Where in world...?

An old friend phoned the other day. He never phones. But this time he just had to know: "What are you doing living in Florence?"
He thought I was in Florence, Italy. I told him it was Florence, Massachusetts.
Here are some answers -- my occasional wanderings through Florence, MA and the surrounding Pioneer Valley.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Florentina's Christmas Shopping in New York City

**A quick adjustment below for accuracy!**
You've all seen those movies and television shows where you see New York City all decked out in Christmas gear from Thanksgiving to New Year's. This year I cut it a bit close in terms of time, and have just returned from visiting Joey's Dad in Brooklyn, so that shopping might get done in a big way in Manhattan. But things don't always turn out as hoped.

Last Friday I took the train out of Brooklyn to Midtown. The problem was that, unbeknownst to me, I was really under the weather and shouldn't have been traveling at all, not even on the subway. (The MTA does warn you of this, as they ask people not to get on the subway cars if there's a chance of feeling ill.) I discovered this was true of me because I kept getting on the wrong train and getting off at the wrong stops. Luckily I was never in danger of ending up somewhere really far off from where I needed to go, but I found myself going uptown when I wanted to go downtown, or headed to the West Side when I needed to be on the East Side. Some of you will notice this is a real change from the last time I had a subway marathon, when it was Florentina's NY Nosh Week.

Even so, Florentina did her best to do NYC at Christmas. Here's the list of places and things Christmasy that I encountered.
In reality this turned out to be a bust of a shopping day and I gave up at the end when I realized I couldn't find the last address I wanted to hit. That said to me it was time to go home to Brooklyn and Joey's Dad.

We made up for it the next day with Florentina's Spa Day. Admittedly it was a low-key spa day, but it was still a spa day because of:
My face actually looked different when I walked out of the facial. I had no idea such a thing could be possible! Together with the new haircut made up for the previous blah day of shopping.

While Manhattan lights were not happening for Florentina, Brooklyn had plenty of them in store. Here is what greeted us on the way to Grand Szechuan House:

The day was topped by a visit to Grand Szechuan House near 86th Street. For the record, this is a terrific place for Chinese food, and we've had some terrific meals here. Some of us (whose name begins with an "F") need to be better aware of our tolerance for ma-la Szechuan peppercorns. Florentina's no wimp when it comes to food and being adventurous, but let it be known that the Chengdu Spicy and Aromatic Fish in Hot Wok nearly did her in. Sorry, El Señor, that's a first in Chinese food for Florentina. I passed by Hinsch's Confectionery and wished I could have had a burger instead, because I was in pain. I know I'll have better luck next time in NYC!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Pottery Shards on the Mill River

A few days ago we went for a walk along the Mill River in Leeds, just under two miles from where I live in Florence. There is a converted trolley track going through the woods with a beautiful view of the river below. At various points in the walk we were able to go down to the water. Joey was especially excited, as we could tell when we got down to the little beach. He raced around excitedly as if to say, "Hey, it's a beach! It's just great here! Awesome!" Because it was such a cold day, none of us encouraged him to try wading into the water. But as we stood there on the little beach, I noticed the pebbles were a little unusual. Joey's dad pointed out that they weren't ordinary pebbles at all but shattered pieces of pottery and porcelain from the days when factories lined the Mill River. Factories made textiles as well as pottery, buttons, and bricks.

Pieces of pottery and porcelain found on the beach. Center is a
piece of brick worn away by the water. Two of the pieces are also below.

Top:you can still see the petal pattern from a plate.
Bottom: milky glass. 
In May 1874, the Hampshire Reservoir north of Leeds collapsed, rapidly flooding Williamsburg and Leeds. Before this disaster hit, Leeds had been a thriving little village. A number of the buildings still show where the businesses used to be, and a Catholic church still stands, though no longer holding services. It is possible to see some of the photographs taken of the flood's devastation, housed at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. When you drop a mug or a dinner plate on the floor, think of all the pieces that come out of that mess. Multiply that by a couple hundred, and that's what we have along the Mill River, where it is still possible to pick up a brick lying in the water after all these years.

Leeds has never quite been the same since the big flood, which is described by Jim Parsons for the Leeds Civic Association in more detail, including the way it was once divided up into different sections according to ethnicity or named for a natural landmark, such as "Crow Hill." Because this village and its residents were primarily working-class people, the notion of memorializing this history came a bit later to Leeds, but you can find it today if you look. Historian Elizabeth M. Sharpe has written about this event and its context In the Shadow of the Dam: The Aftermath of the Mill River Flood of 1874 (2007), and you can also see a monument dedicated to the 51 Leeds residents who were caught in the floodwaters.

A bonus factoid dug up by Jim Parsons in his mini-history says that the first man to play Charlie Chan in the movies, Werner Oland, lived across the street from what is now the ChartPak factory in Leeds. However, Wikipedia does not mention Leeds, naming Southborough, MA as his primary residence at his time of death. The Charlie Chan Family Home website shows this tombstone, and gives fleeting hints about Leeds. If anyone can show me proof of his residence, I'll be very willing to post it on this blog in the future. Let me know!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Pine-Scented Turkey

Aaah, 'tis the season for the turkey. I am not always called upon to cook the turkey, though I have done so in the past. Most notably, I made Thanksgiving dinner with a big turkey when living in England one year. I had to lug the frozen turkey in my backpack home from the supermarket. I can't remember anything about cranberry sauce or stuffing, but it met the Thanksgiving needs of the three Americans at the table, and satisfied the Thanksgiving curiosity of the three British women at the table.

I went to visit my parents in Connecticut for Thanksgiving. Little Joey the dog came along. It's hard to know what he thinks of the holidays and the dinners since he may not have had the most stable home life before coming to live with me, but he was rewarded with a juicy piece of turkey on Thanksgiving night. We all, that is, Joey's Dad and the extended family give thanks that Joey has come to live with us and become a part of our lives!

The Christmas tree part of the store.
 Notice the blow-up Santa in front. 
It's rare for me to visit my parents without paying a visit to the "World's Largest Dairy Store." (Excuse me, while I scoff. But I can't scoff too long, since Ripley's Believe It or Not gave them this designation a long time ago -- it's on their neon sign.) I grew up near this place when it was still a small barn and the little farm out front still looked more like a hobby farm. As kids, we used to lug their colorful plastic bags for schoolbags, since no one ever bought a backpack back then. I was really shocked recently to learn that my cousin from California had put down a visit to Stew Leonard's on his "must-do" list of tourist sites. Excess and kitschy farm imagery help bring people into the store, though we have always liked the freshness of many items offered. It's the Disneyland of Milk, and they have the same animatronic animal figures to prove it. The milk is definitely a big draw, though they have stopped processing the milk at this facility. Nowadays the display of milk cartons going around the conveyor belt is just for show, and you can tell when you look closely at it.

At different times of the year the Stew Leonard's complex features a garden store, or a holiday store. On the day after Thanksgiving, Florentina's approach to the store was greeted with the huge smell of pine trees. Christmas is on its way.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Bison in the China Shop

I know it doesn't look like much in these photos, but this is the Long Hollow Bison Farm of Hadley, Massachusetts. Joey's Dad and I took these photos from the parking lot of Lowe's home superstore on Route 9. I have passed this location a number of times when I've traveled to the superstore shopping centers near the Amherst town border.
Bison, View 1. There is a fence between us.
Bison, View 2. There is also a ditch that
separates us, in addition to the fence.
They have a gift shop where you can buy bison meat and steaks to bring home. If you like hamburgers, bison meat makes great burgers.

Today we were on a mission to check out china place settings at Bed Bath and Beyond. We had seen a specific pattern that looked interesting, and wanted to see it in person without having to drive to a mall or wait to visit Macy's at Herald Square

We were thwarted in this attempt, as the store didn't have a separate section with all the fancy stuff, which some stores have started to feature. In fact, we started to ask ourselves where people buy their nice china these days, and if they are still doing so. (Does anyone know what's done these days, and where people go?)

Joey's Dad and I are in the middle of such ruminations because of a very special day in July 2012. One that often sends people to register for china and silverware, and to obsess over food for more people than normally attend the average dinner party.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Noodle Wonderland

 This afternoon Joey's dad suggested that I needed to get out of the house. I needed to get more rice noodles for future pad thais, but I felt as though I couldn't get going. But he persisted, adding that Joey needed to practice having me come and go from the house as a means to shake his separation anxiety. Besides, if I needed rice noodles, they had to be bought from the right place. Where else would I go but to Tran's World Food Market in Hadley, Massachusetts? It's right across the river from Northampton on Route 9 (or 50 Russell Road, if you want the local address). Tran's is a real treasure and I'll never forget the first time I visited a few months after moving to Florence. They stock a gazillion items in what seems to be a really small space, and everything is super neat.
Aaah, the aisle of noodles.
This market bridges two different versions of Asian markets that I have grown accustomed to in my lifetime. Not to sound dramatic and all, but here in East Coast towns away from the bigger cities (Washington DC, NYC, Boston) it was rare to find adequate Asian markets. It still is where my parents live, and my mom thinks it's because they live so close to Westchester County and New York City. Frequently even the old markets in NYC Chinatown will still remind me of the older style with its many dried items, canned goods, and preserved meats, such as Chinese sausages on the strings that have to be cut down.

But nowadays we have some really great, shiny Asian supermarkets springing up in places where the population has become larger. When I say shiny, I mean really bright and well-stocked with items I never dreamed of. Many of these newer supermarkets are stacked high with items from various countries, including those from East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin American countries as well. To call them Asian markets may be inaccurate nowadays, which is why Tran's is very accurate in describing themselves as a "world market." I saw French lentils on the shelf today, not far from the Cafe du Monde coffee with chicory.

The array of treasures that came home today.
The seaweed rice crackers were prescribed by Joey's dad.
One of numerous fridges/freezers. In the bottom
of this one, note the whole durian fruit available, next
to the more benign mangosteen.

After my shopping was done, I came home to find out that I'm invited to Local Burger in downtown Northampton tomorrow night for a fundraising dinner. So much for making pad thai tomorrow! At least I've gotten started on the seaweed rice crackers.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Heat and Light, Wet and Dry

This past week has been one where lots of people have been eager to get back to routine, the most humdrum of routines if possible, especially if it includes heat and electricity. I am not terribly proud to admit that I couldn't handle the lack of heat and electricity for more than a day and a half before I escaped to Connecticut to my parents' house for those highly coveted items. I'm not quite sure what my dog Joey thought, but I get the sense he was awfully happy to visit a warm house, too.

Downed tree limbs still needing to be cleared from our local park.
(Florentina's been too freaked out by crushed cars
and downed live wires to get those more exciting photos.)
N.B.: Connecticut was actually the hardest hit state with its power outages and still has many residents waiting for the resumption of their services. But my parents were lucky, never having lost power at any time in the aftermath of our freak Halloween snowstorm.

I will admit that I kept thinking of two travelers, if not three, in the past week as the post-snowstorm drama unfolded across the region. Isabella Bird and Mildred Cable kept popping up at alternating moments this week, depending on the conditions around me. I've been looking at Isabella Bird's narrative, Six Months in the Sandwich Islands (1875) for the conference presentation made in Houston, and on my trip to Houston my airplane reading was The Gobi Desert by Mildred Cable with Francesca French (1942). The radical difference in these two environments and the objectives probably caused me to keep thinking about them together, as a way to work out what they might have in common as women travelers coming out of late Victorian backgrounds. I'm going to talk more about Mildred Cable because her narrative describes the extreme conditions here in Florence that made me a little bonkers.

Worth the trip. You'll wish you
could have been with them. 
When things got really cold, sitting around with candles lit and waiting to go to bed with four blankets and thermal underwear under flannel pajamas, my sense of guilt would arise when remembering Mildred Cable's twelve years in the Gobi Desert. That's right. Mildred Cable spent twelve years making circuits in the Gobi Desert with Francesca French and her sister, Eva French. These single women were missionaries for the China Inland Mission and are known to be the first Western women to have crossed the Gobi. Because of the number of times they crisscrossed the desert from 1923 to 1936, the narrative created is non-linear in chronological terms (a typical feature of many travel narratives). Instead the narrative is built around salient aspects of their travel route -- the people, their cultures, the religious landmarks, the local rulers who would be taken over by the Communist Chinese toward the end of the fifteen year period.
This would have been their entourage
during the warmer months. Imagine traveling
with this uncovered wagon during the cold desert winter.

The conditions endured by these three women, their animals, and their porters seem unimaginable when at their worst, and barely tolerable by softy industrialized North American standards even at some of the better oases. But reading this lovely narrative taught me the beauty of pure, clean water and a warm place to sleep. How much these two qualities were valued, as well as the hospitality of their various hosts who grew accustomed to seeing them over the years, teaches the essentials of travel. No complaints about cold noses, lack of fashionable clothes for really cold interiors, or grumblings about when the internet would come back on again.

The narrative describes an unnamed place of danger north of what was known as the Valley of Demons: "From the crest of those hills the blizzard crashes with a violence unknown elsewhere. Here many travellers have met death when the dreaded fan-shaped blizzard cloud spread from behind the summit, and the sudden violence of the wind robs man and beast of any sense of direction, while the perishing cold grips its victims in a deadly embrace" (97). Not many of us can actually be in a place empty enough to see the shape of a storm about to descend upon us, and to be able to do so in such a detached manner suggests a fortitude in meeting the hardships presented in the desert. Cable and French go on to talk about the difficulty in moving forward in these desert weather conditions. Think of that picture of a sandstorm, and add it to the worst snowstorm you've had yet. "All this drought, sterility, climatic hardship, blizzard and hurricane, combine to produce extreme difficulties in the matter of communications. No river is navigable, no railway system is available, and motor traffic, which would be the only remaining solution of rapid land transit, can only be sustained on certain defined routes, and that by dint of very effective organisation" (97). In other words, they had to rely upon their mules, and in certain storms, even they couldn't pull the wagons forward.

The China Inland Mission was famous (or infamous) for allowing women the power to become missionaries on their own, without the tie of marriage to grant them permission to work. Cable and the Frenches show that the CIM were right in recognizing women's abilities to do hard work and endure conditions unimaginable to their sisters living comfortably in Europe, and to me, running away to Connecticut in a warm car with my dog.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Limning Linguistic Lines of Travel

Looks like it should crunch when you step on it, but it doesn't.
Feel free to copy for your computer's desktop.
Today we woke up to a frost coating the world. For days now we have needed extra time to put on layers before going out for daily walks. At our park this morning we could see the frost at work. This is a moment when I thought the word "limn" makes the most sense -- just enough frost to emphasize the edges of the leaves, dead or alive, and remind us of nature's beauty in everyday things. WRONG. The word "limn" refers firstly to drawing and illustration, with the idea of highlighting coming from the third, or tertiary definition and even that refers to an obsolete medieval usage derived from the word "illuminate."

Here you are witnessing one of Florentina's moments of linguistic obsession, where the definition of individual words can take a thinker from one place (in this case, real and rather cold) to another (I would need a time machine to revisit the Middle Ages and those monasteries, as well as a good drag disguise.). We are able to travel through closer examination of language and in this case, one's mistaken usage of language to see how we are able to access what otherwise would be ancient and dusty. Each of us has the ability to take such a trip by looking at a good dictionary that gives information on the derivations of words.

For Florentina, this obsession has often taken place in two languages, if not more. I would often ask my parents about where certain words come from, in our dialect of Chinese spoken at home. An example: the phrase used at my parents' house for what Americans call "Swiss chard" always provokes a plea for something a little more dignified than "hog weed" or something like that. Every summer, this phrase provokes my usual questions: Where the heck did they get that? Can't we call it something nicer? Why, my mother claimed her sister in California told her that was what it was called. In fact, the vegetable gardening book I bought for my dad last year clearly indicates a more dignified name for what we call Swiss chard. It is so dignified that I can't remember how it translates.

Swiss chard, as sold at the Crescent City Farmer's Market,
New Orleans, LA (GoNOLA.com)
What this shows is how we can influence language usage through individual means, sometimes for the better and for the more amusing. You can see that I'll always remember "pig weed" in this Chinese dialect, but not that more dignified name you might be able to use at a Chinese-speaking garden store to impress someone. It is also important to recognize that language usage outside of the country of origin is also "legitimate" and productive. While I might look like  fool asking for "pig weed" in a moment of weakness in California, after we've had a good laugh about it, the other party will recognize that at least the language of one's origins is still living, though it has taken on a rather different turn. Think of language in its second generation as being similar to children of immigrants, and you'll think twice about how language is learned, used, and retained in this transient world where everyone privileges authenticity, but has no real definition for it.

So, if the grasses and leaves aren't limned, what is it? Turns out that it's hoar frost. This kind of frost occurs when heat from living grasses, etc. meets with colder surrounding air, in a changing season. The frost crystals are rather soft, as Joey found out when he stepped on them. And today we are scheduled to get the year's first snowfall. Wish us luck for tomorrow's walk.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ghosts and Machines

On Saturday, Joey and I took a little road trip to Becket, Massachusetts. We were going to meet two of Florentina's college classmates, who were eager to meet Joey. Becket is just outside of the Pioneer Valley, putting it in the Berkshires, that hilly section of western Massachusetts that lures people to Tanglewood, Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, Canyon Ranch health spa, Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, and quaint bed-and-breakfast inns.

Becket is really quiet, and the three of us women with a dog decided to go for a walk in the woods. Near the house where the classmates were staying is an abandoned quarry. P. is an avid photographer, and she was happily snapping photos of foliage and Joey along the way. When we got to the quarry area, we found some interesting abandoned things, such as motor vehicles from the 1920s or 1930s, and dilapidated buildings. These things are carefully labeled as part of the self-guided walk through the historic granite quarry. We weren't the only groups up there with dogs, either. Two other groups were walking around at the same time, adding to the festive atmosphere on the trail.
When you get closer, you can see the springs in the driver's seat.
The quarry looks like a nice cool swimming hole for the summer. Apparently some daredevils have videotaped themselves cooling off in the water, though there are easier and safer ways to get into the water.

We didn't know anything about this place.  Oddities have been reported and supported or debunked, none of which we detected by anyone in our pack, including the dog. Apparently some of the stories  include references to dogs and their reaction to weird vibes at the quarry, Something about odd voices...  A local person has weighed in on this controversy and said it's all okay -- no ghosts there!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Playing Hooky in Houston

Question: what happens when four women get together and have been all equally deprived of serious shopping opportunities with major department stores and swanky chain stores? Add to this equation the fact that these women altogether have nearly a hundred years of education with about a dozen degrees between them, as well as numerous decades of teaching?

From Houston Galleria's Facebook Page.
This fountain drove me a little nuts after a while.
Answer: OMG. The Houston Galleria is what happens. It was all the idea of one woman, G., who had lived in Houston at an earlier point in her life, and whose parents still live nearby. She was the driver, and grabbed two others who had a record of post-conference shopping. Florentina happens to be one of those lucky shoppers. My initiation was last year on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu. This year we initiated a new member of the post-conference shopping club, and we did really well.

How well? Let's see what we bought in a matter of two hours, not including lunch.

  • Pandora bracelets were purchased and discussed obsessively in the backseat. G. and I had no clue, and spent quite a bit of time trying to sort out the attraction. If anyone can clarify the appeal of this jewelry line to Florentina, please leave a comment or two! (Are they like Trollbeads?)
  • Chloé Perfume at Sephora.
  • Estee Lauder face creams at Nordstrom. (Plus two big bonus gifts!)
  • One laptop adapter at the Apple Store.
  • Two nail buffing kits from a good-looking Israeli man who notices women's nails at his kiosk.

What didn't we buy?
...the print of this shoe = no sale.
  • A Macintosh laptop. (It was so busy, the sherriff's office had deputies stationed in the Apple Store.)
  • Gifts for our spouses/partners. Sorry, guys.
(from https://ryggradfashion.wordpress.com/)
The shape of these shoes plus...
  • Christian Louboutin shoes were examined carefully and admired at Nordstrom. We had no idea how anyone affords them, but we'd like to see someone wear them in public. (On the other hand, G. had trouble with the shoes that have been seen on Lady Gaga -- resembling leopard-skin lobster claws.)

Ice skating rink in the Galleria.
 I will admit that the mall was a little intimidating at first, but it was a great trip. The ice skating rink was  really fun to watch, and one of us had been an ice skating instructor during graduate school up in Canada, so it was probably even more interesting for her to watch.

Admittedly, we were rather tame shoppers considering how deprived each of us had been in the months leading to this breakout. But at least no one came out of the Galleria emptyhanded. If that had any chance of happening, we would have marched that woman to the good-looking Israeli man with the nail buffing kits.

We were all glad to return to our hotel, though we secretly wished we had decided to stay in one of the two hotels at the Galleria. 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Florentina says Howdy, Houston

Spent a lot of time enjoying this part
of my hotel room because of my cold.
For the last four days, it's been Florentina on the road. This time, Houston was the destination. Unfortunately, upon arrival in Houston's Hobby airport, it became clear that a cold was paying a visit to Florentina's upper respiratory system at the same time she was visiting Houston. The very warm weather made things a little uncomfortable because of my cold, but overall the warmth was really welcome for my entire stay because I was otherwise indoors in air-conditioned discomfort. Luckily the hotel room was really very nice with a super comfortable bed.
UHD at night. View from Spaghetti Warehouse.
Houston was this year's location for a conference I have attended on a number of occasions and have always enjoyed because of the terrific people and great conversations. The conference organizers always pick great places, too. This year's actual conference site was at University of Houston-Downtown, which came as a surprise for a couple of reasons. One of the reasons is that I usually can't quite figure out where the actual panels will be presented from the program materials.

Dinner at the Spaghetti Warehouse
 Unfortunately, because of the cold that traveled with me, I was not as adventurous as I had hoped to be when exploring the food scene. Italian-style food seemed to win out in the choices made, partly because it meant exerting less energy that would be otherwise needed for recovery and/or doing work-related activities. Mexican food seemed to fall out of favor when laboring under a cold, unfortunately.

We ended up at the Spaghetti Warehouse, right near the UHD campus, which has a colorful history to go with its colorful, eclectic decor. It also has its very own ghost that haunts the ladies' room. I was very glad to learn about it long after I had left that space, as I might have been too freaked out to use the faciliities if I had known. Remember that ghost that shows up in the bathroom at Hogwarts?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Dogs in Space

Not Joey, but same breed.
I'm sure they both like chicken wings.
N.B.: I have had to redact information about my pet because of security and safety. There is someone who has been overeager about him. Sorry.
This morning's New York Times featured an article on how air travel now has services dedicated to transporting pets. Perhaps I would have thought this a bit odd at one time, but now that I have Joey around, I have to consider when I can take him somewhere, or if I have to leave him with a reliable caretaker. These days we are lucky to have the little man going off to a place he feels is like a really fun summer camp or Walt Disney World for him.

A French Bulldog puppy.
One of the questions that comes from this article, "Banned by Many Airlines, These Bulldogs Fly Private," is why certain dogs have been banned, and how this need has been met, albeit with a somewhat pricey way. Christine Haughney looks at how Pet Jets and Pet Airways have sprung up to fill a need created by various major airlines who have banned the transport of brachycephalic breeds. To you and me, that's various kinds of bulldogs and those who have the snub-nose look, rather than the longer snout such as the one found on Joey above. If you have ever had to get on a flight with stuffed-up sinuses, post-nasal drip, or any kind of upper respiratory problem, imagine being a little dog loaded into an airplane in your carrier, in the cold compartment. The airlines banning these dogs have done so because a number of these poor dogs have died in transit. I always feel terrible for dogs who are getting loaded into the cargo. It's bad enough to be a passenger on a crowded flight, and to be separated from one's parent would be hard.
See Charley assume the
traditional dog pose in this automobile.

Why are pets needing to travel so much? This is an interesting question that arises from reading how these pet guardians are so intent on having such services available. One big reason lies in the role played by pets in American life today: they are family members. Therefore, you wouldn't let your grandmother sit in cargo, would you? (N.B.: I am paraphrasing a bumper sticker I saw last week that asked, "You wouldn't tie your grandma in the yard, would you?") However, though we might have airline services available to transport pets, we would do well to consider how well some pets do with reliable, trusted caretakers closer to home, especially if it grants your pet a sense of comfort or, in Joey's case, a little vacation with someone he loves.

The article does refer to those bulldog owners who have decided to take the high road -- literally. Pet owners have driven their dogs around since the start of the automobile age, and we have some rather memorable titles about this topic: John Steinbeck, anyone? Charley was a poodle who drove across America with Steinbeck in 1960. From Sag Harbor, New York to Salinas Valley, California, Steinbeck and his faithful hound, Charley, logged nearly 10,000 miles. Bill Steigerwald recently revisited this epic journey for the New York Times, and debunks some of the rugged individual-plus-dog myth of this travel narrative.

While I don't have any hesitation in supporting these folks who simply wish to get their pets transported safely, I would like to stick closer to home with Joey, and bring him into a restaurant. I'd love to see pet owners act on this possibly controversial issue in American pet culture. I would love to see a restaurant with dogs sitting under the table next to his parent's feet, just as I did in Paris. Alas, the only way we can see this happening in America is at outdoor cafes. Admittedly, I can't see dogs gaining admittance to some really fancy restaurants (Nobu in New York City, for one), but I'd be happier to see some looser attitudes in this respect. It's also good training for young chefs to cook for the dogs: I think Daniel Boulud and Jacques Pepin talk about this in their memoirs as young chefs. Please correct me if I'm wrong about this last bit!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Guilty Pleasures with a Twist: Florentina New York Nosh Week

In case you haven't figured it out, New York City is really "New Nosh City" for Florentina and her relatives. Wednesday's food tourism eventually spilled over into Thursday, moving from one guilty pleasure to another. For a few brief moments, Florentina and cousins thought about how each tasty bite might take us a step higher to the pinnacle of Mount Cholesterol, but after reminding ourselves this was a vacation for them, we gave that up. In this posting I'll be covering twists on my favorite guilty pleasures: candy, pizza, and sushi. (Sushi isn't actually a guilty pleasure, but these days it's as ubiquitous as pizza, if not more so for its lowfat content. N.B.: Florentina dislikes the American tendency to count calories and cholesterol counts, but we cousins are more adult than we used to be, and perhaps more American now, too.)

Two pounds of candies from around Asia.
Look for the pale yellow bits; they're durian flavored. 
For the candy category, we have this offering from Mott Street in Chinatown: the Aji Ichiban store near the Church of the Transfiguration. This is where Mott Street takes a sharp turn to the left. I don't quite remember what was there when I was a kid, but when this awesome store opened up a few years ago, I was more than excited. Not only can you get all sorts of sweets, but you can also get little dried fish snacks and rice crackers with seaweed. Cousin Mona was excited to try everything, and they always have samples available. In this two pound bag of candy, I picked up four durian candies; you will see them as the pale yellow candies on the right side of this picture. I have one left, after Joey's Dad had one on the street, and Florentina's mom took two of them. (Arrgh -- the whole kitchen smelled like rotten broccoli while she chewed it!) Don't be fooled by those pale yellow candies masquerading as salt water taffy, to those Americans out there looking at the picture.

From www.Kanpai Sunset.com.
If I had ordered this,
I would have made sure to have the
whole thing filled with temaki rolls.
This part goes out to my sushi buddy, Lori. For sushi, Joey's Dad and I limped back to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn after a whole day of hanging out in Manhattan. The walk through the arms and armor display in the Met may have taken it out of all of us. We had some sushi at a place around the block and discovered that they did a great job with the salmon skin temaki roll. I adore the salmon skin handroll because it combines two of my favorite things: sushi and a cone (of nori) holding it together. For this piece of awesomeness, the sushi chef has to crisp up a piece of salmon skin to complement the sushi rice.

Light Pizzas. Left: seasoned beef and egg on pita.
Right: Labne cheese, mint, tomatoes and olives on pita.
Sorry! I had originally said the green stuff was basil
in the earlier version of this post.
For pizza, my cousins went to DiFara Pizza in Brooklyn, a famous place that draws crowds. This was a good bookend to their trip to Pepe's Pizza in New Haven, CT on the previous Friday afternoon. While they all had some traditional pizza, Joey's Dad and I tried a new twist on the pizza at Man'ouChe Restaurant on Fifth Avenue (between 77th and 78th Streets) in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. These pretty pitas are called manakeesh and are surprisingly filling. The pita on the right is like a fresh salad on a pita. Definitely lacking the pale orangey grease spot on the paper underneath both of these pitas, unlike a real pizza like the kind my cousins had. But it hit the spot to get some refreshing Lebanese food after some of the heavier lifting of the previous day.

No, no diet in the near future for Florentina. (The words "diet," and "calorie"are akin to nonsense syllables in any of Florentina's languages in use.) Florentina's next major adventure involves visiting Houston at the end of next week. As it's not a known quantity, I hope to see what makes it an interesting destination.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Happy Rosh Hashanah: Florentina New York Nosh Week

After dim sum on Wednesday, the cousins and Joey's Dad moseyed from Chinatown to Houston Street, via the Bowery. The Bowery is rather different now from what I remembered as a child. If you've ever seen the book Flophouse: Life on the Bowery by David Isay, Stacy Abrahamson, and Harvey Wang (2001)  then you have seen some of the rooming houses and the men who lived in them, frequently visible streetside whenever my parents drove through the Bowery to get to Chinatown. Nowadays we have a new art museum right near the Bowery Mission. However, the more interesting industrial parts are still visible: the row of lighting stores, the cash register store, and the restaurant supply stores. Cousins Mona and Oliver were really intrigued by these stores because they don't often see such things where they live in California; here they are right in the city. The city used to be where we always went to get anything we needed for cheaper. Some people seem to have forgotten that now.

Pastrami Palace.
Picnic lunch (www.katzsdelicatessen.com)
(from russanddaughters.com)
But I'll bet the folks at Russ and Daughters as well as Katz's Delicatessen still remember those old days. When I was that kid in the backseat of the car, driving down the Bowery, trying not to make eye contact with some of those tired-looking men lounging streetside, I always looked forward to seeing these two storefronts. I was always especially impressed by Russ who loved his daughters so much that they were added to the company name and the store's neon sign. Cousin Oliver ran into Russ and Daughters and ran back out with a small portion of smoked salmon for all of us to have a taste. 

At Katz's Deli, we got pastrami sandwiches to go. We were going to picnic at Central Park before visiting the Met. It was the best pastrami sandwich ever, and we watched the toy boats lazily sail across the pond at the model sailboat pond.  You can rent a boat and test your ability to tack the tiny vessel. It's kind of nice to be dead in the water when you're not actually in the water. Cousin Oliver was very tempted to rent a boat, but decided we had to move onwards to the Met for the arms and armor display.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Dim Sum and Phoenix Talons: Florentina New York Nosh Week

Wednesday was a major day of noshing through New York City. The day began with dim sum in Manhattan's Chinatown. For those readers who have rarely had this pleasure, you want to pick a restaurant that is super busy. I know this runs counter to what some diners would prefer, but in this case, more people = more dim sum dishes = fresher stuff. We were at Kam Fong on Elizabeth Street this morning, and ended up at a table of nine people. All of them are related to me in some fashion, and all of them love dim sum. It is the way for relatives to see each other and have a good time. Dim sum with a large table is a way to show togetherness. Some people forget this fundamental function of dim sum and ruin it for everyone else, but we are not interested in those freaks today. Today we had a spread that would send a vegetarian running for a cave.

On my left were my mother's cousin, my aunt from California, mother's other cousin, and my parents. On my right were Joey's Dad, my two cousins from California, and my brother. My cousins Oliver and Mona were eager to meet Joey's Dad, and they were curious as to his culinary adventurousness. Oliver had laughed about testing him with chicken feet, otherwise known as "phoenix talons" or something romantic like that. My cousins knew that Joey's Dad was a capable candidate because of my story about his consumption of a durian milkshake. Durian is not a fruit to be messed with, as my cousin Mona once described it as tasting like garbage.

We had many different plates of dumplings, and two versions of chicken feet. For those who want to know what the two different versions were, let me know and I'll talk more about it on another blog. Dim Sum is a minor food orgy spread over multiple stomachs, if you arrange things properly. In a matter of seconds, the large round table in front of you can be filled with little plates, courtesy of one's very eager Dad.
Before Dad.
After Dad.
As you can see, there are all sorts of things in little steamers, and the pots of tea are always ready to refill the little teacups. Usually we will also find glasses of water, but we went all traditional this morning because it was a little bit on the early side (9:30am) for the wait staff to pay much attention to us. Lots of older folks will go for a little tea and dim sum in the morning, almost like a stop off at the diner or cafe. It's a good place to get a shot of protein and caffeine. In this morning's dim sum, we had only one item that had any significant vegetable matter: the bamboo shoots wrapped in bean curd sheets. Even that little dish had a touch of pork in it. This protein and caffeine filled morning gave us cousins the boost to keep going to the next stops, as you'll see next.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Gray's Papaya: The King of Hot Dogs

El Señor is just gonna laugh his head off about this one. Hot dogs are probably easy to find where he is, and in fact, bratwursts are probably more popular. This week, it's Florentina New York Nosh Week. Today was Gray's Papaya on 72nd and Broadway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Not only was it a fast food excursion, it was also a Florentina sprint day through NYC public transit, namely the subway system. Coming from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, combined with a detour in Grand Central Station because of a mistimed email from my sister asking to meet there beforehand, this trip took an hour and five different subways: R, N, 5, S, and the last and most awesome, 2 train. The 2 train got me from Grand Central Station to W 72nd Street in a matter of minutes as an express. If you were in Grand Central Station at around noon today, you would have seen me sprinting through the terminal. If I had not made that detour for my sister, I still would have needed to take three different subway lines to get up there.

The paper versions of fruits hanging above these besotted fast foodies represent the fruit flavors for various cold drinks to go with your hot dog or two. My sister made sure to order the Recession Special ($4.95) of two hot dogs with your choice of toppings, and a drink. She got me a papaya drink, as requested. The different colored signs also tell you what kinds of drink flavors are available, as if the paper decorations don't grab your attention. Understandably, the hot dogs will take a lot of your attention because they are the star of the show here.

When I was a kid in New York City, I just loved getting a hot dog from the streetside carts. Sure, they're probably terrible for you, but it was a rare treat. Gray's Papaya gives you the same thrill but in a more hygienic fashion, as well as some friendly faces behind the counter. My hot dog with ketchup, mustard, and sauerkraut really hit the spot. In fact, I realized tonight that it was pretty much the only thing I ate for most of the day, with half of the papaya drink. I'm sure tomorrow will be a better day for my nutritional intake.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Moshi Moshi...The Rice Bomb Here...

Moshi Moshi.
(Thanks to Sangsoo L. on Yelp.)
Heads up, El Señor: Last night I went to meet a new friend for sushi in downtown Northampton. Remember sushi? Vinegared rice with a tiny dab of wasabi strong enough to make you remember you have sinuses, and often paired with a piece of fish. Sometimes wrapped with a seaweed wrapper. Mmmmm. I haven't had sushi since moving to Massachusetts over a year ago, so I was terribly excited to be asked to have sushi here. Moshi Moshi (413/586-5865) is located at 4 Main Street in downtown Northampton, right near the railroad trestle.

Sam I Am. (Thanks to Anthony C. on Yelp.)
When I walked inside, the sushi bar faced me directly, and the sushi chef greeted me so warmly. Sam, or as he put it, Sam I Am, not only said hello, but he also has a gong that he'll use to announce your arrival. It's as if the party only begins when you get there! I must admit that it's been a really long time since I made it a habit to sit at a sushi bar when having sushi; San Francisco is now a long time back in my life, as is the sushi bar that I used to visit all the time. Well, it was back in San Francisco that I learned "moshi moshi" is a way to greet someone on the phone, so I thought it was really appropriate to have a sushi bar named this way.
Rice Bombs. The Bomb.
(Photo by Leigh Merriam on Moshi Moshi's Facebook page)
I was lucky enough to try a rice bomb, with its deep fried rice ball topped by a fish and sauce mixture. Tasty and able to satisfy my craving for something fried, as I had aced my cholesterol test the other day.  But Florentina's stomach was feeling a little high-maintenance, so most of the sushi tasting stayed with more sedate choices, such as the unagi roll (roasted eel), a salmon roll (it was one of the recommended fish choices of the evening), and the pickly oshinko roll (the sweet/sour radish that looks yellow). It was all delicious and just what I needed. I really must go back and have something more adventurous. I was a little envious of my dining partner's ability to eat more daring things, such as the spicy tuna roll. I had a little bit of that one, and figured out that it was definitely spicy enough to make the high-maintenance stomach cross over into cranky land.

One really cool feature of this sushi bar, pointed out to me by my sushi buddy when I sat down: regulars are rewarded with their own special chopsticks in their specially marked holders. They hang all over the sushi bar as badges of membership. It reminded me of all the beer boots hanging at the Essen Haus in Madison, Wisconsin. While I knew back then that I could never drink enough beer to merit a boot, I know for sure I can eat enough sushi to get a pair of chopsticks labeled "Florentina" hanging on the wall. I'm really looking forward to more from Moshi Moshi, including an exciting new website.

Many thanks to Lori, sushi buddy, for sharing the rice bombs and spicy tuna roll!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Happy Valley of Cholesterol

WebMD, Cholesterol Slideshow: What Your Levels Mean
Though today's weather is damp and overcast, it is actually a good day in other ways, perhaps unexpectedly. At the doctor's office this morning, I was told that my cholesterol count was excellent and spectacular. In comparing the numbers with last year's lab work, the overall cholesterol lowered by 23 points (it is now 180). The LDL (lazy, bad cholesterol) was lowered by 22 points. The good cholesterol, HDL (or, as my physician's assistant called it, "happy" cholesterol) was up 2 points to 68. I was told the HDL eats the LDL cholesterol, which might explain why it's happy. Numbers aren't my strong suit, but these numbers were amazing to me because a little while ago the doctor's office was starting to watch my cholesterol count because it had crossed the dangerous border past 200 milligrams.

While we typically look at travel and destinations on this blog, we might interpret the numbers presented above through that lens. My new residence in Florence has promoted a happier, healthier lifestyle that has encouraged better habits to flourish, thereby lowering my blood cholesterol count significantly. My family medical history keeps me checking such numbers every year, and this is the first year the numbers have shown a remarkable positive change. Even eating oatmeal for breakfast one year (yes, nearly the WHOLE year) did nothing to make this happen as much as this overall lifestyle change. In fact, the medical news I received today might technically put me in the category of travelers who goes someplace for health reasons. I think I'll talk a little more about those characters in upcoming blogs, since I'm feeling a kinship with them right now.

1976 edition. (Wikipedia)
The amazement I felt caused me to think about the idyllic Happy Valley in The History of Rasselas (1751) by Samuel Johnson. Rasselas is a Prince of Abyssinia who seeks to leave the Happy Valley in order to satisfy his deep curiosity about the ways of man. Rasselas leaves with one of his sisters, Princess Nekayah, and his learned manservant, Imlac. They eventually make their way to Egypt, where they learn astronomy and engage in abstruse debates with other learned men. They also rescue a woman kidnapped by Arabs, Princess Pekuah. Together they resolve to set up various altruistic schemes, but at the novel's end the narrator tells us that when the yearly flooding of the Nile River plain is finished, these schemes are destined to fall away for the return to the Happy Valley. We are told that "Of these wishes that they had formed, they well knew none could be obtained." Returning to the Happy Valley fulfills the idea put forward earlier by the Prince's tutor, as he declares that "if you had seen the miseries of the world, you would know how to value your present state."

While I did not start out in the Happy Valley or in Florence, it appears that some of its cares slough off when you enter. In this case, I am enjoying one of the more material benefits of living in the happy valley with its outdoors lifestyle, and athletic interests. Moreover, eating out in Northampton and Florence offers more healthy alternatives overall, compared to where I had been living before. I'm more than happy to leave behind the miseries of the world, or at least most of the miseries from my previous world.

Rasselas Valley, Tasmania (State Library of Tasmania Catalog)
Though Rasselas found the Happy Valley enervating, he needed to experience the harder edges of life to better see what made the Happy Valley the haven it was. The problem with this allegorical travel narrative is that we know the return home can never happen. Even if his dad's palace and servants all remained in place, with the same abundance of food and comfort, we can be sure Rasselas and Nekayah will never be able to lie around in the same degree of ease and ignorance.

I used to wonder why travel narratives never talked about the return trip towards home, but when we think about Rasselas giving us the figurative motivations and lessons about travel, we can see how the disillusionment and the resignation can become problematic in keeping up the narrative's earlier tone of excited anticipation. However, in this case, I am more than happy to avoid returning to Mount Cholesterol, preferring to stay in the Valley. I am especially pleased with the six-pack of cider donuts I bought right after leaving the doctor's office.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Quonquont Farm (say it five times fast)

Farm stand and path to orchard. 
This afternoon we had an appointment at a farm. Joey, Joey's dad and I jumped into the car and drove into Whately to visit Quonquont Farm. This farm has been in operation since 1920, but historical records show this property was raising cattle and growing tobacco from 1860. Quonquont means "crow" according to the farm's website. These days the farm features an orchard where you can pick apples and peaches, depending on the season. Blueberries were available for picking when we last visited in July.
From Whately Historical Society

Joey's dad remembered this place fondly for apple picking when he was a boy. He also remembered when the big Quonquont milk can, once found at the farm's entrance, could be seen on Route 5. It has since been moved to the Whately Historical Society, as seen in the photo. Don't think it's just an optical illusion: the milk can is really very big. Joey's dad says it may be as much as fifteen feet tall. While we do take into account this is a memory from childhood, rest assured that this milk can is highly visible from the road and enormous. Yet it is not taller than the historical society building. (Sorry to confuse you.)

But Joey's dad and I were not about to pick apples or look for the big milk can today in Whately. We were interested in looking at the renovated barn, shown in the photo below. We're planning a big party, and the barn has been fixed up for such events.  Imagine a barn with a shiny floor, chandeliers with wrought iron fixtures, and a beautiful patio made with slate tiles in the back. Unfortunately, the pretty silo below is decorative, not open for visitors to enter.
The renovated barn. The silo is empty.
Before Quonquont Farm became a fruit orchard, it was a dairy farm. You can still see the barn's design inside reflects this use, as you can imagine the stalls for cows. 

What is the big party about, where we're thinking about barns? More to come on this party in the future....

Monday, September 12, 2011

Club Mooncake

Tonight is the Mid-Autumn Festival, or the Moon Festival. The harvest moon is at its largest, enabling farmers and workers to work by the moonlight if needed. The moon is gigantic in the sky, and it has been increasingly so for the last few days. For me and my family, it's that time of year for mooncakes. My mother called tonight to check on my choice for this year.
This year's pick.

A big SIGH.

What can I say, except that I should try to ignore the pretty decorations on the box and read the labels more carefully? Once again, I've failed to find the mooncake from my childhood. Ye olde mooncake eludes me again. This year it's partly through my own forgetfulness, as my parents had saved a very nice, expensive one made of lotus seed paste. Just like the ones of yore. But packing the car and Joey to get out of Connecticut caused me to lose sight of that mooncake.

Instead, I went to the local Asian grocery to buy a box. I should have been aware of something being a little off, to my slightly myopic childhood vision, when I saw a box of DURIAN mooncakes for sale. I should have slowed way down and looked at the side of the box:
Unexpected provenance. Caveat Emptor.
The mooncakes of my childhood used to come from Hong Kong, and as time went on, we proudly bought some of the mooncakes made in New York City. In the last ten years, we as a family have experimented with buying some of the mooncakes from China, and this is where we've run into the problems of diversity. Who would have guessed there were so many different kinds of mooncakes? And now, I managed to buy a box from Thailand (not that there's anything wrong with Thailand, as many ethnic Chinese folks live there) with a fruit/nut/1 egg yolk combo. Where is the lotus seed paste of my youth?

Currently holding up my laptop.

On the left is a box of mooncakes I bought in the recent past; these came from China, but there was still something missing. However, the pretty girls still dominate the scene. In fact, they seem rather modernized: the young woman at the bottom looks much more dissipated and disheveled than the usual fairy lady on these boxes. Hmmm. The fairy lady who lives in the moon, leaving earth for that perfect life up there, always seems to get updated to reflect the current model of Asian beauty. I think the lady at the bottom may have had a little too much fun up in the moon. It's said that life on the moon is perfection, in these stories. Maybe it also means they have the perfect mooncakes.

On the right below is a box of mooncakes with their attractive crusts. The different shapes suggest different fillings, of the sort I never dreamed of when I was a kid.

And for what it's worth, below is a very crummy picture of the moon tonight.