Writing the previous Election Day post left a thought rattling around in my head. That thought would not go away, but it would not stay in one place long enough for me to see it clearly.
A few days into this situation, I drove out from the Archipelago to a job site that was 154 miles away. I left the house before the sun came up and headed out on interstate 74 into the fields of corn, brittle and brown from the cool autumn weather. Somewhere around mile 100 I pinned down that evasive thought and put it into words.
The past is the foundation of the future we are building on today.
This was the unconscious motivation for my writing of that original post. It is the deeper view in which I saw the months leading up to the election, the election itself and the urgency I felt about commenting on it.
Pointing out the imperative need to understand and appreciate the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Thomas Payne’s Common Sense was not enough.
These documents had to be placed in their original social and historical context to be fully appreciated. Edmund S. Morgan’s The Birth of the Republic 1763-89 did this like no other book I have read on that period in our history.
Morgan puts the reader squarely in the middle of the struggle for freedom. He depicts the lifestyle the colonialist enjoyed, how England tried to change that lifestyle, and how the colonialist reacted to it and why.
Morgan’s writing style is clear and concise. His scholarship focused on trying to recreate what actually happened, not revising events to fit a personal or political narrative. In our day and age, this has become a historian’s greatest service. It is a joy to read one who understands this.
If you need to deepen your understanding of the context of our founding, this is a must read. It will surely enrich your understanding of our principles, our traditions and our unique place in history as the light of liberty for one nation and the entire world.
When I started this website I said I would not write about politics. I wanted this to be a place to escape the daily grind. A digital space for visitors to enjoy and take a piece of that enjoyment with them when they left. However, with so many groups working to thoroughly transform, our government, culture and economy for the worse, I have to make an acceptation.
My aim is not to convince you to vote for one party over another, or one candidate over another. My aim is to convince you to do two things before you vote.
Read Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Then read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.
Read them for yourself, not someone else’s interpretation of them. Read each one in it’s entirety, several times if need be. They are very important.
Our country was founded on these documents. They contain political wisdom that transcends the ages. The truths these men wrote of are as profound and relevant now as they were in the 1700’s. They must be understood, cherished and defended, now more then ever.
Wisdom and truth never goes out of fashion, never becomes obsolete.
The truths here are very simple. 1) Each human life is sacred and must be treated with respect. 2) The power to rule is a corrupting force that must be limited in it’s reach and used with discretion.
To embrace these truths, and put them into action, is to live free and prosper.
Thomas Paine rightly believed that power should never be concentrated in the hands of the government, or any institution or individual for that matter, because it leads to the abuse of human life. The higher the concentration of power the greater the opportunity for the abuse of the individual.
The Declaration of Independence gives specific examples of the abuses that arise from the concentration of political power and why they should be viewed as injurious to the individual. This document affirms that we have rights and they are inherent in every person. They are not given by the government, but by ‘nature and nature’s god’. Therefore, they cannot be taken away by the government but must be defended by it.
The Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, gives instructions on how these inalienable rights can be protected through the structure of our federal governmental and it’s basic operation and obligations to the citizens.
In essences, these two documents allow every citizen to live his or her life in the United States without the undo interference of the federal government, the destructive actions of foreign powers, or anarchist groups from outside or within the county’s borders.
This political system put in place by the founding fathers is not perfect. No political system is perfect. However, some are better then others. The system that these brave and brilliant men risked their lives to set down is far greater and freer then any that has come before it. It has given more freedom to more people then any other in the history of the world. The civil war, fought to abolish slavery, and the four year struggle to defeat the Axis powers and free the world from their totalitarian grip of evil is proof of that fact.
There is no reason to be ashamed of this magnificent country but every reason to celebrate it.
The present struggle by many groups and organizations to fundamentally transform the system, even tearing it down completely, will only lead to tyranny for all but a chosen few. If you believe in liberty, equality, and prosperity, then the struggle is to support, defend and expand what the founders have created and established.
There is only one question to ask your self when you walk into the poling booth –
What candidate will further advance the principles embodied in the Deceleration of Independence and The United States Constitution?
This past year I spent some time thinking about how I could grow as a collector. I came to the conclusion that there are as many ways to do this as there are collectors. However, three ways in particular stuck in my mind: studying the printing process, studying the engraving process, and studying the history of the United States Postal System.
I started with number one. It had been a long time since I read about the printing of stamps and some of that knowledge was fading. Having my Scott’s catalog handy I started in on the front section that out lines the process of printing stamps.
After reading through the first article, my attention span wavered big time. Even though I have an interest in all things philatelic, technical articles on the subject can be dry reading. After eight hours of work on the computer for my day job, I need some excitement to keep me engaged.
When I read about the printing process, Scott’s, and other sources, gave examples of how the process could go wrong and what the term was for it. This gave me the solution I was looking for.
I decided to list these terms then find the stamp that exemplifies each term.
Mystic Stamps provides a nice over view on this topic: Freaks, Errors and Oddities
“Errors and freaks are stamps not prepared according to their design specifications and mistakenly released to the public. Errors are stamps which have mistakes in color, perforation or design. Freaks are stamps which show an inconsistency in their production.”
Oddities are stamps not covered under these two definitions.
Instead of just reading and committing to memory the concept of an ink blob, I would have the real life example of it on a stamp.
Seeing that stamp, right there on the end of the tweezers, with a dot of ink where it was not intended to be, would bring to mind the actual printing process that made it. I can imagine how the big Huck press operates as it runs at break neck speed printing tens of thousands of stamps a minute. In that whirl of rollers filling with ink, then transferring and imprinting the engraved image onto the paper speeding between them, one tiny drop of ink escapes from it’s place on the printing plate and lands on the stoic and stately portrait face of a famous American, giving one in ten million stamps an unintended birthmark.
As well as sparking my imagination, expanding my appreciation, and deepening my understanding of freaks, oddities and errors, it would start a new branch of my collection. Plenty of growth in the pages of the stock books and the pages of the collector’s mind.
In picking the stamp to work with, I decided to chose one from my early days of my collecting.
Some of the first stamps I acquired were from the Prominent Americans Series, 1965 – 1978. In that series the Francis Parkman 3-cent was the first one I bought at the post office in Bronxville, N.Y. At the time, I was not much taller then the counter at the window!
Here is what I have so far in my Francis Parkman sub-collection.
This is a nice example of an uneven concentration of ink on the printing plate, or, an ink blob. Unfortunately, it is not on Frances’ face but on his surname, and also on his first name in the lower stamp. There is a faint ink smear as well. This is a two-for-one error!
This plate block is good example of an ink smear which is produced from the same issue as the former error illustration. This issue seems to have had a lot of problems with over inking resulting in smears. However, blobs seem to much rarer an occurrence.
Cut shifts occur when the cutting process is shifted and the perforation falls inside the image of the stamp.
Here are two cut shifts, a vertical shift on the left and a horizontal shift on the right. Both stamps were printed in the sheet format, four panes comprising a full sheet with a horizontal gutter between the panes.
Here is another perforation error but on a coil stamp. These are excellent examples of the perforation step being omitted entirely. The term for that is in-perforation. The coils on the left are missing horizontal perforations. The example on the right has a cut shift as well, making it another two-for-one or a complex error. These two example have per-cancelations for use by not for profit organizations.
There are other terms describing these irregularities which I have yet to acquire. I have my eye on a paper fold errors but the price is slightly out of reach. If the seller was local I could offer a trade. Unfortunately, he is listed on eBay. Buying and selling on the internet has it’s pros and cons.
Interestingly enough, I have not found an error related to the engraving of the plate. No stamp with the denomination missing or Francis’s portrait facing the wrong direction or up side down.
But as time passes new opportunities arise for the diligent philatelist.
On a final note, this is a starting point in my philatelic journey. I still have a lot to collecting of examples and education on the finer points of freaks, errors, and oddities.
In our home, the dinning room is at the center of the activity. One reason for this is we all love to eat. Maybe on an unconscious level we are reliving all the good food we eat when we are sitting at the dining room table doing things other then eating. The memories of flavors have a power to shape our world and it is vastly under rated. If Helen of Troy’s beauty launched a thousand ships, Leda’s Baklava brought them all back.
There is an architectural reason for this too, the dining room is the central room of the building. We have to walk through it to get to any other part of the house. Once again, we are reminded of food as we go to other rooms to do other things.
No expectations of staying under fed in this old house.
The dining room is the family’s vault full of good memories. All the birthday parties, raucous times at dinners and celebrations on holidays have value no gold bar, no bank note can match. Even the hours of helping the kids with homework, sewing costumes for school plays, and filling out forms for field trips are now fondly recalled.
The mind rarely looks ahead and back in the same way. This room has taught me that. Now that the kids are in high school and collage, the dinning room is not as busy as it use to be. When they were toddlers and in grade school I wished that the dinning room had less traffic and that whirl of activity was up stairs out of sight. But now that it is nearly gone I miss it.
Now, many of the little moments I see there have the solitary feel of a still life. They no longer over flow with that confusion of amore di famiglia and chaotic joy they once did. But I am not sad about the change.
This room has taught me something else too.
Whether big or small, exciting or mundane, cherish every moment.
Thank God for all of them and keep them close at hand.
Now that summer has come and gone I have had my fair share of burgers, BBQ, Po’Boys, and the like.
By now my cholesterol numbers are probably through the roof and my heart is not happy about that. But my palate has no regrets whatsoever. (The eternal human dilemma, balancing indulgence and denial. )
Looking back on these American originals, I see a through thread connecting them, a common ingredient that groups them together in an unspoken gastronomic fraternity.
Yes indeed, the Secret Sauce.
I always thought that the secret sauce was a twentieth century phenomena invented by MacDonald’s or some obsessed BBQ chef with too much time on his hands.
For many years I considered it a lowbrow interpretation of a Haute Cuisine sauce to dip my salty french fries, or to wipe off my shirt as it oozed out of my triple-Decker burger.
I have since discovered that secret sauce has held a place of high popularity all through the history of civilization. I should have known this all along. People in any era want to make their daily lives convenient and that applies to cooking. Using a secret sauce to make a simple and quick meal taste great is convenience of the highest order.
But what is secret sauce and it’s purpose in the culinary tradition?
Its purpose is simple. Its purpose is to make you want to take another bite, and another, and another – the chef’s opiate, the chef’s version of a spiritual epiphany. What it is, I will save for later.
This secret sauce tradition started way back in the ancient Greco-Roman world with the production of Garum. It was their equivalent of America’s ketchup. However, it was not made from red sun-ripened tomatoes and garden grown herbs. It was concocted from the bodies of small fish that had been salted and sealed in a terracotta crock then left to ferment for a few months on the beach.
Despite sounding like something inedible, Garum was a true condiment as we know it today. It was packaged and shipped across the Roman world from locations in present-day Portugal, Spain, and Southern Italy.
Boy, have tastes changed.
In Europe and American perhaps, but not so much in Asia. There, jarred variations of this fabled flavor additive can be found wherever people are eating and cooking. Sambal, which has a base of ground and fermented shrimp, is one such condiment as is ubiquitous fish sauce, made from fish or krill that has been fermented for up to two years.
In Asia the fermentation method used for making Garum and fish sauce has been applied to other ingredients as well. Soy beans have become popular to ferment and has created other varieties of condiments which include soy sauce in Japan, and Hoisin sauce in China and Vietnam.
Another innovation in secret sauce formulation came by way of the tiny mustard seed. From what I have read, Mustard was a very popular condiment in Europe stretching back to Medieval era. But it was not until 1830 that the English Mustard-monger William Taylor, founder of The Taylor company, sold the first prepared mustard. It was identical to what we purchase off the supermarket shelf today. As far as bragging rights are concerned, this is the first modern secret in culinary history – a packaged condiment ready to be eaten when purchased.
Around this time Garum made a come back as a commercial available secret sauce in Europe and America. It was through the link that the English had with India that made this possible.
Lord Marcus Sandy, ex-governor of Bengal was an employee of the East India Company in the 1830s. There he encountered a condiment that appears to be a variety of fermented chutney that included fish, or it was served on fish. Either way, he like what he had eaten and when he returned to England he asked his local apothecaries John Wheely Lea and William Perrins of 63 Broad Street, Worcester to recreate what he had.
They did and apparently it was a gastronomic failure. But as Lea & Perrins company legend has it, the brutal brew was stored in a wooden barrel and by chance, sampled two years later. (Why is anyone’s guess!) Much to there surprise it had mellowed enough to be considered edible and the pair started marketing it in 1838.
To be fair, in the 1700 – 1800s ‘modernized’ and varied recipes for similar fish based condiments, using oysters in particular, were circulating in abundance in England as well as America. The ingredients were not fermented for years on end but cooked down to a thick caramelization. (That just does not sound as bad.)
On the other side of the pond, Sandy’s fellow Brits were participating in a culinary, cultural exchange of their own that would transform one particular type of secret sauce into an American gastronomical icon. That process started a century before Lord Marcus Sandy went to Bengal.
Emily Cappiello’s wrote an article for Chow Hound, A Brief History of BBQ, that sums up one of our most popular secret sauces.
“Barbecue, according to research done by The Smithsonian, began during the Colonial Era in Virginia. Colonists observed Native Americans smoking and drying meats over an open flame. Then, the British settlers put their own spin on it with basting, using mostly butter or vinegar, to keep the meat moist while grilling over an open flame. Years later, as slaves from the Caribbean were brought to the U.S., they also brought their own flavors, spices, and techniques. Thus, barbecue was born.”
The first commercially produced barbecue sauce was made by the Georgia Barbecue Sauce Company in Atlanta, Georgia. Its’ sauce was advertised for sale in the Atlanta Constitution, January 31, 1909. Not long after, a slew of other brands had entered the market.
BBQ’s lineage as a secret sauce may be as old as Taylor’s prepared mustard but another famous secret sauce had appeared on the store shelves of the Grand Old Union about forty years earlier then G.B.S.C. Inc’s per-packaged offering of down home smoky, spicy wonderment.
BBQ sauce, as well as another heralded secret sauce, owes its wide distribution to the Civil War. While canning food to feed the union troops, it was discovered that tomatoes were a perfect fit for the process. Subsequently, farm production of the formerly shunned fruit, known as the love apple, exploded. After the war, the tomato became accepted as an edible fruit and grew in popularity. As canned foods filled more shelves at grocery stores, across the country tomatoes out-sold all other products; which leads us to another tomato success story.
H. J. Heinz, son of German immigrants that settled in Pennsylvania in the 1840s, introduced his now famous recipe of Ketchup in 1876. It contained tomatoes, distilled vinegar, brown sugar, salt and a variety of spices that were a secret. He also pioneered the use of glass bottles, so customers could see what they were purchasing. Thanks to H. J.’s ingenuity, there is a bottle of Ketchup in most house holds across the fruited plains.
Now you may be thinking about ketchup’s twin, mustard. It had been around as a condiment longer then its red-skinned twin, but it took a George French to make it as popular.
George did this by serving it on hot dogs at the 1905 St. Louis World’s Fair. It did not take long for this publicity stunt to put a bottle of mustard in most American households, right along with the ketchup.
My research shows that 1912 was a pivotal date for its evolution and the development of the American secret sauce tradition. On that date Richard Hellman, who owned Hellman’s Deli in New York, sold his first glass bottle full of Hellman’s Blue Ribbon Mayonnaise, a date most cardiologists probably hold in infamy.
The way I see it, America entered it golden age of secret sauces in 1912.
Before I justify that claim, it would be good to know the components that make a secret sauce.
The basic flavor components for secret sauce is some combination of the following – sweet, sour, salty, spicy, smoky and organic fat and umami fat.
In general, secret sauces can be grouped into two categories. This grouping is based on the creator’s methodology of making the diner crave it to the last drop.
Group one balances flavors and sensations. There is tension set up by two opposing or different flavors that stimulates the taste buds and makes you want to eat more to experience that stimulation. In the short term this makes the food habit forming, culinary crack. BBQ sauce falls squarely in this category. The major flavor tension is between the sugar and the vinegar, the juxtaposing sweet and sour. Secondary is the tension from the big, fat mouth feel of the tomato base and the ephemeral nature of the smoky flavor notes. A black pepper finish can add to that crack affect too.
Group two relies almost exclusively on making the food feel big and fat in your mouth. Take the McDonald secret sauce for example. It is not a sophisticated dance of flavors playing off of one another like a tango or a ballet. No, not much finesse there, mostly the blunt instruments of creamy fat and sugar clobbering your palate into submission. I am not judging this approach; it works and that’s what counts here.
Soy sauce achieves the same result but without relying on organic fat like mayo. It uses salt to stimulate the taste buds and glutamates to tell your mouth this is big as well as satisfying. The salt is added and the glutamates are developed from fermenting the main ingredient, soy beans.
For those readers who don’t know what umami is this quote from Wikipedias’ article on umami will do nicely: “People taste umami through taste receptors that typically respond to glutamates, which are widely present in meat broths and fermented products… Since umami has its own receptors rather than arising out of a combination of the traditionally recognized taste receptors, scientists now consider umami to be a distinct taste.”
There is another ‘secret ingredient’ replicates the umami phenomenon – Maggi. Caramelized sugar derived from the sugar contained in vegetable, such as carrots and onions, results in the same chemicals the fermentation process yields. Caramelized sugar is obtained by applying dry heat, oven-roasting or sauteing, to a sugar-rich vegetable. The applied heat browns or caramelizes their sugar. The Swiss fellow Julies Maggi, who invented and marketed Maggi, knew this too. He cooked down his caramelized vegetables in water until a thick, dark, rich syrup resulted. That liquid, when added to a stew or a soup, gave it a deeper, richer flavor that was big and substantial on the pallet, not thin and watery.
If you are the kind of cook who ascribes to the modern age adage ‘better living through chemistry’ then the compound monosodium glutamate is your go umami enhancing option. It has been commercial available in Japan since discovered by Kikunae Ikeda in 1905. However, an economical manufacturing process to produce it by the ton was developed in 1959 and made it affordable to the world market.
The mouth feel ingredients, liquid smoke, Maggi and soy sauce, create complexity and also fool your pallet into experiencing something it is really not experiencing.
These flavors and flavor enhancers that make up a secret sauce need a delivery vehicle, something to hold them together for transport onto the food then onto the palate. These items include, but may not be limited to mustard, mayo, tomato, sour cream, heavy cream, butter milk, ketchup, vinegar and oil. Some of these vehicles are secret sauce in their own right before the anything is added to them.
Back to 1912.
My rational for calling that year the start of the golden age is based on place utility. Every one of the ingredients I just mentioned was available to the American consumer at reasonable prices and in adequate quantities at that time. Now any housewife, fast food entrepreneur, classically trained executive chef, or weekend BBQ enthusiast could mix and match them and come up with a pop-culture favorite. Out of this age came many secret sauce favorites, such as McDonald’s special sauce, Hidden Valley Ranch dressing, Baby Ray’s Chicken Dipping Sauce, and Louisiana Cajun Style Seafood Sauce, to name just a few.
This brings the history of secret sauce to the present day. Please be aware, my history should not be confused with a formal dissertation published by the Oxford Press – too many fun facts and two pint conjectures for that.
But I do have a take-away from all this writing.
As I stated earlier, writing this post has challenged my notion that secret sauces are lowbrow cooking. Actually, they follow in the french tradition of Haute Cuisine.
Escoffier and Careme delighted the rich and famous by roasting fine cuts of meat and created complicated sauces to go with them. Many a humbler burger flipper and fry cook have done the same for their burgers and po’ boys. However, they went one better, they delighted millions of every class, rich or poor.
Everyone has to eat and everyone should take delight in what they eat.
The fine people at Word press who support this page gather plenty of metrics for it and present it on a really neat ‘dash board’. I enjoy the map that shows the country a viewer is visiting from. It represents them with the flag of their nation.
That gives me a global warm and fuzzy when ever I look at it. (Also learning the flags of the world.)
The other day I was perusing these stats and thought of one to include.
What percentage of the world population has found my little digital space in the six months it has gone live?
I took the visits and divided them by the world population and arrived at this –
Talk about feeling small.
Then I thought to put that tiny number in a context, to give it some perspective.
One of the largest audiences in the United States, that I could find for any type of broadcast, is conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh. He has about 30 million listeners per week . Other then taking his word for it, there does not seem to be any other way to verify that number. But lets go with it. Crunching that number I arrived at this –
Hmm… that is impressive to say the least. If you look at that figure on an annual basis you arrive at 3%. Even more impressive.
That got me thinking again, Who is bigger? Who reaches the most people on the planet using any form of electronic communications?
The China Ministry of Public Security.
It sensors all the 730 million internet users in China every moment of the day and night. That effectively makes it the largest communications platform on the planet. I could not find one larger.
I read that it employees up to 50 thousand police to accomplish this mind boggling task.
Crunching their audience number comes up with this –
Talk about feeling big.
One final number in this journey of scale.
If it would take 50 thousand people to censor 730 million then it would probably take 150 thousand people to censor 7 billion.
Oddly enough, this number of employees is not even close to the number of Chinese postal workers – 850 thousand plus.
That number is no where near the number of people employed by the world’s largest private employer – 2.1 million for Walmart.
Organizing the man power for world censorship of the web looks very do-able.
Feelings of sadness hang over the Archipelago today, a Gothic funeral pall woven from the darkest of fabrics. The bright, colored flags of my kitchen are flying at half mast and I doff my chef’s toque in reverence and mourning to my old friend.
On this cheerless day, my Bellman – CX-25 espresso/cuppuccino maker has given up the ghost.
We go back a long way, Bellman and I, twenty years to be exact. It was bequeathed to me by my sous chef after she bought it at a garage sale for one dollar. It was a brand new, virgin kitchen utensil when she saw it sparkling in the summer morning sun out on the folding table in that driveway crowded with shoppers.
I was there when it brewed its first cup of the steaming, dark delicious. Together, for the next twenty years, we shared that ritual of making morning mocha magic.
After two decades of having enjoyed its faith full companionship, and one whose qualities of dependability and brewing consistency the practical chef in me greatly admired, I could not let Bellman fade away in the vast boneyard of broken power tools and out of style window blinds in the corner of my shop I rarely visit.
I went on a quest to find replacement parts for Bellman, or Sputnik as I affectionately refer to it. (It reminds me of an old-school satellite hurtling through the 1950’s night sky, high above the Earth, as it bounces transmissions of the Texaco Star Theater TV Show across oceans and continents.)
I searched for quite a while before I found what I needed.
It was at a store located in the old Italian section of Philadelphia, Fante’s – since 1906, that I found the gasket kit, the hope for resurrecting Bellman from the nether world of its demise!
As I write this, that assortment of red rubber rings are wending their way through the U S Postal system to the mournful shores of the Peoria Archipelago.
Hopefully, my future Bellman post will be about my old friend and I sharing a brew of the dark delicious as the morning sun streams into my freshly painted kitchen.
On September 17, 1785 the United States Constitution was Ratification and became the law of the land. 235 years ago this past Thursday.
I feel this is one of the most important, if not the most important, day of national remembrance for America. On that date the concept of liberty for the individual, and the means to secure it, where agreed upon as the guiding principles of our nation.
The freedoms that document ensures are a blessing that many peoples across the globe can only dream about, yet we live them everyday. The government the founders left us is truly a gift from God that we should be ever grateful for, fully understand and defend at all times.
This week Prairie Beacon is celebrating the Constitution, and the events leading to it’s signing, with commemorative and definitive issues from the U.S. Postal Service; as well as words of wisdom from past presidents and patriots.
Happy Collecting !
America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves. – Abraham Lincoln
What light is to the eyes – what air is to the lungs – what love is to the heart, liberty is to the soul of man. – George Washington
Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same. — Ronald Reagan.
“Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess.” – Thomas Paine
”So I came to hazard all the freedom of America, and desirous of passing the rest of my life in a Country truly free and before settling as a Citizen, to fight for Liberty.” – Casimir Pulaski
In my last post I made a reference to the school of Precisionist painters. For those who may not know, Precisionism was the first indigenous modern art movement in the United States. It developed after WWI and saw the peak of its’ popularity in the 1920’s and 1930’s. These artists embraced the geometrical forms found in the American Industrial and urban landscapes and used them to create pure art as well as commercial design.
I am not a fan of most modern art. The majority of it is social or political commentary that is very abstract and negative in nature. Frankly, this makes it difficult for me to relate to and ultimately enjoy.
But the Precisionist movement is not focused on issues and abstractions. It relates mainly to the physical world the artists inhabited. This allows me to connect to it, appreciate it, and enjoy it.
Since Precisionist artists used the surrounding environment as their subject matter, I view this school as a form of realistic landscape art transformed by the industrial revolution with some influences from Cubism. But there are two major differences that separate the landscape artist from Precisionist – choice of subject mater and presentation of the human figure.
First, Precisionists paint artificial landscapes and emphasize the geometrical forms within those landscapes. The square, blocky proportions of a factory, the multiplicity of curves formed by storage tanks, and the sweeping arcs and angles of a steel bridges become their landscapes.
Secondly, similar to landscape artists, people who appear in Precisionist paintings are details subordinate to the main subject. Landscape painters handle this with a reduction in scale of human figures with in the frame. Precisionists handle figures thematically. They create a sense of isolation and marginalization by juxtaposing the figures against the landscape’s artificial nature, which is depicted on a massive scale.
Despite the emotional void or anxiety the theme Precisionist paintings can evoke, I find them to be relaxing to view. Maybe that sense of isolation is comfortable because of my urban upbringing. In a way this emotion is similar to the solitude I also experienced when I spent time in the forests of New York State’s Catskills Mountains and landscapes of the Shawangunk Ridge. The geometric shapes employed in these paintings and choice of muted colors, adds to that sense of calm.
As you can see, I read a lot into these scenes and could not make that reference in my previous post without providing a brief explanation. If you find these artists’ work interesting, then my explanation was worth the time to write.
My Saturday morning bike rides are like trips to the art museum. They are short visits to the Precisionist wing that holds the hard-edged, industrial landscapes; the paintings that celebrate commercial products being manufactured and repaired, transported and warehoused.
There, I am surrounded by some of my favorite images; the busy mechanic’s garages off of Main Street
and the old brick factories and their rusting, weed filled rail-yards down by the river
Some of these images are composed of simple geometric forms that are limited in color. The larger than life scale of these forms can be imposing, but arranged together they create a minimalist esthetic that I find calming to view.
Others have a peculiar and unintentional beauty. A busy complexity, developed over time, that creates visual interest and stimulating viewing.
The images to discover on a Saturday morning ride are endless. Each time I venture out I find a new one to photograph.
In the Archipelago, September is the transition between summer and autumn. We will still get a day or two with a high of 89 or 90, but the thermometer is more inclined to explore the low end then the high. The garden is still giving up red plum tomatoes, green zucchinis and big aromatic leaves of oregano, sage, and basil as the nightly lows are comfortable without the air conditioning blasting.
It is a time of transition for my cooking too. Roasting and baking in the oven, and long slow simmering on the open burners for a hardy dinner, gradually replaces grilling in the backyard and serving meals that are more like an antipasti spread.
The turn of the season brings a different creative reference which is reinforced by the fact our 100 year old house has no air conditioning in the kitchen. In a way I like that; it keeps me more in touch with the seasons. Sharing dinner on the front porch as often as we do also keeps me in touch with the changes in the temperature and the weather in general. It is my greatest pleasure to share dinner with my family under the shade of the big ash tree; as the birds sing hidden in it’s leafy beams and the as big puffy summer clouds roll by.
With that in mind I would like to share with you my culinary journey through the first part of September. Every dish is centered on Salmon and for good reason. We have friends who have the fish flown from the fishery to the Archipeligo, all season long.
Day one, Wild Copper River CoHo Salmon baked in foil and flavored with white wine, fresh squeezed lemon and seasoned. The garnish of sweet red pepper was roasted on a small fire I made by the garden, which laced it with the taste of its’ smoke and the glowing embers. The fish was served on a bed of assorted greens, mixed with slices of carrots, red pepper, rutabaga and mushroom.
This was finished with a simple dressing of balsamic vinegar, walnut oil, cracked black pepper and coarse sea salt.
Day two, back in the garden making another fire. This time roasting big red bell peppers under an overcast sky that brought in cool, damp weather. With the mercury struggling to get out of the 60s the oven was back in vogue.
The peppers were cleaned and the insides lined with a thin slices of prosciutto rubbed with olive oil and sprinkled with a little thyme. Then it was filled with a seafood stuffing. Scallops, shrimp and clams were sauteed with chopped thyme and shallots, finished with a few splashes of dry white wine and folded into a pile of fluffy ricotta and a small portion of shredded fresh mozzarella. I put the stem back in place, brushed the outside of the pepper with olive oil and baked it until the flavors developed and came together in the transformative heat of the oven. It was sprinkled with cracked black pepper when served.
The prosciutto always has an interesting way of blending with other flavors when it is cooked and this dish was a great example of that.
Day three, an Italian spin on poached Silver Salmon. With another chill in the air again, polenta was on everyone’s mind. A creamy pile of yellow corn meal polenta perfumed with the pungent flavor of roasted garlic, dry porcini mushrooms and home made chicken stock was the starch of choice on one side. On the other side, the last of the garden tomatoes, basil, and first pickings of the garden’s onions, were quickly cooked up into a fresh, chunky tomato sauce. The salmon was seasoned with salt and pepper and a a few splashes of Orvieto wine when it went into the oven. I wanted the sauce and the side to add the major flavor elements.
Day four – Salomon comfort food that focuses on the rich flavor of the sauce. Fresh heavy cream from, Rolling Lawn Farms in Greenville Illinois, was infused with small diced, garden grown onions, hearty Pommery French Mustard from Meaux, whole grain, and finished with a dry, full bodied Chardonnay. Like the previous dish, the fish, Silver Salmon, was poached in the oven with no flavor additions other then salt and pepper. To keep the flavor profile of the sauce in the center of the plate, the fish and sauce was served with simple mashed potatoes, made with Rolling Lawn Farms whole milk, and butter imported from Italy. Paired with these fluffy mounds of potato was the sweetly earthy flavor of boiled, golden beets. Rich yet delicate flavor notes that harmonized perfectly.
This was a great start to my culinary month. I can’t wait to see where the rest of September leads me.
Happy cooking and thank God for all that you have.
In the Archipelago, summer can change to Autumn in a matter of days. On September 9th, that happened again. The temperature did not make it out of the 60’s all day as I worked away in my office under gray, drizzling skies. Just days ago the daytime high was in the low 80’s. Little more then a week earlier they were in the low 90’s.
Twenty seven years living on this island and the dramatic swings in the weather still amaze me.
This change in the weather brought to mind Autumn and all the things that make it a magical season: fires in the backyard while drinking a fine single malt, colored leaves tumbling in the wind, buying a pumpkin at the orchard, cozy sweaters, and reading a good book.
The last one is my favorite and for the start of book reading season, I have put together a list of my perennial favorites.
A simple process was used in putting this list together. First, any book that I was to consider, had to stick in my mind. If I found myself thinking about about a book, months and years after finishing it, the book was under consideration for the list. Secondly, if I found myself reading that same book for the second or third time, then it made the list.
Admittedly, many of these books are idiosyncratic in nature or narrow in their appeal. But each book has the power to transform the reader’s thinking on a subject or on the craft of writing itself. They did for me.
So, here are some of the classics in my world of reading.
Shellfish, Anton Mosimann & Holgar Hofmann. Every image is lavishly photographed with the power to make you hungry for shellfish and a glass of dry white wine. It taught me an important lesson early on in my cooking career, that people eat with their eyes as well as their mouths.
Seeing In The Dark, Timothy Ferris. Ferris’s writing is deceptively simple. It’s streamlined, economic quality easily transfers a wealth of information, beautiful imagery, and strong emotions. It is more than a book on astronomers.
Moby Dick, Herman Melville. This is my second choice for the great American novel. It is really five books fused together and disguised as a sea adventure – the history of whaling in old North America, an environmental protest, an old time moral tale, and a story of obsession. I read this for the first time when I was in my late 40’s. It was a good thing I waited that long. I had the maturity of mind necessary to follow Melville’s writing style and appreciate it.
The Roman Economy, This is really a non fiction detective novel about a civilization transformed by power and wealth. The only investigative tools this scholar as detective uses is economics and archeology. Even though it is a scholarly work and can be dry at times, it is a great read for anyone who has an interest in how government policy and money effects the common citizen.
Grendal, John Gardener – A no holds barred, tour de force of the writing craft. Gardener is a guitar god in author form. The licks he plays can be stark and brutal as a battle scene, deep and soulful as the blues, and perceptive as an old Greek philosopher holding forth in the forum. It is quite a ride.
The Persian Expedition, Xenophon. The most unbelievable human adventure of the ancient world, written with the voice of a 20th century adventure novel. A page turner that is twenty five hundred years old.
The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald. A very astute critique of the wealthy class. It is my first pick for the great American novel, of its day or any day. Fitzgerald’s writing is the epitome of elegant efficency, but it fully and deeply illustrates the characters and the society they inhabit.
Invisible Cities, Italio Calvino. Reads like a poetic reflection, a fantastic mythology, a travel guide written by a clairvoyant and a psychoanalysis of cities. The premise of the plot sounds like a legend you thought was true. The organization of the chapters are the work of a genius or an unbalanced prankster. The odd thing with this book is that Calvino convinces you that every city, no matter how fantastic or absurd it appears to be, existed somewhere in the world. All this makes it a rare and unique work that can be read again and again and still remain fresh, inspired, and captivating.
Flesh and Blood, C.K. Williams. A slim volume filled with small, intimate portraits of people living their simple lives against the big, complex and busy background of urban New York.
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad. This is a strong moral brew with deep, dark flavor notes of original sin and a sparse sprinkling of sweet compassion in every sip. I first encountered it in high school and was left with the impression that Conrad wanted to use words to paint an expansive mural; an illustration that examines the nature of good and evil in humanity and how our social structures shape the ways we project that good and evil into the world.
Andrew Wyeth A Secret Life, Richard Merryman. This is a dissertation on the complex relationship between an artist, his art, and his world. Andrew Wyeth paintings are among my favorite works of art and I picked this book up with the idea of learning a few things about the man and his process. But I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that the author’s prose are almost as monumental as his subject’s work. Merryman makes his own sophisticated, beautiful and emblamatic art out his subject’s musing on making sophisticated, beautiful and emblamatic art.
There they are, the big ten. Hope you get lost in one or two and be transformed by the end of your journey.
Smart phones are truly amazing. They put the world in your hand, something that was not even dreamed of when I was a kid growing up in the city of Yonkers. Back then transistor radios, stereos with high fidelity sound and console television sets with colored tubes were the consumer wonders of the day.
But despite all the cutting edge communication tech, libraries, endless venues for entertainment and retail opportunities too numerous to fathom, I enjoy the camera the most.
I have a visual pencil and sketch book where ever I go and a gallery in every country of the world to show the images.
The first four images are from around the house, the next one from down the end of my street during a rain shower and the last three are reflections in windows I had seen while out on my bicycle.
I hope you enjoy these small moments and find them as interesting as I did when I saw them.
My daughter Rebecca loves to create and painting is her primary means of expressing that. Lately, she had been selling some of her work – but not just to pay off a parking ticket! Her latest ‘commission’ was for her friend Hannah.
Hanna wanted a painting to hang up in her dorm room. She texted Rebecca an image of a poster she saw on line and asked if she would paint something similar. It was an image of wild flowers which reminded her of the flowers she knew from Wisconsin. Hanna was born there, has family there and visits often. Now she is going to school there.
Rebecca liked the image of the flowers. She suggested painting a picture that identified the common wild flowers of Wisconsin. Since she had been painting small portraits in water color, now refereed to as the parking ticket series, she continued with that same technique.
When Native Flowers of Wisconsin was finish Hanna and Rebecca were both pleased with the final product. I thought it was neat that she did this for her best friend. It is a symbol of their friendship as well as a beautiful water color painting.
If we could have a little of this relationship mixed into everything we do for others, no matter how simple or difficult the task, the world would be a much different place.
A few weeks ago, I acquired a banker’s box worth of older United States Post Office issued year books; each with a packet of that year’s commemorative stamps. The years of these books run from the mid seventies to the early nineties. They are all in post office fresh condition, never opened, which made this an extra special procurement.
I have to say, they are really neat offerings celebrating a given year’s commemorative issues.
The early issues of these books, from the nineteen seventies, consisted of just a glossy folder to mount the stamps in. The folder included a paragraph or two of information on the subject of each stamp.
By the nineteen nineties, the post office developed them into bound, hard cover books. They are smartly designed and the graphics are lavish. The quality of the printing, weight and finish of the pages, and the album’s cover, are of impressive quality. The background story of each stamp’s subject was expanded to several pages. Photos of the stamps’ designers are included in the table of contents.
Over time their price tags have increased substantialy too; from around eight dollars to a current price of sixty four dollars.
Here are a few pics of the 1995 album.
After looking at a few of these albums I am definitely including them in my collection. The shelves of stock books and vinyl binders full of sheets in my office need a little verity.
Door Country Wisconsin is a popular vacation spot for the inhabitants of the Archipelago. A visit to this narrow peninsula that juts out into the big waters of Lake Michigan is like stepping into a summer scene painted by Andrew Wyeth. The pace of life there is slow and relaxed. It is a place where you can ramble down a narrow country road and get lost in a landscape of woods and rolling fields, old farm houses and rustic barns.
It is not well known outside of the Midwest. I never heard of it when I lived in New York, but it does remind me of Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts and some stretches of southern coastal Maine. (Well, when our family vacationed there in the 60s and 70s. It may have gotten built up since then.)
Here are a few scenes from our visit in July.
This one I found while biking down a country lane.
Hiking along the lake had countless little scenes to stop and enjoy for a moment.
On Washington Island, we visited a replica of an old time Norwegian church. Unfortunately, it was closed but still worth the trip out to see it.
Of course there was relaxed family fun, which is easy to accomplish in a place like that.
We ended most of our days with glorious sunsets. I saw so many I stopped taking photos of them!
Last week the City of Chicago issued my daughter a parking situation in the amount of $50.
That hurts when you are working a summer job to help pay for university.
As mad as my daughter was about it, she saw it as an opportunity to use her creativity. She was going to pay the parking ticket, but not with money she already saved. She decided to do extra work to finance her vehicular misfortune.
Being artistically inclined she posted the following on her face book page – Have a fun water color portrait done of yourself for just $5!
Evidently, she found a willing market. In a few days she received over 12 request for portraits.
She let me take a photo of her works in progress.
Rebecca also does ‘serious’ paintings and has sold a few of them as well. This talent for painting, and marketing her work, was passed down from her maternal grandfather Frank Gerardo. He was an excellent artist too. Below is one of his portraits.
Stretching through central Illinois’ Island Archipelago is a second chain of islands. Compared to the five main island cities, they are very small in size. They can only be found from late spring to early autumn. Their prominent feature is the fields of tall sunflowers that cover them. Each island is home to thousands of these flowers soaking up the hot summer sun and the cool rains of passing thunder storms.
These islands appear in different places every summer. When the right person finds one, the social media lights up with texts, tweets and post spreading its’ location to those who visit them each year.
Every day people travel out to visit these island, until the flowers have lost their big, sunny yellow blooms and the birds feast on their dried seeds. I met a car load of girls that drove from a little town twenty miles away to visit the one near Peoria.
Finding an island in a different location each season summer gives it a special quality and you cannot help but feel that enchantment when you wander among the rows. If you visit at sunrise, and the mist is still laying low over the field and into the dark woods at it’s edges, it is like sleep walking through a dream or a fairly tale.
I tried to capture something of that magic from the island we visited. These photos were taken an hour or so before sunset.
Being an avid angler, I find it ironic that I spent time at the fifth largest fresh water lake in the world and did not go fishing once!
I swam in it, paddled a kayak across it, rode a ferry over it, and eat fish someone else caught in it. I probably drank the water too.
It was excited to fish Lake Michigan, as I did the last time we visited. But life, with its’ mysterious way, had a different plan for me. It took me on a fishing trip across the water that I would never have imagined. It showed me the lake of the past that now lay buried beneath the rolling farm fields and quint tourist towns.
One morning I went for a walk and came upon a quarry. In the middle of it was a multitude of birds flying over a pool of water that had collected at the bottom of this vast hole in the ground. I walked into the quarry to see what type of birds there were. The piles of rocks beside the road caught my attention too. On closer inspection I realized these piles were full of fossilized remains of the lake’s aquatic life. It seemed like every other stone had the impression of something that lived in those waters millions of years ago.
At first I was disappointed that these relics had been turned into gravel and used to make countless driveways. Each fossil was like a page in a family photo albums of the lake’s past. These were old memories too, mounted in that album before people were even around. In that hole, I saw the present carelessly feeding off the sacred heritage of the past.
Then I wondered how big this field of fossils was? The hole was as large as two football fields place end to end. It was twice as deep as my three story house. When I looked at the rolling landscape, beyond the rim of the quarry, I realized that these layers of the past could extend out in all directions for miles.
I also thought about all those gravel driveways with happy little kids pedaling their bike’s up and down the white stones or running through the sprinkler on a hot summer day. My disappointment faded away and I happily gathered up as many fossils as I could hold.
Here are a few I found that morning. Pretty amazing for a twenty minute morning ramble!
I made a desk sculpture out of one by mounting it on an a paving stone of contrasting color.
I would have enjoyed fishing for small mouth bass, but my unintended change of plans was just as enjoyable. There are awesome experiences to be had wherever we go and whatever we do.
My original intention of a Stamp of the Week post was to take a stamp in my collection, post an image of it and point out a few facts. A five minute philatelic escape, a moment to share my passion with other collectors. Simple enough. But as we know, each stamp has a deep and long history. The first self adhesive issue was no exception. Here is more information on the stamp that changed U S Postal Issues forever.
Avery Dennison, the giant, multi international label maker worked with the U.S. Postal Service to develop this stamps. Since Avery Dennison pioneered the shelf adhesive label in the 1930’s, who better to work on this project? Unfortunately, they encountered technical problems with the adhesive bleeding through the paper and discoloring the printed image.
The discoloration problem, and the lack of perforations, received complaints and printing more issues of self adhesives was stalled. It seems that the majority of complaints came from collectors, still a formidable share of the stamp purchasing public in the 1970’s.
It was not until 1989 that the next self adhesive was issue. American Bank Note Company printed this issue, without any adhesive problems to date.
In the same year Avery Dennison signed a multi-million dollar research and development contract with the U S Postal Service to develop self adhesive stamps and machines to dispense them. In 1995 they were back to printing self adhesive stamps for the U S Postal Service.
Adding old fashion perforations to self adhesives appeared to have been a part of this research contract as well. The Flag Over Porch issue below was the first.
Love them or not, all stamps issued by the U S Postal Service are self adhesives. (If I was twenty years old, I would consider starting an Occupy the Post Office movement to bring back the old stamps. No, we would not burn down the local post office; just stand in the lobby chanting engrave and perforate, engrave and perforate, until the post master general got tired of us and caved into our demands. Judging from the present political insanity, it may work!)
Evidently, a small group of companies print stamps for the U S Postal Service. As of this writing Avery Dennison appears to have the major share of that market.
That is an outstanding accomplishment for a company that lost big the first time out.
I also learned that the United States was not the first country to issue self adhesives. They were initially printed for countries located in tropical climates. Sierra Leone brought out an issue in 1964 and Tongo in 1969. It was a necessary change with the persistent humid conditions of those locations. With out the use of perforations, die cutting the stamps into unique shapes was much easier. This was exemplified in the Sierra Leone issue having the outline of the country.
On a related matter. The U S Postal Services Postage Stamp page gives facts about their stamps. It lists 1992 as the national roll out for self adhesive stamps. However, it does not mention the issues that came before this date.
For a lot of people summer eating means big, thick steaks sizzling on the charcoal grill. That goes on in our backyard too but not as often as some of my friends and neighbors.
The essence of summer cooking for me is a great seafood dish paired with a simple, lite white wine or sparkling pilsner beer.
The classic summer dish is a combination of shell fish and fin fish, cooked in a covered pot. It is usual flavored with some combination of sautes vegetables, fresh herbs and a splash of white or red wine. If tomatoes are used, and a heavy flavor is the order of the day, then red wine is used. If tomatoes were not included, and the flavors are to be lite, then always white wine. I serve it over thin vermicelli pasta or some type of rice; red, black, or medium grain white.
This culinary idea of summer is welded into my mind from childhood. In the hieght of the city heat my dad would drive us to City Island for clams on the half shell, fried calamari and other seafood treats. City Island is a small piece of suburbia out in East Chester Bay. It is tucked away in that strange little convolution of ocean inlets where Eastern Long Island meets the coast line of New York State.
There were a few times too when my dad had gone on a business trip and my Uncle Jim DiScillio took us to Vincent’s Clam Bar in Little Italy for dinner. We drove into the city in his red 1965 Impala convertible. That was a big thrill for me when I was ten years old.
That culinary image of summer was further ingrained into my memory when I took my first real cooking job at the now defunct Aldo’s Restaurant in Middletown NY. Aldo made awesome pizza and his wife Phillis had the magic touch when it came to shell fish combinations cooked in a pot. Whether it was seafood fra’diavolo pile up on a hill of linguine, or a buttery broth flavored with white wine, garlic, parsley, butter, they were to die for!
Every time I made one of those I thought of summer, even if it was the middle of winter with sixteen inches of snow on the ground.
I don’t have complete recipes for any one of these dishes. They are a variation of one recipe, similar to what Phillis showed me how to make forty one years ago. What makes them different is that I start each one with the same question; What flavors am I thinking about today? Once I answer that question, the steps from one stage of the creative process to the next find their own way as I shop and cook.
After chefing professionally for most of my life, cooking is like a seasoned musician playing a solo over a well loved cord progression. Like the musician, all the required cooking skills, knife skills, and the knowledge of a favorite list of ingredient have been completely integrated into my thinking. I only spend time imagining possibilities and how to get there.
Interestingly, when I started out I thought that only major changes in ingredients and cooking methods resulted in major changes in the final product. Now I understand that making several small changes in ingredients and cooking methods can dramatically transform what is located on the end of your fork. This is now my preferred method of keeping meals interesting.
A good example of this is the two dishes in the photos above. There is only a difference of three ingredients between them, including the different starch used to serve them on. They have the same two cooking techniques, sauteing and simmering, but greater emphasis was placed on sauteing over simmering in dish number two.
Photo one’s ingredients: baby clams, diver scallops, cold water shrimp, garlic, onions, mushrooms, spinach, tomatoes, olive oil, white wine and fresh basil. It was served on red rice.
This dish is lite on saute and heavy on simmering. The garlic, mushrooms and onions were saute in the olive oil. The spinach was added next until it was wilted. Then the tomatoes were added for a minute. To finish, I added the rest of the ingredients, covered the pot and simmered until the clams were open and shrimp cooked.
For the second dish the scallops were substituted with sockeye salmon. The shrimp and salmon were dredged in flour (flour being the second change of ingredients) before they were simmered with the other ingredients. The third change was serving it on vermicelli pasta.
Flour, even a small amount, can greatly transform the character of a dish. Here it thickened the liquid and also put a thin batter-like coating on the salmon and shrimp. Both big changes in mouth feel and flavor.
On the technique side I did a lot more sauteing then simmering. The shrimp and salmon were sauteed in olive oil. I set them aside along with the drippings I scraped off the bottom of the saute pan with a rubber spat. That is the flavor treasurer the french call fond de glaze. Never tossed it aside, hoard it at all costs!
In a separate pan I sauteed the garlic and mushrooms in olive oil. I added the spinach long enough to wilt it.
Then I took the oil from both pans and sautes the diced tomatoes in it ; several minutes for that.
Finally, all the ingredients were combined. The Fond de glaze was gently mixed into the liquid and this summer seafood combo was simmered in the pot under a lid. When it was done it went over a pile of vermicelli pasts.
Both look similar with their reddish color and big pieces of fish . But those simple changes made enough variation in the two dishes that they could no longer be called by one name.
The fist one was like a flavorful fish soup that makes you want to eat more because it is lite in texture. The second is almost a fish stew with more body due to the flour. Sauteing more of the ingredients added deeper flavor notes to the broth as well as an under lying toasted note. This in combination with the flour satisfied our appetites much faster then the previous version.
These are just two versions of the summer fish dinner. But these are the two that the family likes the most. Cooking for my family is about sharing my love with them as well as eating, so these get made a lot.
Happy cooking and don’t forget to say grace.
I have a few other seafood variations that will appear in a second post.
When my son was in the cub scouts they had to visit the local police station to earn a badge.
The information officer gave them a tour, which included the line-up room where witnesses and victims picked out criminal suspects. He explained to the scouts that the person doing the picking could not be seen by the suspects.
Most of the scouts seemed to be confused by this concept. The information officer asked the scouts if they would like to stand in the line up so they could see what he just explained.
Excitedly, they all said yes.
Then he asked the nearest dad if he would lead them in, while the officer stepped to the microphone and talked to the kids on the other side of the one-way glass window.
With a chuckle the officer said, “This is the most popular photo op of the tour. Get out your phones dads.”
The dad who lead the scouts into the line-up room declined the offer because his battery was low. But he stood by the scouts, ready to lead them back out of the room.
This week we feature the Priority Express Mail Stamp Grand Central Terminal, New York. It is part of the American Land Marks Series launched in 2008. It was designed by Derry Noyes and Phil Jordan. The print run of 3,000,000 stamps was done with the photogravure process. The printer was Avery Dennison. These stamps were printed at the company’s Security Printing Division plant in Clinton S.C. These issues have the highest face value of any U.S. Postal Service stamp.
The rate of $19.95 entitles the parcel or document to be send via the EMS system. This is an international postal Express Mail Service, offered by postal operators of the Universal Postal Union. It is an expedited delivery system with faster delivery times then regular mail service and is delivered seven days a week.
The U.S. Postal Service Joined the EMS system in 1999, which covers 180 countries and territories.
A sender can enjoy this same expiated delivery in domestic service by purchasing the Priority Mail Stamp for the rate of $5.60. The Arlington Green Bridge issue, pictured below, is an example of the domestic service stamp in the American Landmarks Series.
From 1885 to 1971 the U.S. Postal service issue special delivery stamps, a similar service to the Priority Mail Stamp. Why this service was discounted until 2008 I have yet to find out. I will continue to research that question.
On a personal note, purchasing a sheet of these stamps gets a few comments from my wife when she goes over the credit card statement. She is the family banker. However, I am grateful that she tolerates my collecting obsession.
Taking a break from office work, I found myself looking at my stock books full of stamps – again. As I moved the big magnifying glass from one stamp to another, my mind went into ‘what if’ mode.
For a few minutes I was in charge of the stamp designing department of the United States Post Office. I imagined that the post master general instructed me to design new, innovative stamps. Sales were down and collectors were clamoring for a fresh approach to issues that were looking tired and unimaginative. She told me not to consider the cost of producing them or the practicality in using them. “The post office needs to sell more stamps, period!” she exclaimed.
I also imagined she hired me in at 250K a year.
Agreeing, I quickly worked on devising a plan to save the postal service! Innovation was key, novelty a necessity, and enthralling the philatelic aficionado was the order of the day. I had to boldly go where no stamp designer had gone before.
I fancied myself to be the Gerald McGrew of the philatelic world (He is the little boy in the Dr. Seuss book McGrew Zoo. Gerald visits his local zoo and is underwhelmed with the selection of animals. He imagines he owns the place and then proceeds to fill it with his notions of exotic animals.)
Before I could finish my PB & J on white bread, I had racked up more groundbreaking designs than any print plate scribe in philatelic history.
Here are some of the stamps I designed as I sat in my palatial office at 1050 Connecticut Avenue, North Western Washington, DC.
A multi-colored issue commemorating errors. The run would be broken up into four separate, smaller runs. Each smaller run would have one particular error: color shift, inperf, perforation shift, and a missing color. The finishing touch would be just one sheet of four panes that has a major design error.
A stamp that can be folded along the perforations into a three dimensional object. When folded it shows a complete image. The first on would be of Manhattan. Each side of the box would have a view from each point on the compass. The top of the ‘box’ would show a view from above.
Then issue a Christmas commemorative that folded up into a three dimensional ornament for the Christmas tree. The hooks would be perforated into the margin of the pane.
A round sheet of stamps. The stamps would be perforated in concentric rings, getting smaller in diameter until a disk shaped stamp was left in the center. Each ring would consist of several arch shaped stamps that would fit on a letter size envelope.
I would issue a second to commemorate Earth Day. The slightly flattened view of the Earth would be looking down from above the North Pole. Each country would be a stamp. The pane would be twice the size of a normal pane of perforated stamps.
An M.C. Escher tessellation commemorative issue. Each stamp in the pane is one shape in the tessellation. It would be neat, and fairly expensive, for the four panes in the full press sheet to create a complete scene. The wood cut Day and Night would work well for this.
A stamp drawn for you while you wait at the post office. You can call ahead and pick it up. The only pre-printed feature would be an ornate frame around the area to draw the image in. This would give it a traditional look that would help sell it too and older age group, fifty five years old and up, that uses stamps more often then the younger generations.
Well, there you have it, my five minute day dream about being the head stamp designer.
This week we feature the Air Post Special Delivery Stamp issue of 1934. The purpose of this issue was to combine the prepayment of air mail and special delivery service into one stamp. It had the same priority of a special delivery service, but was transported by airplane.
The special delivery charge entitled the purchaser to have their letter sent to its destination immediately after being dropped off at the post office. It did not have to wait until a ‘full packet’ was ready to be shipped to the post office handling its destination address.
This issue was a flat plate printing. 9,215,750 of the dark blue color scheme were printed. The inperferate version made it’s appearance in 1935. A second run of 72,517,850 stamps was done in 1936. The color scheme was changed to carmine and blue along with the great seal being slightly smaller than in the original printing.
This is the only instance were the U.S. Post Office has combined these two services.
U.S. special delivery services were discontinued in 1997. Air mail stamps, though not the method of transportation, were discontinued in 2012.
Deep collecting on this issue includes four known variations in the marginal markings. Also, several freaks and errors have been identified as well. I placed a bid on eBay for a fold over.
Presently, I am trying to find out who designed this issue. If anyone has any information on that, please share it.
The photo of these stamps was taken on a faux marble surface, similar to the marble counter of the post office in my home city of Yonkers where I bought many of my first stamps. It was built years before these stamps were issued.
This past week I was filled with chefly energy and wound up cooking way more food then we could eat. It was piling up in the refrigerator. All the square plastic containers, with their red tops, made it look like a sea container port in there.
One dish I had a lot of was Ratatouille. I also had a large eggplant that did not get used.
Put the two together and you get Eggplant Roll-ups!
First thing I did was peel the eggplant, slice it thin the long way, and cook it on the charcoal grill. Brush with with olive oil and season lightly.
To make the filling I add ricotta cheese and a small amount of shredded Jarlsberg to the ratatouille; enough to hold it together. Season the mix with salt and pepper. Smoked Guda or Feta would be interesting too.
Each slice got a layer of the filling and rolled up.
When they went in the roasting pan I put several tablespoons of my home made tomato sauce under each one. Then I covered each one with a generous amount of the same. I sprinkled each with shredded mozzarella and baked at 365 until the cheese melted and they were hot inside. I did not cover them when they were baking.
If you want to cut down on the oven time you can heat the mix up in the microwave until it is warm.
Over the holiday, I made this little antipasto spread for a porch party we had. I had most of the usual suspects on the menu along with a carafe of Margarita mix and a bottle of Orvietto chilling in the ice bucket.
However, instead of serving sliced pepperoni and soppressatta, I went with something different. Looking at the jumble of ingredients in the refrigerator gave me inspiration, and Cold Shrimp Archipellego was in the making.
First, I poached the shrimp in my version of Court Bullion –
1.5 quarts of water
8 whole black peppercorns
2 stalks of celery chopped large
4 large green onions, chopped
3 bay leaves
5 parsley stems
3 slices of lemon
Bring to a slow boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain out the ingredients for the actual poaching.
When you poach the shrimp, a high simmer or very low boil is enough heat. Have an ice water bath ready to cool them off in once they are cooked through.
The ‘relish’ for the shrimp is a super simple combination of light, fresh summer flavors. The flavor profile is similar to the Court Bullion, just bolder.
The mix of tomato and cucumber is one-third to two-thirds, or one large-ish cucumber to two medium size round slicing tomatoes.
Peel the cucumber and slice the long way. Remove the seeds with a small spoon. Cut in cubes 1/2″ x 1/2″.
Dice the tomato the same size. Remove any seeds that are easy to do so.
Mix in a bowl with 1/2 teaspoon white vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon capers and about a 1/2 tablespoon chopped fresh dill.
Season to taste and let it sit in the refrigerator for an hour before serving with the chilled shrimp.
Balancing the flavors here is the key. Not too much of one flavor! Balance keeps the brain engaged and coming back for more because it has a lot to figure out as opposed to one flavor alone.
This week we feature the Graf Zepplin Issue of 1930. The three stamps of this issue were printed by the Bureau of Printing and Engraving using a flat plate printing method. The United States Post Office produced a set of three airmail postage stamps that commemorated the Graf Zeppelin,the first European-Pan-American round-trip flight in May of 1930. All three stamps were first issued in Washington D.C. on April 19, 1930, one month before the historic transatlantic first flight was made. The stamps were also placed on sale at other selected post offices on April 21, 1930.
The sixty-five cent denomination applied to a postcard making the transatlantic trip. The one dollar and thirty cent denomination applied to a letter making that same trip and the two dollar and sixty cent denomination was for a letter to make a round-trip on the zeppelin.
A total of 1,000,000 of each stamp denomination was printed, but only 227,260 stamps in all were actually sold, or 7% of the total amount printed. The Zeppelin stamps were withdrawn from sale on June 30, 1930, and the remaining stocks were destroyed by the Post Office. (Why the Post Master General sold these for an unusually short time, and destroyed the unsold stamps, I have found no answer to.)
This short window of opportunity to purchase and selected locations had made this a valuable issue. Also, the $4.55 price tag to purchase all three was not affordable to most collectors in the depths of the Great Depression.
These factors, combined with the destruction of the unsold stamps, had outraged most stamp collectors. An avalanche of complaint letters to the United States Postal Service ensued.
This issue today is considered the rarest of all U.S. Airmail stamps.
Many thanks to Wikipedia, Mystic Stamps and the Scott Catalog for some of the information used in this post.
My Aunt Florence lives two blocks from the containment zone of New Rochelle, NY.
That was one of the first cities in America to be on total lock down due to COVID-19.
From time to time, I call her to check in on her and the situation there.
She told me early on that the governor called in the National Guard to ‘help’ with the situation. Being naturally leery of authority figures, I asked her what she had experienced with soldiers walking around the neighborhood.
In her splendid Yonkers, New York, accent, which I miss hearing, she said the following.
“Not much really. They stopped by our building to deliver food. Don’t get me wrong, Gregory, that was a very nice gesture, but your uncle and I don’t eat that kind of food. Everything was in a can or a box. I use all fresh ingredients. I make my own tomato sauce, soups or lasagna, everything from fresh. There was nothing for us to use!”
Aunt Florence is a fabulous Italian cook. She learned from her mother, who was also a fabulous cook and baker. ( I have bragged on my grandmother’s kitchen prowess in previous posts.)
The next time I called, I asked about the Guard again. Had they put down any riots, forced business to close, or were they just delivering food?
“Oh no, it’s very quiet in New Rochelle. All the stores are still closed, and everyone is off the street. People are concerned about getting sick. The National Guard is not telling anyone what to do. They don’t have to.”
Are they still delivering food?
“Yes, the same stuff,” she said disappointingly.
Then the tone of her voice switched to one of excitement.”Well, yesterday the bag they brought had a box of pasta and a can of kidney beans. So I made pasta e fagioli for your uncle and I.”
She finished her statement with a laugh.
Aunt Florence’s house in immaculate. You could not find a thread of dust on anything, even if you used a magnifying glass to search with. When you look in the refrigerator it is like looking at a display in a top notch museums – perfectly arranged, spotless, well lit. Her mom’s house was the same way. As a matter of fact, her two sisters and her brother, my dad, have houses equally as tidy. Considering the situation, these houses could even be cleaner, if that is possible.
She also has a practical nature and is not shy about sharing that – not rude, just not shy.
When she told me she needed a taxi to take her to the doctor, I asked how that worked out.
Her voice got a little serious.
“I asked them if they would disinfect the car before they came by. I’m sorry, Gregory, I’m too old to care what they think about that. Besides, you never know who was in that cab before me.”
She did not laugh this time, I did. But she had a point.
Maybe the next time I call she won’t have to be concerned about that. Maybe the National Guard will be gone and the streets and shops will be full of people again.
Writing these Stamp of the Week posts has motivated me to increase my philatelic knowledge. But until I have the deep reservoir needed to be considered a wise old man of stamps, I have to relay on the expertise of others.
If you have a minute can you help me out? Here is my situation.
As you can see, some of Jefferson’s image appears on the back side of the stamp.
What caused this to happen? Could this be considered a freak or an oddity?
I have searched for other examples of this but have found none.
If you have any knowledge on this topic please email me or post a comment.
Our first mass at St. Mark Parish since March 8th.
Monsignor Brownsey held it in the parking lot and we participated from our cars. We walked up to the white tent in the background for communion. That was done several cars at a time as we observed the social distancing rules given before we started.
Of course I was disappointed we could not celebrate in our hundred year old church. I love the resonant sound of that big pipe organ, the small groups of musicians and the wonderful choir. I also miss visiting with my St. Mark’s family after mass. Even just sitting in the church, which is a shrine to Fra Angelico, Patron of the Arts, can be a moving experience for me.
But I am grateful I had the opportunity to receiving the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
I started listening to the radio before I was in grade school.
My mom had a small plastic AM clock radio that she put on top of our refrigerator.
When she was on the phone in her bedroom, I would push a chair against the fridge, turn it on, and search through the stations.
I settled on WABC, the top forty station broadcasting out of New York City. It was our hometown station because the city started just one block from my house.
After a few weeks of this, my mom got tired of turning the dial back on her station, WNEW and The Make-Believe Ballroom. She bought a new radio and gave the GE clock radio to me.
The new radio did not have to go up on the refrigerator.
I put the radio on the windowsill of my bedroom. At night I would listen to music while I looked out at the windows of the other apartment houses and wonder what the tenets were doing. I watched cars go by in the street and wondered where they were off to in the dark of the city. I watched the older kids running around in the street and wondered what they were up to.
But my attention was focused when I heard “My Girl” for the first time. It was more than sunshine on a cloudy day. It was like finding something I never realized I couldn’t live without. Every time I heard that song it was the same first time magic.
After that, I was constantly dragging my mom to the store to buy 45s.
A few years later, I heard “Round About” by Yes. It was the bass line that blew me away, but the whole song had sincerity, energy and great playing. Strangely enough, it was not Motown. Shortly after that, “Reelin’ In the Years” by Steely Dan appeared out of nowhere. It was that guitar work that blew me away this time. I never heard anything like that on top forty either.
One evening when I should have been in bed, I heard a DJ named Gene Shepard. He did not play any music; he told stories, oddball stories. They were really cool because I felt like he was telling them just to me.
Late into the night, I could not stop listening to that voice coming out of the radio.
Then my friend’s older brother told me about FM radio.
Stations were playing entire album sides on FM radio.
The hip crowd was listening to cool jazz, and free-form jazz on FM radio.
University professors from Fordham and NYU with elbow patches on their tweed sport coats were listening to entire symphonies on FM radio.
You could listen to news from around the world on FM radio.
After that, I was constantly dragging my mom to the store to buy albums that I could play on my dad’s KLH wood-trimmed turntable.
When we moved out of the city into the country, I scraped enough money together to buy my own FM radio.
I could not find Gene Shepard in that universe on the dial, but I found Vin Scelsa on WNEW. He played extended versions and live versions of those new rock songs I was listening to. He told oddball stories too.
My radio world was changed forever.
I was changed forever.
Those two and half minute miracles I was buying from the record store were just distant memories as I plowed headlong into the new acoustical territories of the King Biscuit Flour Hour, The Hearts of Space, and New Sounds on WNYC.
Towards the end of my radio listening career the Schickele Mix was a favorite, although I only listen to a few because it aired at an inconvenient time. I recall one in particular were he had transcribed a Monk song, note for note, and had a classical pianist play it. I sounded like a different song!
Those days may be long gone, but the memories they constructed in my young psyche will always be there.
I can still recall the radio blaring out the segway of Scelsa’s “The Heroes of Rock and Roll” into Springsteen’s “Born To Run” as I drove home from work in my light blue VW Beetle.
Yes, that was an epic, sonic journey from the top of the refrigerator to Schickele Mix. It is a journey I cherish to this moment.
This week we feature the Traditional Christmas: Peace on Earth Christmas issue from 1974. It was designed by Don Hedin and Robert Geissman and printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The die cut printing method was used.
This was the first stamp the U.S. Postal service issued that had a self adhesive backing. Self adhesive stamps would not supplant gummed stamps until the mid 1990’s.
Since it is the first of it’s kind, a break with one hundred and ninety seven years of U. S. Postal tradition, directions on how to use the stamps were printed on the right margin of the pane above the plate block numbers.
The plate block numbers and the ‘reminders’ on how to be a good postal office user, are little through threads that keep this new design with in postal tradition.
This holiday stamp brings up an interesting situation.
Over time , the adhesive in this issue has caused the background color to fade away. As of 2020, not all the stamps have been effected. It is odd that the 2017 Scott’s catalog does not refer to the effected stamps as an error. No separate price is given. As far as I can tell, sellers are following the lead of the Scott’s catalog.
(I would consult the 2019 catalog but the library on the archipelago is still closed. If one could participate in social distancing it would be at our libraries.)
Since the choice of the problematic adhesive, or ink, was that of the designer, would it not be an error for the effected stamps?
The temperature on the Midwest Archipelago is finally warming up. That means the days of cooking in the oven are growing short.
All the apple, pumpkin, and key lime pies, the blueberry buckles and apricot scones will all be saved for autumn and the holidays.
Soon the marinated chicken and swordfish; the big, juicy cuts of steaks; the vegetables, mushrooms and the baby heads of greens will be on the Weber.
Bruschetta; roasted red pepper salad on grilled crusty bread; cool piles of seafood salad tossed in olive oil, parsley and lemon; clams on the half shell; oysters on the half shell; and a thousand little bits of summer flavors sprinkled on top will fill our dinner table on the porch between the beer on ice and the tall bottles of white wine.
The thought of it makes me want to go back into the restaurant business so that I can cook all day long and watch happy people eat and talk.
But before this is the order of the day. I wanted stuffed mushrooms one more time.
My mushroom stuffing is a simple balance of three flavors:
mushroom stems, finely minced
good bread crumbs
good olive oil
DON’T use HUGE mushrooms; they take too long to cook.
Always mince the stems of the mushrooms with your chef knife. (The pile on the right.) The blade of the food processor spins way too fast to keep the integrity of the stems – unless you know something I don’t about using one.
Each large-ish mushroom uses about 1.5 – 2 tablespoons of stuffing.
Add the olive oil to the bread crumbs and minced stems a little at a time. Mix it with two forks held together, side by side. I have tried mixing this with a dozen different implements but my patent pending, two fork method is the best I have found.
The mix should have about the consistency of wet sand and look like this. Just enough oil to make it come together but still be somewhat fluffy. Don’t forget to season it.
I use a tablespoon to form the pile of filling in the cap of that forest floor delight. Make sure you lightly oil the pan you are baking them in, and leave enough room around them to get them out.
Bake uncovered in the oven at 375 – 385 F. Takes about twenty minutes. Check them often.
This is what you get when they are done.
The bread crumbs should be slightly browned and the mushrooms wrinkled around the sides.
What adult beverage is a natural pair with this?
An Orvieto, Sauve, or Vernaccia
Dry Creek Savignon Blanc is my wife’s favorite pairing
This will stand up to a well oaked Chardonnay too.
Beer-wise, anything from a lite Pilsner to a brown English ale or a dark Germany Bock beer.
Sparkling apple cider or a local hard cider would work too.
When I started cooking in commercial kitchens it was a time of transition in American eating habits. The beef-concentric, ‘more is better,’ dining ethos was shifting to lighter, healthier fare.
I have always felt it started with the health and the organic food movement. In the 1970s, these were becoming less and less a ‘fringe’ lifestyle. Both made their way into the restaurant scene through the cooking of Alice Waters, Jeremy Towers, and Wolfgang Puck – the creators of California Cuisine.
Essentially, these chefs were building on the French Novel Cuisine movement that Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, and Jean and Pierre Troisgros, among others, had started a decade earlier.
On a third front, Giuliano Bugialli and Marcella Hazan’s cookbooks of the 1970s were showing the American dining public, and a younger generation of Italian-Americans, that not every Italian dish should be covered in tomato sauce.
Eating healthy and cooking with fresh ingredients was something that many Italian families did not lose when they moved from Italy to America. But these culinary movements helped to bring the authentic cooking of our families to a wider audience, in addition to diversifying menus in countless restaurants.
Salads always played a big part in the tradition, new and old, of eating well.
Over the years my staple salads have changed a lot.
First they were a small course topped with some combination of sliced onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, and alpha or bean sprouts, usually on a romaine and iceberg lettuce combo with a little sliced up endive thrown in. There was a different dressing every week.
Then, sliced apples and radishes with an apple cider and tarragon vinaigrette dressing was the regular. The predominate green was bib with shredded romaine for crunch.
In the later 80s, I rediscovered my Italian roots – combinations of sun-dried tomatoes, olives, capers and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano found their way onto the table more often than not. It was back to romaine lettuce with radicchio and chicory mixed in. A balsamic and olive oil vinaigrette was the standard dressing.
Occasionally, I would get away from this and use walnut oil, fig vinegar or rice wine vinegar to dress the crumbled Gorgonzola, sliced pairs, walnuts or figs on the bed of spring greens or just arugula.
A few years later I discovered that root vegetables were nature’s vitamin pills. I was getting older and I felt I needed more vitamins than protein.
The salads got larger and root vegetables of every kind landed on top. Some grilled, some raw and a few fried for a crisp finish.
That brings me up to the last few years and my latest version of a salad – greens with crudites on top. In addition to needing more vitamins, I have to work harder at keeping the weight off, even though I walk everyday at lunch, ride my bike after dinner and lift weights. Several days out of the week this big salad and crudites is my meal.
The standard mix is sweet baby peppers, carrots and rutabaga, all cut into large matchsticks and piled on a bed of mixed greens – a combination of above and below the ground. When I can, beet tops are shredded and mixed into the greens. Once in awhile, cracked black pepper, croutons, oil cured or Kalamata olives and sliced figs are mixed into the pile of vegetables.
It always has just balsamic vinegar and olive oil to finish.
One night I marinated the root vegetables in liquid smoke. That was interesting, and I am still working out the flavor details to make a memorable salad with them.
Looking back on all this, what variation is yet to come? Maybe it will include tubers soaked in liquid smoke or one type of leafy green sauteed in oil and garlic, cooled and mixed in with the uncooked greens.
Even with all the thinking I do about food, transitions between comfortable flavor combinations is slow and gradual for me. Must be my Roman Catholic upbringing.
Many of those ideas will not last long in my kitchen as I cook with them and find out what they have to offer.
A cold spring day in the archipelago requires something warm to eat.
Something to bring back good memories as well as fill the stomach.
Chicken, lemon and rosemary; a dish my grandfather made for my mom, my mom made for us, now I make it for my family.
It’s simple, fulfilling and delicious too.
Under the skin of each split breast, slip a clove of garlic that you have crushed with the flat part of your chef knife.
Quarter four smallish Yukon Gold potatoes, along the long side. They should be no more then an inch thick at their widest part.
In a bowl, gentle toss the chicken and potatoes in a few ounces of olive oil.
Lightly brush the bottom of a roasting pan with olive oil. Place the breasts and the potatoes, all skin side up, in the pan.
Slice a lemon in half. Slice two rings off one half. The other piece cut in half and squeeze it on the chicken.
Take two long sprigs of rosemary and strip the leaves off the stem. Chop them well and sprinkle on the chicken and the potatoes. (I left the rosemary off the potatoes because the kids don’t like picking it off.) Season with salt & pepper and top with the two lemon slices.
Cover with foil and bake at 450 until 3/4 done. At that point take the foil off to crisp up the skin of the chicken. Cooking this with a cover keeps it moist. If you want it fully roasted, cook without a cover at 400. If it is getting too crispy, add a few tablespoons of water to the pan and cover with foil.
When you serve it, spoon the juice from the pan over it. Yes, it is full of chicken fat, but that has wounder flavor you won’t want to pass up.
A light white, of any kind pairs well. Even a semi sweet Riesling would work, as long as it has good acid.
Don’t forget the crusty bread to sop up the pan drippings.
Don’t forget to say grace. If we can sit at a table and eat a meal, then we have a lot to thank God for.
The split breast in the photo are large. They made four servings. (Not the best photo but we were in a hurry to eat.)
Other herbs can be mixed in too – thyme or oregano on the stem, chiffonade of basil, bay leaves (fresh if you can get it) broken into large pieces.You can leave the rosemary whole too. If you use whole herbs, let them stay on the chicken for a few hours before it goes in the oven. ( Store wrapped, away from other foods on the bottom self of your refrigerator until time to cook it.)
I had been thinking about Calamara figs from the sun-drenched orchards along the Aegean Sea. Those rings of light brown, wrinkled fruit, tied together with twine had appeared one day in the produce aisle.
They had been haunting me ever since.
When I came back the next day they were gone. I am not the only inhabitant of the archipelago island Peoria craving figs.
No problem. The black Mission figs would do. As I walked over to the aisle I thought about their soft, tar black shapes piled in the bag.
A hint of their darkly sweet flavor grazed over my palate.
My pace quickened.
Back in my kitchen, simple meant stacking one fig on a triangle of pita and topping it with a velvety slice of rich Brie. All ten stacks were put on a white porcelain platter and baked in a hot oven until the brie melted. Just enough to drape over the figs and no more.
Before they went on the table, I drizzled them with wildflower honey that a beekeeper friend had given us.
As I feasted, I marveled at how something so simple could be so fulfilling and delicious.
But was this simple?
Yes, collecting up these four ingrediencies, piling them one atop another, and placing them in the oven for a few minutes was childishly simple.
But the ingrediencies themselves were not.
They were full of complexity in many ways.
The fig’s sophistication comes from its 10,000-year history of human cultivation, longer than any other farm plant. In some strange way, I tasted the wisdom and the work imparted into that fruit from every civilization that had grown it.
What an amazing result from all that history – a soft, subtly sweet interior texture surrounded by a firm, chewy exterior, rich with notes of leather and fermented fruit.
The pita has that long history of perfection, too. Five-thousand years of harvesting the windblown fields of grain and grinding them down to a fine dust under the weight of the mill stone. Countless generations of bakers have worked the flour into dough and transformed it in the charring heat of the wood-burning, brick oven.
Change is inevitable over time, and even the smallest of variations have shifted the dry, grainy character of this ancient bread.
Then there is brie. The youthful, medieval addition to my simple stack of flavors.
What I would give to meet the monks that thought an invisible race of bacteria awash in a universe of cow’s milk could change that bland, white liquid into the essences of rich, soft, smooth and satisfying.
Brie, a magical relic, no doubt, but it cannot compare to what was drizzled on top of it.
The ultimate in strange complexity: the honeybee and its honey.
Who can relate to the mind of the honeybee? They are a different form of life. Their social construct is incomprehensible to us. Hundreds working in an ever-shifting swarm, one on top of another. All born into an exact communal role with work that never changes, never varies.
The geometrical architecture of their home, rows and rows of self-made, hexagonal compartments, is of no comfort to our human personalities. Yet that sticky, viscus, slow motion sugar that they make and store in those tessellated wax-walled chambers is loved by most and known by all.
Honey itself has a multitude of fascinating properties for being something we can eat.
It can crystalize spontaneously and conduct electricity. It is a natural insulator of heat and never freezes solid. When it is motionless it can be firm, when stirred it becomes a liquid. Bacteria cannot grow in honey, and if kept dry, will last for thousands of years.
It is a supersaturated, supercooled, Newtonian liquid that every branch of physical science stands in awe of.
For millions of years, before man even had a thought about cooking, these tiny winged workers had been making this incredible food.
I am happy they did. That detail of added, intense sweetness gave just the right level of complexity to my simple stack of flavors.
Nothing is as simple as it looks at the beginning.