July 31, 2012

Habana Vieja, Cuba. February, 2012

One of the things I noticed everywhere I went in Cuba: the resourcefulness of the people. Whether they are making their own car parts to replace necessary items in those old American cars from the 1950s. Or refilling butane cigarette lighters for resale. Or fashioning handmade musical instruments from local woods and gourds. Or weaving palm fronds into amazingly detailed images of animals and birds and insects. So many have found ways to make so much out of so little. Here, a woman on a main street in Old Havana wheels her cart filled with homemade meringues, selling them by the piece, by the bag, to neighbors and tourists alike.

July 30, 2012

Stonehenge, Salisbury, England. June, 1969

This memory from back in the days when you could walk up and touch Stonehenge. Actually move among the huge stones and sit upon them for photos. No longer, alas, as prohibitive fencing now keeps the rabble far afield of the monuments. I remember riding the public bus from our in-town digs, across the Salisbury Plain, and coming upon a rise -- wow! -- there was Stonehenge in front of us! My friends Debbye and Sarah and I made a beeline to the site and reveled in the accumulated centuries of spiritual energy. Nowadays, sadly, with the stones kept at a distance, like zoo animals, one can admire but not approach. Still, the wonder.

July 29, 2012

Deptford, NJ. June, 1973

I have the greatest friends in the world, none greater than my friend Miles. He avoided having a telephone for SO long, and he and I could only communicate by snail mail for decades. (Now that he’s got a phone, we connect almost weekly and “cover the waterfront,” laughing and screaming all the while.) Miles has always been a huge movie fan and continues to update his personal collection, complaining each time a new technology is introduced, forcing him to purchase once again. From videotape to DVD to Blu-Ray...he is concerned that another new format is looming on the horizon, threatening. The phone-free Miles was never shy about approaching the authorities (via US Mail) with questions he might have about gaps in his film or soundtrack library. Witness this generous reply from Rex Reed to Miles’s inquiry about why he was unable to find any soundtrack album for the film Myra Breckingridge. Do you suppose anyone else in the world was interested in this soundtrack?

July 28, 2012

Watertown, MA. August, 2011

What a blessing to have friends who love gardening. Especially vegetable gardening. Especially this time of year. My friend James has had a community garden at nearby Lincoln, MA’s Codman Estate for many years now, steadily producing impressive crops of onions, cabbage, parsnips, cantaloupes, watermelon, various herbs and, of course, tomatoes. His generosity continues to be remarkable. These beautiful green beans are a gift from my friend Donna, another generous friend who shows up regularly with beets, tomatoes and other treats. (Donna was an art major. Do you agree with me that the colander pattern here suggests Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’?) My neighbor Toni is a canner, putting up tomatoes, pears, peaches (in non-sugared liquids) that miraculously appear at Christmastime. And my neighbor Alice opens her fabled garden to me and others when she and her husband leave for three weeks in Maine each year around (yes!) harvest time. Thank you. I am grateful to you all. Talk about friends with benefits!

July 27, 2012

Bologna, Italy. May, 1988

In Bologna, food rules. So it came as no surprise that the pastry shops there would be remarkable. And none more so that this one, Atti. Even they call their sugar-dusted ciambella “a marvel.” Blackberry tarts. Old-fashioned individual custards. Almond-covered mountains of sweets. And the fabled Torta Bolognese, a rich, almond-flavored cake that incorporates layers of sweetened pasta (tagliatelle) among its ingredients. The recipes for many of these (and more) made their way into my friend Nick’s Great Italian Desserts, the research for which prompted this visit to Bologna. Sweet research, indeed.

July 26, 2012

Casa Fuster, Habana, Cuba. February, 2012

I remember when I was learning French in high school, all the students wanted to learn how to say the “dirty words.” And while there are plenty of them in French, none were taught in class, not even by our shifty and somewhat questionable teacher, M. Chevance. When I went to Czechoslovakia in 1972, I knew three different ways to say “drunk,” all of which proved useful in a country where tumblers of vodka were offered at breakfast. I can say two things in Swiss German -- one means hello, the other means something less cordial and I have to control myself from saying it while changing planes in Zurich Airport. So imagine my delight upon finding among the ceramic decorations in this collectively ornamented community a tile that boldly announced ¡Coño! I assume it was put there by a teenager. But maybe not.

July 25, 2012

Tucson. November, 2006

Feeding the coyotes a Ritz cracker? Seems like it’s probably “none of your business” to do that. Do kids still say this, taunting one another with it from an early age? I think maybe it should change with the coming of adulthood into “None of my business.” A confirmed TV news addict, I stopped watching all such stuff on the morning after Election Day 2000, when the presidential “winner” was still being questioned because of some idiosyncrasies in the Florida ballots. Remember that? Then, some ten months later, I stopped listening to NPR news when I heard the name of one of my former students in a story about people killed in the World Trade towers. I don’t miss the news at all. Every six months or so, I ask Jay what the current top stories are, and they all sound like the same ones time after time. Terrorism. Oil. Political chicanery. Basta. When I sign out of my Hotmail account and am presented with a list of headlines on the msn.com homepage (“Bee Gee to leave hospital,” “Mom, son die in two crashes,” “Jessica Simpson gives birth”), I more often than not say to myself, “None of my business.” Life is simpler that way.

July 24, 2012

Palermo, Sicily. May, 1988

What the hell is this, you may ask. Watch your language, please. You’re in a convent. In Sicily, no less. Nick and I had tracked down the Convent of St. Benedict in Palermo’s Piazza Venezia from a casual mention our friend Dali had pointed out in Mary Taylor Simeti’s book On Persephone’s Island, hoping to sample the fabled sweets that they’d been selling for ages. Because these Benedictine sisters are cloistered, they’ve foresworn contact with the public, and so all of their transactions, we soon learned, are negotiated through this revolving contraption in the wall. As you enter the antechamber from the street, you find an order list in the open carousel, check off what you’d like, put in your money and then revolve the compartment. On the other side, the sister places your order and any change in the chamber and revolves it back to you. Sweet magic! Then, when we announced through the wall that we were here in Palermo doing research for Great Italian Desserts, the nun suddenly opened a normal door in the room, emerged and engaged us in conversation. A decidedly Sicilian approach to the concept of being cloistered. By the way, the desserts were terrific.

July 23, 2012

Miramar, Habana, Cuba. February, 2012

Part of the pleasure of travel for me is the anticipation. Thinking about where I’m headed, what I’m going to do once there. When I signed up to go to Cuba, I was very excited finally to be traveling to a place I’d wanted to visit for decades. I knew that in spite of all my imaginings I wouldn’t be disappointed, and I wasn’t. I thought about this yesterday when my friend Joanie told me about a conversation she’d had with her three-year-old niece, about to go on a field trip with her day-care center. The little girl was all excited about this trip even though she wasn’t sure of the destination. When Joanie asked her why she was so enthusiastic about going to a place about which she had no clue, her niece pulled her close and whispered, “Aunt Joanie, I think we’re going to heaven.”

July 22, 2012

Cambridge, MA. August, 2011

Mucver. Disappointingly translated as “zucchini pancakes” on most English-language menus, no wonder people sometimes tend to steer away from ordering them. They don’t know what they’re missing. Yes, there’s shredded or chopped zucchini in them, but also usually walnuts, some feta-like cheese, Turkish spices, flour, all fried up and served with a garlicky yogurt sauce. I’ve had them many times in Turkey (where they are served room temperature, lukewarm or hot) and on even more occasions here in the USA. The best restaurant version I’ve found is at Saray in Brighton, MA, where three CD-sized flat patties come completely covered with a wonderful yogurty sauce. The best homemade mucver I’ve ever had, hands down, were prepared by my friend Lisa and generously shared with me. Recipes abound on the internet. Here’s a fine one. (The mucver shown above are from a misguided Cambridge, MA, “Turkish fusion” restaurant that has, not surprisingly, since gone out of business.)

July 21, 2012

Stoneham, MA. March 2011

Meet my good friend Paul. One day at work, we all started to trade stories about how we learned (spoiler alert!) that there was no Santa Claus. Paul won. He said that his parents always had a party on Christmas Eve. He was little and had to go to bed. But he was so excited about Santa Claus arriving that night that he kept calling for his mother to come to his bedside. “I hear the reindeer on the roof. I think Santa Claus is here.” As his mother’s patience grew thinner because she wanted to return to her guests, Paul’s excitement escalated. So much so that he threw up. That was it for Mom. She looked him straight in the eye and announced, “There is no goddam Santa Claus! I’M SANTA CLAUS!” I love his mother, love that she invites me to her excellent St. Joseph’s Day dinner each year. And each year, without fail, we laugh about how she disabused her young son of his cherished Christmas belief.

July 20, 2012

Istanbul. October, 2011

Meet Faruk, the custodian and general Mr. Nice Guy of the Galata Residence Apartments in Istanbul. When Nick and I stayed here in 2007, we’d see Faruk every day -- tidying up the accommodations, replacing light bulbs, keeping an eye out for Nick’s wayward luggage that somehow went its own way between New York and Istanbul. (It showed up a day late.) Faruk helped me practice my (minimal) Turkish, too, and told me I was no longer a tourist, I was a native. Well, maybe. When Jay and I arrived back at the Galata Residence in 2011 (after our booked car service failed to materialize at the airport and we wound up depending upon the kindness of strangers), our driver pulled up, Faruk appeared, saw me...and a series of smiles, welcomes and hugs ensued. How nice to be remembered. And how nice that when we left, Faruk easily carried ALL our luggage down a perilous long flight of outside steps from the hotel to the waterside where our ship was waiting. A wonderful, kind, genuine man.

July 19, 2012

Reggio Calabria, Italy. May, 1988

Biscotti X. (Pronounced “beece-KO-tea EEEKS.”) When I traveled back to Italy to help Nick with research for his Great Italian Desserts book, I had already been to that beautiful country four times. This time, however, a new perspective: seeing Italy from the kitchens of its bakeries, restaurants and pastry shops. We were warmly welcomed by chefs and pastry masters throughout the country, watching and photographing as they showed how they created their signature products. These X-cookies, made in the Sicilian tradition (almond paste “dough” wrapped around a citron jam, rolled out into a long “snake,” cut into two-inch lengths, then severed one-third of the way on each end, the ends then spread to form the X) were a simple standout, shown to us by Giulio Nostro of the Pasticceria Margherita, one of the nicest men in the world. Marks the spot and hits the spot, this cookie.

July 18, 2012

Mercado de Cuatro Caminos, Centro Habana, Cuba. February, 2012

Look at those beautiful limes, those abundant oranges. Here in Havana’s central market, there were a limited number of items (no potatoes, for example, a rationed staple) but plenty of the items that were there. Tomatoes, bananas, plantains, various melons, pineapples, coconuts, yams, onions, cabbages...not surprisingly the very ingredients that we’d see in our meals throughout the country. The market is not the only place people were offering produce though. Once we left the city, we’d see people selling from the side of the road, from the backs of their cars or wagons. And some people buy at the central market here, then re-sell in other parts of Havana. As I was walking through a non-touristed, residential neighborhood (where I was later warned it was dangerous for a solo gringo to be...oh, well), I met a man who was hawking a few items from a pushcart, among them, beets. I asked him what the name of this vegetable was in Spanish. Remolachas, he said. Then I told him, “En inglés, se llaman BEETS.” He started to laugh and asked, “Beets?” Then he thought for a moment...and continued to laugh.

July 17, 2012

Café de Oriente, Habana Vieja, Cuba. February, 2012

Some colors that seem so natural in warm-weather places just don’t fly in, say, New England. No matter how hard we try to make them fit in. Look at this magnificent tangerine stairwell with lemon trim here in a fancy Havana restaurant. Bright, vivid, citrus-flavored colors work so easily here. Just as they do in Tucson, in parts of Italy. As I type this, I’m in a small room of my house in Massachusetts that’s painted in Ralph Lauren’s “Driver’s Cap.” Kind of this burnt tangerine with some terra cotta, some grey to bring it down a few notches. The outside of my house, stucco, is painted in “Goldenrod” because I wanted to remember the Roman ochre walls in autumn sunlight. Especially when I was climbing my hill after a long walk home from work in winter. But I have to admit, I’m compensating. I’m forcing things. Foreign-speaking colors like this really need year-round warmth, light clothing and the ease that comes from both.

July 16, 2012

Palermo, Sicily. May, 1988

If you’ve got a good thing, go with it. Then go further. Witness the variety of offerings here, all fashioned of marzipan. Because Sicily abounds in almond trees -- and in craftsmen -- there seems no end to the shapes, sizes and colors used to mold these local treats. I wish I liked marzipan. I don’t. But etiquette required at least a polite sampling of the wares by each of the pastry chefs Nick and I visited on our research trip for his Great Italian Desserts book. After a week or so of Sicilian explorations, my heart would begin to sink as each new maestro would ask us where we had been previously. When we’d tell him, he’d proudly announce, “They know nothing there. Here we have a wonderful specialty...” and then he’d produce a big tray of -- you guessed it. Though I have to admit, those peas in the pod are mighty cute. (Wait. Are these papier maché? We saw a lot of those throughout Sicily, too.)

July 15, 2012

Cienfuegos, Cuba. February, 2012

Meals in Cuba. I had been warned not to expect much in terms of variety and quality, so my expectations were set low. But I needn’t have worried. The food was just right. Because we traveled in a group to most meals, the service was buffet or family-style platters. Always a mojito was proffered. Rice and beans, salads (which my friend Lisa labeled Soviet because of the ever present shredded cabbage,) plantains, yuca, fruit. And usually roast pork, baked chicken, ground beef with spices. On the occasions where we got to choose our own entrees, as here at a waterside outdoor paladar in southern Cuba (which, by popular demand, we visited twice), there was usually fish, shrimp and lobster, too. Dessert was often ice cream, sometimes gussied up. (My favorite: Copa Lolita -- a scoop of vanilla ice cream AND a slice of flan, laced with chocolate sauce.) Only in the fancier places in Havana was the service individual and more self-consciously “presented.” No matter where we ate, I was never disappointed.

July 14, 2012

Watertown, MA. April, 2012

I went through lots of stuff that week, in preparation for my entry into my town’s annual event of more than 80 yard sales on May 5. And I found lots of things hidden for years, lots of memories. Like this autographed LP that reminds me of the first time I met Andy Warhol. At Drew University, Madison, NJ, in 1969. A group of college friends (Nick among them) and I attended his presentation of some of his films and were appalled during the Q&A at the crowd of obnoxious yahoos asking things like, “You call that a movie, you faker?” No wonder Warhol let his accompanying minions answer. Though he did answer my question when it was clear that I was familiar with his film work. (I blush.) Afterwards, backstage, we had a great conversation, he (and his “superstar” Viva!) signed my Velvet Underground & Nico album, and he invited me to come visit him at The Factory. This was not the only time our paths crossed over the years, but it was the first, and 43 years later I still hold on to the memory. And the LP.

July 13, 2012

Centro Habana, Cuba. February, 2012

On my lovely walk through non-touristed neighborhoods in search of Havana’s central market, I traveled along many arcaded sidewalks (built to provide shaded protection from the fierce sun) and smiled as I came across this hot-dog sign. I love that the name of this universally popular food is here a literal explanation: bread w/ dog. And why not? Alas, I didn’t stop for one, mainly because the only currency I had was the tourist convertible pesos. And in this neighborhood (which I was later told was too dangerous for me to have walked alone through; news to me), only the Cuban residents’ moneda nacional is used. Still, my mouth watered at the thought of a Cuban sandwich mated with a hot frank. Next time.

July 12, 2012

Málaga, Spain. November, 2010

I love olives. Almost as much as I love European markets. So how lucky was I to find this stall in Málaga’s mercado central. Look at all those varieties. Well, it is Spain, after all. I thought I was blessed living in Watertown, MA, home to not only a sizable Armenian community, but also more than a half dozen excellent Middle Eastern markets within blocks of my home, each of them offering at least ten different varieties of olives. Cured in oil, in brine, in salt. Green, purple, black. (My favorite at the moment is the Moroccan oil-cured selection at Massis Bakery just down the hill from me.) But look at the selection here in southern Spain. And this photo only shows about one third of those on abundant display. 

July 11, 2012

Bologna. May, 1988

Bologna is the mouth of Italy, some say. And some of the most remarkable culinary experiences can be found there. During my first trip in 1980, my friend Dali and I ate at Al Pappagallo, and I recall a total starch moment called tortellini in pasta sfogliata (tortellini in puff pastry.) Imagine. Sadly, Al Pappagallo had changed owners and was less interesting on a later visit. But not to worry, another of Bologna’s treasures continues to amaze and delight: Atti. A trio of stores back to back to back, Atti serves up bread, cakes, pastries and gourmet prepared foods. Here’s a look in the window at some of Atti’s bread offerings. Simple loaves as well as some more fancy and twisted offerings. “Bread is fantasy,” as the sign says. “Love...make of it what you will!” (A note to the prurient. Because of Bologna’s association with fine eating, the term alla Bolognese is often used in personal ads to mean pretty much one thing only. Just saying.)

July 10, 2012

Santiago de Compostela, Spain. October, 2009

Triple staircase. Beautiful and fascinating. And somewhat difficult to comprehend. Which set of concurrent stairs takes you to which floors? This one is in the Museo de Pobo Galego in the pilgrim town of Santiago de Compostela. It kind of begs a photo, no? The only other multiple staircase I’ve encountered in my travels was a double one in the Château de Chambord in France’s Loire Valley in 1972. That one, it’s said, was designed by Leonardo da Vinci. True? (It allowed two people to ascend or descend at the same time without encountering one another, which came in handy when the king didn’t want to see his servants. And vice versa.) This one bore no such historical import. It was just a beautiful puzzling treat.

July 9, 2012

Istanbul. October, 2011

Laz cooking, aka Black Sea cuisine, comes from the northeast section of Turkey around Trabzon. When I expressed an interest in trying some Laz dishes on my most recent visit to the City of the World’s Desire, food enthusiast and blogger extraordinaire Cenk offered to take Jay and me to Klemuri, a cosy spot in a backstreet near Taksim Square that offered an assortment of such dishes. Like this one: muhlama, a fondue-like creation made with cornmeal, cheese and lots of butter. Yes, please. Also on the table that wonderful lunch: fried hamsı (the Black Sea anchovies then happily in season); stuffed chard leaves with yogurt; a molded bulgur pilaf; a mixed salad of fried bean pickles, potatoes, onions and walnuts; a regional kind of kibbee and much more. Most satisfying and memorable? Finally meeting Cenk and enjoying the pleasure of his company and his kind generosity.

July 8, 2012

Cambridge, MA. November, 1991

My father and I were never really close. Partly because, I suspect, that “being close” was not part of our family’s skill set. No one talked about feelings. No one talked about anything really. Complaints, yes. And angry arguments on an alarmingly regular basis. Was this partly due to our family’s rich history of substance abuse and its consequent guilt and isolation? As has always been my custom, I broke with tradition, put down the substances and started talking about things (I think I was the first family member to say “I love you” to another). It took some time for my family to get used to this. Usually I’d drop an L-bomb, then keep my distance, letting people digest. I remember the last time few times I visited my father in New Jersey. Each time I told him I loved him, he would cry, silently.

July 7, 2012

Codman Farms, Lincoln, MA. August, 1998

Meet my friend James. He and I met more than 15 years ago when we both worked at WGBH-TV in Boston. His offbeat sense of humor (which he readily admits doesn’t appeal to everyone) and his fine values (honest to a fault, accountable, admirable work ethic, just to name a few) are traits that the best of my friends all share. Also, as you can see, he loves animals. For many years now, he’s maintained a summer garden at Codman Community Farms in nearby Lincoln, MA, growing a rich roster of vegetables, flowers and fruits that recently has included cantaloupe, radicchio, tomatillos and potatoes, in addition to some seasonal standards like tomatoes, green beans and a variety of lettuces. (I’m happy to report that he generously shares his bounty.) This shot was taken with some of the critters who live at the farm. James is on the right.

July 6, 2012

Habana Vieja, Cuba. February, 2012

I confess. I thought this tuxedo’d guy was nice looking, so I maneuvered around the area for a short while, angling to take his photo. Only later did I notice the other people, the colors, the story on this corner in Old Havana. Who is the military guy, what’s he protecting and are his slacks really lavender? Why is that guapo all duded out in black tie in the middle of this Havana heat? And what is he looking at? Or, as I’ve sometimes noticed with attractive men and women, is he deliberately turning his head away so we can admire him with impunity? Narratives abound in Cuba. When my friend Stephen saw this photo, he said, “I want to see this movie. Not the American remake.”

July 5, 2012

Chinatown, New York, NY. July, 2011

Whenever I visit my friend Nick in Manhattan, I always make sure there’s time for a walk through Chinatown. Past the shops of herbalists, the intriguing grocery stores with their scary looking fish and produce, the dozens and dozens of eyeglasses stores. And, if I’m not dining with Nick at our favorite NY Noodletown, I manage to make my way to the fried dumpling counter at the storefront on Mosco Street -- five dumplings, one dollar -- and then go sit and have my snack in the Mott Street park nearby. Also on Mott, a number of Chinese florists and funeral parlors. Seen outside one, this intriguing if odd arrangement. On wheels no less.

July 4, 2012

Hardin, MT. July, 1987

This deteriorating photo is from another life, a somewhat spontaneous and almost forgotten trip to Montana to visit a friend who’d returned from Boston to his home state for a summer job. Most of my travels up to that point had been European, so it was a wonderful chance to travel through the beautiful all-American Big Sky country. Beartooth Highway into Red Lodge. Down into Yellowstone, Jackson Hole, the Grand Tetons. I recall one night when several police cruisers came storming into the parking lot of a gay bar in Billings, all sirens and flashing lights (the cop cars, that is), and patrons became quite tense. Scare tactics that yielded nothing. Also, a memory of a “Beware of Rattlesnakes” sign at a tourist hiking spot. And, of course, I remember this beauty salon in the middle of nowhere that begged a photo. The picture is terribly faded (as is the friendship.) The attitude, alas, remains.

July 3, 2012

Palma de Mallorca, Spain. November, 2010

In all my years of traveling and eating, I have only twice encountered any kind of stomach problems. Once, a case of Montezuma’s Revenge was the result of my foolish decision to opt for iced tea over canned soda at a lunch counter in the Mexican border town of Nogales, an hour south of Tucson. I spent the next two days pretty much moaning and staggering around Simon and David’s house and consuming nothing but (American) water. The only other unfortunate occasion was in Barcelona, this time, I believe, my ill-timed case of Mediterranean Tummy the result of having to try the Mallorcan specialty sobrasada, shown here. A paté-like sausage that’s cured by drying in its casing, it was perhaps an unwise choice at a hole-in-the-wall workers’ restaurant far off the tourist trail in this island city. I’d wanted just a taste. Instead, these three sizable red flags appeared and I didn’t heed the warning. And neither did Jay. Oh, well, live and learn. Twice.

July 2, 2012

Istanbul. October, 2011

After each morning’s run along the Bosphorus or the Golden Horn, I’d reward myself on my return to our small apartment via the simit-seller. One of hundreds here in Istanbul. Sometimes I’d buy a simit (on the left), sometimes an açma. Simit -- known by different names and slightly different recipes throughout Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania --  are small “fun size” circular breads coated with sesame seeds. Chewy, crispy, depending upon where you happen to be. This one was chewy. Nice. Açma, which I prefer, are also yeast-risen, but slightly sweet, enriched with egg and consequently more cake-like. Because I live within a few hundred yards of Armenian bakeries here in Watertown, MA, I have access to these bready treats all the time without having to locate my passport. Simit? Açma? Can’t decide? Have both.

July 1, 2012

Watertown, MA. January, 2011

As this summer of 2012 has already brought record heat waves with it, perhaps it’s time to reexamine another joy of living in New England. Witness this one, a multi-day mega-blizzard seen less than halfway through its delivery. The good news: I no longer commute through country roads to the middle of nowhere to work. The bad news: There was so much snow this winter, storm upon storm, more than 80 inches, that at a certain point there seemed as if there was no longer any place to move the snow. Scoop, shovel, lift, aim, throw it high. It was tough. But the other good news: The melting snows provided so much moisture to the plants below that they flourished mightily come spring. Which, as we all know, please God, can never be that far behind.