Far from Here

With dreams of barbecue and blues, I visited Memphis for the first time. Instead of Graceland, my rented car took me to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Second only to Motown, Stax Records was home to Carla Thomas, Booker T. and the MGs, Rufus Thomas, William Bell, Wilson Pickett, and other ground-breaking artists, the label folded in 1975. Now, it’s old headquarters is a museum. Arounfourway-logod the corner from the museum is The Four Way Restaurant, where Stax musicians, producers and engineers used to eat, and where I shared a table with a preacher who was touring the South, speaking about how Wal-Mart was destroying the local economy. Fried chicken, fried fish, side dishes of greens and yams. Preacher told me he would be heading next to Clarksdale, then on to Cleveland (Mississippi) and Indianola, just a few hours south. Next morning, I decided to skip a few speeches at a trade show and head for Clarksdale, figuring I’d be back just after lunch. I guess I didn’t anticipate driving down Highway 61, or waiting on Aunt Sarah to do her daily deliveries before serving lunch in what turned out to be one of the few places to buy lunch in the once-vibrant small city of Clarksdale. And if it wasn’t for my visit with Roger Stolle in the Cat Head Store in Clarksdale, I wouldn’t have known about Miss Sarah in the first place—Sarah Moore passed in 2009, and I sure wish I had time to stay around for a nighttime performance because Sarah’s Kitchen was a popular juke joint before the place closed down in 2010. Driving back to Memphis, I kept staring out at what had been plantations—these massive open fields with tiny shacks in the distance, and nothing to protect a runaway from the advancing dogs except the cypress trees with their submerged swampy roots and cottonmouth snakes. I drove away, first to Helena, Arkanas where a deranged woman attempted to enter my moving vehicle with a straight-edged razor in her hand, then to Oxford, Mississippi to stand between the columns where James Meredith claimed his college education, then passed more than a few gas stations whose second business was cooking up and selling ribs.

Unknown
I live a thousand miles away, not two days’ drive, but no place in my country has ever felt more foreign. Never articulated that before, but then, I hadn’t read Paul Theroux, either. Some months ago, I got my hands on “Deep South,” written by an extremely well-traveled author who had “driven from my home in New England, a three-day road trip to another world, the warm green states of the Deep South I had longed to visit, where the past is ‘never dead.’

Summer is the time for travel, but if you’re feeling as though the road might be too rough, or too hot, or just too darned far, “Deep South” is the book you’ll want for armchair traveling. There is no single narrative. It’s just a series of four road trips with notes that became essays, profiles, musings, and the chatter of a good traveling companion (photographer Steve McCurry—you know him from the famous photo of the Afghan girl with those amazing blue eyes) went along for some of it, and contributed some photos to the book.

A few samples:

“There was hardly any work. There were no visitors, as in years past. Once there had been textile factories in Allendale, making cloth and carpets. They’d closed, the manufacturing outsourced to China, thought a new textile factory was set to open in a year or so, he said…I was to hear this story all over the rural South, in the ruined towns that had been manufacturing centers, sustained by the making of furniture, or appliances, or roofing materials, or plastic products, the labor-intensive jobs that kept a town ticking over. Companies had come to the South because the labor force was available and willing, wages were low, land was inexpensive, and unions were nonexistent. And a measure of progress held out the promise of better things, perhaps prosperity. Nowhere in the United States could manufacturing be carried on so cheaply…Even the catfish farms—an important income-producing industry all over the rural South—have been put out of business by the exports of fish farmers in Vietnam.”

and

“You take the cane and strip it. Then you take it out to the syrup mill, where you had a thing like a crusher. You put the cane up there and hook your  mule to it. And you had a pan, called a syrup pan, about four feet wide, and the syrup run up into that pan, and up the front, that’s where the heat stays. Like a skillet. You boils it and throws the top away with a ladle. That molasses was prime.”

“It seems you could feed yourselves.”

“We was poor, so we made our own food,” he said. “Gutting and smoking hogs. Bleeding them, cutting them up, smoking them for about two-three days. We done everything ourselves.”

“How much land did you have?”

“Forty or fifty acres, we rented it from a white man who had a lot of land. I have nothing bad to say about that white man. He had a tractor, though, and we had nothing but two mules.”

“Mules instead of a tractor”

“Sure enough. Hook ‘em up to the plow, but they only plowed one furrow at a time, not like a tractor that could do two or more.”

We went on talking about the old-fashioned farm, cotton picking, foraging, hunting.

“My father went out hunting almost every day,” Floyd said. “He shot rabbits and squirrels and deer, and we ‘et ‘em.” He smiled, perhaps thinking of those meals. Then he said, “Not like today. People are hungry today but all they do is sit around.”

and forty-two year old Dolores Walker Robinson:

“I wanted something I could own,” she said. She’d been raised on a farm near here. “I wanted to get my sons involved in the life I knew.”

Apart from the herd of cows and goats, she had sheep, geese, and chickens. She encouraged the chickens to sit on nests of eggs, sold some of the fowl, sold and ate some of the eggs. She grew corn to feed the cows. Because the cash flow from the animals was still at the break-even point, she worked six days a week at the East Arkansas Area Agency on Aging as a caregiver…Money was always a problem.

Easy going, uncomplaining, yet tenacious, Dolores Walker Anderson had all the qualities that make a successful farmer: a great work ethic, a strong will, a love of the land, a way with animals, a fearlessness at the bank, a gift for taking the long view, a desire for self-sufficiency.

“I’m looking ten years down the road, she said as we tramped the sloping lane. “I want to build up the herd and do this full-time.”

 

 

Photo by Steve McCurry, appears on the cover of Deep South. Here are the details: DSC_4192, Deep South, Warren, Arkansas, USA, 09/2013, USA-10914. Pastime theatre.  Final Deep South selection for Smithsonian. retouched_Sonny Fabbri 11/25/2014

Photo by Steve McCurry, appears on the cover of Deep South. Here are the details: DSC_4192, Deep South, Warren, Arkansas, USA, 09/2013, USA-10914. Pastime theatre.
Final Deep South selection for Smithsonian.
retouched_Sonny Fabbri 11/25/2014

 

 

 

A Spectacular Thousand-Year Journey

Wayfaring StrangerEvery once in a while, I’ll catch an episode of The Thistle & The Shamrock on a public radio station. Seems to me, the show has been on forever, but I’ve never thought much about the program’s title. Of course, it refers to music from Scotland and from Ireland, but that’s a very small part of the story that its host / producer tells in her new book, Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia. (From the start, I should point out that this is a fabulous book, a work deserving of all kinds of awards and many quiet hours of reading accompanied by many more spent listening, preferably to live music.) In fact, it’s not just Ms. Ritchie’s book: storytelling and scholarly research duties are shared by an equally talented music lover, Doug Orr, whose Swannanoa Gathering is, among many good things, the place where the idea of the Carolina Chocolate Drops took shape: “they have helped revive an old African American banjo tradition that was fast disappearing.”

The authors of Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia.

The authors of Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia.

Beginning in the 1600s, long before America became a nation, there was an African American banjo tradition in Appalachia. Mostly, the musicians were slaves brought to America to work on the plantations.  The “banjar” evolved from stringed instruments played in West Africa, and eventually became known as the banjo. The instrument lost its luster when it was adopted by musicians performing in blackface in minstrel shows. That’s why the old African American banjo tradition found itself in need of revival.

Of course, the term “minstrel” is rooted in a much earlier tradition. They were dancers, mimes, jugglers, wrestlers—all-around entertainers who wandered Europe, from backwoods village to royal court. By the time Christopher Columbus voyaged to the new world, that minstrel tradition was fading. By 1700, minstrels were hard to find, but the idea of a traveling musician, accompanying himself (sometimes, herself) on a stringed instrument (very portable) was taking hold. It was enabled by new technology: the printing press. Broadsides (single sheets) were printed, then sold. They covered news and opinion, and often, featured lyrics to songs meant to be sung by groups of people in public, for fun. The most popular type of song was the ballad: “a narrative poem that tells a story meant to be sung.”

TED Talk—actually a performance—by Cape Breton fiddler Natalie McMaster. Another link in the chain.

TED Talk—actually a performance—by Cape Breton fiddler Natalie McMaster. Another link in the chain.

The serious journey begins in the North East region of Scotland known as Aberdeen. Separated from the rest of Scotland (and England beyond) by the Cairngorms to the west and the Grampian Mountains to the south, its culture was much affected by sailors who came across the North Sea from Scandinavian, Nordic and Germanic people; the trip was only a few hundred nautical miles, less than the distance from Aberdeen to London. Although this history is more than 800 years old, some of the music survives, not as museum pieces but as traditional repertoire in the Appalachian hills of the U.S., in Ireland, in Scotland, and on my stereo system. Often, the fiddle (imported to Scotland from Italy) was the instrument of choice because it was portable and versatile—but it was not without controversy (by the time it reached the Appalachians, some Baptists called it “the Devil’s instrument.” There are so many styles of fiddle playing, each broadly associated with a region: the Shetland Islands north of Scotland, Highland fiddle and its kin heard on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, which would be the Acadian fiddling that makes its way down to New Orleans with the corruption of the term Acadian now called Cajun.

“Connecting hollow bones and sticks to an animal bag…” begins in primitive times. Nero played the bagpipes. It’s been traced back to early Egypt, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Russia, and India, used by shepherds and herdsman who had easy access to the necessary materials. The troubadours of France and the minstrels of the Middle Ages made bagpipes part of the traveling show. “By the 15th century, the bagpipe had displaced the harp (!) as the instrument of choice especially in its role as a call to battle.”

The trail of connections extends over an extremely wide portion of time and space. These contemporary Swedish musicians play on the nyckelharpa and harp. The connection between Sweden and North Carolina is, perhaps, not so far as anyone might think.

These contemporary Swedish musicians play on the nyckelharpa and harp. The distance between Sweden and North Carolina may not be so far after all. Click to watch a performance video.

About 8,000 years ago, people began traveling the narrow channel between Scotland and Ireland. Of course, they brought their music along. “Common language, common culture, the whole fiddle tradition, and the whole music tradition is all very, very similar and connected. The history and the geography have all played a part in it. You know the shamrock, the rose and the thistle—meaning the three—England, Scotland, and Ireland—all contribute to what we know call the Ulster song tradition…,” explained Irish traditional singer and song collector when he was interviewed by the authors at the Swannanoa Gathering in North Carolina.

Some had heard of the land far across the Sea of Green Darkness, the Ocean Sea, the Western Ocean, the Sea of Perpetual Gloom. Some knew of the early Viking passages to to Vinland, now Newfoundland. In 1717, Ulster Scots (Scots who had migrated to Ulster) were beginning to migrate to Boston, and in 1729, the first Highland Scots were arriving in Cape Fear, North Carolina. In 1745, Andrew Presley travels from Aberdeen to North Carolina; 190 years later, his family tree would include the birth of Elvis Presley. In 1768, James Ritchie and his five brothers set sail from Liverpool and eventually settle in Tennessee, North Carolina and Texas; in 1922, Appalachian singer, song collector and scholar Jean Ritchie is born to a branch of the family well-established in southeastern Kentucky. In the 1770s, Doc Watson’s Scottish ancestor Tom Watson leaves Edinburgh for North Carolina. As they travel, and when they settle, they sing melancholy songs about parting ways with the family left behind, sing about the hardships and the good times. Parts of their stories are reassembled by the song collectors who travel to learn them by heart, write the songs down, perform them, and record the elder folk before they, and the memories, pass.

DIVI077The authors have done just that, and so, in their way, have Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and dozens of others whose names may be less familiar. But the authors have accomplished more. They’ve managed to weave a very complicated story together, a saga of migration and evolution, Viking travels and minstrel shows, song fragments that survived for nearly a millennium, wonderful artists from Scottish poet Robert Burns to Kathy Mattea. There is so much love and passion for the history, the music, the instruments, the people, the land. There’s a CD bound into the back cover so you can hear the music, with every track explained in fascinating detail. There are dozens of handsome full page photographs that provide a sense of the land, plus illustrations of the instruments. Every time I wanted to know more about an interesting concept, I’d turn the page and find a very comprehensive briefing on, for example, “The Ceili, or Ceilidh” (a social event with music that originated in the eighteenth and nineteenth century in Scotland and Ireland); the dulcimer; “Child ballads” (Scots and Irish ballads classified by Harvard Professor Francis James Child, and often referred to by their numbers). I had never heard of The Great Philadelphia Wagon Road. but now I understand its importance. Before Ellis Island, Philadelphia was the American point of entry for most immigrants from Ulster. They’d travel this early highway west and then south, ferrying across the Susquehanna River to Winchester, Virginia (home of Patsy Cline) and the Shenandoah Valley and on to the Yadkin Valley terminus in North Carolina (think in terms of today’s Boone, NC); Daniel Boone extended the trail to what became the Wilderness Road out to Kentucky’s Cumberland Gap.

When I first noticed this book, I figured I’d learn something about music history. Certainly, the authors covered that territory with great skill. That was only the starting point. I’m reminded that there is no such thing as music history, just as there is no such thing as art history or political history. Everything is intertwined. It’s an unbroken circle.

Here’s a good look at a sample spread. On the left, several string band instruments with a story of a North Carolina mill owner whose factory was the largest blanket manufacturer in the world. He hired a local musician to entertain employees during breaks and picnics. Apparently happy employees were less likely to unionize. These days, the town is home to the Swannanoa Gathering, a large festival and workshop celebrating Scots, Irish and traditional music. On the right is Mike Seeger, who “dedicated his life to singing and playing southern traditional mountain music…He discovered and assisted many old time musicians."

Here’s a good look at a sample spread. On the left, several string band instruments with a story of a North Carolina mill owner whose factory was the largest blanket manufacturer in the world. He hired a local musician to entertain employees during breaks and picnics. Apparently happy employees were less likely to unionize. These days, the town is home to the Swannanoa Gathering, a large festival and workshop celebrating Scots, Irish and traditional music. On the right is Mike Seeger, who “dedicated his life to singing and playing southern traditional mountain music…He discovered and assisted many old time musicians.”

 

 

I want to go to Provence. In 1970.

There was a secret shared, and in time, the secret was widely shared. It was beautiful. Tasty and life-affirming, too. And many of us benefit from it every day of our lives.

Before 1970–give or take a few years either way–we ate frozen and canned foods, modern conveniences for the busy family. Fresh food wasn’t on the radar (and certainly not on the Radarange). Restaurants weren’t modern, not yet focused on locavores, or for that matter, shared cuisines beyond, say, a local pizza or Chinese restaurant.

What changed? Lots of cultural norms–greater awareness, shifted sensibilities, a focus on nutrition and fresh foods. This didn’t happen magically. It may have begun, in earnest, in 1970, when several iconoclasts gathered in nearby homes in the south of France. They changed the way we think about food, and if food is life, they changed the way we think about life, too.

They were Julia and Paul Child, whose rough contours were sketched in the film Julie & Julia. And, to a lesser degree, Simone Beck, who co-wrote “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” with Julia, and whose insistence upon classic French tradition emboldened Julia to think more clearly about the real world of American moms (few American dads cooked–except outdoors). There was the travel / food / free spirited writer M.F.K. Fisher and the American food expert  James Beard, struggling through an extensive survey of our unique and sometimes inexplicable cuisine. And several others who cooked together, argued, and savory the good life that was making its way to Sonoma and Napa.

Their story is told by Ms. Fisher’s nephew, Luke Barr in a book that’s becoming quite popular. It’s called Provence, 1970, and it provided a  winter weekend’s entertainment. There are menus, and they lead into wonderful stories of friends building meals together– serious cooks experimenting and showing off for their foodie friends. It’s loose and informal, and I kept fantasizing about what it might have been like to join them, if just for a night. Few nonfiction books draw me into the story in quite this way, and it was fun to be a part of it, if only as an observer nearly fifty years later.

It’s now available in paperback, but there’s something about the hardbound edition that’s even more appealing.

Enjoy!

BTW: The complete title is “Provence, 1970: M. F. K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste.” Here’s an excerpt, courtesy of NPR.

M.F.K. Fisher, clearly enjoying life.P.S.: I think I need to read more by M.F.K. Fisher. One intriguing title is a 1942 book called “How to Cook a Wolf.” I found a review of the book when it was new in the digital catacombs of The New York Times. They wrote:

Mrs. Fisher writes about food with such relish and enthusiasm that the mere reading of her books creates a clamorous appetite. She also writes with a robust sense of humor and a nice capacity for a neatly turned phrase.”

Beyond the Decisive Moment

Cartier-BressonHenri Cartier-Bresson was one of the great photographers of the 20th century. Best known as a prolific street photographer (for whom color was a commercial concession, not an aesthetic option), HCB’s life story is no less compelling than his lifetime of images. His career and personal commitments were well-described last year at an extensive exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Happily, the exhibition has been packaged as a coffee table book by Clément Chéroux and published by Thames & Hudson. It’s expensive ($75) and it’s worth the money, in part because Mr. Chéroux curated the 2014 exhibition.

Students of photography associated HCB with “the decisive moment. Just as Martin Luther King (okay, “MLK”)’s life work far exceeds the brief period of his “I Have a Dream” speech, Cartier-Bresson’s infatuation with the precise instant when a photograph ought to be made is only part of an expansive range of artistic and journalist expression.

Born in 1908, Cartier-Bresson grew up in a comfortable Parisian household; the family owned a large cotton and thread manufacturing company. 1908 was also the year that, in England, Robert Baden-Powell published “Scouting for Boys” to support his new progressive approach to education known as the Boy Scouts. The organization’s combination of an active life for boys, with ample freedom and discipline, was a good match. At age 14, as a Scout, Henri began to experiment with photography, but only as  hobby. The family’s plan for Henri was all business—he was sent to the best schools so he could, sometime, lead the large family business. Of course, things didn’t work out as planned. Instead, with the blessings of his family, he studied art. Mostly cubism. Which he found “boring” because it was “too systematic.” He preferred the more expansive world view offered by surrealism. In October, 1930, by now free from both his formal education and military service, Cartier-Bresson followed Europeans curious about “the Dark Continent.” He spent nearly a year in Cote D’Ivoire, Cameroon, the French Sudan, Togo, and along the Niger River, he photographed children on the streets and people at work—avoiding the exotic and tribal imagery, just focusing on the day-to-day. Over the next few years, his casual interest in travel photography became a passion, then, a career. He traveled to, and photographed street activities in, Paris, Marseilles, Milan, Florence, Sienna, Trieste, Madrid, various parts of Mexico, and more.

Along the way, he learned by copying the styles of Eugene Atget (streets of Paris, store windows); European photographers intrigued by the geometry of city life (mostly); the golden section that is key to classic composition; various less-than-compressible surrealistic sketches and distortions. In time, he worked out his own style. Before he turned 30, he had created enough distinctive images to display his work in a successful exhibition.

The story becomes more interesting as HCB moves from travel photography and street work (often one and the same) to work with a more specific purpose: often, related to his attachment to the ideals of Communism. Stories of the Spanish Civil War, Mussolini, and the utter transformation of Europe are among the best stories—supported by some of the best images—in this book. He becomes concerned about poverty and tells his visual stories so they will provoke attention. He attends to the facial expression and behavior of crowds, often ignoring (and needing to caption) just what they are looking at. He documents free time—a relatively new idea in 1938 France, at least for the working class—and this is probably my favorite selection of his work. For example, a Sunday on the banks of the Seine from that year:

sfmoma-hcb-03-near-juvisy-1938

In truth, what I love about this book is the arc of the creative story. It begins with a smart teenager who decides he likes art and photography better than college and business, who grows up quickly as he travels and makes stunning pictures. Then, he finds his political and social conscience, and plays a very active role, using his photography as a very effective tool. Then, he realizes that his political affiliations will become a career problem, so he co-founds Magnum, a journalistic photo agency with Robert Capa and several other extraordinary photojournalists, and becomes one of LIFE magazine’s active contributors. Then, he explores topics that interest him: the growing connection between people and machines (a project for the IBM of the 1960s, for example), icons of power (very powerful—and decidedly odd—image of a giant Lenin in front of the Winter Palace in Leningrad as a man and his small child stroll in the foreground), and the ways that crowds behave. And then, in this 60s, he begins to slow down, to take images that are more focused on the feeling than the moment. And he begins to draw, picking up on something he loved to do as a child. He visits art museums, and spends hours sketching great works. He takes pictures of the family with his legendary Leicas. It’s a lovely life story, wonderfully punctuated by his pencil on paper self portraits from 1987 and 1992. One of the better free bios on the web is here. And there are a lot of smaller books filled with specific HCB projects that you can find on Goodreads, along with the compendium Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, The Image and His World, also from Thames & Hudson.

Henri-Cartier Bresson was born in August, 1908 and died in August, 2004—he lived, and documented, the better part of a century. And nobody did it better.

On the left, a picture of an American woman in 1947. On the right, “Giant Effigy of Lenin” from 1973.

american_woman-and-lenin

 

 

An Authentic, Modern Meal in Venice

Venice is a small city overrun not with cars, but with tourists. It is a charming place to stroll, romantic in the dark alleys of the  night, a bit spooky when a rat crosses the path (the place is filled with canals and infrastructure that pre-dates Columbus), charming in so many ways. Venetian cuisine differs from traditional Italian cuisine—this is not the place where you will find fried breaded meats in tomato sauce covered with mozzarella cheese. Instead, it is a place where fish dominates, and cuisines have been shaped by constant trade with the far east, the near east, northern Africa and the rest of Europe. You’d never know it to walk into just any restaurant in touristy San Marco, but I headed to the edge of town to enjoy a proper meal of Venetian specialties prepared by a gloriously obsessive restauranteur whose past history includes years as a session musician (a bassist) in the recording studios of Paris, GP Cremonini.

My meal began with fish. Not one fish. Lots of small crudo (raw) pieces of fish that resembled, but did not taste like sushi.

FishTray

On the upper left, that’s salmon covered by stracciatella and alfalfa sprouts. I savored the red snapper—number two on the top—but I could not figure out what the green flavor might be—it turned out to be a very fresh lime, a delightful companion. The strawberry rests on a morsel of sea bass, and it’s followed by a piece of sea bream with a bit of fresh mint. The second row begins with sea bass and wild fennel, then swordfish with a slender stick of vanilla, and finally, that’s passion fruit relish on amberjack. There were eight fish—the one that I ate before I took the picture was tuna with a bit of citrus, probably orange. Overall, a wonderful introduction to the region’s fresh fish, and a clever way to present their flavors in a fresh and inviting way. But there’s more to the story…consider the level of commitment to ingredients, the experimentation to find just the right combination. That’s the obsession that plays out with nearly 200 food suppliers to Riveria. GP had spent much of the day meeting with his grappa supplier, and talked to me about the herb gardener whose tiny backyard garden is the best in the region. He cares a great deal about the food. We’ll see what comes next.

Scallop-SaladIt’s a salad with the obvious fresh greens and toasted scallops, smaller than the ones we find in the U.S., and a bit saltier, too. There are bits of a local bacon, too, which enhances the salty favor. The sauce is a red pepper puree, which adds the necessary sweetness to balance the salty flavor. Bit of polenta toast complete the dish.

Along the way, wine with the early courses—but in time, I felt I ought to focus on the food, so I slowed down. I started with a Bianco Secco from Quintarelli, then moved on to a more robust unfiltered white wine called Sassia from Angiolini Maule. “Only the grape, you’re tasting only the grape,” GP explained and instructed me about the importance of simplicity in this wine and in his whole approach to food. Unadorned, wonderful, carefully selected ingredients are his secret, and Venice and the Veneto region is superb place to find them. But it takes a great deal of time to find these ingredients, to get the mixes right, to train the staff to do things differently. For the first six months, the staff struggled to understand GP’s unorthodox approach and his combinations of flavors, and his working style, but in time, they came to understand what he was doing, and why it was important to both preserve and update the Venetian traditions. This was decidedly different from the routines at other area restaurants where they had worked, so it took time. It was great fun to understand the backstory and enjoy the highly-evolved meals. There are nineteen tables here, and 173 suppliers—“one for the bread flour, another for the mozzarella,, for the polenta.” Everything is done properly, nothing is rushed. It is the way that GP and his partner want to run their business.

On the previous night, I had sampled Sior with local sardines, and they were tasty, but not extraordinary. Here, the dish of Venice’s fisherman—preserved fish with onions—took on a different character. The key was the scampi—the word translates as our langostini, not as an Italian restaurant’s garlicky butter sauce for shrimp—“one is a scampo, more than one is scampi,” GP explained. He went on, “this is a very traditional dish, with any available fish. Sailors would take it to sea. Here, we prepare it at least a day in advance.” With thin slices of fresh apple.

Fisherman

The next dish was my favorite. Gnocchi, but a gnocchi unlike any I have tasted before. This is pasta made with potato flour, but most preparations tend to be heavy, thick and gummy. Riviera’s gnocchi was light and airy, and as prepared with a thin basil pesto with crackling fresh broccoli and bits of sea bass and small tomatoes, it was the kind of dream dish that one hopes to encounter in a superior restaurant.

Gnocchi

I’m beginning to fill up. Our strategy of small dishes was working well—until the gnocchi showed up. I ate all of it, and that curtailed my ability to try another half-dozen courses (good reason for a second visit). Still, there were two more dishes that I was destined to try. The first was a single large ravioli colored by squid ink and filled with scallop. You’ll excuse me—I took a first bite before I remembered to snap the picture. The dish is called cappallechi, and the tomatoes are called detereno. The sauce is lovely, but I don’t recall why I loved it so (my notes are limited to “lovely sauce.”

Black-Ink-Ravioli

We’re still going. Next and last among the mains is a sea bass with a pool of pumpkin sauce. There are tiny poppy seeds on the side of the fish to add punch and texture. The salty slivers of fresh artichoke complement the mild fish flavor.

Bass

Time for dessert. A lineup of five small portions, each one special in its way. Once again, I’m impressed by the care and creativity associated with so many different presentations. Here, the lineup includes a hazelnut mousse, then the best sachertorte I have ever tasted (noting that my time in Venice was followed by a short week in Vienna), a cream puff with a bit of strawberry, a pannacotta (texture of flan but a vastly different sweet flavor), and a tiny tiramisu with fresh espresso dust. Not pretentious—just simple preparations made by a very skillful baker and pastry chef.Dessert-Row

And just when I thought the meal was ending, another small taste of sweets to complete an extraordinary session. The biscuits were standard issue, but oh those little chocolate balls! Cold and alcoholic (rum), with coconut overtones, they’re called puncetti, and I wish I could find or make them at home. What a nice way to end a meal.

GP invited me to sample a deeply personal, thoroughly modern excursion through traditional Venetian dishes. The meal came with more than a few friendly conversations and background stories, making it that much more special. Riviera is not standard tourist fare, and it requires willingness to walk perhaps fifteen minutes beyond the tourist section, but the restaurant is part of a larger story. Venice is sacrificing its authentic past, its artisanal approach to the arts, because tourists expect less. Here, it is reasonable to expect more, and to engage in a conversation about the Venice of the 21st century.

Here’s how to find it. Be sure to reserve—everything in Venice becomes busy when the tourists arrive.

Strolling through Everyday Venice

The day began, as it should this time of year, with a stroll through the ancient streets of Venice: the paths along the canals (“fondamenta”), under the occasional tunnel to somewhere or nowhere (“sottoportego”), and, of course, over the many tiny bridges (“ponte”).

On one particular ponte that I could never find again (many look alike), there is a border collie and a man who likes to dress in New York Yankees sweats. I never got the dog’s name but I will always remember his wonderfully obsessive behavior. When he spotted an oncoming gondola, he would stick his head through the ponte’s iron work, stare for a moment, then race over to the other side of the ponte (not more than two meters) to watch the gondola emerge out from under the bridge and out the other side. He did this over and over and over again, and enjoyed it every time. I suspect he does this every day of his doggie life. Here’s a picture, just as the process begins.

Dog gondola

220px-CaffeflorianJust keep walking. Morning tea at the Florian, an old and not especially crowded coffee house (the first two weeks of December, nobody is in town, so I had the place to myself). It’s a landmark on the Piazza San Marco, and has been since the 1720s, when the Turkish invaders introduced coffee to the city. Casanova, Proust and Dickens hung out there, and now, so have I. The place is gorgeous, inside and out. I enjoy my $15 tea—it’s served in a clear teapot with a blooming cluster of leaves that open up as the tea brews. I contemplate the pigeons on the far side of the square—and the San Marco Basilica which seems to need a good cleaning. The treasured mosaics do not sparkle in the sunny day. They are obscured, in part, by inevitable scaffolding. The place is surrounded by expensive Fifth Avenue fashion shops, and Italian brands (Loriblu, for example, with splendidly silly crystalline boots in the window). Time to move on to more interesting surroundings. I keep walking. Time for lunch. Closed on Sundays (today is Thursday), the place to go is Dal Moro’s, which is not so hard to find if you simply follow the calles (alleyways) and trust your instinct that this tiny storefront really is around the corner. And there it is, perhaps the finest pasta in all of Venice. The pasta comes with an urging to eat it hot, but there is no place to sit down. One eats the pasta standing up, as this couple is doing. Pasta CoupleWe chat for a bit, then I move on to a favorite campo in the Santa Croce area of town. It’s square dominated by a very old church called San Giacomo dell’Orio, and it dates back to 1225 (“Tradition says that the church
was founded in 555, but the first documented reference dates it to 1089.”) The bell tower (“campanile”) was last repaired in the 1300s. I love this campo for several reasons, all related to a sense of real life for real Venetians—there are only about fifty thousand of them who actually live in the city, and it is here that I was able to watch children on scooters, dogs out for their daily walk (and tie-up to a post while the owner picks up supplies at a local market), great gelato down the main street, wonderful pastries and soup at Majer nearby, aging women gossiping about everyone they know. Every day I was in Venice, I spent at least an hour just sitting and watching life go by. On this particular day, I sketched for a while, then just sat back and took it all in. Somehow, this seemed like a better way to spend the afternoon than staring the art that the Venetians had stolen from other countries when they had the power to do so. It fills the museums, and there would be time, in a day or two, to fully absorb myself in the gold-leafed grandeur.

Santa Croce campo 2

Santa Croce campo 1

The day is beginning to wind down—or, at least, the sunlight is beginning to fade away. That happens around 430PM this time of year, but so much of Venice sees so little sun (small alleys and enclosed campos), it’s only about 4PM, but it seems to be getting dark. I keep walking, and sure enough, by the time I reach the bridge to dell’Accademia, the Grand Canal is fading to a deep blue.

darker Venice from Bridge

I wander around the Dorsoduro—another of Venice’s districts—and poke around the shops. There are shops everywhere, and most of the them sell tourist stuff. I keep an eye out for the work of craftsmen, or, at least, local artisans (most of what is sold in Venice’s shops is made in China—an odd historical turnabout). Somewhere along the way—Venice being so confusing, it’s difficult to recall which shop is in which district and which day the visit occurred—I found a local print shop with its own old-time Heidelberg press, asked far too many questions, and left with a satchel full of bookmarks and a lovely three-color print of the Grand Canal made on the shop’s printing press by the two men who own and operate it. I wish there was more of that in Venice, but the economics and the government policies tend to discourage local enterprise. Still, it can be found, if one takes the time, does the research, asks the questions, and, gets lucky.

Walking along the watery edge of the Dorsodoro, I watched cruise ships in a dredged waterway that was too small for their bulk, and wondered about the Las Vegas style hotel building across the way. I found out that the odd Stucky building had been a wheat mill (Mr. Stucky became Venice’s richest citizen before he was murdered—so much drama!) Sure enough, the place is now a Hilton hotel. I was walking along the Giudecca canal (“guidecca” was the name of the island where undesirables where kept—the word refers to those who are judged). I was headed for dinner at Rivera, an upscale restaurant that serves a modern version of traditional Venetian cuisine. Stay tuned…

Night at the Operas

If I had arrived several weeks earlier, I might have seen “La Traviata” or perhaps “Simon Boccanegra,” but I was only to be in Venice for a few days, and there was no opera scheduled at Teatro La Fenice. I was happy to settle for a Diego Matheuz conducting Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony—just to spend an evening listening to music in one of Europe’s most extraordinary concert halls. Unfortunately, Matheuz did not perform because there was a general strike on Friday. I did, however, manage to attend a Saturday night performance of a contemporary work. More on that later.

DSC01491loc-grande-guerra-page-001-344x1024Why did I care about this particular theater? The history, mostly. And the way it looks on the inside. Just being there, even if there isn’t the same there that was there before. This is the opera house where Verdi’s “La Traviata” made its debut. Same for “Simon Boccanegra,” where Maria Callas became a star. It is, or was, a remarkable place in the history of music. Why the dancing verbs? Because the place has a history that’s as crazy as any opera plot. Originally built as the San Benedetto Theatre in the 1730s, it burned down in 1774, and was rebuilt as Teatro La Fenice (“Fenice” translates as “phoenix”) to begin anew in 1792. Immediately, there was squabbles, the theater survived and by early 1800s, it was a world-class venue, mounting operas by Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, the big names in Italy at that time. In 1836, it burned down again, and was quickly rebuilt a year or so later. That’s when Verdi started writing operas for La Fenice, including “Rigoletto” and “La Traviata,” which debuted there. So began a century and a half of magic—until 1996, when two electricians burned it to the ground. Remarkably, engineers had measured the theater’s acoustics only two months before, so the theater was rebuilt sounding much the same as its predecessor.

DSC01752That’s the theater that I visited, the 1,000 seat theater that hosted the premiere of “La grande guerra (vista con gli occhi di un bambino)” – a tale for men’s chorussopranonarrator and instruments with music by Claudio Ambrosini, featuring Sonia Visentin (soprano), Sandro Cappelletto (narrator), Matteo Liva (piano), Alberto Perenzin (trumpet), Giulio Somma (percussion), Coenobium Vocale (Maria Dal Bianco, choirmaster ). The title translates as: “The Great War (as seen through the eyes of a child”). The instrumentation was carefully chosen: the soprano Visentin represents the voices of the mothers and sisters and aunts who bore unceasing sorrow as they lived their short lives. The child, who wrote the World War I diaries, is manifest in the percussion work of a twelve-year-old musician who masterfully handled the xylophone, tympani and other instruments. The men’s choir—rather flawless in their relentless soldiering on through the era’s music—represent the soldiers. Capalletto’s narration tied everything together in the words of the child. So painful, so affecting. So frustrating—I wanted to understand every word, but I could only understand some of what was being said and sung.

DSC01772It was a beautiful performance in a beautiful place. But it was not my only engagement for the evening. Fearful of seeing no music in Venice, I also booked a seat at the tourist-oriented Musica a Palazzo, just a few dark alleyways, a campo (plaza), and several bridges away from the opera house. I raced over in the dark to catch the final act of an intimate staging of the story in an old mansion–the last Barbaggio family member died in 1804).  Each act is staged in a different room of the mansion. I arrived in time for Violetta to die in her bedroom, the men in her life beside her, three performers singing their hearts out for perhaps a hundred people with the accompaniment of a quartet (violin, viola, cello, piano). The intimacy of the performance, and the the familiar strangeness of the setting in the old mansion, turns out to be a delightful for a tourist to spend an evening in Venice—but you must be willing to buy into the schtick. The audience seemed to delight in doing just that.

DSC01499The contrast was fun to contemplate. On the one hand, a classic old opera house rebuilt from its own ashes less than twenty years ago presenting material from World War I in a 21st century setting. On the other, an old mansion dating back two centuries— Ca’Barbagio presenting an opera that debuted at La Fenice in 1853 for 21st century tourists visiting an old city of just 50,000 permanent residents whose long decline probably began more than 500 years ago. Today, the city exists mostly for its history and tourism—more than 20 million people visit Venice every year. I was lucky enough to spend my time at La Fenice sitting next to a local woman, Mirella, whose love for La Fenice has less to do with classic old operas and more to do with the many contemporary works, like those by Ambrosini, for this is, after all, her neighborhood music house.

Heads Up for Everyone

NavdyMaybe twenty years ago, I remember my friend Harry, who knows a lot about cars, telling me about a magical idea called a “heads up display.” Harry explained that data and images would be projected on every car windshield, and if I understood him correctly, instrumentation would move from the dashboard to an ultra-simple visual presentation directly in the driver’s field of view. No more looking down, no more looking away from the road. I became vaguely aware that some truck drivers were using this technology, but I wondered whatever happened to the consumer side of the idea.

Next year, we can all buy a dashboard mounted video projector called a Navdy. It costs less than $30o, and it does what Harry promised, and more. Navdy projects very simple graphics and just a few words directly on the windshield, directly above the steering wheel. The projector is set up so that your point of focus on the data is also your point of focus while driving, so the information is always easy to see (I’m curious how those with bi- or trifocals will respond).

We all know that picking up a phone while driving (or stopped at a light) to read a text message is a bad idea, and that sending a text is an even worse idea. So now, the text shows up immediately in front of you, perhaps with a little iconic picture of your texting buddy (who is, hopefully, on a coach, not driving a big rig while texting). To reply, you either speak (Navdy will recognize what you have to say) or gesture (a favorite but simple way to interact with Navdy).

You can use your existing cell phone (Android or iPhone). There is no monthly service fee. You only need to buy the device.

So what else does Navdy do? It can display your fuel level, speed, and other information about your car. It allows you to make phone calls and to respond to them without touching a telephone. Ditto for text messages. If your phone is playing music, you can stop and start the stream. It responds to voice control, just as Siri does (hopefully, it’s better than Siri).

New idea? As an add-on, sure. But those who follow the car industry report several million HUDs (Heads-Up Displays) already in cars that are on the road, and have been for several years.

Although there are lots of questions about what we should and should not be doing while driving, whether Navdy is a help or a hindrance or something else entirely, whether this sort of thing will become standard in every vehicle, and, of course, whether most of us will actually be driving a car in a future where cars are probably going to be driving themselves. In the mean time—there’s at least a ten year gap between today and the future—this is a device that will become a buzz item in 2015.

Do watch the video. It’s irreverent and fun.

 

 

Creepy Tale in an Lovely Setting

In 1905, Grace Brown drowned in Big Moose Lake. In 2005, the Metropolitan Opera debuted an opera about what happened to her. This past weekend, just about 100 miles from the tragedy, I watched the story come back to life, at my leisure, on the shores of nearby Lake Otsego. In fact, the whole sad affair took place in Cortland (75 miles away) and Utica (40 miles away). To this day, nobody is completely sure what happened to Grace Brown, but her story is as captivating today as it was when her love letters to Chester Gillette were revealed in connection with his 1906 trial. Did Chester Gillette lure his pregnant fiancé up to the Big Moose Lake to kill her? Probably. Did he swat her with an oar and send her to the depths; or did he lose faith in his plan at the final moment and lose his wife-to-be in an unfortunate accident? Whatever happened, it was kind of cool and kind of creepy to sit through a retelling of the story not far from where the real thing captivated newspaper readers a century (or so) ago.

You may recall that journalist-novelist Theodore Dreiser wrote a very fat novel called “An American Tragedy” about this unfortunate turn of events. Chester was hired by his uncle to supervise a skirt factory in Cortland, NY; got one of the worker girls pregnant and promised to marry her; captured the attention and the heart of a wealthy and pretty socialite; got himself all confused; and figured out that the best way to solve the problem was to end Grace’s life.

i-ftZBWGQ-LThe next character in what turned out to a fascinating Saturday night at the Glimmerglass Festival just north of Cooperstown NY is Tobias Picker. If you don’t know the name, you should. “An American Tragedy” is his fourth opera (and one of several he has written with Gene Scheer’s libretto—you may know Scheer from 1998’s “American Anthem”). Picker’s other operas include “Emmeline,” which is excellent and available on CD, originally a Judith (“Looking for Mr. Goodbar”) novel; “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” (same Roald Dahl story that gave us the animated film); and “Dolores Claiborne”) based upon the Stephen King novel. Which is to say: Tobias Picker is writing contemporary American operas about American stories (not many people are doing this, so it’s well worth noting).

i-QMrhG3N-L

Two wonderful women—what’s a guy to do? Keep the one with the money, and kill off the other. His downfall: he kept the working girl’s love letters.

i-KFDNJ8V-L
As for this particular performance, a good solid brava! A solid cast of about fifty performers benefitted from very articulate direction (and especially good lighting design). The production was lifted by several nice turns by Vanessa Isiguen as the most unfortunate (and richly voiced) Roberta Alden (the Grace character, renamed, and shown in the blue frock, above), a fetching Cynthia Cook as the socialite who owns the bad guy’s heart (the blonde, appropriately placed above our Grace), and an impressive final act performance by the bad guy’s God-fearing, God-loving mother, Elvira, by Patricia Schuman. I should note that Glimmerglass is well-known for a superior Young Artists program, and many of the performers in this production are among this year’s class. BTW: Lots more photos of the performance here.

How to stage a death by drowning? With brilliant simplicity and clever use of lighting and materials. This is one reason why I like the Glimmerglass so much—they are clever!

How to stage a death by drowning? With brilliant simplicity and clever use of lighting and materials. This is one reason why I like the Glimmerglass so much—they are clever!

I believe Glimmerglass is one of my favorite places to enjoy opera in the United States. The opera house (built in 1987 but still looking new) is about eight miles (and another world) north of baseball-crazy Cooperstown: peaceful, easy, civilized. The Alice Busch Opera Theater is handsome and easily navigated, a tremendous relief for the seniors who may find other opera halls far less sensibly designed. The acoustics are wonderful, the seats are comfortable,  and the dedicated musicians, performers, and staging staff do a great deal with a budget that would be a fraction of some big city companies. When the weather is hot, the exterior walls open up to cool the place down during intermission (how great it that?!).

Every summer, the  Glimmerglass Festival produces three operas and one musical. This year, I missed “Carousel” (the musical), almost managed “Madame Butterfly,” and “Ariadne in Naxos.” Next year—I vow to make plans early—the bill will be “The Magic Flute,” “Macbeth,” “Candide,” and the far more obscure, “Cato in Utica” (by Vivaldi). And I learned a very important lesson: if you are planning to go to Glimmerglass, do not assume that it’s easy to arrange for a hotel room (unless you are working well ahead of the desired date). Tickets for next year are available now—and presumably, you can arrange for a room long before next season begins.

And in case you’re curious, the name Glimmerglass comes from a James Fennimore Cooper novel involving Lake Otsego. Cooper’s father founded the town that bears the family name. It’s a beautiful place, as lush and green and perfect as a summer’s day. I’m sure Grace was thinking the same thing when she and her husband-to-be floated out on July 11, 1906. Creepy enough that I almost drove up to Big Moose Lake to see what there was to see. But I thought better of it, and spent just a bit more time hanging around Lake Otsego, probably all for the best.

ABOT-CMcAdams-026-1

High-Flying Book Report

Alaska_Airlines_Boeing_737Three across, seats A, B, and C in a exit row. All three of us reading a book. The ten year old girl who happened to sit in the window seat: a fat novel by Rick Riordan. My wife: The One Hundred Mile Walk, now being released as a Helen Mirren motion picture. Me, a terrific long novel by New York City newspaper legend Pete Hamill, who writes about his city with street smarts and an appealing sense of mysticism.

I never sit through an entire transcontinental flight. I always stretch, and always take a good slow walk. I like to see what other people are doing to occupy their minds during a flight that lasts a few hours or more. I didn’t write down the precise numbers, but here’s a reasonably reliable survey based upon a hearty attempt at serious snooping:

There were about 200 passengers on the plane (3o rows, 6 per row, plus some additional people in first class behind the curtain). About 50 people were fast asleep, many for the entire flight (I’m always impressed by people who can sleep more than two or three hours on a plane). About 25 were playing video games on their phones (as screens become larger, this becomes easier to do, and more fun, too). About 50 were watching movies, maybe half on tablets and the other half on portable computers (I would have expected a higher percentage of tablets). Maybe 25 were awake with blank stares. Add another 25 who were doing some work on their computers (few on tablets), and another ten eating while I was walking the aisles.

Here and there, somebody was reading a magazine (I think I remember two people reading the airline magazines—I wonder how much long they’ll exist.) How many were reading books? I counted the three of us. All in the same row. Maybe I missed another two or three book readers, but there weren’t ten on board. I suspect I selected an odd flight, but I also detect a what may be a trend. Digital devices offer more options—they play music, display the text of a book, show movies, enable videogame play, and help to get work done. Books are just books. For the price of an inexpensive tablet—say, $199—you could buy twenty good used books, but it still wouldn’t be able to play music, show movies, or help you get work done.

Still, books are lightweight and relatively inexpensive (and you can share them with friends, something you can’t [yet] do with music or an e-book). Books are wonderful traveling companions–they tell a good story and they communicate only when you’re interested). I cannot imagine traveling without at least one book in my carry-on bag. When we take forever to lift off or maneuver to the gate, I keep reading. When the flight crew requires all digital devices to be shut down, I just keep reading.

I guess I’m surprised that so few people (or, perhaps, simply fewer and fewer people) do the same.

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