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Reading in Iceland

Written on June 29, 2016:

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I am currently traveling — lots of hiking, biking, reveling in Iceland’s beauty marks — but in flight, or in the lull of a long day (the sun sets at midnight here) I am engaging in my favorite form of travel, flying through the pages of a good book.

I decided to dive into some travel writing: “The Best American Travel Writing 2002” edited by Frances Mayes. As Mayes writes in her introduction, “reading and travel have a natural symbiosis” — reading about a variety of foreign adventures while on an adventure of my own puts me in the traveling mindset — a mindset characterized, in my experience, by a closer clinging to the present moment and a mental, as well as physical experience of dislocation that allows for greater self-reflection, spontaneity, and once again, that in-the-moment mindfulness  thing. (Such an elusive and aspirational practice, at least for me, when muddled with to-do lists and daily routines).

Perhaps reading and travel are “symbiotic” in the way that they transform readers and wanderers by first transporting them. And this process of transformation is built upon the liberty, the privilege, of reflection and mindfulness. Mayes seems to draw on this principle in her selections. She writes:

“Early in the process I began to wonder what exactly qualified as travel writing. I am immediately drawn to the incongruous qualities of spontaneity and reflection. I like to read about journeys when the traveler is charged or changed by the place, when the traveler is moved from one psychic space to another during the course of the trip.”

If the highest purpose of travel (and naturally, the mark of good travel writing) is to, however subtly, transform the psyche of the traveler, this Mark Twain quote, also a part of Mayes’s introduction, comments on one way in which travel broadens consciousness:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

So where does 2002’s “Best American Travel Writing” take its reader?

My favorite essay, so far, is Michael Finkel’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Void” originally published in National Geographic Adventure.

It follows a lone traveler piled into a truck driving across “the giant sand sea at the center of the Sahara.” The void itself, the “giant sand sea,” is fascinating — its disorienting quality attracts an eclectic group of passengers, from a drunk to a widow to an American named Beth who just wants “to feel the wind in her face,” provokes reactions ranging from bliss to terror, and serves as an ever-shifting landscape of haunting, unpredictable beauty. Finkel writes:

“Many of the tourists are on spiritual quests. They live hectic lives, and they want a nice dose of nothing — and there is nothing more nothing than the void. The void is so blank that a point-and-shoot camera will often refuse to work, the auto-focus finding nothing to focus on…”

There’s a strong statement about modern society — that Westerners with hectic lives will haul themselves across the Saharan desert just to bliss out on endless sand, to envelop themselves in a place that represents emptiness and nothingness… Finkel continues,

“After a fortnight of wind, Beth came to a profound decision. She said she now realized what her life was missing. She said that the moment she returned home she was quitting her Internet job and opening up her own business. She said she was going to bake apple pies.”

By contrast, “Forty Years in Acapulco” from Men’s Journal chronicles an eighty-nine-year old Polish immigrant named Mort Friedman whose idea of paradise is stalwart routine, reclining by a pool in your finest swimwear at a hotel. This is not travel as self-discovery or spiritual quest but travel as self-affirmation. The routine of “wak[ing] at nine-thirty; putt[ing] on a brand-new bathing ensemble… fly[ing] down on American Airlines on the same date every year” enshrines all of the achievements that earns Mort his yearly trip.

A third essay, “The City and the Pillars,” describes New York’s immediate response to September 11, 2001, emphasizing the instinct of New Yorkers to throw themselves into a daily routines, such as shopping for groceries or cafe owners hosing down sidewalks, in a stubborn protest of the horrific reality of the towers. Adam Gopnik writes,

“The pleasure of living in New York has always been the pleasure of living in both cities at once: the symbolic city of symbolic statements (this is big, I am rich, get me) and the everyday city of necessities, MetroCards and coffee shops and long waits and longer trudges. On the afternoon of that day, the symbolic city, the city that the men in the planes attacked, seemed much less important than the real city, where the people in the towers lived.”

One downside to reading a collection of travel essays, if you’re reading it cover to cover, is that you occasionally get stuck in a destination that you don’t find exciting, or you find yourself a passenger on a journey that wanders a little too long — in my case, “A Rio Runs Through It,” by Rod Davis from The San Antonio Express-News. You’re obviously jolted from place to place, occasionally leaving you with that feeling of the void: there’s too much and therefore nothing to focus on.

So how are my first four or five days in Iceland affecting my psyche?

As much as I appreciate the beauty of the landscape, the density and crispness of the language, and the friendliness of the people, the answer that first comes to mind is that I’m experiencing a renewed appreciation for certain aspects of the U.S.

For example, in a country where most foods, save sea food, have to be imported, and everything but a hot dog is startingly expensive, I appreciate living in a country rich in access to cheap produce (notwithstanding the obvious problems with our agricultural industrial complex).

And as beautiful as the Icelandic landscape is, I find myself reminded of certain remote parts of Montana or Oregon, and feel gratitude for the tremendous diversity of the American landscape, East to West:

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That being said, the lack of visible poverty in Iceland, except for two homeless men in Rekjavik, points out the visible poverty in the United States and our complacency toward it.

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On a more personal level, the gift of time has given me the chance to reflect on the balance between teaching and writing in my life, and how, in an ideal world, I’d like the balance to tilt. Who knows — maybe enough geysers and hot springs and glaciers and waterfalls will convince me that I need to ditch it all and start baking apple pies. I’ll keep you posted 🙂

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Saint Louis Days, Saint Louis Nights

eddiejdf a thousand forks CC BY-NC-SA 2.0It’s been 12 days and 13 nights since Padraic and I made our way from Chicago to Saint Louis. I’m taking a break from willpower talk to celebrate some of the good food we’ve enjoyed here since our wind down I-55, in full view of funnel clouds and spectacular displays of lightning, in the thick of that eery calm and loaded sky that characterizes tornado weather in the Midwest. We stick pretty resolutely to a weekend night dinner out, so no sooner had we unloaded the U-Haul, set up (temporary) house in my grandmother’s guest cottage and rid ourselves of the wet dog smell that was a byproduct of hauling boxes in thick sheets of rain, we were on the prowl for a good restaurant. And now, I’ll savor it once more by describing the stuff we ate! And I mean…in detail…thanks for indulging me in this notably privileged, comfortable business of blogging about food 🙂

Publico

This new, Latin American gastropub is located in the Delmar Loop, a strip of restaurants, shops and music venues near Washington University (and a throwback to my weekend nights in high school). We got there around 8 o’clock, so we decided to keep our small plate sampling very small: two tacos al pastor consisting of “spit roasted pork shoulder, pineapple, guajillo, crema, charred onion salsa” and an arepa, or corn pancake, topped with roasted meat. Our meal was delicious, notwithstanding the frozen margarita that I ordered because it was cheaper than the classic version. Sipping tequila in semi solid form gives me quite the brain freeze.

Whiskey and Soba, Sauce Magazine, and Feast Magazine have put their collective finger on the pulse of this place, so I’ll do my best to summarize: The star of the menu, as described by Feast, is the restaurant’s “custom-made wood-burning hearth,” on prominent display towards the back of the space. As outlined by Whiskey and Soba, “the menu is split into 5 sections: crudo (raw dishes), Platos Pequenos (small dishes), Arepas (corn ‘pancakes’), Tacos, and A La Parilla (grilled).” The decor is sleek and modern, with a big, backlit bar occupying considerable space in the center and a line of brown-toned booths underlying wooden tree sculptures along the wall. We sat at the bar — the bottles grouped casually on large countertops, without fussy shelving, and cutting boards with slices of lemon, lime and other garnishes in full view. You really get to watch the bartenders do their thing. The food was served on colorful china with vintage floral patterns. The meal was at once light and rich, a welcome change from the heavy, sticky, cheesed-out feeling of so many Mexican joints. For two small plates and two drinks, I think our tab was a scant 30 bucks.

Robust Wine Bar

On our second Saturday night in town I had the chance to sample the dinner menu of this Webster Groves hot spot, alongside a flight of crisp, summery whites. A mixture of California and Oregon brands, the wine description touted notes of peach, pear, mango, honey dew and passion fruit, tasting subtle and fragrant while maintaining a desired acidity and dryness. As for food, I recommend the plate of Délice de Bourgogne cheese from France, with a moderately sized but uber creamy cheese wedge, thin slices of buttery toast, dried apricots and salted Marcona almonds. The Bresaola Carpaccio Style is also delicious: paper thin slices of salt-cured beef topped with arugula, shaved Parmesan and truffle oil. Check out their dinner menu for a full list of what’s available — next time I’ll have my eye on the Green Goddess salad with oven-roasted beets, the Shrimp & Grits and the Roasted Mushrooms, and possibly a taste of the Goat Cheese Cheesecake, you know, when I’m taking a break from my pursuit of willpower.

Robust’s wine menu is organized by wine profile, dubbed the “robust factor,” which makes the beverage selection and food-pairing process more intuitive, less painstaking for a wine novice like myself. The chef is Robert Hemp V, with a food philosophy that keeps things simple and local. As Evan Benn writes for the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, he “manages to take broad cooking influences — European, American, Meditteranean and Asian elements populate Robust’s menu — and present them in ways that complement rather than compete with what’s in your glass.” A few years ago, the restaurant opened a Washington Avenue location in downtown Saint Louis that caters to a crowd of “locals, tourists…and conventioneers.” There’s also a Robust in Edwardsville, Illinois.

Meanwhile, I’ll recommend a local cookbook, titled “Saint Louis Days, Saint Louis Nights,” compiled by the Junior League of Saint Louis, to tide you over between weekend night dinners out. I’ve been making French onion soup from this book for years, requiring nothing more than a few onions, beef or chicken broth, a spoonful of flour, butter, Parmesan cheese and a sturdy, crusty loaf of bread. It also contains a notably no-fuss recipe for a whopping three loaves of pumpkin bread. In fact, all the recipes are decidedly no-fuss, one reason I gravitate towards them when I want something substantial and simple, or on the rare occasions when I’m cooking for a crowd. For a light but filling dinner series of spring dinners, try making a batch of “Scrumptious Eggs” on a Sunday afternoon. Happy eating.

Scrumptious Eggs

Tools

9×13 casserole dish
Cutting board
Chef’s knife
Sauté pan
Large mixing bowl
Whisk or fork
Measuring cups
Measuring spoons

Ingredients

1 1/2 pounds Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
3/4 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced
1/2 large onion, chopped
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted, plus extra for the dish
1 cup cubed ham or bacon
11 eggs, beaten
1 3/4 cups milk
3/4 cup flour
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 1/2 teaspoons salt

  • Butter the casserole dish and place half of the cheese on it.
  • Clean the mushrooms with a moistened paper towel and cut into slices. Chop the onion. Sauté the mushrooms and the onion in the butter until tender. Place the cooked vegetables over the cheese.
  • Cook, cool and chop the bacon, if using, then spread the ham or bacon on top of the mushroom mixture.
  • Beat together the eggs, milk, flour, parsley and salt.
  • Pour this mixture evenly over the casserole and top with the remaining half of cheese.
  • Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 45 minutes.

Farewell Chicago

brunurb P1090489 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0I have seven more nights to sleep in my Chicago bed. Seven more 5:30 am snoozes filled in by the sound of dump trucks reversing, ambulances speeding, cabbies honking, and heels clicking on pavement outside my bedroom window. Am I feeling nostalgic? Not so much, as a matter of fact. I’ve reached a point where the allure of the city, in all its gritty, gray, urban glory, has faded for me. I’m ready for a shorter commute. I’m ready for bigger patches of green grass, for big, old trees that aren’t plopped in the middle of a concrete sidewalk with a copper plate covering for protection. I’m ready for pizza that isn’t Chicago style pizza — and yes, that especially includes Imo’s, even if it does resemble “Velveeta on a cracker.” I’m ready for snow that melts, rather than transforming into a coal-black packed powder for weeks on end. I’m ready for longer springs, longer autumns, shorter, warmer winters.

Did I mention that I’m ready? At the same time, I’m already anticipating that moment when the absence of all that Chicago has to offer suddenly tugs at me, when suddenly I’m aware that I’ve given up a great deal and I can’t go back to it. I know it’s coming. So here’s a little list of Chi town places I’ll especially miss, hopefully with some appeal for both readers well-acquainted and completely unfamiliar with the windy city:

The Old Town School of Folk Music is one of my favorite places to see live music in Chicago. In addition to offering a wide range of classes in a wide range of instruments for both kids and adults, Old Town hosts so many great concerts. This March I saw Los San Patricios, a concert about Irish immigrants’ contributions to the Mexican-American war, jointly produced by the Sones de Mexico and the Irish Music School of Chicago and featuring a fusion of Mexican and Irish music and dance. Another favorite was a performance a few years ago by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell, performing songs from their joint album, Kin.

Joseph Kranak Signature Room CC BY 2.0LSD, as in Lakeshore Drive, is such a gem. The glint of sun on the corner of skyscrapers. Wide swaths of lake, stretching toward the horizon. Belmont Harbor, with its promise of leisurely summer days spent out on the water. An open view of Buckingham Fountain, whose spray hits the sky just so, making a rainbow. Joggers and bikers cutting their path, making the city feel lived in, alive. Warm days when the beaches are loaded with people. Cool days when the sand is iced over, windswept into craggy piles. Gray, dry  days when the city is a blend of blue, silver, and white.

Andrew Seaman Davis Theater CC BY-ND 2.0The Davis Theater, located in the Lincoln Square neighborhood, is almost 100 years old, with a definite old-timey feel, established by antique posters, retro vending equipment, and four theaters displaying high, smallish screens and dingy, threadbare seats that you can’t help but love. It’s a refreshing respite from the brightly lit, commercial complexes where movies are more frequently shown today. Perhaps it’s most admirable feature, though, is the name — speaking as one, it’s hard not to love a “Davis” 🙂

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 11.32.31 AMSpeaking of Davis’s, I will sorely miss Davis Street Fish Market, purporting on their website to be “Chicago’s #1 Seafood Destination.” I have a long history with this place. I recall eating there with my parents on a college visit to Northwestern, and celebrating my graduation there a few years later. These days my husband and I like to journey over to Evanston on a Friday night for some “Crescent City Cioppino,” replete with scallops, crawfish, clams, shrimp, mussels, tomato, and fennel, or maybe some Jambalaya. Well, we used to. I suppose I’ll need a new seafood spot in the Lou.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 11.58.32 AMI’m not a big shopper, but I have some great memories of sorting through Knee Deep Vintage‘s collection of dresses, t-shirts, bags, and shoes. Open since 2008, the shop is located on 18th Street, in Pilsen, on Chicago’s south side. I bought an army green dress with a gold print, 1950s-style, with a cinched waist, stiff collar and 3-quarter cuffed sleeves, and pleated flare skirt that I was intent on sporting for Halloween, Mad Men style, but it’s just been hanging in my closet for the last five years. I finally donated it the other day. Still, it was a rare find, and I’m glad I went knee deep for it.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 12.12.52 PMDak is a Korean barbecue joint near my house whose praises I also sung on the site Food Riot. A clean, spare, small space with blonde wooden tables, gray floors, and plentiful spools of paper towels, Dak is good for two versions of wings: one with a soy/garlic/ginger sauce, and a spicy red pepper version. Rice bowls are also on the menu, containing veggies, a fried egg, and a sweet/spicy red pepper sauce, but my favorite is their Bulgogi — thinly sliced steak lightly dredged in Korean barbecue sauce served alongside a sticky mound of white rice. They also make a mean eggroll and a tasty batch of sweet potato waffle fries that are hard to resist.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 3.06.01 PMSpeaking of neighborhood haunts, it’ll be hard to part with Devon Market. The Edgewater grocery store has fresh bread baked in store, a large produce section, a wide assortment of Mexican style meats, international pantry items, and is such a bargain compared to the bigger chains.

Patrick Emerson Follow Harold Washington Library Patrick Emerson CC BY-ND 2.0How I’ll miss the Harold Washington Library, and the entire Chicago Public Library system. The sheer size and vibrancy of Chicago’s libraries, housed in so many beautiful and historic locations, is something to be savored. (I think Sulzer Regional Library in Lincoln Square is a close second for me.) And for a bit of trivia, did you know that the city’s public library system was set into motion after the Great Chicago Fire, when 8,000 books were donated from England? Now you do 🙂

Rachel 365/28 Lao Sze Chuan CC BY-NC 2.0

Lao Sze Chuan is, hands down, my favorite place to eat Chinese food in the city. They have a delectable eggplant pork dish that’s soft and buttery and decadent, a mayonnaise shrimp item that sounds disgusting but is strangely addictive, delicious crispy beef dishes, irresistible steamed dumplings, and warm pots of fresh tea. That said, their menu is extensive, and in all my times eating there, I’ve only scraped the tip of the iceberg. Don’t take my word for it — this place has received numerous awards from the city’s culinary community. It’s a fairly widespread favorite.

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 2.11.39 PMAnd… last, but certainly not least, I will miss Links Hall, a performance space for independent artists — a place to take risks, generate new work, and expose Chicago audiences to new horizons. With all its artistic offerings, I doubt Saint Louis has a place quite like it. Aw shucks.

So there you go. As I prepare to journey southward, I remember that Chicago is a loaded, special place, full of places and people and meals to be missed. What’s your favorite Chicago gem??

 

 

Grateful Wednesdays

Kalyan Chakravarthy Half what? (CC BY 2.0)I’ve decided that hump day deserves a regular gratitude list. It’s the best way to slide into Thursday with my head screwed on straight, to pause in the middle of the week for a little putting-in of perspective. And I think there’s added value in listing nuggets of thankfulness  in order to share them — for me, that is. It feels like a subtle way of taking action on what I’ve been given, paying good things forward by making them known to you, dear reader, or by drawing attention to the less tangible things. And for me, making a personal gratitude list public helps me to
cement and augment a more general posture of thankfulness and abundance. I hope it reads less as, “good for me, now let me pat myself on the back” and more broadly as “the world is loaded with wonder.” So, thank you, and without further adieu, ten things, small and not so:

  1. Wait for it…chocolate chip and roasted pear scones, courtesy of Smitten Kitchen. What a slightly unexpected, fruity, chocolatey, tart-sweet combo. While I’m at it, the entire Smitten Kitchen site — a self-contained gold mine of recipes, simple and scrumptious — and also, the mini scone pan I was gifted for Christmas. I never got around to making scones before I had this pan. It’s the little things.
  2. The people in this world who choose a hard path, knowing it’s hard, and knowing that there is no way around it. I’m thinking of Dr. Martin Luther King. I marvel at the clarity of his life’s mission, vision, and moral conscience.
  3. Winter headbands that keep things insulated on, say, an early morning/early evening commute involving lots of walking and waiting in the cold. If you’re reading, go ahead and grab yourself one! Just do it.
  4. The unique beauty of urban landscapes: the warm, orange glow of streetlights against a dark early morning sky, the steep rise of buildings, winding around the lake, the contrast between a bright train car and the sleeping wooden balconies outside. I could go on (I’ll spare you) but suffice it to say that Chicago is a looker, even in the thick of late January.
  5. A new vegetable soup recipe: Provençal Vegetable Soup, from Ina Garten’s Barefoot in Paris. There are a couple of things about this soup that I find noteworthy: the addition of broken spaghetti noodles and halved green beans, the liberal use of chopped leeks, and last, but not least, the swirling-in-for-serving of pistou, a paste made of raw garlic, tomato paste, fresh basil, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese.
  6. The practice of blogging. I think of it as a practice,  not unlike a yoga practice. It’s something I routinely turn to to clear my head, to challenge myself, to slow myself down and develop a deeper presence of mind and level of self-awareness. I’m thankful that blogging is something I can always return to when I have the time, that there’s now a foundation of entries on this here site to blossom into more entries. And more. It’s a good thing we bloggers collectively have going here, on WordPress. To think that the world of blogging didn’t exist a few years ago…
  7. New horizons/things to look forward to. For me, that includes a very hypothetical, much discussed and absolutely unprepared for trip to Ireland in the not so distant future. The longer it goes unplanned, the longer the gestation phase of my fervent anticipation — a blurry assortment of misty, rolling hills, warm pubs, and long, stretched out days of doing whatever the heck we please. One day we’ll get there.
  8. The space and time to be enjoyed by two adults who don’t have kids…yet. In other words, the absence of a heavy (yes, and beautiful) responsibility. This translates into gym time, leisurely cooking, the satisfaction of getting-stuff-done after work, whimsical and aimless conversations with my husband that have nothing to do with getting stuff done.
  9. The difference between writing for an editor and writing for myself. I say difference because I am grateful for both modes, so to speak. I find both challenging and rewarding in different ways. With writing for myself comes the joy/challenge of figuring out what I truly want to say, and also the spontaneity and lightness of having an idea strike my fancy and setting words to page. With writing for an editor comes more scrutiny, more research, a satisfying degree of clarity regarding form and style, and the meaty challenge of organizing ideas accordingly. With both comes the joy and freedom of returning, writing as much or as little as time dictates, but always knowing that writing is there.
  10. Befitting this rather nerdy post I will end with an entirely nerdy “nugget”: I am proud to say, I am very, very thankful for step aerobics. Yep, that’s right. Doing “mambo cha-cha-chas” and “corner knees” and “helicopter turns” astride a big plastic bench. At about 7:30 on a Tuesday evening when I’ve been alternately sitting and standing but not doing a whole lot of moving, it’s bliss, a way to get the blood flowing if you have an affinity for basic jazz dance moves and/or leanings toward the 1980s decade. Somehow, over the last three or four years I’ve morphed into what some would call “a stepper” — I just wish I had the wristband and the pastel-hued leg warmers to do myself justice. Oh well. When a girl’s gotta step, a girl’s gotta step. Er…woman, that is… (I have a pet peeve for grown ass women referring to themselves as girls. Oops.)

So that’s it. My list of small, and not so small points of gratitude to get me over the hump. I hope they serve you as well. As my dust-gathering Book of Common Prayer reads, “It is a good and a joyful thing, always and everywhere, to be thankful to God.” Amen.

Going Bananas in Chiberia

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 1.27.46 PMIn case you have a touch and go relationship with the national news (or perhaps you are lucky enough to live in southern France) allow me to state the obvious: January in Chicago, or “Chiberia,” as Twitter calls it, has been frigid! CPS snow days, I have found, are a prime opportunity for taking stock — as in, looking back and reflecting — although making stock works too. If I remember correctly, I spent “Snowmaggedon” (the 2011 storm that amassed 20+ feet of snow in Chicago) standing over a pot of onions for an onion tart, stinking up my studio apartment with layers of pastry, mustard, onions, and baked eggs. Flash forward two years, minus about a month: early Jan 2013 involved its own version of hibernation — the kind that follows oral surgery — and many painstaking, unsightly bites of homemade bread pudding. (Not sure if the Vicodin played into this, but  sadly, I have had no desire for bread pudding since. In downtown San Francisco, P and I discovered a trendy bread pudding shop where they scoop the pudding into paper cups like ice cream. A cute idea, a creamy confection, somehow it reminded me of the dentist. Oh well.) This year, after 24 hours of intermittent weather related e-mails and duplicate forwards — “Clarification,” “CPS Announces,” “Update,” “Urgent,” “FWD: Urgent” — I found myself hunkered down again, unequivocally off-duty, and after a day’s worth of querying and following up and related freelance rigamarole, turning on the stove.

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 1.34.00 PMPerhaps it was the cold, more likely it was the pile of increasingly brown bananas in my fruit bowl, but I decided that we needed a little tropical flavor in the house. So I decided to go a little bananas. I was trying to keep banana bread at bay, in favor of something more spontaneous, a little looser and less predictable, something that will inspire me next week when I’m having the same issue with these doggone, overripe bananas. Here are the results:

Vanilla Ice Cream with Caramelized Bananas and Almond Crumble

Adapted from Bon Appetit Desserts

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 1.40.57 PMThe Bon Appetit version is a baked phyllo dough package (excuse me, the recipe reads “purses”) filled with caramelized bananas and hazelnut crumble and served with a white chocolate sauce. As much as I love the many layers of that idea, a deconstructed version sounded better, and slightly less crazy, on a random snow day. The caramelization action over high heat made me wistful for Bananas Foster, brunch and dinner joint that used to sit the corner of Granville and Broadway, with a friendly, lively, Southern vibe and an excellent rendition of its namesake.

Ingredients

  • Brown sugar
  • Unsalted butter
  • Flour
  • Nuts (your choice)
  • Salt
  • Granulated sugar
  • Fresh lime juice
  • Bananas
  • Optional: hazelnut liqueur or amaretto

Crumble it Up

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 1.48.41 PMPreheat an oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with foil or a silicone mat and spray it with baking spray. In a saucepan, melt 1 cup of brown sugar with 1 stick of butter (1/2 cup) until the butter has melted. Take the saucepan off the heat and mix in 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour, 1 cup of almonds or whatever nuts you have on hand, and a pinch of salt. Spread the mixture on the greased baking sheet and bake until dry and golden, 20-30 minutes. Set the timer for 15 minutes and give it a little toss to make sure everything is browning evenly.

And Caramelize

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 1.53.36 PMSlice 6 bananas and juice several limes until you have 1/4 cup lime juice — most likely, 2 large limes or 4 small limes. Microwave the limes for 10 seconds to get as much as juice as possible. Place 6 tablespoons of butter (3/4 stick) in a sauté pan, along with 3/4 cup sugar and 1/4 cup lime juice. Keep the heat on low until the butter melts. At this point, increase the heat to high and stir the mixture until it browns around the edges, about 5 minutes. Add the bananas (and if using, 2 tablespoons of the liqueur, I did not) and stir until the sauce thickly coats them. Transfer to a large bowl.

Add Some Dairy

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 2.05.53 PMSpoon the caramelized bananas and nut crumble over vanilla ice cream or Greek yogurt. Almost looks like Chiberia.

As I write this, it’s Thursday — school is back in session, it’s warming up, and since we happen to be reading the scene in Guys and Dolls where Sky Masterson whisks Sarah Brown to Havana, Cuba, we’re doing our best to keep the tropics vibe alive, hey mambo… So how about an even lazier approach:

Banana & Chocolate Chip Panini

Adapted from Stonewall Kitchen Favorites

Ingredients

  • Banana
  • Chocolate chips or nutella
  • Spreadable butter
  • Bread

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 2.09.39 PMThinly slice a banana. Microwave 1/4 to 1/2 cup chocolate chips until they are partly melted (even easier, spread on the nutella.) Butter one side of four slices of bread. Flip the bread to the unbuttered side. Place the banana slices on two slices of bread and spoon the semi-melted chocolate chips over the top. Top with the other two slices of bread, butter side up. Grill on a panini press or sauté pan until gooey.

[Photos: “Josephine Baker,” megpi’s photostream, under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, “Chiberia 5,” Kathleen Virginia’s photostream, under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, “Bananas Wrapped in Phyllo with Chocolate Sauce,” Food Thinkers’ photostream, under CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0, “Crumble Closeup,” ☃’s photostream, CC BY-NC 2.0, “Bananas Foster,” ginnerobot’s photostream, CC BY-SA 2.0, “Vanilla ice cream,” Sofie Dittmann’s photostream, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, “Nutella & Banana Panini,” Andurinha’s photostream, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

Empathy As Change & We Are Not Trayvon Martin

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I recently heard Bill Clinton being interviewed on BBC News about his philanthropic work in Africa. When asked whether his poor, Alabama upbringing allows him to empathize with people there, he said that he is proud of his humanitarian work because it comes from a place of empathy, not necessarily of mutual experience.

It was so refreshing to hear someone elevate pure empathy as a foundation for social change. Often, it seems that leading social change requires a certain degree of “street cred”  in the form of a shared connection to the population or situation being served. I recently attended a non-profit gathering, during which several organizations shared their story. They attributed their success to effectively spreading a narrative. The story usually went something like this: I had cancer and I started a mentoring program for kids with cancer; I am Muslim and I started a theatre company to address issues facing Muslim Americans.

This is a beautiful thing.

But what if your struggles/experience/story don’t mirror those of the population you serve? Can you be a credible leader of change? Let’s hope so. It’s much harder to be complacent when experiencing other people’s pain vicariously, through imagination and compassion, rather than through personal experience, is a sufficient call to action. 

This is what I love about http://wearenottrayvonmartin.com.

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What an enlightened, beautiful, and courageous public forum for the pain we ALL feel, as in, all races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds, and combination thereof, regarding Trayvon Martin’s death and the racial tensions that surround it.

I think the flood of responses shows how many everyday people of racial or socioeconomic privilege are affected by issues of race, but they don’t typically express their feelings. Why is this? Perhaps they feel uncomfortable or tentative about claiming any part of race-related struggles as their own, for fear of seeming insensitive to their own privilege.

I am not Trayvon Martin. I am a white female. I probably get more welcoming looks in a hoodie than I do in preppy clothes. Like most people, my upbringing, education, and day-to-day adult life defies and embodies stereotypes. I have lived with, been longtime friends with, attended school and church with, been neighbors with, been colleagues with, and supervised by “people of color.” My grandfather’s memorial service disproved the trope that 11:00 on a Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, for someone born long before the civil rights movement in Saint Louis, Missouri.

Growing up in Saint Louis, attending a private high school located in a very manicured, affluent, white suburb, I encountered excellent teachers, some cringe-worthy wealth, some outdated traditions, and some of the most open-minded, well-traveled, and socially conscious people I know. I attended undergrad in another affluent, manicured, and predominantly white neighborhood, but my peers were Egyptian, Indian/Muslim, Nigerian, Chinese, Sikh, Hindu, and Israeli.

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Living in Chicago, segregation is normalized. Racial inequality is one of many talking points in the news, built into segments between inefficient lawmakers or expensive city parking. Riding the el pretty well lays out the situation.

I do not have to make peace with, or normalize the possibility that my skin color might invite violence, legal trouble, or certain forms of harrassment. It would be easy to say that I live in a different world, but the truth is, it is very obvious to me that our society is racially tinged and driven by appearances and stereotypes.

Depending on who I am with, what I am wearing, or what neighborhood I am in, people don’t look at me at all, or they look at me with curiosity, or they look at me with mild hostility. It doesn’t compromise my safety or tangibly impact me in a negative way. But the predictability of such reactions is a subtle, demoralizing reminder that “we” — the heterogenous mix of people that make up a city like Chicago, any city in urban America — go about our business in a state of quiet alienation and mistrust.

As the racial minority in my classroom, I have a glimpse of what it feels like to be judged on small attributes of my appearance, demeanor, or language. For example, pronouncing names correctly on the first day of school can bridge the unspoken racial difference. I am careful to offer unwarranted assistance with say, a reading assignment so that the help is not interpreted racially — otherwise, such “help” might cause a struggling student to shut down. I may consider myself enlightened, I may have diverse experiences, but I am also, unavoidably, a white authority figure. As such, it takes a little more time, a little more effort, and a little more care to build trust.

The polarized reactions to George Zimmerman’s trial, the racially charged criticism of President Obama, the various perspectives on Paula Deen’s racial slurs  — all are public, sobering reminders that race divides us. Apparently, whites, blacks, and all shades in between feel mutually misunderstood, or in the words of Ralph Ellison, “invisible… simply because people refuse to see [them].”

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To get beyond this state of mutual misunderstanding, we need to legitimize empathy and compassion as catalysts of social change, independent of shared experience. They may be abstractions, but they have concrete power.

Check out this story about Viola Liuzzo, the only white woman protestor to die in the civil rights movement. She acted on the belief that civil rights were “everybody’s fight.” For years, the purity of her motives was questioned. The family was finally vindicated when last May, Liuzzo was awarded the Ford Freedom Humanitarian Award, an honor shared by none other than Nelson Mandela.

I have to believe that the prestige of this award, and the magnitude of Liuzzo’s courage, reflects her ability to translate empathy into action, boldly, despite her status as a privileged outsider. For those of us who are not Trayvon, we are still hit hard by his loss, and we can still be part of the solution.

[Photos: Picture called “L’empreinte Digitale Oubliée” from Twistiti’s Flickr Photostream, “Rain on Hand Prints” from jcoterhals’ photostream, “Bean in Black and White” from james_clear’s photostream, “Raised Hand” by feverblue’s photo stream]

Words To Drive By Part 4

Landscape: On The Country and The City

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The corruption of cities versus the moral superiority of the countryside seems like an outdated, turn of the nineteenth century idea, but it’s one that is convincingly explored in The Art of Travel. The beauty of Yosemite National Park proved the author’s point that “there are concerns that seem indecent when one is in the company of a cliff” (148).

In this chapter, De Botton describes a three-day trip to England’s Lake District, following the footsteps of “a broader historical movement… in which city dwellers… travel in great numbers through the countryside in an attempt to restore health to their bodies and, more important, harmony to their souls” (130).

The Lake District is where William Wordsworth wrote his poems, and by extension, why he wrote his poems, since his poetry mostly praised his natural surroundings. I always thought that poets like Wordsworth got a pass for unbridled, emotional praise of butterflies and sheep and gooseberries; I assumed such flowery adulation didn’t seem “soft” in a more romantic era, but according to de Botton, Wordsworth was mocked pretty harshly for his overflowing love notes “To a Butterfly,” “To a Skylark,” “To The Daisy.”

Wordsworth was equal parts philosopher and poet, meaning that his poetry stemmed from a deep-seated, arguably non-Western belief in the importance of nature to human happiness. He thought cities made people self-centered and isolated, too focused on the social hierarchy and so eager for novelty that their broader, truer sense of interconnectedness was dwarfed. In addition, he viewed plants and animals as “paragons of stoicism,” and thus morally instructive to human beings.

1. Exhausted in the city
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2. Enamored in nature
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3. Morally instructive elephant seals
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As this guy flapped his flanks with sand and let out deep, gutteral groans, these headlines, among many others, made news back home:

  • As Bay Area Strike Idles Trains, Commuters Scramble
  • The Fall of Paula Deen
  • Zimmerman Is Acquitted in Trayvon Martin Killing

The contrast makes this idea, quoted from a nineteenth century book about Wordsworth,  rather charming:

“‘I am sure it would give much pleasure to many of the public if the local, daily, and weekly press throughout the country would always record, not only the arrivals and departures of Lords, Ladies, M.P’s and the great people of this land, but also the arrivals and departures of birds.’”

See De Botton’s thoughts on possessing beauty

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