wonder what happened.


In fact, it isn’t too hard to figure out what happened to make this newest book from Don Winslow more disappointment than anything else. The shortest way to explain it is to say that it isn’t really Winslow, but an attempt to use another writer’s characters and style to create a prequel to the 1979 Trevanian classic, Shibumi. It doesn’t work. Not being the writer’s strength, style or type of story it’s an uphill battle all the way. At one point about halfway through the book’s 500 pages a thought occurred that writing Satori was for Winslow either very easy or very difficult—Easy to rattle off an acceptable copy of standard CIA assassin storytelling, difficult to quell his own far from standard style and build a story rife with Asian settings and culture.


Nicholai Hel is a multi-lingual deadly assassin who kills only bad guys. Son of a Russian mother and German father, raised in Shanghai and trained by a Japanese general in the art of killing and survival, Hel is more than anything Japanese at heart and in spirit. In 1951 he is freed after three years in Tokyo’s Sugamo prison where he was sent for killing the man he called teacher and father, General Kishikawa. The general’s death by Hel was more honorable than hanging after his conviction of war crimes by the victorious Americans. Released from prison, Hel is offered a chance to remain free and earn a large sum of money if he will assassinate a high level Russian official in Beijing. To create a strong cover, surgeons give Hel a new face while a French beauty remakes his manner, habits, dress and French into that of a perfect French arms dealer. Shadowy bad guys start in early trying to kill him, but they are no match for Hel’s technique of ‘naked kill’ and he dispatches one after another without even increasing his heart rate. Much of the same in Beijing until complications send Hel and his tormentors south to Saigon. He is by this point mixed up with the CIA, Chinese Nationalists and communists, Russians, French, Vietnamese guerillas, and the French mafia. The number of people with Hel in their sights is beyond counting. Of course it all works out in the end, but we knew that from page one.


Apart from a style not natural to the writer, the book is weakened by either poor or little research, settings that lack definition apart from tour book descriptions, a minimum of suspense, and characters who are for the most part blatant caricatures. Were no native Japanese contracted or asked to read and correct the author’s glaring Japanese language mistakes, to set him straight on Japanese custom? Where did he get the notion that Japanese men wear kimonos, or that strangers are called by first name? There is much in Winslow’s Tokyo that is odd and inaccurate. In Beijing the opportunities for rich background are practically limitless, but you would hardly know it was China. A pivotal scene is set at the Chinese opera, but we learn nothing about what that place looks, feels or sounds like. In Saigon the only telling description is of netting around café and restaurant terraces to prevent bombs or grenades being tossed into the crowd. A casino in the almost fabled city is described…‘The large room was filled with excited chatter, shouts of victory and curses of loss, the clatter of dice, the clack of chips, and the spinning of roulette wheels. A cloud of cigarette smoke hovered like protective coverage over the triumphs and disappointments.’ Could just as well be Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.


The title Satori is a Japanese word meaning ‘sudden awakening or enlightenment’ and is perhaps a play on Trevanian’s title Shibumi, which means something like ‘elegant simplicity.’ But a bigger question is why the writer undertook this project. An author’s note at the end of Satori answers the question. His agent emailed him one day, asked if he were familiar with the Trevanian classic, and if he would like to be the next Trevanian. Winslow admitted that he could never be another Trevanian, but began thinking about the idea and possibilities of writing a prequel to Shibumi. The result of it all likely earned Winslow a lot of money, but I doubt it will do much for what was already an excellent reputation for writing a different and much better kind of book.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Price of Sugar

Friday was a beautiful day and perfect for part two of my swim in the history of this little beach town sixty-eight miles south of St Augustine, Florida, America’s oldest settlement. Last month the Scriblets pages included my impressions of the New Smyrna Beach Historical Museum, a small but richly endowed re-creation of the city’s past. While visiting the museum I learned about the ruins of an old sugar mill only a couple of miles away and made a note to visit the site. What a find that turned out to be.


On his second voyage to the New World Christopher Columbus carried sugarcane from Europe, introducing it to the island just south of Florida, which they called Hispaniola and we call the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Not long after that it was shipped to Florida for cultivation. Sugar is a work heavy crop and the need for labor is a big reason slavery became important on Florida plantations. To produce just one ton of sugar a plantation had to grow and crush seven tons of sugarcane. The labor involved required large work crews.


From the latter years of the eighteenth century until 1835, Florida’s sugar industry was concentrated in east Florida, on land between the St Johns River and the Atlantic. By the 1830s there were no fewer than twenty-two sugar plantations along the coastline producing sugar, molasses, and rum. The sugar industry brought prosperity to the region, employing the skills of farmhands, architects, stonemasons, riverboat crews, shopkeepers, and traders. Of course, African slaves provided the backbreaking labor, and that too was another form of economy. It all ended with the outbreak of the Second Seminole War in 1835. The Indians were revolting against US policies that would remove them from their homelands to land in the Oklahoma territories. They had a devastating effect on the plantations.


In 1830, Henry Cruger and William dePeyster purchased 600 acres to build a sugar mill. The land had originally been part of the Turnbull grant which led to the planting of a 1,255 strong Smyrnéa colony. Using the land as collateral, Cruger and dePeyster secured a $10,000 loan for the purchase of steam equipment from a New York foundry. But their venture was ill-timed. After only five years the sugar mill was destroyed by the warring Seminole Indians. Today the beautiful arched walls remain to give a glimpse of early American industry and the struggles two pioneering businessmen faced.


The ruins in New Smyrna are surrounded by lush green that includes oak, palmetto and tangerine trees. One historical marker on the site explains, “The mill had little time to produce sugar or repay investors before it was wrecked by the Seminoles. In December 1835, the Indians ran off the overseer, burned the complex, and destroyed other plantations throughout the region. Helping the Indians stage the raids were Cruger-dePeyster slaves.”


Friday, March 18, 2011

Three American Voices

Black Americans can claim three of America’s finest poets—Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni—as clarion voices of their heritage and experience. They are in many ways dissimilar writers, but their themes and vernacular often have, and naturally so, an echo that is indelible in the experience of growing up black in twentieth century America. Each poet is distinct, each with a clear identity but their voices together make a stirring and resonant impression.


LANGSTON HUGHES was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902. He spent some time at Columbia University before taking work on a tramp steamer headed to West Africa and Europe. The ship traveled up and down the coast of West Africa for several months before Hughes left the ship, settling in Paris for an extended time. Back in the US, he earned a degree at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, then moved to Harlem in New York City where he remained until his death in 1967. Other work by the poet is posted here; his collected poetry here.


MAYA ANGELOU was born in St Louis, Missouri in 1928. She started out as an actress and dancer in New York, became a journalist in Africa, and later worked extensively in drama, television and films. She speaks five languages and has published over thirty books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction since her 1969 bestselling autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Ms Angelou is lifetime Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. I Shall Not Be Moved.


NIKKI GIOVANNI was born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1943. She has published sixteen collections of her poetry and teaches writing and literature at Virginia Tech. Collected poetry.


MOTHER TO SON (Langston Hughes)

Well, son, I’ll tell you:

Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

It’s had tacks in it,

And splinters,

And boards torn up,

And places with no carpet on the floor—

Bare.

But all the time

I’se been a-climbin’ on,

And reachin’ landin’s,

And turnin’ corners,

And sometimes goin’ in the dark

Where there ain’t been no light.

So boy, don’t you turn back.

Don’t you set down on the steps

’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.

Don’t you fall now—

For I’se still goin’, honey,

I’se still climbin’,

And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.


ME AND MY WORK (Maya Angelou)

I got a piece of a job on the waterfront.

Three days ain’t hardly a grind.

It buys some beans and collard greens

and pays the rent on time.

Course the wife works, too.


Got three big children to keep in school,

need clothes and shoes on their feet,

give them enough of the things they want

and keep them out of the street.

They’ve always been good.


My story ain’t news and it ain’t all sad.

There’s plenty worse off than me.

Yet the only thing I really don’t need

is strangers’ sympathy.

That’s somebody else’s word for

caring.


QUILTS (Nikki Giovanni)

Like a fading piece of cloth

I am a failure


No longer do I cover tables filled with food and laughter

My seams are frayed my hems falling my strength no longer able

To hold the hot and cold


I wish for those first days

When just woven I could keep water

From seeping through

Repelled stains with the tightness of my weave

Dazzled the sunlight with my

Reflection


I grow old though pleased with my memories

The tasks I can no longer complete

Are balanced by the love of the tasks gone past


I offer no apology only

this plea:


When I am frayed and strained and drizzle at the end

Please someone cut a square and put me in a quilt

That I might keep some child warm


And some old person with no one else to talk to

Will hear my whispers


And cuddle

near

About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America