Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Spring Has Barely Sprung

This is post #600.   

It has been a long, cold and wet winter and spring is late arriving this year.  The cherry blossoms came and went, and they were as beautiful as always.  But it just did not feel as if spring had actually arrived.  Even the forsythia, that early harbinger of spring, took its own sweet time to bloom.  Now the trees have leafed out, the grass has turned green, and the tulips and other flowers are in bloom.  We had a couple days recently when the temperatures soared into the upper 80s, even into the low 90s, but it has turned cooler again, as if spring is not quite sure of itself.  I thought it was at least safe to say that winter is over yet yesterday snow was falling on the edges of the DC metropolitan area.  

The Boys of Summer have returned, still those early season home games at Nationals Park were a bit on the chilly side.  The Nats have been on the road but return home today and I cannot say the weather has improved that much.  Unfortunately, neither has our hometown team that currently sits in the National League East cellar with one of the highest ERA averages in the Majors and the most walks issued.  I heard on the radio this morning that the Nats are one of a handful of teams that has not had a day off since the season opened earlier this month due to the pre-season lockout and this has put added pressure on the bullpen that is still try find its rhythm.  The Nats still have seven more games to play before their first break and hopefully the pitching staff will have found its groove by then and we can all take a breath.  And maybe their bats will warm up now with the arrival of some seasonal spring weather this week and bigger home crowds cheering them on as they take on the Arizona, who is also in last place in its West Division, and San Francisco, who is tied for first in that division.  So, we shall see.

Still, we should probably enjoy the cooler weather while it is still with us, for when the oppressive heat and humidity of a Mid-Atlantic summer returns, we will look back on this time and wonder why were complaining.  

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Shad - Some Thoughts on the American Fish

I think that Europe never had
A fish as tasty as the shad.
   — Ogden Nash

I have been fishing since I was a very young boy . . . on the rivers and lakes of the American Midwest, the streams of western North Carolina and north Georgia, the interior and coastal waters of Florida and Maine, the headwaters of the Connecticut River in northern New Hampshire, and the Pacific waters off of Southern California.  I have also fished in Canada, Ireland, France, as well as Germany and the UK where I was first introduced to shad.  I never fished for them there, however, as shad had not been considered a food fish since the 19th century. 

European shad species – Allis shad and Twaite shad -- are members of the Clupeidae family – and are closely related to the herring and found from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean.  They are an anadromous fish (living in both salt and freshwater environments).  Mature shad spend their life at sea, but in the spring (usually in the month of May), shad of 4-6 years migrate far up rivers into freshwater to breed and spawn.  The young shad live in freshwater for up to two years before they return to the sea where they will remain until they reach sexual maturity.  Today shad are absent from many areas where they were once abundant; major European rivers such as the Rhine, Elbe and Thames are now devoid of shad and they are no longer found in landlocked European countries where they used to be present during their migrations.   Overfishing and poor water quality have played a part, yet the biggest contributor to the reduction of shad populations are obstructions such as dams and weirs.
When I moved here to Maryland 46 years ago I was introduced to the waters of the Chesapeake and its tributaries.  Yet there are two fish – according to John McPhee the “Founding Fish of America” – once common to the Eastern Seaboard and the Chesapeake that have largely remained a mystery to me.  I am referring to the “delicious” American shad (Alosa sapidissima) and the hickory shad (Alosa mediocris).  Like their European cousins, they are members of the herring family (Clupeidae) and spend the majority of their adult lives at sea and migrate up coastal rivers in April and May to spawn in freshwater.  The best place to find shad is the Connecticut River (it is the state fish of Connecticut) although shad spawn in rivers as far south as Florida.

McPhee’s moniker is attributed to the fact that shad were a main food source for native Americans and colonists, and have been associated with other personalities and events of early American history, including William Penn, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, and even Abraham Lincoln.  There is the popular story – more likely a myth –  that it was the shad that saved General George Washington’s Continental Army during its encampment at Valley Forge during the severe winter of 1777-1778.  Threatened with starvation and little chance of fresh supplies, a false spring freshet supposedly enticed a “biblical proportion” of shad to begin an early run up the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers.  Yet nowhere in his extensive letters and diary entries during that time did Washington make any reference to the miracle appearance of shad.  Nor would a brief early freshet trigger such a large scale migration.  Finally, archeological digs in the area have failed to turn up any shad bones in the vicinity of the winter encampment.  Whether this story is true or not, it is clear that the shad was considered an important food source at the time.  According to Rich Remer, writing for The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, “The magnitude of the spawning runs of the eighteenth and nineteenth century shad schools in America was legendary.”  For most of American history, early spring meant a feast of shad although this tradition has since faded.   

Shad has a particularly strong historical nexus with the Commonwealth of Virginia although its official state fish is the brook trout.  George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both partial to shad and it was frequently served at Mount Vernon and Monticello.  Washington made a good income selling shad netted from the Potomac River.  Records show that in 1772 alone, more than 1 million shad and herring were netted at Washington’s Virginia estate.

Civil War soldiers had rations of shad, and John McPhee, in The Founding Fish (2002), tells us that it was shad that spelled doom for the General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in early April 1865 as it was mounting a final defense of the Confederate capital at Richmond.  On April 1, 1865, Lee’s headquarters was near Petersburg south of Richmond.  With Union General Philip Sheridan and 3,000 troops advancing from the southeast, Lee ordered General George Pickett to defend Five Forks, a strategic road junction situated six miles south of the Appomattox River.  It and the Southside Railroad were the last remaining supply lines to Richmond.   Citing historian Shelby Foote, McPhee writes that when the battle ensued Pickett was two miles behind the Confederate line dining with Tom Rosser and Fitzhugh Lee, two other generals.  The shad were running in the Appomattox River and Rosser had several caught for their midday dinner.  By the time Pickett returned to his station his division had been routed and Lee was forced to evacuate Petersburg.   Lee surrendered to Grant and Appomattox Courthouse eight days later.

Shad has remained popular into the 21st century as a ritual meal for Virginia politicians during an annual springtime event known as shad planking.  This tradition began shortly before World War II when Sussex County’s Democrats gathered to celebrate the annual shad spawning run on the James River.  The fish were butterflied and nailed to hardwood oak planks and smoked over large wood fires.  Begun primarily as a social gathering, it has since become a more bipartisan affair, often an opportunity for state politicians running for office to meet constituents and give speeches.  But the real focus was on the shad served up with potato salad, collard greens, and cold beer.
Given it importance throughout history it is safe to say that shad, whether it be smoked, grilled whole, baked, or deep-fried,  makes for some mighty fine eating.  Still, they are not to everyone’s liking.  Many, like Ogden Nash, complain about it many bones. 
Some people greet the shad with groans,
Complaining of its countless bones;
I claim the bones teach table poise
And separate the men from boys.
Shad have a sweet and delicate flesh that is healthy . . . but oh those bones!  This problem can be partially alleviated by baking the fish to soften them.  Others might be put off by it oily texture, but it has a wondrous flavor and is high in Omega 3.  Just a little salt and pepper and spritz of lemon and its flesh will melt in your mouth. 

Shad is also famous for its roe although it is not cheap.  Females are laden with delicate eggs as they swim up their spawning rivers.  A pair of lobe-shaped egg sacs can run upwards of $15 and they are only available in the early spring.  Low in calories, roe is unfortunately high in cholesterol.  Yet shad roe has one important quality going for it; “the roe is boneless, utterly” (Nash).  Roe can be an acquired taste similar to that of liver and other sweetbreads, but when sautéed or fried properly to a golden brown in butter or bacon grease with a little garlic, it as a smooth and rich savory flavor, often taking on the those of whatever it is cooked with.  Bacon has long been a traditional pairing with just a little bit of pepper, capers, and lemon.  Taking caution to cook the roe at a low temperatures to avoid bursting the eggs sac, it can be eaten by itself or mixed with scrambled eggs, in an omelet, or with grits.  Some prefer it raw served with cream cheese or a plain yogurt.  
So what is so special about the shad today?  My knowledge of the shad fishery is limited mainly to the Chesapeake Bay watershed, including the Susquehanna River headwaters and its eastern and western shore tributaries.  Throughout the colonial period, schools of springtime migratory American shad became an important part of Chesapeake culture and the Bay’s largest and most important fishery.  They make their spring migration from the Gulf of Mexico to the Chesapeake every year to spawn in the Bay’s many freshwater tributaries.  Farmers would spread vast nets across the rivers and those not destined for the larder were used to fertilize crops.  By summer, shad would leave the Bay and return to sea.  The hickory shad, identified by its prominent protruding jaw, is often confused with American shad yet its is not as prominent in the Chesapeake and northward as the Bay is near the fish's northern limit.  American shad are the largest (and considered the most delicious) of all the shads, often measuring 20-24 inches but can grow larger.  The largest American shad ever recorded was 30 inches in length.
Given it long association with the development of the United States, it is sad to say that the noble shad has fallen on hard times.  Conservation experts have reported that the current American shad population is well below those of the early 20th century as a result of overfishing, dams construction, habitat destruction, and non-commercial by-catch from trawler fishing for other species on the open Atlantic.  Many traditional shad fisheries, including the Chesapeake Bay watershed, have now been closed since 1980 with a moratorium on the harvesting of all shad to give the population a chance to rebuild this important fishery.  Here in Maryland and DC (where it is also the official fish of the Nation’s Capital) both hickory and American shad have closed seasons and all fish must be immediately released.  American shad are also closed in Virginia yet up to 10 hickory shad can be harvested on specified waterways.  These moratoriums seem to be working as shad number are beginning to increase.  Georgia and the Carolinas now have approved sustainable commercial shad fishing and they are probably the source of any shad currently found in stores and restaurants. 

Beginning in the mid-1990's, the upper Chesapeake Bay stocks of American shad began to increase and a viable catch and release fishery reemerged in the Susquehanna River, particularly in the Maryland section below Conowingo Dam completed in 1928.  Presently, the Susquehanna, Nanticoke, and Patuxent Rivers – all of them Bay tributaries – have seen their shad population rebound and remain relatively strong and are the primary systems that support viable American shad stocks in Maryland.  Beginning last year steps have been taken to capture shad below the Conowingo Dam and trucking them upstream before releasing the fish back into the river to continue their spawning migration.
It has been many years since I first fished Maryland’s Susquehanna River below the Conowingo Dam built in 1928.  An aquatic elevator, the largest of its kind in the world, was installed in 1991 at a cost of $12 million to, along with a smaller elevator constructed in 1972, lift fish almost 100 feet so that they might continue their spawning run into Pennsylvania and as far north as the Catskill Mountains in New York.  Today there are four additional dams with “fishways” along the lower Susquehanna in Pennsylvania.  These lifts were ostensibly constructed to assist the once abundant spring shad spawning migration leaving the Chesapeake just a dozen miles to the south of the Conowingo Dam and entering the Bay’s largest tributary.  Anglers still target shad as a catch-and release fishery, and it was below the dam where I caught my first and only shad.  Today most anglers at the dam are catching large catfish and smallmouth bass earning it praise as “ the best fish by a dam site.”  Many hope to snag a nice and tasty blue catfish, and there are large flatheads holding in the dam pool looking for tidbits of fish coming out of the turbine wash.  And there are always some shad in the mix if your timing is good during the spring.
It is a sad fact that we will probably never again see the shad population return to its early abundance, the “savior fish” of the Native Americans and the early American colonists.  That said, let us be thankful that there are efforts to same America’s Founding Fish.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Riders on the Storm - Chasing Tornados

In my last posting on April 8, I mentioned a few of my close encounters with major thunderstorms and tornados.  This came about after watching videos about tornados and the exploits of storm chasers in “Tornado Alley” of the Great Plains.  These storms are created when dry cold air moving south from Canada meets warm moist air traveling north from the Gulf of Mexico.

During the spring and early summer storm chasers set out in search of “towers,” the looming cumulus clouds that can be the first stage in the formation of a supercell storm.  Storm chasing often involves driving hundreds of miles in search of active severe thunderstorms.  Many chasers spend a significant amount of time forecasting, both before going on the road as well as during the chase, utilizing various sources for weather data.  Once located the serious chasers employ Doppler radar to spot rotation that spells the potential birth of a tornado.  The idea is to get as close to the storm – even in its direct path – as safety will allow in order to take photographs, make videos, and record data.  Many storm chasers are trained meteorologists seeking to learn more about how these storms work.  Others are simply in it for the chase and bragging rights, and perhaps earning a modest salary selling data, video, and photography they collect.

Storm chaser, or spotters, are necessary as Doppler radar, which was first introduced in the 1970s, illuminates elements of these developing storms yet it can only detect storm signatures.  It does not show where a tornado has actually formed or what it looks like on the ground.  In the mid-1970s, the National Weather Service (NWS) increased its efforts to train storm spotters so they could identify key storm features such as severe hail, damaging winds, and tornadoes, as well as storm damage and flash flooding.  According to recent statistics, there are more than 200,000 trained spotters in the United States.

Storm chasing became more popular after the 1996 release of the film Twister starring the late Bill Paxton and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his earlier film roles.  It provided an action-packed yet fictionalized glimpse into the community of professional spotters hoping to put an instrument package – called “Dorothy” after the character in The Wizard of Oz who was suck up by a Kansas tornado – directly into the damage path of an EF5 tornado in order to gather data from the storm’s interior . . . what Hoffman refers to as the “suck zone.”  But storm chasing is more than walking outside, or getting in your car, to look at the sky.

One has to know what one is looking for and what to do when a tornado is spotted.  Working on the ground, however, these spotters can provide definitive information whether a storm seen from a distance is a supercell and provide visual information on the storm's shape and structure, including updraft towers, rotation in the wall cloud, striations, strength of inflow, and position of the precipitation core in relation to the wall cloud.  A vast majority of tornadoes occur with a wall cloud on the backside of a supercell.  Most of these signs – temperature, humidity or pressure inside a tornado – will not show up on Doppler radar.  Spotters also look for ground disturbances beneath the wall cloud as a tornado forms not from the clouds down, but from the ground up; it might already be on the ground before the funnel becomes visible.

Spotters must also be familiar with the different shapes a tornado might take.  The most common form is the relatively narrow vortex, or rope, tornado. Most tornadoes begin and end their life cycle as a rope tornado before growing larger or dissipating.  Once on the ground a tornado will generally evolve into a cone shape which is more dangerous than rope tornadoes as their tracks leave a wider damage path.  A wedge tornado has the appearance of an upside-down triangle and wider than it is tall.  Its damage path is also broader than a rope or cone tornado.  Perhaps one of the most fascinating storms to observe is the multi-vortex tornado when two or more funnels clouds occur simultaneously from the same wall cloud.  Smaller “sub-vortices” will rotate around a larger primary vortex and often they will commingle into a damaging wedge tornado. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wp8E_GANqgk 

There are six categories of tornado – EF0-EF5 – on the Enhanced Fugita Scale established in 2007 and based on estimated wind speeds and relative damage.  The previous Fugita Scale established in 1971 was based solely on the amount of damage.  The NWS is the only federal agency with authority to provide official tornado EF Scale ratings based on the highest wind speed occurring within the damage path.  Once again the NWS relies on ground spotters to ascertain this information.  An EF0 tornado has winds estimated at 65-85 mph creating general light damage.  An EF5 – the so-called “finger of God” – has wind speeds of over 200 mph causing devastating damage.  The largest and strongest tornado on record was the EF5 El Reno wedge tornado occurring in Oklahoma on May 31, 2013.  According to reports, it grew to a width of over 2.5 miles with a wind speed reaching 302 mph.  Fortunately the storm occurred mostly in open country and so damage and lost of life was relatively low for such an intense storm.  Nevertheless, 20 people lost their lives and over 100 others were injured during its 40-minute rampage.  There was another EF5 tornado in and around Oklahoma City eleven day earlier with 215 mph wind killing 24 people and causing extensive and widespread damage.

Watching videos of storm chasers in action it is not difficult to differentiate the professionals from the hobbyists.  Those in the know describe what they are doing and seeing and we can hear then making their detailed reports to the NWS and local radio stations to warn of tornados on the ground.  The hobbyist narrative seems to be a repetitious litany of “oh my god,” “don’t get too close,” stop here,” and my favorite “is that a tornado?”  Very often these catechumen are thrown off by so-called scud clouds which are nothing more than cloud fragments hanging lower than the rest of the clouds.  Some may even appear to be have small funnels at their base.  These are not tornados, but rather condensation suspended from the main layers of thick cumulonimbus storm clouds.  Rotation is the key for the formation of a tornado and this is why it is important to have trained professional on the job.  They know what they are doing, what they are looking for, and how to respond to changing conditions.  Yet sometimes even this is not enough. 

There are many inherent dangers involved in storm chasing ranging from the tornado itself, as well as from lightning, large and damaging hail, hazardous road conditions, downed power lines, and storm debris.  There can be reduced visibility from heavy rain, and in some situations severe downburst winds may push automobiles around.  Most weather-related hazards can be minimized if the storm chaser is knowledgeable and cautious while maintaining a safe distance and having an escape route should the storm suddenly change direction.  Adding to these weather-related hazards are distractions to the chaser’s attention while driving – watching the sky, navigating, communicating, checking instruments, or taking photographs and videos.  Most professional chasers work in teams to avoid dangerous multi-tasking.

Three of the El Reno fatalities were experienced professional storm chasers, the first known chaser deaths inflicted directly by weather.  Several other chasers were also struck and some injured by this tornado and its parent supercell's rear flank downdraft.  The three died when the storm suddenly changed direction and their vehicle was destroyed while attempting to place a TOtable Tornado Observatory (TOTO), on which the Dorothy packet in the Twister film was based, in the damage path of that historic tornado.  This tragedy may have been prevented had they been equipped with mobile Doppler radar which has now become proforma in serious storm chasing circles as it provides near real-time updates on intensity and movement of the developing storm. 

As exciting as the chase might seem, it is not something for the fainted hearted.  Another good reason for leaving storm chasing to the professionals who know what they are doing.

Friday, April 8, 2022

And the Stormwatch Brews

                                                                       And the stormwatch brews .                       At the heels of a soft prayer                  – Ian Anderson, “Dun Ringill”

I have been fascinated by powerful thunderstorms since I was a little kid.  The more lightning and thunder the better.  I can think of no better way to fall asleep than lying in bed listening to the approach of a thunderstorm knowing I am safe inside.  Yet sometimes these storms pack a more powerful punch than first anticipated and one is forced to pay close attention in case they turn into some far more ominous than brief displays of lightning and rolling thunder.  Having grown up in the Midwest I have learned to have a healthy respect for tornados and what to do should they develop. 

I recall living through several tornadoes watches and warnings, the most memorable being the broad outbreak through the upper Midwest on Palm Sunday, April 11, 1965, when my family was living in Madison, Wisconsin.  We had gone to visit friends after church and I well remember the sickly green overcast that is a telltale sign of the potential for a developing tornado.  We never did see any funnels clouds that day, but this outbreak produced 55 confirmed tornadoes, the fourth deadliest tornado outbreak in US history, killing 271 people and injuring 1,500.   

I did not see my first tornado until four years later when I was visiting an old school chum then living in Texas.  It was the summer of 1969 and I joined his family for dinner one evening at a local restaurant.  While we were there we learned that a severe thunderstorm warning and tornado watch had been issued for the area.  The sky was darkening and the wind was picking up outside, but we did not see any reason to be too concerned.  But we kept an eye on the sky just in case.   When leaving the restaurant, however, we looked toward the sunset in the west where we spotted what proved to be a multi-vortex F3 wedge tornado slowly moving toward the north.  Fortunately we were not in any danger and so we stood there for quite some time mesmerized by the storm.   It was fairly short lived and did not cause any significant property damage and no major injuries or fatalities.  Still, it was a sight I would not soon forget. 

During the summer of 1987 my wife and six year old son Ian found ourselves at the summit of Brasstown Bald, at 4,784 feet Georgia’s highest elevation located in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest.  We visited the observation center one afternoon for its refreshing temperatures during an otherwise very warm and humid summer day, and to enjoy the breathtaking 360-degree views into Tennessee and the two Carolinas.  On this particular visit we observed a massive anvil-shaped thunderhead advancing in our direction.  Deciding it unwise to be caught out in the storm this high up on the mountain, we decided to remain on the summit inside the observation center until the storm had passed.  It is a good thing we did.  As the storm approached we watched as bolts of lightning danced through the thunderhead and spiked the valley floor.  It was a sight to behold.  Before long the summit was completely enveloped by the storm.  Lightning flashed almost non stop all around us and we could hear the sizzle of electricity in the air.  Our little boy was none to happy but I explained to him that we were safe inside and what a special thing it was to witness a storm up close.  I’m not sure he was convinced but he rode out the storm being as brave as he could.    

There was another opportunity to feel the full power of a thunderstorm, and a massive one at that.  On the evening of July 4, 1999, I attended the local holiday fireworks in Colebrook, New Hampshire.  It had been a beautiful summer day to be exploring the Connecticut River headwaters hard on the Canadian/Québec frontier although the temperatures were in the 90s with high humidity.  Afterwards I enjoyed a fine dinner at my favorite local lodge and a couple nightcaps in the tavern where the talk seemed to be focused on some predicted heavy weather to arrive overnight.  Before turning in for the night I stepped outside for a breath of fresh air and I quickly realized that the atmosphere had turned stagnant with no noticeable wind.  I retired upstairs to read after mapping out a trip into Maine the following day, hoping for more favorable weather.  The verdict was not yet in.  Before hitting the hay I stepped outside  again around 1am and notice some lightning flashes in the distant west beyond the Canadian frontier.  It looked indeed like we might get a storm overnight.  At the time I did not realize what an understatement that was. 

During the pre-dawn hours of that July 4th, thunderstorms were cropping up out in the Dakotas, and they eventually organized into a bow echo on Doppler radar indicating a building derecho – a widespread and long-lived straight-line wind storm or quasi-linear convective system accompanied by violent down bursts.  Damaging winds were occurring by the time the storm began moving across Minnesota to become known as the "Boundary Waters - Canadian Derecho."  It would last over 22 hours, travel more than 1300 miles at an average speed of almost 60 mph, resulting in widespread devastation and numerous casualties in both Canada and the United States.  Little did I know that evening that before morning it would have crossed Ontario and moved into western Québec north of Montréal with up to 6000 lightning strikes per hour and widespread wind damage.  It arrived in the Montréal metropolitan area at 2 to 3 am causing serious damage before reeking havoc on the Eastern Townships of Québec and neighboring area of northern New England with winds upward of 90 mph.  A tree farm in Sawyerville, Québec just a few miles northwest of where I was sleeping had most of its 2000-3000 trees destroyed.

I was awoken by the storm in the pre-dawn hours of July 5th.  The wind was rattling the windows in my room and the sky were illuminated by almost constant flashes of lightning while a cacophony of thunder boomed loudly over the sound of the wind.  I climbed out of bed and looked out at a lake whipped into a frothy brew.  Trees were swaying in the wind and the lawn was scattered with downed branches and leaves although the roar of the storm's winds was so loud no one could have heard trees snapping or falling to the ground.  There was little chance to go back to sleep so I sat  by the window and watched the storm as it continued its eastward journey. 

The full impact of the storm became evident once the sun began to rise.  The power was out to a wide swath of southern Québec and northern Vermont and New Hampshire, and after a cold breakfast at the lodge I took a drive to have a look around.  Hundreds, if not thousands, of trees were down and branches were scattered everywhere.  Wind gusts to 90 mph were measured near Colebrook and around the North Country.  I crossed the border into Canada where Hydro-Québec reported that from the Montréal area into the Eastern Townships 600,000 customers had lost electrical power.  Power would remain out for over a week in some places.  I eventually crossed back into the USA at Coburg Gore, Maine which also experienced the destructive derecho winds.  I found more trees splayed on the ground the result of vertical wind shear and micro-downbursts embedded in a broader swath of strong but less severe winds produced by the parent convective system.  The derecho continued to cause damage across central and southern Maine before dissipating when it reached the Atlantic coast.  The very long-lived “Boundary Waters-Canadian Derecho” was one of farthest northern derechos to have been recorded having destroyed hundreds of square miles of trees. Two people were killed and 70 were injured, almost all of them the result of falling trees or tree limbs.  Despite all the damage, I consider myself lucky to have experience the full impact of such a historic derecho.

During Ian’s sophomore year at the University of Maryland he once again found himself in the midst of a storm . . . this time a F-3 tornado that tore through Washington, DC’s northeastern  
 Maryland suburbs on September 24, 2001.  The area was   still reeling from the 9-11 terrorist attacks and an anthrax 
outbreak and nerves were frayed.  This was the last of three tornadoes associated with a supercell storm that developed over northern Virginia late that afternoon and tracked 78 miles over a two-hour period.  A well-defined hook echo near the southern end of the supercell tracked across Washington, DC before touching down on the DC-Maryland border just a mile north of our house and it remained on the ground for ca. 17 miles, dissipating near Laurel Maryland.  This is the closest call any of us have had with a tornado and it was far too close for comfort.   Especially for Ian.

With winds clocked at over 200 mph, the tornado produced heavy destruction from just west of the university campus were it caused approximately $15 million in damage, including several heavily damaged buildings, many tossed and destroyed vehicles, and two fatalities.  Ian was in his high-rise dorm room on the western end of the campus when the storm struck.  He first notice his window fan spinning wildly before realizing that it was not turned on.  He looked out his window in time to see trees being uprooted and tossed about with other flying debris.  The pressure was go great that it was difficult to open his room door in order to take shelter in the interior hallway as instructed.  After the storm had passed he went outside to witness the utter destruction wrought in just a few short minutes.  Two students were killed when the storm picked up their car near Ian’s dormitory and threw it into a tree in a parking area.  Cars across the broad parking area were flipped and tossed about.  There were broken and uprooted trees everywhere.

The tornado then struck the US Department of Agriculture Research Center, causing an estimated $41 million in damage to buildings and research documents. Before it was over 861 residential homes, 560 vehicles, and at least 23 commercial businesses were destroyed or damaged at an estimate of over $73 million.   The September 24, 2001 tornado is noteworthy because of its nearly 17 mile track, and it remains the only long-track event with an intensity of F3 or greater to directly impact on the greater Washington, DC, and adjacent suburban Maryland region since then. 

Recently I have been watching videos about tornados and the exploits of storm chasers, that fellowship of adrenalin-fuel meteorology junkies who seek out and track developing thunderstorm systems in “Tornado Alley” of the Great Plains – a reference to the region in the US Midwest that sees the most tornado activity.  This is nothing I have ever done on my own save the occasional detour to check out areas recently impacted by severe storms.  But I have long been curious what it would be like to be on the front line.  I will have more to say about this is a future posting.  So stay tuned.  

Monday, April 4, 2022

Can't Get Enough of Them Sugar Toads

Some might say that sugar toads are the best fish most people have never eaten.  In fact, I would venture to say that most would admit they have never even heard of this tasty delicacy found primarily in Chesapeake Bay where they thrive.  When folks think of the Chesapeake, oysters and crabs come immediately to mind.  But oh, there is so much more.  Let us not forget the worthy rockfish (striped bass), to many the king/queen of the Chesapeake. And who can forget the succulent blue catfish, flounder, bluefish, Spanish mackerel, shad, croaker, spot, and a host of others that make the Bay such an interesting fishery.  

Sugar toads – “sweet as sugar and ugly as a toad” – or northern puffer (Sphoeroides maculatus), is a non-poisonous species not to be confused with the other members of the pufferfish family (ca. 120 variations) which contain tetrodotoxin, a substance found in the liver, gonads, and skin, making them foul tasting and lethal to fish. “To humans, tetrodotoxin is deadly, up to 1,200 times more poisonous than cyanide. There is enough toxin in one pufferfish to kill 30 adult humans, and there is no known antidote.”  That’s enough to make anyone turn away.  That said, Japan still cherishes the poisonous pufferfish which must be expertly handled by a licensed chef specially trained to remove its poisonous parts.  It is then served as a pricey dish called fugu which due its nature is largely banned in the USA.  Good call.  

Admittedly, the northern puffer isn’t pretty, covered as it is with tiny sharp spikes, and sporting four large and powerful teeth used to crush crabs, clams, shrimp and other shellfish that are its main diet.  Among commercial fishermen, northern puffers were long ignored as by-catch and either thrown back or saved for fertilizer.  They should not be confused with the oyster toadfish, or “oyster cracker” (Opsanus tau, in the family Batrachoididae). The toadfish lays the largest eggs of any Chesapeake Bay fish and it has a venomous spine on its first dorsal fin.  Pain from this venom has been compared to a bee or wasp sting and for this reason they have no real commercial value.  The northern puffer, on the other hand, has a clean, sweet and mild flavor – the white meat has a delicate sweet flavor similar to white perch and sea bass – and watermen would save them for the family table after selling their commercial catch.  Eventually sugar toads became a staple on the menu boards of restaurants on both sides of the Bay.  Found from early spring to autumn, and in winter in deeper waters offshore, soon watermen were targeting the northern puffer in the Chesapeake starting in midsummer by baiting “peeler pots” used earlier in the season for soft-shell crabs.  Recreational fishermen often catch them with a two-hook bottom rig.  

On my various outings on the Bay in search of trophy rockfish and bluefish I would occasionally hook an oyster cracker, and more rarely a northern puffer, but I always returned them to the water not realizing until later just what a tasty delicacy the latter is.   I won’t make that mistake again.  Sugar toads – also referred to as “sea squab” in some quarters – are considered to be the fried “chicken wings of the sea.”  Eaten with your hands, they are the perfect bar snack or appetizer served up with a cold beer.

Preparation and serving sugar toads are a pretty simple process.  The first step is to remove the head, innards, fins and bones save the spine, and the sandpaper-rough skin.  Gloves are a must.  Leave the tail on as this will make it easier to handle.  Once cleaned, dip the remaining meat into buttermilk mixed with hot sauce and salt, then dredge it in flour seasoned with Old Bay spice and pepper.  Repeat this process 2-3 times before deep frying for 5-7 minutes.  When finished, the sugar toad will have the look of a fried shrimp only larger.  The soft and flaky flesh will have a decidedly sweet, even melt-in-your-mouth consistency.  But don’t stop there.  Just like chicken wings, sugar toad go best with a preferred dipping sauce.  Some favor honey, tartar sauce, or hot sauce while others might choose a buttermilk dressing infused with cheese, mayonnaise, chopped parsley, chervil, tarragon and chive, Old Bay and lemon.  I personally like a melted garlic and anchovy butter.  

It has been awhile since I have had a nice mess of sugar toads, and with the coming of warmer weather it will be time to head over to the Bay and reacquaint myself with this delightful delicacy.   I may even bring a few home for the larder along with some soft shell crab.  Bon appetit! 

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Wishing My Mom a Very Happy 97th Birthday!!

Photo taken April 2, 2022
Who could not love that smile?  Today my mother i
s celebrating her 97th birthday.  She was born on this day in 1925 in Grand Rapids, Michigan and grew up in in Paw Paw, Michigan where she lived until she married my father on March 9, 1946. Dad passed away in 2009 but Mom has continued to live on her own ever since.  Currently residing in Canal Winchester, a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, perhaps she is moving a little slower these days (I feel your pain Mom), yet she still drives, and she loves to get out and about and enjoy what life has to offer in spite of the pandemic.  I only regret that I have not had an opportunity to visit with her over these past two years.  Still, we text each other every day sharing news, weather forecasts and reports, and idle gossip.  She keeps busy watching Ohio State sports, golf, her favorite programs, and she is always reading something.

So, on this very special day I am wishing my Mom all the best as she celebrates 97 journeys around the sun.  Let's all help her blow out all these candle!

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Poetry Day for Ukraine

April is National Poetry Month established by the Academy of American Poets in 1996 to remind the public that poets and poetry play an integral role in our national culture, and in others as well, and they have an important place in our lives, both in the USA and beyond, to give fresh recognition and impetus to regional, national, and international poetry movements.   

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted March 21 as World Poetry Day during its 30th General Conference in Paris in 1999.  It was established to celebrate this unique cultural and linguistic expression.  “Every form of poetry is unique, but each reflects the universal nature of the human experience,” writes UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay; “Our aspirations of creativity that crosses boundaries and borders.”  This is the power of poetry!  This dialogue “enriches that catalyzes all human progress and is more necessary than ever in turbulent times.  She concludes: “Oral traditions and expressions are used to pass on knowledge, cultural and social values and collective memory. They play a crucial part in keeping cultures alive . . . [and] allowed people to escape temporarily from their fears and to find comfort at home with their loved ones.”

We continue to celebrate World Poetry Day "with the aim of supporting linguistic diversity through poetic expression and increasing the opportunity for endangered languages to be heard."  This year UNESCO marks the advent of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, to affirm its commitment to indigenous peoples worldwide.  

This year World Poetry Day takes on a special significance and poets around the world have gathered to express their solidarity with the brave and heroic Ukrainian people as they defend their country from the savage and criminal war Russian president Vladimir Putin has unleashed on them for no other reason than to create a fascist state as the true and legal successor state of the brutal Russian empire and the former Soviet Union.

In celebration of World Poetry Day and standing in solidarity with sister Cities of Literature in Lviv and Odessa in Ukraine, several of UNESCO’s 42 Cities of Literature have joined together to present the poem, “So I’ll talk about it” by Serhiy Zhadan and translated by John Hennessy and Ostap Kin.  He is one of Ukraine’s best-known poets and novelists, who gathers crowds of thousands of people at his book launches and events. https://www.calvertjournal.com/articles/show/12137/contemporary-ukrainian-poems 
Men that dance the way they quench
steppe-fire with their boots.
Women that hold onto their men in dance
like they don’t want to let them go to war.

As I celebrated my 71st birthday on Match 21 I joined poets and writers from around the world in support of the Ukrainian people in their brave stand against Putin's criminal war.  Who can forget the words of Yevgeni Yevtushenko’s poem “Babyn Yar”? 
O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.
We recall these words as Russian missiles land close to the memorial to that past massacre just outside Kyiv, the besieged Ukrainian capital. 

Let these words and others ring again in our ears as we watch with heavy hearts the death and destruction visited on the brave Ukrainian people who only want to live in peace.

Слава Україні ! Героям слава !

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Missing That Special Third Place

March 9 marked the second anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, when the human species worldwide was forced to seek shelter in place, and in doing so alienating itself from the broader social constructs it has for so long taken for granted.  Inter-personal relationships have suffered the most of all as we have gone so long without regular contact with family and friends. 

Having written my doctoral dissertation on the German interpretation of “proxemics” – the study of human space and the various non-verbal modalities through which they can be expressed – I have naturally been drawn to Ray Oldenburg, an American urban sociologist, who has written about the importance of public gathering places for a greater engagement within a civil society.  In The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You Through the Day (1989), and later in Celebrating the Third Place: Inspiring Stories about the "Great Good Places" at the Heart of Our Communities (2000), Oldenburg emphasizes the importance of these informal third places as “the heart of a community's social vitality and the foundation of a functioning democracy;” promoting social equality and community verve through a discussion of “grassroots politics” and thereby creating public association supporting individuals and their communities.   These books have been called eloquent and visionary in that they lend the “third place” a necessary and vital balance to the other two “places” – the privatization of home life, which has been the main focus for most of us over the past two years, and our work places which also adhere to certain formal rules yet which many of us have been isolated from in favor of working from home.

These so-called “third places,” on the other hand, are nothing more than informal public gathering places which allow individuals to set aside their daily concerns and obligations with home and work and to enjoy the company and conversation around them.  In contrast, third places offer a neutral public space for a community to connect and establish bonds. Third places "host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work . . . but sadly, they constitute a diminishing aspect of the American social landscape."

Informal public life is essential for the health both of our communities and ourselves.  The anthropologist Edward Hall coined “proxemics” in the early 1960s and classified four major proxemic zones: intimate space, personal space, social space, and public space, aspects of the physical environment that affect behavior.  Within these spatial modalities he also defined audio, visual, tactile and olfactory responses.  Hall’s research, along with my own study of proxemic spatial behavioral patterns among the Germans, suggest that different cultures have different expectations of what is socially acceptable in the four proxemic zones.  

North Americans and Europeans in general prefer more social space while Latin Americans prefer more intimate contact when interacting with others.  Still, North Americans and Europeans tend to draw a strict boundary between private, or intimate space, and public/social space.  Population density also defines the noticeable difference between how rural and urban populations erect boundaries between private, which tends to be more formal, and public space.  "In the absence of informal public life, living becomes more expensive,” Oldenburg writes.  “Where the means and facilities for relaxation and leisure are not publicly shared, they become the objects of private ownership and consumption."

In this particular instance, I am focusing on American social space, the third proxemic zone as defined by Hall.  Without the chance for some degree of communal, public contact, we are relegated to our homes and work places where we tend to spend most of our time and which provide very limited social interaction.  “Social well-being and psychological health,” Oldenburg tells us, “depend upon community.  ”We are able to function better at home and at work as the “third place” provides casual interaction with those with whom we do not work and to whom we are not related.  "What suburbia cries for are the means for people to gather easily, inexpensively, regularly, and pleasurably -- a 'place on the corner,' real life alternatives to television, easy escapes from the cabin fever of marriage and family life that do not necessitate getting into an automobile."     

This social third space has sadly been a rare commodity over the past two years of the coronavirus pandemic . . . made even more so by the recent up ticks caused by the spread to the Delta and Omicron variants and people returning to the safety of hearth and home.  Outdoor gatherings were a premium during the cold and wet winter months.  This deprivation of casual interaction is a tragedy for us all and we try to make the best of it whenever and wherever we can. 

Recently to COVID numbers have been going down and with the return of warmer spring weather there is once again an opportunity to return to our favorite haunts to renew and reset our social links with friends and family.  I have also long counted on these third places as an alternative work place; an opportunity to seek out a social venue where I can be among people as I write while enjoying social contact, something to eat, and perhaps an adult beverage or two.  

Coronavirus cases plummeted around the United States over this past year, and states and localities are dropping their mask-wearing requirements.  That said, it is still incumbent upon on us to use a little common sense.  Just as the COVID number are on the wane, they could easily spike again.  This pandemic is not over and it is going to take all of us to do what is necessary to keep the numbers low.  If not, we may once again be forced to seek shelter in our homes.  Nobody wants that!

So eat, drink, and be merry, but do so with an ounce of protection.  It benefits all of us.


Friday, March 18, 2022

Some People Told Me - Why Do People Believe the Big Lie?

An immediate alarm bell, a warning flare goes up, whenever a pundit or talking head begins a report with “some people told me.”   Which people?   When?   What exactly was said and in what context?  But more importantly, do these people even exist?  In almost every instance I suspect not.  If you can’t cite a specific source, if the information is second hand and only attributed to “some people,” this tells me whatever is to follow is more than likely a crock of unadulterated bullshit.  I’m sorry, but let’s call it what it is.  This is nothing more than an example of “fire-hosing,” a propaganda technique in which a large number of messages are broadcast rapidly, repetitively, and continuously without regard for truth or consistency.  And people are eating it up whether it be true or not.

During the four long years of the former White House interregnum, and throughout the past year, the so-called “Big Lie” has largely been attributed to the words of, the evidence provided by “some people.”  But no one seems to know who they are.  And yet the media keeps reporting these false narratives, perhaps because they cannot conceive of anyone who might have the impudence to distort the truth so egregiously.  Yet it happens all the time.  The American landscape seems to be full of people who believe these “some people” who exist only in the minds of those who wish to lie and distort.  And what if such a claim is proven to be untrue?  Normally this would be considered embarrassing and a sign of weakness.  This is no longer the case.  These “some people” and their spokespersons double-down on untrue claims to save face and personal credibility.

It is our own fault that we are not more discriminating about what we choose to believe.  Many prefer to think they are correct rather than admit they are wrong or have been duped by the unscrupulous.  It has been shown time and again that repeating or amplifying false claims, even to refute them, makes people more likely to believe it.  We would be far better off to value uncertainty and intellectual humility and curiosity. Those values help us ask questions without the expectation of hard/fast answers.

Why haven’t we learned our lesson and demonstrated the fortitude to ignore these claims and call them what they are?  Perpetuating them comes with costs.  Case in point . . . the January 6th Capitol insurrection and attempted coup.  A year has passed, and the Big Lie is just as prevalent today as it was then.  Why?  Because the media is playing right into the hands of the perpetrators.  Dr. Matt Blanchard, a clinical psychologist at New York University, has studied how we deal with what is purported to be true . . . what “some people” have claimed is the truth.   People won’t so much believe something, yet they do seem willing to accept certain information or facts provisionally because it fits their frame of mind and helps them identify with others.  Or it might help one vent some rage.  What is believed “is always predicated on usefulness."  After a time, the presumed truth is accepted as fact.   

The Nazis were adept at perpetuating its Big Lie – claiming Germany’s ills were attributed to the Jews and their “stab-in-the-back” treachery – in order to exploit and manipulate people solely to appeal to ingrained historical anti-Semitism to gain their support.  Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, freely admitted that the perpetuation of the lie is not dependent on the intelligence of those who created it, but rather on the “thick-headedness” and stupidity of those to ignorant to recognize it for what it really is.  There is no reason to fear appearing impudent or ridiculous.   Just stick to the story and folks will believe it to be the truth.  Timothy Snyder, a historian who specializes in the study of fascism, wrote in The New York Times last year that one of the major components of the Big Lie is that it is immediately attributed to the side it is directed against.  This is exactly what Adolf Hitler did in his Mein Kampf, and it is what we are seeing today in this country.

Frequent and tautological repetition is also key as its success is dependent on indoctrination from all angles.  It becomes its own primary evidence.  Repeat something enough it becomes truth.  Who is responsible for this truth?   More often than not it is “some people.”   No one seems to need any more proof than that.  It’s time to insist on those advancing the claims of “some people” to put up – show us the evidence – or shut up!

Monday, March 14, 2022

A Tale of Two Seafood Stews, Part 2: Cioppino -- Eating Vicariously

I apologize for the delayed posting of Part 2, but I have been distracted by the tragic and criminal Russian invasion of Ukraine commencing on February 24.  Part 1 was posted on February 14.  Bon Appetit!

As I stated in Part I, the differences between bouillabaisse and cioppino are few; broth is the main distinguishing component.   And whereas bouillabaisse is a genuine French stew, cioppino is an Italian-style seafood stew – purely tomato-based and coupled with a fish stock broth – first created and served in San Francisco.  Cioppino also includes wine – red or white – while bouillabaisse, at least historically, does not although plenty of modern versions do call for it, and it works beautifully.  OK, that is the general rule, but it can get more involved than that.  Olive oil, fennel and fennel seeds, yellow onion, garlic, fresh parsley, and red pepper flakes are frequently added as aromatics, and cioppino is often served with garlic bread while served with a local red Zinfandel or Vermentino from Sonoma or Napa.    

Some diners will suggest that there is not that much of a difference between a cioppino and a traditional bouillabaisse – that cioppino is simply and Americanized version of the latter – but I beg to differ.  These two stews share similar herbs and spice and are equally fragrant yet with a decidedly different flavor profile.  It is also more traditional to serve bouillabaisse as separate dishes – the seafood removed to a platter and the rich broth served separately.  Of course, one may mix the seafood and broth together when serving, if one wishes, but there is something a bit more elegant about serving it separately in the traditional way.  Cioppino, on the other hand, is always served from one big pot with a little bit of everything dished into individual bowls.  Although there are certainly similarities, cioppino is delicious in its own right.  Each has continued to evolve standing on their own merits.  

The name “cioppino” comes from ciuppin (also spelled ciupin . . . the literal translation meaning “chopped” or “torn to pieces”), a seafood soup from the Liguria coast of Italy bordering France.  The dish also shares its origin with cacciucco from Tuscany.  In fact, the dish actually traces its roots to San Francisco where Italian immigrants from Liguria fished along the waterfront wharfs in the North Beach neighborhood.  The earliest printed description of cioppino – called "chespini” – dates to circa 1900, and "Cioppino" first appears in a 1906 cookbook published to raise funds in the wake of the devastating fire that year.  Cioppino would soon become a staple in many San Francisco area restaurants.

In preparing the broth, it should be allowed to simmer for an hour or so before the seafood is added.  Onions, fennel, and garlic are sauteed in butter before adding white wine and a bouquet garni of selected herbs.  Some chefs will also add vinegar, hot sauce, and clam juice to enhance the flavors of the broth.  Once the wine has burned off it is time to add the chopped and crushed tomatoes and a seafood stock prepared by boiling fish heads and bones.  It is time to add the selected seafood after the broth has properly simmered to draw out the flavors,

The main ingredients of the original cioppino recipe are sourced from the Pacific, including whole quartered Dungeness crab in the shell, clams, shrimp, bay scallops, shucked oysters, mussels, and calamari.  Portions of white fish are often added, depending on the day’s catch or one’s personal choice.  Garlic sourdough bread is ideal for soaking up the flavorful broth.  And unlike bouillabaisse, cioppino requires more than a simple spoon and fork; don’t forget the shell cracker and seafood fork for the crab.  Serving a proper cioppino can get a let messy at times, but it is worth the extra effort.  

During the late 1970s and early 1980s I frequently traveled to San Francisco on business, and it was there that I first encountered cioppino.  I had many restaurants to choose from, but why not try the place that is named after the dish?  Cioppino’s is located at 400 Jefferson Street, at the corner of Levenworth Street at Fisherman’s Wharf (formerly Meigg’s Pier) / Hyde Street Pier.  This pier served as the ferry terminal to Marin County and the East Bay before the big bridges were built in the 1930s.  Although there is a rich assortment of seafood dishes to choose from, its signature dish is, of course, a hearty cioppino.  The crab can be removed from the shell for a few dollars more.  I enjoyed my meal, but I found everything a bit overpriced due to the simple fact that the city is expensive and the area is a main draw for tourists.  

On my next trip I looked for a place along the Embarcadero far from the Fishermen’s Wharf  tourist traffic and found it at the Pier Market at Pier 39.  The house cioppino was brimming with fresh fish, mussels, clams, shrimp and crab served over pasta which I found to be a pleasant addition.  There is no specific rules as to what constitutes a traditional cioppino.  Every local chef has a particular manner in which the dish is prepared and served.
Perhaps my favorite place to enjoy cioppino is found across the Bay in Sausalito.   Salito’s Crabhouse, at 1200 Bridgeway, offers different sizes of its house “Cioppinolito,” which is described as having mussel, crab, shrimp, calamari, fish fillet, potatoes, yams, onions, corn, garlic and black olives, and spicy “Cioppino sauce.”  My favorite dish at Salito’s is the tasty sand dabs, but a small bowl of Cioppinolito is always a nice starter to fire up the tastebuds for what will follow.
I have occasionally ordered what is billed as cioppino in several restaurants on the East Coast – Boston, New York, and here in Washington, DC – but I have never found it to be as attractive or as flavorful as those served on the Left Coast.  Don’t get me wrong.  Some have been very fine fish stews, but billing them as “traditional” cioppino is perhaps going a bit too far.  There is one notable exception, however, and again it was found in Maine . . . in the dining room of the Island Inn, on Monhegan Island situated in Muscongus Bay a dozen miles of Midcoast Maine.  It was not billed as the  traditional offering and it included lobster for a local flare, but it was the best I have had outside of the Bay area.  Unfortunately it is not a regular menu offering so I always make sure to order it when it does show up.  

No matter whether it is bouillabaisse or cioppino, a well-prepared offering of the freshest seafood and vegetables matched with a proper fish stock and selected spices and aromatics will please any diner’s palate.