The focus of my collecting has always been U.S. airmails, embossed envelopes and postcards. However, I took a detour from that when a work associate of mine told me he too collects stamps.
Rui is a topical collector. When he was starting out, his dad suggested this approach as an economical alternative to having a complete collection of one country. His dad is an experienced philatelist who built and maintains a full set of issues from Malawi, a country he once lived in. He knows about the cost involved in an accomplishment of that magnitude.
Early on, Rui settled on a few topics of interest: birds and the Olympics. Over the years, he has increased his circle of interest and built up a sizable collection of his own.
The more I thought about Rui’s approach, the more interested I became. I realized that topical collectors have an international approach which opens them up to the widest possible variety of stamp designs. When I pored over the Scott’s International catalogs at the local library, I found countless stamp designs that were much different than what I saw in my own collection. The more I searched, the more excited I became. Even the rather practical topics like technology, science, manufacturing and shipping were well represented with unique stamps. Not as colorful as birds or dramatic as the Olympics commemorative, but you go with your interests.
I went on many exciting trips to Europe in those months. I visited glass factories making precision lenses for microscopes and telescopes, television studios and busy sea container facilities. I stopped off at a nuclear reactor, a German brewery and did research deep in the earth and high overhead in the exosphere.
Soon, I was overtaken with a feeling of guilt about these trips. All the years of happiness and contentment that my U.S. issues gave me were left behind, abandoned, for the excitement of fresh, foreign faces. I felt like I was cheating on my girlfriend the U.S. Postal Service by purchasing stamps issue from another postal service I hardly knew!
Hat in hand, I went back. We made up, went to philatelic counseling together and all was well again.
To keep the relationship exciting, and so that I would never leave again, I thought about a new area of U.S. stamps I was always curious about but never investigated – errors.
Here, I applied that pearl of wisdom I learned from Roy’s dad: Look for stamps that are affordable as well as interesting.
I found those in perforation errors. These are most common in coil stamps, since these are harder to check than sheets or booklets. Consequently, they are more affordable.
Below are several that I have acquired in the last month, without skipping a week of lunches to pay for them.
This week we feature the American Philatelic Society Souvenir Sheet issues of 1933. This is the first souvenir sheet ever issued by the United States Postal Service. Both were printed to honor the American Philatelic Society for their convention and exhibition in Chicago Illinois. This event was part of the city’s Century of Progress Exposition.
The stamps were printed by the Bureau of Printing and Engraving on a flat plate press. There were two denominations issued. The one cent commemorating Fort Dear Borne, the original site of Chicago, and the three cent commemorated the Federal Building a symbol of the cities progress at the time. Both issues were un-perferated with no gum on the reverse side. However, they were intended to be used as normal postage.
These are unique to U.S. Postal history; this was the first time the post office had marketed an issue specifically for collectors. I have always wondered if the president at the time, stamp collector Franklin D. Roosevelt, created this strategy or did it came out of the post office administration?
The Post Master General over seeing this issue, James A Farley, was an astute business man and certainly knew the value of stamps as a collectable item. The scandal he was responsible for, Farley’s Follies, proved that. For those who may not know, this was big philatelic news at the time. Farley removed from the printing process a complete printer’s sheets of stamp issues. He did this before they were gummed and perforated in order to give them out as autographed souvenirs. Outraged collectors vehemently criticized the post office when they heard about this. To make peace, the post office printed more of Farley’s ‘souvenir’ sheets and offered them for sale.
Since 1933 the post office has issued over thirty nine souvenir sheets.
To hear her tell it, she had a falling out with him.
She said they came to an agreement of sorts. She will spend half the year mostly down south and half the year mostly up north.
“He is intolerable, and I cannot be around him all the time.” Have you ever heard such a statement? I know him well. He is a bright fellow with a sunny disposition and is very dependable. What is not to like?
But every time I go walking around the city during the day, she makes me stand between them.
Those bright, sunny days can be tedious when she follows behind me or steps out in front of me. She gives me no room at all.
I thought she made an arrangement with him, but it looks like he made an arrangement with her. I don’t know what to believe.
It is annoying but what can I do? I can’t just go along without her.
Then you do agree, thank you.
But at night it is a different story. She runs with that mob of hers and is nowhere to be found.
Oh, occasionally she stops by when I am standing under the porch light for a little air on my way to bed. When I am out for an evening walk, yes, she will meet me under the light on the corner like a criminal would. Then she walks a few steps down the street and leaves without a goodbye!
Well, no use in complaining. She is mine, right?
I am glad you feel the same way about this.
Thank you for listening, Signor Confermo. You are a true friend; you listen to everything I say when we meet. I will come back here, and we will talk again.
If you have figured out what is going on in this post you won’t need a hint. If you have not, look for two clues to solve it.
Any good chef builds a personal relationship with his guests, and they become a part of his life. More importantly, the chef becomes a part of their lives.
I realized this with a guest of ours named Frank. He was a regular, in his early sixties and newly retired. There was a time I had not seen him in a few weeks. When he came back in to dine, I asked if he had been out of town.
Unfortunately, he had a heart problem and was home recovering. He said the cardiologist recommended he cut back on the fat, since that caused the blockage and the trip to the OR.
When he said that he laughed. His favorite meal was tortellini carbonara.
Then he asked me if I could prepare this dish without any fat and make it taste the same.
It was my turn to laugh, but I did not. I told him that would be next to impossible.
He looked at me with an expression of disappointment, almost desperation, put his hand on my arm and said he needed my help. He absolutely loved my cooking and if anyone could make such a dish, I surely could.
That was the moment I realized I was a part of his life more than he was of mine.
If he never came back, I would miss him. But I had hundreds of other good customers that would eventually fill that seat on that night, and I would cook something they liked very much.
But it did not work the other way for Frank. He loved that carbonara, my carbonara, because no one else made it the same way I did. There was only one of me.
Now I understood. His coming into my place every week to taste that creamy sauce enriched with smoky bacon, nuanced with onions and peas and a hint of white wine mingled into the finishing flavor was almost a sacred ritual for him. He had woven it into the very fabric of his life and I was the guy responsible for that experience.
My creativity was his great joy. I was truly honored.
I went back into the kitchen, did not even change out my pressed and monogramed chef coat I visited the table in, and went to work.
My mind disassembled the dish I had made so many times that it had become automatic.
All fat must go, he said.
Cream was substituted for low fat milk, bacon for liquid smoke and a slurry of corn starch to thicken instead of the egg yolk. The diced onion was sautéed in minimal olive oil. I had no substitute for the grated Romano cheese; that was the only exception.
He thanked me for it, but I could see he thought it was nowhere close to what he loved.
I suggested making him a different pasta dish using our low fat/no fat approach.
He agreed and his face lit up with joy again.
That night before he left, we conferred extensively on his culinary mindset. Ingredients and techniques were discussed, agreed upon and he looked forward to the following week’s visit.
I kept his request in the forefront of my mind, like a brightly lit billboard along a dark road.
Now, instead of disassembling just one pasta dish, I disassembled my approach to all the popular pasta dishes I had put on our menu.
It was hard to learn how to make good food after losing a dozen ingredients I created with for years. I persisted and I filled that hole with new flavor profiles that I could bring to that same level. These flavors were strong, rich, and, most of all, had substantial mouth feel to replace the fat.
I added herbs that were not found in traditional Italian cooking. Some were better for dishes other than pasta sauce. I was forced to construct a crash course in how to control their flavors. Adding chopped rosemary may be overwhelming, but if the whole sprig is added then removed before serving, it makes a big difference.
Where it made sense, I incorporated a touch of Tabasco or red pepper flakes sautéed in the oil, but always when I had other big flavors to use like shredded swiss chard, spinach, julienned root vegetable, roasted bell peppers, the occasional Kalamata olive and diced tomatoes. Heat may get in the way of wine, but it is long on the palate, like cream, and adds satisfaction to the eating experience. I also convinced Frank to move away from his light Sauvignon Blanc white and into a more substantial Montipulciano red.
When I sautéed with olive oil, I switched pans and left the remainder of the oil behind, as per Frank’s request.
For that big-mouth feel, I oven-roasted vegetables, diced them up and added them in. It was low cholesterol but big flavor and mouth feel from their caramelized sugars developed from the dry heat of the oven.
I made stock from oven-roasted chicken bones, rosemary, garlic, onions and carrots. After it cooled down in the refrigerator, I picked off the top every speck of fat that made its way into the process. This stock became the base of several pasta dishes. Some of the sauces for these dishes were thickened just enough for it to cling to the vegetable.
Beef stock, reduced down to the consistency of jelly, or glace di viande as the French call it, became like a secret ingredient.
Even the flavor of the garlic was varied: either sautéed in the pan or roasted in the oven, then added in. Another secret ingredient.
Potatoes were roasted in the oven until they were crisp on the outside and were added to several dishes as a texture foil.
I made vegetarian soups so thick and chunky they were transformed into meatless stews. They usually had a combination of rice, small types of pasta, potatoes, or barley to thicken them up. Frank never complained he was hungry a few hours after he got home.
My culinary compendium was expanding, and Frank was happy about it.
Making Frank a happy diner taught me a lot about being creative in the kitchen and about motivation and integrity. But his greatest lesson was showing me the importance of sharing that with others.
Twenty five years ago I left New York for the Midwest Archipelago island of Peoria and every spring I am amazed by the blooming of the Eastern Red Bud trees.
We first saw these slender trees in western Ohio, on our move to Peoria. We were impressed by their number as well as their gorgeous color. Cercis canadensis are nowhere to be seen in New York, which added to the surprise.
When I owned my restaurant, Dominic’s, I gathered their flowers, added them to salads and garnished the plates with them. Their flavor is on the bitter side but they add a wonderful splash of color.
There are two plants native to New York that are equally dramatic in their flowering. In spring the elegant dog woods add delicate washes of white to the leafless woods. They always brought to my mind a landscape from a Japanese wood cut print.
The second are the mountain laurel that bloom in June on the Shawangunk Ridge in Ulster County. These are as spectacular as the Red Buds but bolder in appearance. The blooms are pure white and the size of softballs. When you drive through a forest thick with them it looks like snow had fallen.
It would be really extraordinary if all these flowers would bloom at the same time and the same place!
Last week I was thinking about the warmer days ahead as I took a jar of wild rice from the cabinet. While pondering how to cook it, I looked at the pattern the grains made against the glass. Indecisive about the dinner plan my mind began to wander. I imagined myself in northern Wisconsin.
I was paddling down a calm blue ribbon of water on my way to the flooded fields of Manoomin. Clouds were rolling across the sky and the water beside the boat. Birds were singing from the eves of the trees along the shore.
Leaving the channel, I glided into the tall blades of green under the warm sun. I harvested through the marsh and listened to the birds singing and the wind whispering back its harmony, and the rustling of the stalk as I laid them down across the boat with the wooden paddles.
When the bottom of the hull was heavy with grain and the sun touched the tops of the trees, I headed back down the blue ribbon. Back to the old wooden dock and the kitchen in the white clapboard house at its far end.
Out of that came wild rice infused with the subtle flavors of bay leave and homemade chicken stock. Perfect for the oven roasted salmon with fresh herbs and lemon. Since I cooked the entire jar, I was left with more then we could eat. Chefing is about flavors and textures but it is also about economizing. I had to make another meal from what remained.
Studying the square containers of leftovers in the stark light of the refrigerator, I took out the vegetable side and the tomato/basil collie sitting next to it. It could use a little protein from one of the brown eggs on the door beside me.
The rice got the egg mixed into it and cooked like an omelet. I heated the carrots, onions and red bell peppers in a saute and mounded it on the rice cake. A few big table spoons of tomatoes topped off the vegetables.
Good enough for a quick Tuesday night dinner with a glass of dry Chardonnay.
This week we are featuring the three cent Francis Parkman from the Prominent Americans series, 1965 through 1978. This issue was designed by Bill Hyde and printed on a rotary press. It was used extensively for bulk mail. I have seen a lot of pre-cancellations with city and state location inside two black bars and the black bars alone. On Ebay I came across one with the unusual inscription of ‘BUNCH OK’.
I have also seen several neat looking perforation errors of this stamp and a fold-over error with an interesting tear on the bottom edge. This latter error had a decent price tag on it, too, around four hundred and fifty dollars. Unfortunately, the sheet, plate block and coil line pairs I have in my collection have no error.
Aside from the stamp itself being interesting, Francis Parkman had an interesting life and personality.
He was born into wealthy Boston society and at an early age he developed a passion for the wilderness. In the 1840s, after his graduation from Harvard, he headed off to the West in pursuit of that passion. He wrote a book about his experiences, The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life, and it quickly became a best seller.
He could have been just another rich kid traveling to exotic places on his father’s money, then writing of his exploits in the popular magazines for East Coast elites. However, two things had set him apart from that and made him one of America’s first great historical writers.
First: He was committed to use his gift as a historian to write a comprehensive history of the American continent before it was formed into a nation. That was a risky decision because it was contrary to the trend in respected historic writing at the time. Classical history and the Spanish exploration of North America were the topics of inquire, not French explorers and Native American tribes.
Second: He was a gifted writer who grasped the drama and importance inherent in American historical facts. By effectively conveying that drama, he invented the historical narrative that is popular today.
There is no doubt that Francis Parkman established a reputation as a noted historian and was one of the most widely read authors of nineteenth-century America. Theodore Roosevelt dedicated his four-volume history of the frontier, The Winning of the West (1889–1896), to Parkman. Like every great thinker, he has his critics, but the majority of historians consider his body of work to be an accurate and valuable account of the early Europeans exploring and settling North America.
I read the first few pages of his first book, The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life. It was so engaging that I purchased a copy, along with a few of the pre-cancellations I mentioned earlier.
I still remember that late summer day in 1965 when my dad took my brother and I to Samuel Untermeyer’s estate, which sat like an ancient ruin on a high ridge, overlooking the Hudson river. Hidden by thickets of trees, it was far removed from the surrounding apartment houses and busy streets of Yonkers.
The place had the magic of old things made strange when the world moves on without them. My dad knew of that magic and wanted us to discover it along with him.
The first thing I saw of the gardens was a wall running through that surrounding thicket of trees. It was built from dark, rough stone and topped with tall spikes of black iron.
It looked a lot like the wall around the playground of the old grade school I was attending, but it was out in the woods. The wall beside the playground kept us kids off the busy street. There were no kids playing where this wall was. So what did it keep in – or out?
In the wall was a gate formed by four tall pillars. Beyond that was a high ridge overgrown with twisted trees, thick vines and tangled brambles. A walled staircase was cut into the ridge and seemed to disappear into the shadows of the treetops. On each side of the stairs was a large stone frieze. One depicted a majestic lion, the other a wild looking stallion.
My dad told us there was an incredible garden he knows of from his childhood, though he had never seen it. It was identical to one built in ancient Rome two thousand years ago. It was at the top of the stairs.
By the look of the two friezes I knew there was something extraordinary up there. But to my little mind, that silent tangle of foliage creeping through the twisted tree trunks was troublesome. It seemed to be hiding something strange, something I should be careful around.
It was not like the well cared for, ruler-straight rows of tomatoes and swiss chard in my grandmother Florence’s sunny little garden.
Her garden was tended to with love. This one seemed to be tended with a brooding, pernicious will from the shadows of the woods.
Was the purpose of the wall in the woods to keep people out of that garden?
My brother must have been thinking the same thing. We both stopped walking when we stepped through the gate.
When I looked up at my dad, I could see he was not afraid of what lied ahead. He could see that I was, more so than my older brother.
Thinking my dad might also be afraid of what lied ahead, I looked up at his face. But he was not. He was gazing through the tree at the top of the stairs. His eyes showed determination and his physicality forward motion as he studied the path ahead.
He looked down at me and smiled. “Don’t worry, follow him,” he said and put his big hand on my shoulder.
In that moment, I was transformed. His expression of self-assurance and that gesture of reassurance, sent an invisible arc of confidence into me. Somehow, he handed on a small piece of his maturity, his ability to face and master things that appeared daunting. The wall in the woods and the malevolent undergrowth were no longer the things of fear and apprehension. If he could take these on, I could too.
We did go to the top of the stairs and explore Untermeyer’s Gardens.
All afternoon we roamed along the marble reflecting pools that were tarnished with weeds and fallen branches. We wandered through the rows of larger-than-life statues, many half- covered in vines and graffiti. We took a break under the dome of a temple-like building and commented on the identity of the face in the center of the floor mosaic. For a long time, we sat on the temple’s circular balustrade of carved white stone and looked out on the mighty Hudson River.
I was happy my dad had taken me there, even though it was scary at first.
Despite decades of abandonment that had tarnished the Gilded Age glory Untermeyer’s vast wealth had built, it was still awe inspiring.
On the ride home I sat in the back seat of the car. Images of that mysterious world swirled around in my head. I was not sure if I had visited a place where the ancient Roman gods had lived or just the home of a rich man who had faded into history when Dad was my age.
I also wondered how Dad changed my mind about climbing those stairs. He must have had some secret super power that only dads have. That thought was the result of reading Marvel Comic books at five years old.
It was not until years later and having children of my own that I was able to see clearly what was at work in that moment.
More is handed down to children through your example when you do things together than all the life lessons you could ever tell them.
All people that love to cook and love food seem to have one skill in common. The ability to define, retain and recall tastes and aromas that they have experienced. Over time this skill creates a personal compendium of flavor and aroma profiles.
The information used by this process can come from the humblest of meals at home or fancy restaurants with white linen table cloths. Whatever the origin, these disparate culinary experiences come together and shape each inventory in a unique way. Eventual, this inventory becomes a reference for comparison of all the new flavors and aromas that come across the user’s palette.
I have found that some recollections can be simplistic, singular in their explanations. Others can be complex and multi-layered. They can be cross-referenced over time with other entries, like notes in a chord, until they become completely redefined.
Most of these definitions we don’t consciously write or sort into order or cross reference. Most of this work is done by an obscure process deep in the hidden components of our analytical engines.
I refer to my compendium as The Lexicon of Flavors. LXF for short.
Below are a few of the more interesting entries my mind has been compiling and cross-referencing for over fifty years. Some are complex but understandable while some esoteric for reasons I don’t fully comprehend. Others are like landscapes or impressions. Each one is a world of its own inside the universe of my psyche.
These recollections are the building blocks of my culinary creativity. Here they are presented, as best as mere words can, with no explanation or analysis as to why they are what they are. I want you to see how they appear in my mind when they are called up from that mysterious instrumentality.
(Any definitions containing a date were taken from my journals and have been redefined over time.)
Juniper berries – Freeze Dried: Aromatic pine. Clean, long lasting.
Cedar flavor note from varied sources: Complicate, dry, expansive, evergreen. Undertones of earth or gravel shores against northern waters. Firm in structure.
Pineapple, 1982-1995: Sharp, bright sugar. Wide on the palette.
Pineapple, 1995 – present: Mt. Gay Ruminesque. Crisp acid blunted by a dark sugar bomb, promising smoke and cracked black pepper as I tumble down a mountain stream in the tropics.
Cilantro: Burst of minty power greens. Vibrant with a long, difficult finish that is medicinal in nature.
Lemon: Summer sunshine on a white sand beach.
Lime: Summer sunshine on a white sand beach under a shade tree.
Basil: Standing in my Grandmother Florence’s sunny garden, surrounded with a peppery, darkly floral, fragrant afternoon.
Parsley: A fresh green note. Ephemeral and fleeting in character.
Ginger, 1979: Pepper, rum and the promise of dark sugar. Long, difficult finish.
Ginger, 2019: Boech pears poached in sherry, brown sugar and ginger root. Difficult finish. All held in a hand-blown glass on a Chippendale table. The year is 1789. (Seriously, that is what comes to mind!)