Still Not Easy

One of the things about depression is that it is sneaky.  You think you’re doing pretty good, and then it grabs you from behind, wrestles you to the ground, and twists your arm behind your back until you scream uncle.

I have been screaming all week long, and I wish it would let me go.

The world almost disappears to me when things are like this.  All I see is my own pain, my own mistakes, my own end.

And I disappear to the world.  People look right through you. Or worse, they straight up deny you.

It becomes a cycle, and the only end to the cycle is when you are completely gone.

Here’s Looking At You, Kid

My daughter is taking a film studies class in school right now.  The teacher has put together a pretty credible syllabus of classic American films from the 1930s through the 1980s.  The sort of stuff that you would assume everyone has seen, but even the movies from the 1980s are the “distant past” for teenagers born after 2000, so most of the films are ones that she had never even heard of, never mind actually watched.  She was pleasantly surprised at how much she enjoyed “It Happened One Night”, which is testament to the timeless qualities of some sorts of movies. So, when she told us the other day that the next film on their list was “Casablanca”, I was very excited.

Even though “Citizen Kane” (which they also watched) is the traditional Number One choice on every imaginable list of “Greatest Films of All Time”, “Casablanca” is without a doubt my most favorite Golden Age Hollywood film and I feel like it probably represents the high-water mark of studio B-pictures. It won’t ever displace “Citizen Kane” on those lists, but it deserves to be right up there with it.  When I was a teaching assistant in grad school, I had the opportunity to lecture on “Casablanca” and I’ll bet I watched it ten times just for that class. I also had to grade about 120 papers about it, and by the end of the semester I was indeed a bit sick of it, but that was nearly 30 years ago now and it wasn’t a lasting fatigue.

Anyway, the surest way to guarantee that my daughter will NOT do something is to give it to her as a homework assignment.  It’s like you’ve immediately turned whatever the task was into the most distasteful, loathsome, unpleasant thing in the world, and she will go to great lengths to avoid, delay, procrastinate, and outright ignore doing it.  While she had to watch the other films in class, she missed “Casablanca” the day they screened it in school due to a doctor’s appointment, so her teacher told her she should watch it at home.  Big mistake.  Because now the Best Movie Ever is like anathema to her.

Finally, after dinner last night, I just started searching for the movie online, and after a couple of dead ends found it available on YouTube as a rental.  Actually, I believe I have a DVD copy, but online is easier and the HD version on YouTube looked better than any other version I have ever seen.  I managed to get her to watch it up to the point where Rick has his flashback to their time in Paris, maybe halfway through a movie that is only an hour and a half in the first place. Even then, she paid more attention to her phone than the movie and kept asking who was who. I watched the rest of the film by myself, crying through the “Marseillaise” scene as I always do, and marveling as always at how beautiful Ingrid Bergman was.

While the love triangle between Ilsa, Rick and Laszlo is the part of the movie that resonates with most people, as Rick says at the end “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”.  Rick’s realization that the things Laszlo is fighting for are more important than lost loves, and that he personally owes a responsibility to take a side rather than remain a neutral, passive outsider is the real core of the film’s story.  One tiny detail I never noticed before is that when Rick is alone in the bar with Sam, trying to drown his sorrows in booze, he quickly mentions that it’s December, 1941 in the story.  I’m sure anyone watching this movie in 1942 understood immediately.  Rick stands in for the United States, which entered the war in December of 1941, forced to choose a side rather than stand by self-interestedly.  He makes his choice clear in the “Marseillaise” scene, when Laszlo tells the band to play the anthem and Rick nods his head to the bandleader. Of course, his mirror character, Captain Renault, more notably makes the same choice at the end of the film when he throws away the bottle of Vichy water, but we are meant to identify with Rick.

I thought about this in the context of today’s world and the resurgence of Fascism everywhere.  In 1942, the sides were clearly defined, the stakes immediately identifiable.  Today the Fascists are on the rise everywhere, even in America.  What would Rick Blaine do now? It feels wrong to say that he would stick to his own business, but that’s the choice that people are making in this country in the face of looming right-wing peril.  America in 1941 would not make the choice until the country had been directly attacked, not just because fighting Nazis was the right thing to do, but this time Americans themselves are the bad guys. What, I wonder, can possibly push us to save the world.

I wish that my child had not decided to put a wall between herself and the enjoyment of this movie, because I think those questions are the ones that face her generation most directly.

 

Fruitlands

We took a drive out to Fruitlands on Sunday on the premise that the weather was going to be sunny and warm and that there would be a fall festival of some sort to see in addition to the site itself.  Neither thing was entirely true, but we enjoyed the visit anyway.

The Fruitlands Museum, in Harvard, Massachusetts, is sort of a conglomeration of things: the place itself was the site of Bronson Alcott’s failed utopian community of the same name that he established in 1843 and there is a recreation of the farmhouse where he and his family lived for the half a year they were there.  Then there are several other rather unrelated small museums — an art museum that focuses on 19th century portraiture and Hudson River School landscapes, a Shaker Museum that features the handicrafts of that erstwhile religious community, and then a museum of Native American-related art. Oh, and there are hiking trails through the woods as well.  It’s a little schizophrenic, yet somehow all seems to tie together.

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The farmhouse is an entirely modern recreation and has very little provenance from the original building.  In this regard, it pales in comparison to Orchard House in Concord, the house where the Alcotts lived when Louisa May Alcott wrote “Little Women”, even though that house is not entirely authentic itself.  A docent did a good job, though, of telling the story of Alcott’s failure to create a vegan utopia.  I got the impression that they built the building because people expected to see it, more than out of any sense of historical relevance.

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The art museum was small, especially considering the sizeof their collection, but featured three good exhibits — a temporary one featuring late 19th-early 20th Century leisure clothing, a gallery with a very small selection of their massive collection of portraits, and a gallery of landscapes mainly comprised of paintings by Hudson River School artists. I particularly liked this one, which shows Mount Ascutney in Vermont as seen from Claremont, NH (which is where my mother grew up). We opted to skip the Shaker and Native American museums to save for another visit.

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The “Harvest Festival” turned out to be not much to speak of.  Some 4H kids were there with some adorable goats, but the poor goats were raised to be sold for meat and were only a few pounds away from being market weight.  Seemed more than a little ironic for them to be there on the site of Alcott’s no-animal-products farm.  Ditto for the alpacas, but at least they were only being raised for the wool.

Lunch overlooking the “Seven Sisters” mountains of western Massachusetts was delightful — no goat on the menu, I am pleased to say.  I think if lunch hadn’t been good, we would have chalked up the whole thing as a bit of a bust, but instead we went away with a very positive impression and the expectation to visit again.

 

I Can’t Believe There’s No Butter

My wife and I were crushed to learn last week that one of our favorite products — Green Valley Organics’ Lactose-Free Butter — is currently out of production due to supply issues with the dairy that sells them organic cream.

Having REAL butter with the lactose removed has been a godsend for me.  Absolutely none of the “butter substitute” products we’ve tried have been even remotely acceptable as a cooking/baking replacement, and, believe me, we have tried a lot of them.  Frpm good old fashioned margarine to the awkwardly named “Vegan Buttery Sticks”, they neither taste the same as butter, nor do they perform the same way, particularly in baking.  I had somewhat resigned myself to making cookies and cakes and brownies and such that would never be as good as they should be, when I first came across the Green Valley Organics product a couple of years ago.  We’d already discovered their phenomenal lactose-free cream cheese and sour cream, so the addition of a lactose-free butter was almost too good to be true.

Even when the butter was in production, it would often be difficult to find. We would often have to go to several different Whole Foods stores to find it, and when we did find it would buy almost every package on the shelf to keep in the freezer. We finally convinced our local Market Basket to carry it, since they have been good about adding lactose-free dairy items and were already selling the other Green Valley products.  Then, sometime over the summer, they stopped having any.  I assumed they had either run out and were waiting for more, or that they had given up on a product with limited appeal. But, I figured we could still stock up at Whole Foods as we had done in the past.  When there was no butter to be found there either, my wife contacted the company and they emailed her a copy of the press release that is currently on their website.

From a little quick Googling, it appears that this is the ONLY product on the market which is real butter made from cream with the lactose removed via the lactase enzyme.  Every other “lactose-free butter” is a hybrid product with hydrogenated oil among the ingredients.  Butter in its natural composition does not contain very much lactose in the first place, but my lactose intolerance (which is probably more accurately described as a more general dairy intolerance) is severe enough that butter and cheese (also very low in lactose) have been problematic for me to eat for a while.  More recently, I’ve been better able to consume some dairy if I take a boatload of lactase pills, but I don’t want to have to do that just to be able to use real butter for sauteeing or making a sauce.

There’s one package left in our fridge and one more in the freezer, so I’ve been thinking long and hard about doing any sort of baking if it means using up what little is left. I’m hoping this product returns very soon, or that some other producer will see the market value in this sort of product (looking right at you, Lactaid) and fill the void if Green Valley Organics is unable to do so.

Meanwhile, In 1952…

I’m up to the summer of 1952 in my stroll through “What’s My Line?”.  The panel has settled into a regular foursome: Dorothy, Bennett, Arlene and comedy writer Hal Block, who would remain with the show for one more year before being unceremoniously dumped.  He replaced Louis Untermeyer, who lasted through all of 1951, though his other original castmates were gone very quickly.  I am looking forward to Block’s replacement, the radio comedian Fred Allen.  Fred Allen was one of the few radio comedy stars not to make a successful transition to television with his own show, and died prematurely in 1954. But that’s all for later.

Television is still pretty new in 1952, but the show is definitely more professional looking and feeling from a production standpoint than the 1950 episodes.  They’ve worked out camera placements and cutting from one to another smoothly, moved the host to the opposite side of the stage from the panelists, and have given up on some things like a little intro where they would have live actors pretend to be people on the street who look at the camera and ask “What’s MY line?”

But 1952 is a foreign world to us now.  Even though I consider myself to be reasonably knowledgeable about American cultural history, I find myself having to resort to Wikipedia to figure out who some of the celebrities are, or at least why they were so popular at the time.  Last night, for example, there was Charlie Dressen, who was the manager of the Brookyln Dodgers that year and on another episode Elsa Schiaparelli, an Italian dress designer who was a competitor to Coco Chanel in the world of high couture.  There have also been some baseball and football players who are lost to obscurity today, Senator Estes Kefauver (who was Adlai Stevenson’s running mate that year), and one Miss America who would have a television career herself (Lee Meriwether), but one who did not.  It’s also fascinating (but occasionally jarring ) to see historical figures from earlier times show up as celebrity guests, sometimes even just weeks or months before they passed away. because it’s hard to think of them co-existing with the television age.

Hal Block is an interesting figure.  He was a writer who wrote for a number of comedians, but not really a performer himself, so its hard to know how he was picked to be on the show (but, hey, Louis Untermeyer, so go figure).  He’s sort of an “everyman” to the more high-class New York elite types of Cerf, Francis and Kilgallen, and much is made of the fact that he is from Chicago.  His stock in trade is asking salacious or double-entendre questions, especially when the contestants are young, attractive women.  Surely he was scandalous for network TV in 1952, which is what ultimately cost him his gig on the show, but he is also funny. There’s a lot of back-and-forth between him and John Charles Daly about his habits with women, drinking, gambling, and so on.  As his behavior was ultimately too much for 1952, it would similarly raise eyebrows in 2018 for its leering sexism, but there was a time in the 1960s and 70s where it would have been commonplace on TV.

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I have to say I have a huge crush on the 1952 version of Arlene Francis. She’s 45 years old in 1952, but could pass for 35 (at least on camera).  She’s vivacious and charming, where Dorothy Kilgallen is more serious and reserved.  The difference between an actress and a journalist, I suppose, but it’s easy to imagine her being dazzling at a cocktail party or something.  By the time I was old enough to watch WML in the early 1970s, she was more of a stately lady of Olde Broadway.  She eventually suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and passed away in 2001 at the age of 95 (!).

I’ve fallen into a routine of watching a couple of episodes every night before bedtime, so there’s been progress but there are still a LOT of episodes to go.  I’ll post again as I continue to move through the 1950s.

 

Great Gadget

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Fast Company featured this very interesting article yesterday about the story behind the development of the OXO Good Grips vegetable peeler and its impact on the design of kitchen gadgets.  When I worked at IDEO years ago, they were great at understanding usability as a primary factor in product design, and today it’s essentially a given in all good product design, but this was not always the case, and the OXO peeler was at the beginning of user-centric design.

I’ve got one at home, as well as their Y-shaped peeler and also a knockoff from another company.  There are also a few other OXO Good Grips products in my kitchen like their can-opener and kitchen tongs.

Season’s End

The autumnal equinox occurred over the weekend, so it’s officially fall.  After a protracted spell of tropical heat and humidity all summer here in New England, it was like someone flipped a switch and Sunday morning it was brisk enough for me to make a pot of hot coffee instead of going out for the iced cold brew I drink through the warm months.  The end of summer also means the end of fresh local tomatoes, which peak in late August here but keep going through September.  I wait for September every year to make a big batch of roasted tomato sauce with local plum tomatoes, and this year I also managed to get to the vegetable market in time to buy some more to make a delicious cream of tomato soup that we ate for dinner last night as the temperatures plunged down into the 40s for the first time in months.

I’ve been making roasted tomato sauce every year for maybe the last dozen years.  It’s fun to have food traditions like this.  Unlike a lot of home cooks, I don’t do a lot of holiday cooking (for a variety of reasons), so instead I have these more seasonal cooking traditions to enjoy. For example, I also make a kirschkuchen (a sort of sheet cake loaded with fresh cherries) every summer and a few other things.  I do not recall exactly where the roasted tomato sauce recipe came from in the first place, so I can’t really give anyone credit, but it’s definitely worthwhile.  The tomatoes roast, along with loads of chopped onions, garlic, shallots and herbs for a couple of hours and the aroma is indescribably good.

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You need about four to five dozen ripe plum tomatoes.  Cut them into quarters and arrange on two half-sheet pans.  Finely chop a large onion (I usually use a Vidalia), two or three big shallots, and some garlic (as much or as little as you want, I have used up to an entire head, though this year I went easy on the garlic) and spread them liberally over the tomatoes.  Chop some fresh basil and fresh oregano (again, no set amount, but I probably use half a cup of chopped basil and maybe a third of a cup of chopped oregano) and sprinkle all over the tomatoes.  Drizzle olive oil over the whole thing and roast in a 375 degree oven for two hours. After one hour, check the tomatoes and swap the sheet pans from one rack to the other.  If you like a little char, roast them at 400, but keep an eye on them in the second hour to make sure they don’t burn.

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Once the tomatoes have finished roasting, grind them through a food mill or process them in your food processor (working in batches) until they everything is pureed.  Put the sauce in a large saucepan.  Deglaze the baking sheets with some white wine and scrape up all the caramelized bits and add that to the pan.  Bring the sauce to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cook, covered, for an hour.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  This sauce is especially good in baked pasta dishes, and freezes nicely so you can package it up for multiple uses.

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Last night’s cream of tomato soup is adapted from a recipe I found here. I changed up the aromatics slightly to use a Vidalia onion instead of a red onion and included one diced stalk of celery, and used lactose-free half-and-half instead of almond milk (I hate almond milk).  Using an immersion blender to puree the soup in the pot saves a lot of cleanup, too.  The soup is so great with fresh tomatoes, but I might even try it with canned tomatoes over the winter.  This particular recipe makes four generous bowls of soup, so there was enough left for one leftover serving from our meal.

I should have more cooking projects to share with you soon.