Post Cards From the Archipelago

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.

The Secret of Secret Sauce

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.

Not so.

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.

Bon Appetite!

God bless the secret sauce!

How Large Is My Grasp?

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.

Talk about feeling threatened.

My Old Friend

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.

Bellman ( Sputnik ) in his heyday.

Visit Fante’s, it is worth the trip !

Stamp of the Week – Signing of the Constitution of the United States

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

Saturday Ride, Part 2

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.

Saturday Morning Ride

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.

When I find more I will share them with you.

September Cooking

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.

Autumn Reading List

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.

Happy reading !

Post Cards from the Archipelago

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.

(Click onto an images and scroll through them.)