Sunday, August 30, 2009

Finn by Jon Clinch

I'm so confused and torn regarding my reaction to this book. Without giving anything away, Clinch turns some thoughts and traditions about Twain's beloved Huck Finn on its knees in his debut novel. While the writing and storyline was hauntingly beautiful, I still can't get passed the liberties the author took with, not changing the story per se, but rather changing our perceptions about who Huck and Pap Finn were. At the same time, I don't think Mark Twain fans will be completely enraged either. Clinch handles Twain's story with the dignity and tenderness it deserves, while still making you question your memory in asking yourself, "Was this a nuance of the original story that I completely missed?" or "Did I sleep through class the day they discussed this particular issue?"

It's an engaging, thought-provoking read. I highly recommend you re-read Huck Finn before this book if you've been many years removed from your last reading.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Poetry Friday

I've noticed that a lot of people who have book blogs post a poem every Friday. Seeing as how I love poetry, I thought I would also indulge in posting a poem every Friday.

Today's poem is by Taylor Mali because after seeing "What Teachers Make" on YouTube, I promptly ordered both of his books. This poem is from his book The Last Time As We Are.

The Call to What We Know

The last thing this world needs
is another poem about flowers,
the passing hours, or the demands of time,
written in language no one understands,
and doesn't rhyme.

Every time I have turned
to words and found or heard a truth
I never knew I'd learned by heart,
it was always proof I was a part
of something bigger than myself,
a communion of dark moonlight
with night ground, or the union
of a kiss forgiving only this:
We the living delight in sound.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Everything's Better with Bacon. But What's Better Than Bacon?

So I'm sitting in my living room, minding my own business, eating Corn Pops for dinner, because I do that sometimes you know - eat cereal for dinner - and I decide to turn on the show The Best Thing I Ever Ate on Food Network. This particular episode I'm watching is all about the best fried foods the featured Food Network stars ever ate.

I'm about midway through the show, enjoying all of the delicious fried goodness they're taunting me with on the TV screen, when all of a sudden, Ted Allen appears and says three words that stopped me dead in my tracks:

Deep. Fried. Bacon.

Shut. Up.


Mouth. Watering.

Must. Have. The. Bacon.

I actually had to stop my TiVo halfway through the show so I could go upstairs and look up the restaurant that serves deep. fried. bacon. Ted said he had it at The Red Cat in NYC, but as soon as I looked up their menu, deep. fried. bacon. was nowhere to be found. Perhaps the next time my husband and I are planning a trip NYC we will have to call The Red Cat and ask them if they plan on returning deep. fried. bacon. to the menu. Or maybe I will have to live dangerously and try making it myself.

Whatever the case, Corn Pops for dinner is suddenly not so satisfying anymore.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Facebook Taketh Away (Your Time) but it Also Giveth (Your Old Friends Back)

It’s 10 PM on a Saturday night. I’m a young twenty-something woman. I should be out partying with my friends. Instead, I’m at home, glued to Facebook trading insults with an old high school friend whose attempts to swear at me in German using Babel Fish Translator has left him with the unfortunate mistranslation of calling me a donkey instead of a, well, you know.

As I sat there laughing to no one but my computer screen, I couldn’t help but reflect on what a miracle this scene was for me. You might ask yourself why trading German insults back and forth between computers would be considered a miraculous event, but to me it represented how social networking sites like Facebook have helped people reconnect with old friends they’ve lost touch with over the years.

I smiled back at my computer screen and felt a weight lift from my heart. It was as if the past 8 years of not speaking to this friend had just been wiped clean and we were back in high school again, listening to the radio, singing country songs together in his blue Dodge Neon. This moment would have never happened had it not been for Facebook.

I also just recently reconnected with another old friend with whom I had known since 5th grade, but after high school, we just somehow, for no reason in particular, lost touch with each other. When she found me on Facebook, I was joyous. That first message I received from her sent a flood of memories through me of all the good times I spent at her house as a teenager: the haunted housing in October, the quoting lines from Wayne’s World over and over again, the dressing up as Wayne and Garth for Halloween, the gathering for pictures in her front yard before the Homecoming dance. And suddenly, in an instant, we were trading messages back and forth and making plans for a time when we could get together in the near future.

In addition to reconnecting with old friends, Facebook has managed to help keep me from losing touch with my current ones, too. My husband and I have a very close friend of ours who recently graduated from medical school. Her crazy busy schedule, in addition to living 45 minutes from each other, almost led us to drifting apart. But because of Facebook, we’re getting together on a somewhat regular basis now, catching up over tapas and sangria.

There’s no doubt that these sites can consume a very large amount of your time if you’re not careful (and I’ll be the first to admit that I spend way more time on FB than I should), but the dividends can often be much greater than the investment. Through this social networking site, I have actually found that my husband and I are getting together with friends and going out more than we ever used to. We’re making more friends, too, because the people we meet in passing now are no longer people we’ll never see again, but people we can connect with, get to know, and possibly form a new friendship with all because we found them on Facebook.

So yes, please do exercise caution when using social networking sites as we are always warned by the horror stories in the media. But also be open to the possibility that they can change your life for the better. When adulthood sneaks up on us, we somehow let friendships fall by the wayside due to location changes, developing careers, and the formation of marriages and families. What Facebook does is, for a few minutes a day, reminds us that there are people in our lives, outside those we live with, who are important to us too. It keeps us from letting a bucket’s slow leak become empty and dry, as I’m sure has happened to many of our friendships over the years.

So now the question begs, if you’re one of the five people left who has yet to sign up for a social networking site, then I ask you: what are you waiting for? You just might reconnect with someone from your past who’s been in your thoughts over the years but never had the courage to try to contact. Let today be the start of a new journey for those friendships you let slip through your fingers.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

If You Want a Rainbow, You've Gotta Put up with the Rain

Traveling to the Pacific Northwest and expecting it not to rain is like going to a steak house and hoping they don't serve red meat. So while we hoped for good weather for our entire trip, we knew that this wasn't the most realistic of desires.

In the end, our 8 day trip to Whistler and Vancouver resulted in only one and a half days of rain. Any more than that and it might have bummed us out, but it was just the right amount to add to the ambiance of being in the Pacific Northwest.

On the seabus back to Vancouver

J waiting for the bus in the rain

In fact, a trip to North Vancouver's Capilano Suspension Bridge is almost more enjoyable in the rain. It would feel unauthentic to visit a rain forest with the sun out and the temperature outside a balmy 90 degrees. Instead, we happily donned our rain jackets and umbrellas to admire the natural beauty of the coastal temperate rain forest.

Me on Capilano Suspension Bridge

Capilano Suspension Bridge

Capilano Suspension Bridge

Capilano Suspension Bridge

Walking around this lush, green area in the rain almost gave the sense of being in an enchanted fairy tale forest. It was as if at any moment, Snow White and her seven dwarfs would come running out from behind a tree to greet you.
Pine trees in the mist

Monday, August 24, 2009

Craving Indian? How About a Trip to Vancouver?

In the South Granville neighborhood of Vancouver lies an unassuming restaurant with a sleek black exterior and a purple neon sign. This is an establishment where patrons wait in line before the doors even open and will stand outside in the rain for hours for the opportunity to feast on the delicacies inside. The name of this restaurant is Vij's and critics have hailed it as one of the best Indian restaurants in the world.

Vij's is THE restaurant I wanted to eat at when I realized we were going to Vancouver, and was a little bit of the reason for why I wanted to go there in the first place. I first heard about this restaurant on the Pacific Northwest episode of No Reservations. But then I also saw it featured on Giada's Weekend Getaways. When she said on her show that Vij's is touted as one of the best Indian restaurants in the world, I knew that I wanted to eat there one day. Indian food is slowly inching its way towards being my favorite ethnic food so making a bold statement like "one of the best Indian restaurants in the world"? I sit up and take notice.

Being such a highly-praised, high-end establishment, you might expect that it would be difficult to get a reservation. Not so. You see, Vij does not accept reservations. If you want to eat there, you must do what all the other patrons do: Line up outside the doors before they open at 5:30 and hope that you're part of the first seating.

When we arrived at 4:45, there were only three guys in front of us so we chatted with them for the next 45 minutes. One of the guys was from Atlanta and he told us that when he's in Vancouver on business, he always has to eat here. He also said, much to my surprise, that Vij is there every night and he does come around to everyone's table and talks to them. Unfortunately for us, he was out of town this week so we didn't get to meet him. I thought him being at the restaurant waiting on tables was just a put on for TV when I saw him come to Giada's table on her weekend getaways show. I figured he was waiting on her because there was a camera crew at his restaurant. Lo and behold, he does actually wait on customers every night.

As the minutes ticked by, the line slowly started becoming longer and longer but strangely enough, everyone in line got in for the first seating. The weather must've kept a longer line from forming. It was still a busy dining room though, and it had such a lovely, relaxing atmosphere.

But let's get to the real stuff here: the food. Wow! I don't even know where to begin. First of all, when you are first seated, the hostesses come around and bring everyone a cup of chai and from that point they had me won. They had me at the chai. Once they set those warm mugs of steaming, spicy goodness, I was hooked. But they still continue winning you over even after they warmed you up from spending the past 45 minutes in the rain. They also come around and pass out hors d'oeurves to whet your appetite for the meal ahead. I honestly had no idea what I was eating when they came around because I'm not really familiar with the vernacular of Indian cuisine (other than tandoori, tikka masala, etc.), but I didn't care because they were all delicious!

For an appetizer we ordered what is described on the menu as chickpeas in star anise and date curry on grilled kale.

Now I know this probably doesn't look like much, but let me tell you, I will be talking about this dish for a long time. Not so much for the chickpeas, which were delicious enough, but for the grilled kale. After eating this, it's hard to believe that kale is usually a throw away garnish at most restaurants. Well this kale was definitely NOT worth throwing away. When I raved about it to our waitress she told us that it was marinated in lemon juice and coconut milk and then grilled. Here's why this grilled kale would turn me into a vegetarian if all vegetables tasted like this: IT TASTED LIKE MEAT! Huh? What? A green, hearty vegetable that is marinated and grilled can taste like meat? Well at Vij's it does. And now I'm going to have to try making marinated, grilled kale at home.

Moving on to the main course, Johnathon ordered the beef tenderloin and vegetables with almonds and garlic in a tomato yogurt curry

which I thought was a strange item on a menu in an Indian restaurant because I didn't think Indians ate beef what with cows being sacred an all. But in Vij's cookbook, I read that sometimes Indian restaurants will serve meat based on the palate of the country where they're living. If they don't have strong ties to Hinduism, then serving beef does not pose a dilemma.

I ordered the wine-marinated lamb popsicles in cream curry on turmeric spinach potatoes.

And even though I don't normally like lamb, I decided I was going to order it here because if it's cooked right, I actually like it, and I figured that one of the best Indian restaurants in the world can probably figure out how to cook it right. Well let me tell you, this lamb was definitely cooked right. It was absolutely delicious. And when you goop all that wonderful sauce onto some basmati rice and then sop it up with some naan, that made for one happy woman.

As if the meal couldn't have been perfect enough, we ordered and shared a dessert of Indian pistachio doughnuts in a cardamom syrup. This also came with some chai, and I devoured mine as well as Johnathon's.

I love just about anything with cardamom in it so I thought the doughnuts were delicious, but as I look back and sit here writing about this meal, it was about the experience just as much as the food. All the people who worked there made sure that everyone had an enjoyable dining experience. From the moment they bring out the chai when you first sit down, to the offering curious customers insight into how the food is prepared, you got the sense that they all really wanted you to have, not just a meal, but an experience you'll never forget. If we ever go back to Vancouver, we will definitely be going back, and I will, once again, happily wait in line for my dinner.

And now that my mouth is watering from writing about all this outstanding food, I'm dying for some curry, basmati rice, and some naan to sop it all up! Oh yeah, and some chai too!

The Salt Tasting Room: A Tale of Wine, Cheese, and Salami

While in Vancouver Johnathon and I ate at a restaurant called Salt that I discovered by watching Giada's Weekend Getaways on Food Network. I saw this episode a couple years ago and I vowed back then that if we ever visited Vancouver that we would eat at this restaurant. From the moment you find this place, you know that it's unusual because it is literally in an alley that you would NEVER discover on your own unless you were looking for it. The only real way to find it is by noting the salt shaker flag that hangs high above their door.

From the moment you walk in the place, you know that it just has a cool vibe about it.

Starting with centerpiece bare brick wall and community table

and the blackboard menu of meats, cheeses, and condiments that changes frequently. In fact, we ate here twice because I loved it so much, and there had already been changes made to the blackboard by the second time we visited due to the small quantities they order from the specialty purveyors they get their food from.

In addition to the blackboard menu, they also give out a paper menu to show you their wine list and also the other items they have available like salads, soups, and grilled cheese. The paper menu also explains what constitutes a tasting plate (combo of 3 selections from either meat, cheese or both, 3 condiments and a basket of bread) and the price.

Decisions, Decisions

We eventually decided to do two tasting plates, one with 3 meats, and one with 3 cheeses. For the meat plate, we got the Toscano with fig salami, pancetta salami, and piccantino which is similar to chorizo. The condiments Johnathon chose were Spanish date bread, pickles, and Basque olives.

All of the meat was delicious, but I have to say that the Toscano with fig salami was perfection in the form of dried, cured meat. It had just the right amount of sweet, salty, and herby flavor to make you want to eat a whole pound of it in one sitting (thankfully I didn't do that since I only had a few slices on my plate).

The cheese we selected were Comte (a Gruyere made in France rather than Switzerland), Lincolnshire cheddar, and manchego. The condiments I chose were the date bread, Apricot chutney, and Silkameen honey.

All of the cheeses were delicious, but that Lincolnshire cheddar was really outstanding. Pairing that with the apricot chutney made it salty, sweet, crumbly perfection. That chutney was one of the best things I've ever tasted. It was sweet and had just the smallest titch of curry flavor.

All of these things, had they been brought out individually, did not make for the wonderful experience. It was the combination of great flavors and textures that sent it to the "this is a meal that Beth is going to be talking about for years to come" category. Bringing out a hunk of manchego cheese by itself , though delicious because it is cheese after all, does not impress me. Combining it with the saltiness and herbs of the salami and the sweetness of the honey made it out of this world.

I seriously wanted to lick those tiny bowls clean when there was nothing left on my plate. In fact, I not only wanted to, I did.

Oh! And I forgot to mention the wine! I ordered a glass of chenin blanc made in British Columbia and that is now officially my favorite white wine. It was light and fruity with just enough dryness to make it a wine you have with dinner (or lunch *grin*) rather than a dessert wine. It was so good that I asked our waiter if he could tell me where I could buy it because I know that BC wines cannot be found anywhere in the U.S. - or at least not in middle America U.S. Maybe Pacific Northwest U.S. but certainly not Michigan.

For dessert we got a chocolate tasting plate (which is actually what I was licking in from the bowl in the pictures, but I did the same for my condiments dishes too) and Johnathon got so anxious to eat it that he forgot to let me take a picture of it, thus the chocolate spoon and the hunk taken out of the dark chocolate ganache cake.

After our waiter walked by and laughed at me licking my condiment bowl, and equally laughed at Johnathon for getting a picture (*ahem*, multiple pictures) of it, he handed us our bill, and I divulged how sad I was that we did not have a restaurant like this where we live. On our way out the door, we waved goodbye and I said, "You might see us back before Thursday," and sure enough, he did. Our first encounter at Salt was on a Sunday afternoon. We decided to go back there for our last night in Vancouver to have a memorable "last meal." Even though we had so many great memories, both food and travel related, they all seem to be competing with each other for who wants to be favorite.

I know! Mountain biking was my favorite!

Yeah. Notsomuch.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Don't try this at home folks; I'm a trained professional?

As we were planning our trip, my husband Johnathon and I were reading about Whistler's recent surge in popularity in mountain biking and how it might even become more popular than skiing in the next five years or so. Given that information, Johnathon couldn't resist the idea of mountain biking in Whistler before it becomes "all the rage." I was a bit tentative and skeptical, but I decided I would indulge my husband since I'm generally the one who chooses all the activities we do on vacation.

In the summer, the ski runs transform into mountain bike trails and they call it Whistler Mountain Bike Park. The chairlifts are retrofitted so that you can put your bike on the lift previous to the one you get on to go up the mountain.

The night before our excursion we went to the bike park office and asked one of the guys there what he'd recommend for two people who'd never biked on anything other than pavement. He suggested a package that came with rentals, an all-day lift ticket and a guide for three hours. So the next morning we arrived at the bike rental shop at 9-ish and began to acquire our gear that we'd be needing for our outing: helmet, gloves, elbow/knee pads, bike. Then we made our way to the meeting area where we were introduced to our guide, Paul from the Netherlands (no one who works in Whistler seems to be from Canada), and three other people on our "tour."

At this point I'm feeling utterly ridiculous at how I look and just know that all the serious bikers are looking at me and laughing hysterically:

After he showed us how to put our bikes on the chairlift (which was itself an undertaking) and we made our way up to the skills center, Paul started us showing us the basics of downhill mountain biking. Thankfully he gave us this "Mountain Biking 101" course before we started on the trails because the one thing I couldn't believe was how powerful the brakes were on this bike. I mean man alive! If you gripped these things with your entire hand you'd be sure to go flying off the front of your bike. Downhill mountain bikes have some serious brakes and shocks. This bike was definitely in a whole other league than the mountain bike I bought on clearance at Target for $20. Which is why Paul told us that you should only have one finger on the brakes at all times.

Well the one-finger-on-brake procedure is what turned out to be my demise. I have very small hands; so small that no one I have ever met has ever been able to put my wedding ring on their pinky let alone their ring finger. So trying to reach one finger on the brake at all times (and I had my finger pressed down on the rear brake the ENTIRE time!) was extremely taxing on my wrists and hands. Not to mention the fact that the easy trails that we took could've been considered intermediate in places because they hadn't been groomed in a while. The area's lack of rain had made it near impossible to pack in all of the potholes with dirt because the dry dirt just flies away.

So I was taking easy trails that scared the willies out of me towards the end of them because they were so full of unavoidable ruts and potholes.

Another aspect of downhill biking I found extremely difficult was that standing up is supposedly easier than sitting down. I actually didn't quite find this true, and I especially found it difficult to keep the pedals level to avoid getting snagged on the ground.

Johnathon and I were the slowpokes of our group. I honestly think he would've gone faster had it not been for me, but we always seemed to lag quite a bit behind the other three people in our group. I didn't care though. I wanted to return to our hotel that night with all of my digits and extremities in tact. So I was extremely proud of myself when we ended the morning and I hadn't fallen off my bike once.

About two hours into our "three hour tour" our guide decided we were ready for an intermediate trail and by this time my hands were ready to fall off my arms. Which is why I was jumping for joy when about midway through our intermediate trail trek, one of the guys in our group ended up with a broken rear brake and we had to go back to the bike shop to trade bikes. It was 12:30 at this point and there was only a half hour left of our time with our guide. I was tired, hungry and in pain, so when we got down to the base of the mountain where the bike shop was, we shook Paul's hand and said, "We're tired and hungry so we're just going to give the bikes back and go get lunch."

After lunch we decided we would use our lift tickets to go back up the mountain - but this time as sightseers, not mountain bikers. As the day progressed, I had an increasingly difficult time enjoying all of the beautiful scenery around me simply due to the pain in my wrists and hands. Despite the pain, it was still a beautiful trip up Whistler Mountain:

This statue in the background of our picture in on Whistler Mountain and is the symbol of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics

At this point in the day I was starting to deteriorate fast. As we descended Whistler Peak to make our way back to the village, I sat in the chilly open air of the chair lift and I started crying from the pain in my wrists and fingers. When we got off the chairlift we had to hike 10 minutes uphill to the gondola station that takes you back to the village, which to me, in my heightened state of pain, was like attempting to climb Mt. Everest.

When we finally arrived back to the hotel, I made a beeline for the spa to see if they could recommend any treatment for the agony I was in. I really just wanted their advice as to what I should do or if any sort of treatment would just make it worse. The lady at the front desk was really helpful and she offered to bring out one of their sports therapists so I could ask for her advice. When the therapist came out she said that she would just recommend icing it because the tendons were inflamed and getting a massage might make it worse. This was absolutely the right thing to do because as I started walking back to our room I noticed that any sort of pressure I put on my fingers, hands, or wrists sent burning, aching pain down my arm. I probably would've writhed in agony and wasted a lot of money if I had a therapist put all that pressure on my arms and wrists to give me a massage.

Back in our room, I quickly grabbed some ice to put in a plastic bag, lay on the bed and began to weep. I had a few rounds of sobbing before I started to feel the pain subside enough for me to put my bathing suit on (which was its own undertaking) so we could go to the pool. Everything I did that involved even the slightest pressure on my hands I had to ask Johnathon to do because it hurt so much. Even opening the door hurt. Which is why I was faced with the dilemma of returning from the pool and realizing I needed to brush out my tangled, wet hair, but couldn't bear to even hold a brush in my hand, let alone roughly brush out all the tangles. So I had to resort to asking my husband to brush my hair for me, which I must say, he did an excellent job for someone who's never had to brush tangles out of his own hair before. :o)

So lesson learned: downhill mountain biking is not for those with small, child-like hands. Thankfully as the evening wore on, the pain subsided. I think it peaked at around 5PM and started to fall after that. By the next day I only had a little residual pain to contend with, though it was more muscle twitches than pain.


A few days ago I emailed our trip pictures to friends and family and when I talked to my dad on the phone earlier today he said to me, "Well I'm proud of you. I can't believe this is the same girl who, when she was ten, went hiking at the Atwood Lodge and 15 minutes into it had already given up. Now you're rafting and hiking and mountain biking."

Well thanks for the vote of confidence Dad, but with regards to mountain biking, I think you'd have to agree that there's still a trace of that ten year old girl still alive and kicking. While I'm proud of myself for attempting such a difficult feat in the first place, pavement, not dirt, is still my preferred method of transportation and ambulation.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Whistler, British Columbia: It's Not Just for Skiing Anymore

My husband and I just recently returned from a wonderful trip to Vancouver and Whistler in Beautiful British Columbia. Some people might think that Whistler must be a ghost town in the summer, but warm weather activities abound in this well-known skiing hamlet.

Our first full day in Whistler involved a ziplining adventure with Ziptrek Ecotours and a rafting trip on the Green River with Whistler River Adventures. In addition to a mountain biking excursion on our third day (which I will address in a separate post), we certainly were not at a loss for things to do there in the middle of August.

Beginning with the Ziptrek tour, we started our morning by meeting our tour group near the village gondola and our guides then led us to another location to put on our gear and harnesses.

The first of 5 ziplines is a warm up line next to the village gondola and is nowhere near the beautiful scenery of the rain forest and Fitzsimmons Creek that they brag about on their website. But once everyone in our group of 10 had the chance to do a practice round, we were off in a van to where the real magic happens: the rain forest.

The satisfaction of the tour you take with Ziptrek is that it's not just an adventure, but it's also educational. The guides do an outstanding job to, while walking you through the rain forest canopy along the boardwalks and suspension bridges, explain in detail the ways Ziptrek helps the local ecology, and what humans need to do in order to work toward sustainability. For someone like me who is always looking for ways to make greener choices, it was nice to know we were supporting a low-impact tour company during our vacation.

Ziplining through the trees and right above a mountain creek is one of those experiences that makes every adult feel like a kid again. If you're not afraid of heights and you like going fast, I'm not sure how many people who come to Whistler would have the audacity to pass up this experience.

After our ziptrek tour, I didn't think it was possible for our day to get any better - but it did! Whitewater rafting was the highlight of the trip for me. I'd never done it before so this was my first experience but it will not be my last. Luckily Whistler River Adventures has a photographer who gets some of the trip on film. They definitely take you for a ride on the price of purchasing a picture CD at the end of the tour, but I have to say it was worth the expense for photos like these:

I can hear the sound of the water rushing down the river as I'm posting these pictures. Or maybe that's just the sound of my computer fan.

Our guide Sheree (she's the daredevil in the back of the raft) was from New Zealand and in addition to being entertaining just by listening to her accent alone, she was also a laugh a minute. If she wasn't telling us funny stories, she was intentionally paddling us toward big boulders only to say, "Oh man! Where did that rock come from? You guys need to wake up and pay attention!"

If we weren't laughing at her running us into boulders, we were cracking up at her tales of foreign tourists going on rafting trips who didn't speak English and her having to teach them how to raft without them understanding a word she said. Those stories all began when we all didn't know what to do when she shouted "Forward!" instead of, "Forward paddle!" It was quite hilarious because we all just sort of looked at each other and then hunched ourselves forward in the raft. We didn't get that she meant to paddle. It was then through her laughter that she had to tell us, "No, forward is just short for forward paddle."

This day of our trip was just smiles and fun all around. When I turned out the light to go to bed that night all I could think was, I'm so happy we also decided to go to Whistler for our trip to Vancouver.

So with a full day like the one we had just experienced, I'd have to say that for those people who only see Whistler as a place to go skiing, give it a try in the summer. You won't be disappointed.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

If you haven't heard of this book, then it's time you learned. It is by far one of the best books of 2009 and bound to become a classic, one to be taught in high school English classrooms for years to come.

The book is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s at the start of the civil rights movement. In Jackson, however, you'd never know there was a civil rights movement because Jim Crow is still alive and kicking with no end in sight.

Three different characters narrate this story in first person point-of-view:

Aibileen: a black maid in her 60s who prefers to work with families with young children.

Minny: a younger black maid who seems to get fired from jobs for talking back (or worse) to her employers.

Skeeter: a single, white, twenty-something aspiring journalist fresh out of college who comes from an old-money, old-south family and yet sees the injustice of how African Americans are treated.

Skeeter witnesses firsthand the way her friends treat their maids and has decided to solicit these women to tell their stories in a book she wants to write about black domestic help in Mississippi. Fearing their jobs and their lives, at first the women refuse, but as the story progresses, they slowly start to have a change of heart when they realize they could be part of something historic.

Let me just tell you that this is a book that stays with you even after you put it down. I found myself setting the book aside, only to have all of these characters creep into my thoughts while I was making dinner, taking a shower, or watching TV. And it's not just the strength of the characters that make you want to read; it's also the strength of Stockett's prose whose words just coat your insides like warm honey.

Giving its rather unassuming appearance (I know; berate me. I do actually judge a book by its cover), this was a book I never would have read on my own. What convinced me to pick it up was all of the people on message boards and other blogs raving about it and talked about what a masterpiece it was. And to date, I have yet to read a bad review of this book because everyone who read it, loves it. So if you haven't read it yet, it's time you, too, became a lover of The Help.

Diverting Momentarily

I feel the need to divert from the theme of this blog for a moment to post a video of a slam poetry performance on YouTube that I just recently discovered. Actually, I didn't discover it on my own, my uncle sent me an email and recommended I look up poet Taylor Mali on YouTube.

The poem is called "What Teachers Make" and oh my did it send me into a fit of sobs it was so powerful. It was the perfect thing for me to see with the school year beginning in only a few short weeks and really made me feel empowered for the year ahead. I've watched it so many times that I almost have the whole thing memorized. And oh boy does that last line get to me every time.

Michael Symon's Latest Venture, In Detroit No Less!

Last night, to celebrate my husband's birthday, we decided to try Michael Symon's newest restaurant called Roast. My husband Johnathon likes to watch Iron Chef America on occasion and enjoyed watching Dinner: Impossible when Michael was the host instead of Robert Irvine. So we were quite excited to see that an Iron Chef opened a restaurant here in our ailing city.

Roast is in the Westin Cadillac Book Hotel in downtown Detroit. When you walk into the restaurant, the first thing you notice is what a large space it is. Tables are not crammed together and there is lots of room to walk around without having to play pinball around tables like you generally have to do at many other restaurants. Making the space even larger is a separate bar area that is away from the dining room and even that room is big enough to be its own restaurant. The dining room and bar are decorated with dark woods and amber glass tile accents giving it an intimate feel despite the cavernous space. There is a very large open viewing window into the kitchen (the largest I have ever seen at any restaurant) and because of the acoustics, it's even possible to, on occasion, hear conversations in the kitchen. This must be an extremely difficult pill to swallow for the cooks and chefs given a kitchen staff's general penchant for obscenities (at least that's what anyone who's read Kitchen Confidential would surmise anyway).

When we were seated at our table, the first thing I noticed was how heavy the menus were. Part of them are made of metal and I was constantly worried that I was going to drop it onto my glass of water and end up with a wet lap. While aesthetically pleasing, these large, awkward behemoths made me just a tad nervous.

Our waitress for the evening was very helpful in answering any questions we had about what's on the menu and came by frequently to check on us to see how we were doing. With the restaurant being such a large, open space, the waitstaff are all very visible and easy to spot if you need to flag them down for any reason.

But you're probably waiting for me to talk about the food, aren't you? I resisted the urge to take pictures of the food like I normally do because I just wanted to focus on the meal itself and have a wonderful evening with my husband rather than thinking about what I would later write about it (though in the back of my mind I was thinking that too).

For an appetizer we chose the day's charcuterie selection which consisted of a few things that I could not recall what they were. I remember that there was proscuitto because I love proscuitto, and frankly, a charcuterie plate is not complete without some proscuitto on it. There was also a Tuscan salami and a few other things I could not recall in great detail: a lamb something or other that tasted as if it had a hint of cinnamon in it, a pressed duck something or other that had the texture of a hardened pate with pistachios and cherries running throughout it. There was also some crostini, whole grain mustard, and pickled hot peppers and red onions to complete the plate. I certainly had no cause for complaints about any of the selections on the board, but I did think that $24 was a bit steep for this selection given that I probably could've eaten the whole thing myself (and they price it based on the number of people eating) which is saying a lot considering how little I tend to eat when you compare me to the amount of food my 6'5" husband consumes.

After the appetizer Johnathon was brought out a lobster broth soup with a sea scallop placed in the center. He said it was good, but I'll just have to take his word for it because I hate most seafood and even the smell of the broth made me want to gag. But this has to do with my own aversion to seafood and is not a commentary on the quality of the dish - I want to point that out right away. I chose to order a salad instead of soup and I decided to play it safe this time, choosing a basic green salad with red wine vinaigrette instead of the salad with crispy pig ear that I just couldn't muster the courage to order. I told the waitress that I would be more daring next time. The green salad I ordered, however, was overdressed, so much so that it burned my stomach a bit within a few minutes of finishing it. I'm generally someone who prefers more dressing than less, but I thought this salad was verging on too much. Maybe I should've had the crispy pig ear after all.

When our meal came out, I immediately wished I had ordered what Johnathon had ordered because it not only looked delicious, but it tasted way better than my dish. I ordered the braised short ribs and while it wasn't repulsive by any stretch of the imagination, the sauce was so incredibly rich that I could only eat a few bites before it felt like a lead balloon in my stomach. Johnathon, on the other hand, ordered probably the most delicious burger I have ever tried. It was roasted (because, after all, this restaurant is called Roast) and it came out on an English muffin with bacon, pickled onions, cheddar cheese and a poached egg. I actually ended up eating more of his dinner than mine.

The side dishes that we had with our meal were creamy polenta and rosemary fries. The fries came with the burger, but we had to order the polenta separate because no side dishes accompanied my dinner. When the fries arrived at the table, they came in this very large metal container that almost looked like something DQ uses to make milk shakes, and as soon as it was set down, the aroma of the rosemary was what took these fries from ordinary to extraordinary. Then the polenta was so sweet and creamy that it was like being wrapped in warm comfort with every single bite.

We chose not to get dessert because we were so full, but our next visit we plan on skipping the soup and salad so we can try the beer and pretzels dessert: Guinness ice cream (that's what I said) with chocolate and caramel covered pretzels. Now I don't like Guinness to drink, but I have a feeling it will be surprisingly good as an ice cream. I have been playing with unusual flavors with my ice cream maker this summer (like olive oil and basil) so I'm always game to try something that on paper sounds like it should be abhorrent, but in reality is surprisingly delicious.

My overall impression of Roast is favorable and definitely worth visiting again. There were certainly some selections we made this time that we will be passing up next time, but on the whole, it was an enjoyable experience. Johnathon and I have now eaten at three Iron Chef restaurants (Mario Batali's Otto and Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill are the other two) and I'd have to say that Roast still comes in second to the delights of Batali's Otto in NYC. Still, given the fact that this restaurant is only 30 miles from my house as opposed to Otto which is a two hour flight, there's a higher likelihood that we'll be eating at Roast more often than Otto.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

My Life in France by Julia Child

I have to admit, as soon as I saw the previews for the movie Julie & Julia I was all about reading both My Life in France and J&J. I don't think I would've ever read either of these books had the previews for the movie not endeared me so much to Meryl Streep portraying Julia Child.

But oh what a breath of fresh air this book was - and a total surprise.

My love for cooking did not begin until a few years ago so I did not have the pleasure of regularly watching Julia Child on TV. What a sad state of affairs for me. I'm now tempted to search old episodes of her show online to watch her in action.

From the scenes she describes in the book where Julia tirelessly experiments with the scientific aspect of cooking, you come to appreciate how methodical she was - much moreso than I. My approach to cooking has always been to cook by feel, meaning let your nose, eyes, and taste buds guide you on your lofty quest. With that in mind, I'm not sure that I would appreciate her cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but I certainly appreciate her relationship with food and her desire to learn and make mistakes. In fact, Julia seemed to relish her mistakes because it just meant that she could experiment more. My philosophy of life has always been that it's all about learning from your mistakes, and I so appreciate Julia's willingness to expose her blunders on film for her audience. That really endeared her to me.

I also love that she ended full circle where she comes back to the way the book began. It was impeccably written to remind the reader why she was writing the book in the first place. It also helped us to see how one perfect meal at a restaurant her first night in France was the impetus for her amazing life's journey.

I listened to the audiobook of this memoir and my only criticism of the audio presentation was that the narrator's voice, while pleasant to listen to, did not come close to the distinctness and effervescence of Julia Child's, so sometimes it was difficult to listen and imagine that it was Julia Child telling the story simply because you miss hearing that distinct voice.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Here we go!

I had a revelation while I was on vacation in British Columbia last week. The things I tend to write about most are the three things this blog is about. So I decided that it was high time I created my own blog that celebrated these three things.


There might be an occasion where I choose to divert from those three things and possibly talk about something else I love, but for the most part, my dedication to the writing here will mainly focus on the aforementioned.

Which begs the question, why food, books, and travel? Well, the short answer is, as Anthony Bourdain says on the intro of his show No Reservations, "I write, I eat, I travel, and I'm hungry for more." Well for me, Bourdain's got it 3/4 correct. I write, travel, eat, AND read - and I'm hungry for more.

But for the long version, let me address these three elements individually.

Why Food?
Food not only nourishes our body, it nourishes the soul, too. Sitting around the table with family and friends are some of the warmest, fondest memories I have. Not only that, but nothing makes me happier than to make something for family and friends that surprises and delights them. In turn, I love eating at places that entice my palate with new flavors I've never experienced before.

Why Books?
Not too long ago I challenged myself to read 50 books in one year. I never expected to make that goal, but lo and behold, I found myself hitting the 50 books mark with 5 months to spare.

When I was younger I loved to read and did so voraciously. But when I entered high school and college, reading for the joy of it was no longer convenient for my life. I had to analyze, write essays, and suck any and all possible pleasure out of the entire experience of reading for the sake of my academic success. But then something lit a fire in me when I took on the 50 book challenge because I found myself picking up books that my students were reading for pleasure, and all of a sudden I gained a new sense of perspective. I wanted to talk about books with my students, friends, and colleagues for the sake of talking about a book, and not because it was tied down to an assignment. Now you rarely can find me without a book in my hand or in my ears (I love listening to audiobooks too.) My reviews are anything but scholarly, but oh how I love to see my yearly finished book list grow.

Why Travel?
I love to learn and I think there's no greater lifelong learning experience than travel. Six years ago, newly married, I moved to Germany and am still kicking myself today at how I allowed myself to become so depressed from homesickness that I didn't realize what a blessing it was until I returned home and longed for our carefree life of travels throughout Europe. That experience made me realize that the world is ours to explore, not just admire from the comfort of our living room. Learning about other cultures is critical to tolerance and understanding and there's no better way to do it than first hand rather than just reading about it or watching it on TV (though I do enjoy those things too). As Mark Twain says, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness... Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime." That's why I travel.