Friday, June 21, 2024

April Was a Very Cruel Month . . . But With a Happy Ending

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
– T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land (1922)

These are the memorable first lines of Eliot’s seminal long poem.  It was the focal point of my senior essay in a modern poetry seminar, in the autumn of 1972, coming as it did on the 50th anniversary of its publication.  Little did I know what resonance it would have a half century later.  

It has been over a year since I posted anything of significance here, but not for the lack of want or thoughts I had hoped to share.  Shortly after that last post on March 26, 2023, I traveled to Ohio to help my mother celebrate her 98th birthday. It was a pleasant visit until the day it was time to return home when I woke up feeling very much under the weather.  We immediately hit the road figuring it would be better to be close to my doctor should something come of it.  What a fortuitous decision on my part!

Two days after returning home I collapsed and could not get up.  SallyAnn called the EMTs and the next thing I knew I was in the back of an ambulance and on my way to the hospital attached to tubes and monitors.  After some time in the emergency room, I was moved to the ICU where I remained for three days. I did not feel terribly bad, but I had a sneaking suspicion it might be serious. It was.  My kidneys were beginning to shut down as the result of a nasty blood infection attributed to my chronic lymphedema in both legs dating back to late 2017.  I would spend the month of April and half of May 2023 in the hospital and rehab, thankfully avoiding dialysis as my health slowly improved.  I eventually returned home to several weeks of additional physical therapy, happy in the thought that my life had been given back to me thanks to the wonderful care afforded by the doctors, nurses, physical therapists, and a dedicated hospital staff.

I had planned to write about this after settling in at home, but I could not steal myself to relive those days of uncertainty.  It was just nice to be home again, sitting up and getting back to a normal routine.  I relished the mundane as I focused on my full recovery while returning to my various projects.  By late July I felt well and strong enough to return to Maine for our annual summer hiatus.  Little did I know at the time what restorative powers emanate from fresh sea breezes.    
We returned to Monhegan Island situated twelve miles off Midcoast Maine. We had been doing this since 2000, and it seemed that two weeks on this small, quiet island was just what I needed.  And SallyAnn, too, after all I put her through that spring.   We spent two delightful weeks on this barely one square mile of paradise, and home to less than 100 souls far removed from the hustle and bustle of the outside world.   Monhegan has long been a destination for artists – the Wyeths, Edward Hopper, Robert Henri, Andrew Winter, Reuben Tam, George Bellows, Rockwell Kent, James Fitzgerald, just to name a few – and art lovers, and there are ample opportunities to enjoy all the island has to offer.  SallyAnn enjoyed combing the small beach looking for sea glass for her jewelry creations, and I was always in search of a quiet and out-of-the-way place to read and write while soaking in the dramatic land- and seascapes that have drawn so many artists and writers to the island.
We spent another week back on the mainland at dear friends’ small cottage in Harpswell, on Bailey Island, with a wonderful view of Casco Bay.  We enjoyed the local lobster and oysters and all the sea has to offer while visiting so many old haunts and friendly faces from our many summers spent in Maine over the past four decades.  We briefly hosted a dear friend from home taking a break from his transit of the Appalachian Trail.  This provided an opportunity to spend some time in the mountains of western Maine, and to make a detour to my favorite lodge in far northern New Hampshire for a couple of days in the Great North Woods along the Canadian border.
Our travels also took us to Down East Maine which we had not visited in a number of years.  It has a completely different ambiance than other regions of the state.  It is hardscrabble country and sparsely populated, yet it afforded us wonderful opportunities to spend some quiet time along the shores of the Bay of Fundy with its highest tides in the world.  During the long pandemic and my illness, I had allowed my passport to expire so we were not able to cross the border into Canada for a return visit to Campobello Island and Deer Isle, but we were afforded nice views of these lovely coastal islands from Lubec and Eastport, the easternmost towns in the continental United States.
We returned to New Hampshire to revisit the lovely Shaker village at Canterbury, followed by some time on the beaches at Hampton and Portsmouth with a day trip to Gloucester and Rockport on Massachusetts’s picturesque Cape Ann.  The summer was made all the more perfect with a return visit to Newport, Rhode Island to visit with dear friends and to explore the local environs (and enjoy the local clams and other seafood).  Then there was an exploration of nearby Fall River, Massachusetts and various sites connected with the case of Lizzie Borden, including the house (now a bed and breakfast) where she offed her parents with 29 whacks of an ax.  This had long been on SallyAnn’s bucket list.  

After several weeks in northern New England, we returned home healthy and in a good frame of mind.  Even with my somewhat limited mobility, we both immensely enjoyed our summer escape from the heat and humidity of Washington, DC as we looked forward to the onset of autumn and cooler weather.  In October we returned to Ohio to help a dear college chum celebrate her 70th birthday, followed by a return visit with my mother and sister and her family.  Thankfully, that visit ended on a much better note than the previous one.  Then came the holidays during which I tried very hard to get into the spirit of the season knowing I had so much to be thankful for.  2023 didn’t turn out too bad after all things considered.
We spent January and February in Florida with some side trips into Georgia to visit family and friends.  It began with two lovely weeks at an oceanfront condo on Crescent Beach, south of St. Augustine.  I have never spent that much time in this area of the state, although SallyAnn has, and so we discovered and re-discovered all that it has to offer – a wondrous variety of local seafood, the ability to cruise the wide beach expanse in one’s automobile and staying just a few hundred feet from Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ beach cottage where she wrote many of her stories.  There was also the former colonial Spanish Fort Mantanzas, as well as the colonial sites in and around historic St. Augustine, one of the earliest European settlements in North America.  It was a relaxing visit, and I had an opportunity to finally begin assembling the manuscript for Aspiring to a Full Consent: New & Selected Poems, 1971-2024, which I hope to see in print by the end of the year.
After our time on the Atlantic coast, we headed inland to spend a month in a quaint cottage in Evinston.  This tiny hamlet on the western shore of Orange Lake is situated on the edge of Paynes Prairie and the Great Alachua Savanna just south of Gainesville.  The English naturalist William Bartram visited this region in the 1770s when the main inhabitants were bands of Seminoles.  He recorded his observations in The Travels of William Bartram (1791): "how the mind is agitated and bewildered, at being thus, as it were, placed on the borders of a new world.  On the first view of such an amazing display of the wisdom and power of the supreme author of nature, the mind for a moment seems suspended, and impressed with awe."  I find it difficult to argue with his impressions over two centuries later.  Once a center of Florida’s citrus industry, this region is now known for it cattle and horse farms.  My late her-in-law ran cattle on Paynes Prairie when he was young and continued to work at several cattle ranches throughout central and north Florida.  The largest cattle operation in Spanish Florida, Hacienda De La Chua, operated here in the late 1600s.        
It was a very relaxing month exploring the many back roads in this region in addition to outings to the Gulf Coast and Florida’s Great Bend country, reliving memories of time spent here in years gone by.  Ms. Rawlings’ farm at Cross Creek, the inspiration for her novel The Yearling (1929), was only eight miles from the cottage . . . half that as the crow flies.  We visited the Alachua Sink on the southern edge of Gainesville.  It is the deepest of Paynes Prairie’s sinkholes and acts as a conduit for water entering the Florida aquifer at a rate of up to 6 million gallons per day.  Upon visiting the Alachua Sink, Bartram was amazed by the number and size of the alligators, "so abundant that, if permitted by them, I could walk over any part of the basin and the river upon their heads."  You can almost say that even today.  The gators share the sink with a rich variety of bird life – egrets, Blue Herons, Sandhill Cranes, various hawks and vultures only to mention a very few.  

We returned home to Maryland in early March, visiting friends in Atlanta along the way.  We spent time examining the museum at the Carter Center and the nearby historical sites associated with the life and career of Martin Luther King.  We also wandered the downtown campus of Georgia Tech where my father received his degrees in engineering after the war.  He and my mother moved to Chicago in 1951 shortly before I was born and so I have always felt a kindred spirit with this dynamic southern city.  Our very satisfying winter adventure concluded with a visit to Asheville, North Carolina where I lived for a few years when I was a boy.   I always enjoy a return to my old stomping grounds.   

The spring passed without serious incident or illness.  A year after my hospitalization and recovery, I remain healthy, and I continue to move forward with what I can only hope will remain a life well-lived (save a brief Covid relapse a couple weeks ago . . . nothing quite as bad as the first bout in late 2022).  And now we are preparing for yet another summer hiatus on Maine’s Monhegan Island and elsewhere in northern New England during which I plan to finally complete my first novel, The Skunk Compass of Compass of the Big Magalloway.  Wish me luck!

In return, I wish everyone a happy, healthy and prosperous summer 2024.

Sunday, December 31, 2023

Happy New Year 2024!

Wishing everyone a happy, healthy, safe, and prosperous New Year.  This past year has been a difficult one for many reasons although I am happy to report that life seems to be back on track.  Look forward to some new postings here in the very near future.   

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Merry Christmas

Wishing all of my friends and followers a very festive holiday season.  May you seek peace and tranquility among your family and friends.  नमस्ते / Namaste.  Steve

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Looking Toward Portugal — It’s Been 15 Years!!

 On this day in 2008 I launched a new blog and since then I have posted over 600 times.  This has been a dry year due to an unexpected illness and lengthy recovery.  But I’m back on track and hope to be posting new essays in the very near future.  Thanks for your patience.  And stay tuned. 

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Without Facts and Evidence History Becomes Indistinguishable from Fiction

 

A week ago, I posted a historical fact about Mussolini on Facebook along with a well-known photograph of the man. Now I have been informed once again that posting such a historical facts "goes against community standards” and I have been confined to Facebook prison, restricted from posting or otherwise participating in the public forum for one month. This is outrageous!!

What is it about this country that so many are frighted by the prospect that history should be understood through the sharing of facts and figures provided within their proper context? Or that only certain types of history can be taught and shared. But let us not discuss slavery, critical race theory, LGBTQ history, etc. What are the words written on the Statue of Liberty?  Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore?  What about their histories in this country?

It is time that we stand up with the courage to take our country back from those who wish to shape it only in their own image of what America is and stands for. History is who we are and why we are the way we are.   Without it we go blind and ignorant into the future.

Monday, January 23, 2023

A Snowy Football Game - Notes from the Sunshine State

Yesterday football fans witnessed a mini-lake effect blizzard during the NFL playoff game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the hosting Buffalo Bills.  The Bengals won 27-10.  Several people were commenting on the game on social media, and my mom was watching the game on TV on a snowy day in Ohio and texted me here in Florida.  “Great big flakes.  Must be very odd for anyone who has never been in snow to watch it.”  I bet it was.  Over the years I have watched a number of games played in the snow on TV, especially growing up as a Green Bay Packers fan.  Snow is nothing knew at Lambeau Field.

And who can forget the 1967 NFL Championship game between the Packers and the Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay on New Year’s Eve?  The Bengals - Bills game was a walk in the park compared to the infamous “Ice Bowl,” so called because of the brutally cold temperatures at game-time . . . 15 below zero with an average wind chill at −48 °F.  Still nearly 51,000 attended the game which Green Bay won 21-17.   An elderly spectator in the stands died from exposure during the game.  The officials were unable to use their whistles as they froze to their lips.  The late CBS commentator Frank Gifford even remarked during the game that he was going to take a bite of his coffee.  It had frozen solid in his mug. It was not the last frigid game to be played at Lambeau Field, but it is certainly the most infamous in the annals of NFL football.  

I have only attended one snowy football game . . . a memorable match-up between Notre Dame and Navy on November 4, 1967.   It was only my third college football game, the first being Bobby Dodd's Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets’ 14-6 victory over the Tulane Green Wave in Tech’s 1960 Homecoming Game at Grants Field, in Atlanta.  My dad had graduated from Tech ten years earlier.  Then there was the 1964 meeting between the Wisconsin Badgers and the Michigan State Spartans played before 67,000 fans at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin.  That was back when the Badgers were the lapdog of the Big 10.  The Spartans won that one 23-6.

It was my junior year in high school and my dad and I left our home in suburban Chicago that Saturday morning for the roughly 120-mile trip to South Bend, Indiana.  We arrived at Notre Dame Stadium in time to walk around and enjoy some of the pre-game activities.  I purchased a copy of the game program featuring Jim Crowley, one of the famous 1924 Notre Dame “Four Horsemen” on the cover.  They were the Irish backfield that was key to Notre Dame going 10-0 and winning the national championship that season, the first of three under legendary coach Knute Rockne.   I still have it packed away in a chest.  It was a beautiful mid-autumn day, and it was shaping up to be a memorable game.  

The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame coached by “Era of Ara” Parseghian in his fourth season, and led by quarterback Terry Hanratty, Nick Eddy, star receiver Jim Seymour, and Larry Conjar, were the defending National NCAA champions having had the best scoring offense in the nation, with an average of 36 points per game.  The defense was second in the country in points allowed. The Navy Midshipmen were also 4-2.  The game was to be played before a sold-out crowd of just over 59,000.

The two teams might have shared similar records going into the game, but Notre Dame was dominant in ever respect.  The last time Navy had defeated the Irish was five years earlier.  The home team took the opening kickoff and marched it down field on the ground for 67 yards.  Team captain Bob “Rocky” Bleier punched the ball over the goal line for the first score.   Navy held its own and the first quarter ended in a 7-0 Notre Dame lead.  

Things quickly changed.  Notre Dame caught fire and Irish quarterback Hanratty let loose with an aerial bombardment to Jim Seymour for a total of 64 yard and a touchdown.  Three more unanswered scores and Notre Dame led 35-0 at the half.   The other change was the weather.  The pleasant autumn day quickly turned cold as the temperature dropped into the high 20s and it began to snow . . . hard.  The people sitting next to us had brought extra lap blankets and thankfully we had dressed in layers.  The hot chocolate sure tasted good.  And plenty hot!   At times the snow was so thick it was almost impossible to see the stands on the other side of the field.  The crowd began to chant “Ara, stop the snow!”  He was in control of his team on the field, but he had little to say about the weather.  

The weather certainly put a damper on the action in the third quarter.  There were also several delays while the grounds crew cleared snow off the field to see the yardage markers and the goal lines.  Navy quarterback John Cartwright ran for a short touchdown after the Middies recovered a Notre Dame fumble followed by a run for a two-point conversion and the score at the end of the third quarter was 35-8.   This was the first touchdown Navy had scored against Notre Dame since their defeat of the Irish in 1962.  The weather continued to deteriorate.   The Irish scored one more touchdown and two-point conversion in the fourth quarter.  Navy scored a second touchdown but failed on a two-point conversion run.   The game ended in an 43-14 Irish victory.  The Irish point total was the highest in the 41-year rivalry between these two teams dating back to 1927 and the seasons under coach Rockne.  That first game was played in Baltimore’s new Municipal Stadium and signaled the start of what is now one of the longest-lived intercollegiate football rivalries in the country.  Notre Dame won that first meeting 19-6.  

It was a memorable game indeed.  The Irish would go on to end the season 8-2 and ranked fifth in the nation in the AP poll.  Navy, under third year coach Bill Elias, ended its season with a disappointing 5–4–1 record.   

The snow had piled up during the game and instead of making the return trip to Chicago, we drove north 40 miles to my grandparents’ home in Decatur. Michigan waiting for the weather to improve.  The roads were clear the next morning.  That will be a game I will never forget.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Where the Brave Find Their Eternal Rest - Notes from the Sunshine State

              The patriot's blood is the seed of                                                               Freedom's tree.
        – Scottish poet Thomas Campbell

Each time I have returned to Florida for the past several years I always make a point of visiting the Florida National Cemetery, my father’s final place of rest near Bushnell, a small south Sumter County town.  Old soldiers do in fact die.  Dad 
passed away in October 2009 at the age of 85 and his memorial service at the cemetery took place the following April when his family and friends were able to gather in Florida.  I had never been to the Florida National Cemetery before that beautiful spring day, and I did not know what to expect.  The scrub back country of central Florida did not seem the appropriate place for a national cemetery.  I was amazed and impressed by what I found.  It is a majestic and solemn place as it should be for these brave souls who, regardless of who they were or where they came from, put their lives on the line to defend generations of Americans.  It is a quiet place interrupted only occasionally by the sharp report of an honor guard firing a final salute or the sad moan of Taps floating through the live oaks, dogwoods and palmettos and over the thousands upon thousands of marble headstones lined up in neat, seemingly endless rows.    
The Florida National Cemetery is located in the Withlacoochee State Forest, approximately 50 miles north of Tampa. The forest was acquired by the federal government from private landowners in the late 1930s, and the United States Forest Service managed the property until it was transferred to the Florida Board of Forestry in 1958.  It is the second-largest state forest in Florida.  In 1980, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced it would establish a fourth national cemetery in Florida (there are now nine) and the Withlacoochee site was supported by government officials.  The State of Florida sold the present tract of land to the VA in 1983 for the development of a Florida National Cemetery. The first internment took place in 1988.  Today it occupies 517 acres and contains the final resting place for over 131,000 veterans and their dependents.  Veterans from throughout the country and representing every major US conflict dating back to the Second Seminole War in Florida and the Civil War, are interred here.  With about 1,100 World War II veterans dying every day, and now with an ever-growing number of Korean War and Vietnam War veterans passing away, such final resting places are increasingly in demand, even though only about 15 percent of the nation's veterans choose to be buried in national cemeteries.  Florida National Cemetery is presently the second most active national cemetery in the country due in part to Florida, along with Arizona, being one of the country's top retirement destinations.  More than 7,000 internments take place annually – on average more than 20 funerals a day.  At this rate the Florida National Cemetery will reach full capacity of 180,000 interments by 2030.

All of these fact and figures fade into the background when I come to spend few minutes with my dad.  His ashes are entombed in one of the cemetery’s columbaria.  My uncle, a veteran of the Korean War, is in an adjacent columbarium.  Not too far away is the grave site of my dad’s best buddy during the war.  They were comrades in arms from Normandy, in the early autumn of 1944, until the Allied victory at the Battle of the Bulge in January 1945.  They would not see each other again for 50 years and today a once small-town lad from Michigan and one raised in Baltimore, find their eternal rest together.  Also nearby is the recent grave site of my wife’s maid of honor at our wedding, an early victim of the Covid-19 pandemic.  She was taken much too soon.  

These visits are always sad occasions.  How can they not be?  But they also afford an opportunity to be near family and friends who have gone before us. It somehow lessens the pain of grief.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Fried Green Tomatoes - Notes from the Sunshine State

One of the things we can always count on when we travel in Florida is a ready supply of fried green tomatoes.   It seems like just about every place that serves good southern cooking offers them in one iteration or another. 

Ripe green tomatoes are a very good source of vitamins A and C and potassium. They also contain iron, calcium, dietary fiber, magnesium, and other minerals.  Frying ripe green tomatoes (not the same as unripe red tomatoes) is the most popular way to cook them, and for good reason.  They are easy to slice then dredge in flour or corn meal after seasoning them with salt and pepper, and quickly fried on each side in shallow bacon fat.  If using cornmeal, the slice tomatoes are often dipped in milk or a beaten egg to help the cornmeal stick to the tomatoes while being fried.  It also allows the coating on the tomato to become thicker and less crunchy when compared to tomatoes cooked without a liquid wash.  The slightly sour flavor is balanced out with the crunchy fried batter.  Regardless of the manner in which they are served, the only other thing you need is a proper dipping sauce, and a Remoulade - rich, and a little spicy - is ideal and they often go with other dishes such as fried catfish, fried chicken, frogs legs, and cheese grits.  
Being a Midwestern lad, I had never even heard of fried green tomatoes until I lived in Florida while I was attending college, and then married a native Florida girl.  Which seems strange as the dish was brought to the US in the 19th century and was frequently served in New England and the Midwest.  The northern adaptations are more likely to use flour rather than corn meal. Their ready association with the South is more recent after the release of Fannie Flagg's 1987 novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café.  Flagg based the fictional Whistle Stop restaurant on the real-life Irondale Café in Irondale, Alabama formerly owned by her great-aunt.  The novel was followed by Fried Green Tomatoes, the 1991 film directed by Jon Avnet and based on the novel.  It was nominated for two Oscars at the 64th Academy Awards.

Regardless, I have learned to love fried green tomatoes and I enjoy them whenever and wherever we happen to find them.

Monday, January 9, 2023

When Your Luck Finally Runs Out - Notes from the Sunshine State

We are approaching the end of the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic which struck the United States and the world in March 2020.  Being in my early seventies, and suffering from an asthma- compromised respiratory system, a positive Covid-19 test for me during the pandemic carried with it an extra heavy weight.  According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], less than 15% of all reported cases in the US have been among people 65 and older although approximately half of all hospitalizations, and 75% of all deaths have been in this age group.  Hospitalization rate for seniors reached a record high last winter during the Omicron variant surge and then dropped significantly over the summer months. But compared with other age groups, hospitalization rates have consistently been higher among the 65 and older population.

My wife and I considered ourselves quite fortunate that we were able to stay healthy throughout the height of the coronavirus pandemic, a time when countless thousands were struck down, and many of whom ended up on ventilators in overworked hospitals.  And many of these victims died, their bodies warehoused in makeshift morgues.   We stayed closely quarantined at home during the earliest months, not leaving our house for weeks on end.  In 2020, and again in 2021, we chose not to make our annual summer-long escapes to the lake cottage in Maine, believing it was not wise to travel or to be far from our medical support.  Life as we knew it had changed and we wondered whether we would ever be able to return to some degree of normalcy. 

For a time this past summer it appeared to many, at least in the US, that life might be slowly returning to what it had been before as more and more Americans are fully vaccinated and boosted.  Like many others, after several months of home quarantine and only venturing into crowds fully masked, my wife and I gradually began to let down our guard once we had received the full program of vaccinations and booster injections.  We continued to wear masks when around crowds of people, but we were less cautious when interacting with friends and family who were also fully vaccinated and boosted.  Dire warnings were still there, but our attention to them had begun to wane.  

Over this past summer we finally began to travel and return to restaurants and other public venues which we had given a long arm’s distance during the early months of the pandemic.  We were exposed to individuals who shortly after encountering them tested positive for the coronavirus.  We immediately tested and the results remained negative.  We had, thankfully, dodged the bullet. 

With the onset of colder and damper weather, the coronavirus is once again on the rise across the country despite the fact that the population, in general, has an immunity wall built up against the Omicron variants.  Immunizations, boosters, and prior infections seems to be keeping younger folks healthy.  But the immune systems of people of advanced age are not as strong.  A recent survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 60% of seniors were worried about a rise in Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations this winter – a far larger share than average.  Although the increase appears to be relatively mild and only a fraction of what it was during previous surges, older adults are still facing a far more serious situation similar to the peak from the Delta variant surge.   According to one health expert, “anyone can get this, but the older you are, the more likely you are to have severe symptoms, the more likely you are to be hospitalized, and the more likely you are to die.”  

This pandemic appears to be far from over as new variants are more immune-evasive and relatively low utilization of treatments like Paxlovid may have played a role in the rising hospitalization rate among seniors. The main culprit, however, is booster deficiency which indicates waning immunity.  If more seniors had their boosters the effect would be minimal.  The whole idea is to be proactive with all vaccines and boosters.  Even if you got sick, there was every good chance you would not end up in the hospital.  According to the CDC, only about a third of those over the age of 65 have updated immunization and boosters which is not very promising, if one is to be proactive. 

During the latter half of December my good luck finally ran out and I weathered the inconvenience of a long siege of Covid, testing positive for well over a week with a stuffy head, a hacking cough, and a constantly running nose.  I have no idea how or where I picked up the virus, but I was not over concerned.  I know many who have dealt with Covid to one degree or another, and I figured that even if I was positive, knowing I was vaccinated and fully boosted reassured me that I would weather this siege.  Then, a few days after I tested positive, my wife did too.  Her case was relatively mild compared to mine, but we kept our distance with me sequestered in the downstairs den with the TV and my books, and SallyAnn remained in our upstairs bedroom and studio (also with a TV and all of her projects close at hand).  We read and watched movies and we both completed the five-day Paxlovid cocktail and gradually saw improvement in our conditions.  That said, this year’s Christmas celebration was a complete wash as plans to gather with family and friends were cancelled, or at least postponed, until everyone was healthy again.

And now we are both finally testing negative for a few days, and we have left the chilly and damp north behind us, traveling to warmer climes . . . a small casita in the vicinity of Micanopy, about a half hour south of Gainesville, Florida which has long been our base of operations during visits to the Sunshine State.  Florida has always been a big part of my life having vacationed here for decades and having spent my undergraduate college years at Florida Southern College, if for no other reason that I was quickly growing tired of those tedious Midwestern winters.   It was here I met my wife of 48 years, a native Florida gal.  Many of us, including my younger self, think of Florida as a place of sun and fun, a place to escape to when life elsewhere in America has grown old and tiresome. Yet for the natives, Florida can become just as old and tiresome . . . just a place to be.  “Florida is a transient state in which too many rootless people dare nothing for the past nor this state’s future.” write Floridian writer Randy Wayne White in his novel Ten Thousand Island (2000).  “Florida is a vacation destination or a retirement place, as temporary as time spent in a bus station . . . Like a bus station, Florida attracts con men and predators.  It always has, Florida always will.”

Over the past five decades we have made countless trips down Interstate 95 from Washington, DC to points in northern and central Florida.  And it seems to me that Mr. White has captured the essence of what we have found.  In contrast to my college days here, Florida has become a much redder state than it was in the past.  Still, I try to look beyond this fact.  There is still so much I love about this place . . . perhaps the edgiest edge of America there is.  What better place to shake off the bug that bit us?

Perhaps this is not the best time to be traveling and we are taking extra precautions to minimize our contact with other people.  We mask up when we are out in public areas and avoiding restaurants unless we can eat alfresco.  The last thing we want is to weather another bout with the coronavirus.   We were lucky the first time around.  Maybe not so much should it strike again.  Don’t bet your life on it.  When in doubt, always mask up!!  

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Wishing everyone a very happy, safe, and healthy New Year 2023!


 

Friday, December 9, 2022

The Friday Night Fish Fry - Eating Vicariously

With many folks returning to indoor dining now that the weather is turning cooler, one of my pandemic projects – eating vicariously at memorable venues of the past and writing about them here – has taken a backseat to other projects.  But I still enjoy armchair recollections of favorite eating experiences that remain beyond my reach for any number of reasons.  Most recently I waxed poetic about the iconic Chicago-style hotdog which is difficult to find beyond the environs of Chicagoland.  This autumn I returned to favorite family haunts in southwestern Michigan where I enjoyed a traditional Midwestern Friday night fish fry at Clementine’s, in South Haven on the shores of Lake Michigan, where I was served a “mess of perch” just the way God always meant them to be.  Oh my, were those perch tasty, served with tartar sauce and lemon wedges (more please!), and baked potato, and a thick slice of warm garlic bread.  Oh, finestkind! So, this got me to thinking about all those wonderful Friday fish fries growing up in Midwest America . . . and in Wisconsin to be specific.  Having lived on the Mid Atlantic for the past 46 years, I have missed the tradition of the Friday night fish fries.  
 

One thing that can be said about a Wisconsin Friday night fish fry . . . it’s all about community.  It’s as if the entire state, regardless of where one might reside, or which political or religious beliefs one adheres to, is sitting down to the same meal.  One often goes to the same place and see the same people; something uniquely convivial.  The Germans have a wonderful, almost undefinable word to describe it all . . . die Gemütlichkeit . . . a sense of geniality and friendliness.   Everyone is out doing the same things.  There is no reason to sit home alone.  A Friday night fish fry bring everyone together. 

This Wisconsin tradition can be traced back to the early 19th century when American pioneers and European immigrants – many of them Germans and Poles – settled along the western shoreline of Lake Michigan and its abundant lake and river fisheries.  And it was religion which gave rise to the Friday night fish fry in the first place.  A great many of the early arrivals were Catholic and the Church played a major role in the development of the state’s cultural and religious traditions.   As far back as the mid-13th century canon law forbade Catholics to consume meat on Fridays as a way of commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on Good Friday.  Many European Catholics brought this practice with them when they settled in America.  By the mid-1960s, the Catholic church changed the rules concerning abstention from meat every Friday of the year and required parishioners to do so only on Fridays during the Lenten season.  By then, however, the Friday night fish fry, which had begun as communal church dinner, had become an integral part of Wisconsin life.

The traditional Friday night fish fry received another boost to its popularity in 1920 with the arrival of Prohibition.  Unable to legally sell alcohol, Wisconsin taverns began to take a lead from the Church and offer fish fries to stimulate business however they could in order to stay open.  Freshwater fish like 



bluegill, perch, and walleye were plentiful, cheap, and easy to prepare.   And the aroma of all you can eat fried fish made it possible to mask the possibility that illegal bootlegged hooch was being served clandestinely.  When Prohibition was finally repealed in 1933, fish fries and the serving of libations of choice became inextricably linked. 

When I speak of a traditional fish fry, I am not talking about an offering of fish and chips – usually deep-fried cod or haddock served with a side of “chips” (the old sod term for French fries) and malt vinegar – served every day of the week.  Wisconsin Friday night fish fries traditionally offer local freshwater fish such as bluegill, lake perch, and walleye which appear on the menu only on Friday evening.  In my mind bluegill is arguably the tastiest fish around followed by lake, or yellow perch.  Walleye, a larger and more substantial fish, is often offered at fish fries, but it's not just reserved for Fridays.  Many restaurants (especially supper clubs) have it on their daily menu all year long.  Areas of the state bordering the Mississippi River (the border with Minnesota and Iowa) will often offer catfish.  Scandinavian settled communities in northern and eastern Wisconsin (especially in Door County, the little finger of land extending into Lake Michigan), favor the fish boil, a variant on the fish fry, which involves heating potatoes, white fish, and salt in a large cauldron.

During the spring smelt run, special "Smelt Fries" pop up around the state.  Smelt are netted in rivers in the early spring and rarely appear on menus any other time of the year. They are small, similar to a sardine, and are served whole with only 
the head, tail, and guts removed.  I introduced my then Florida born and raised fiancée to the joys of fish and smelt fries when she visited me in Milwaukee.  After we were married, we treated some of our Tucson friends to fried smelt in our humble graduate student apartment near campus (it was cheap and easy to fix).  Regardless of which fish is served, beer, another Wisconsin staple, is normally used instead of water or milk to create the frying batter.  It makes it lighter while adding flavor and sometimes color to the mix and very nicely seals in the flavor of the fish.

"When I go to a fish fry, I feel like I'm dining with the whole state," writes Terese Allen, coauthor of The Flavor of Wisconsin (2012) published by the Wisconsin Historical Society.  "I get a very strong sense of connection with my past and my Wisconsin culture. There aren't many food traditions, except for the ones in the home, that are that way anymore. It just feels like something we all get to do together."  It is an “end-of-the-work-week rite . . . that brings people together to celebrate everyday life. It’s not a holiday, but it is a regular special occasion.”  And part of the allure of the fish fry is the ambiance of the establishment where it is enjoyed for whatever reason.   I could not have said it better myself.  

When I was growing up one of the important questions come Friday was where we were going to eat fish tonight.   We would occasionally have it at home, but we very often joined our fellow Wisconsinites at a favorite restaurant – usually near our homes in Madison, Lake Mills, and suburban Milwaukee -- diner, supper club, church community hall, American Legion post depending on what fish was served, the type of batter and seasoning used, and the quality of the various offered side dishes, including potato and macaroni salad, cole slaw, potato pancakes with either apple sauce or maple syrup (or hash browns, fried potatoes or mashed baby reds), rye bread, etc.  And who could forget the lemon wedges, tartar and hot sauces, and malt vinegar.  A serving of baked beans was not uncommon.  Even school cafeterias offered fried fish on Friday – usually fish sticks – served with tater tots or French fries.

Living as close as we do to the Atlantic and the offerings of the Chesapeake Bay, we are in no short supply of some of the best available seafood.   And over the years I have preferred mine broiled, baked, grilled, blackened, poached . . . you name it.  I tend to believe that frying a good piece of fish detracts from its natural tenderness and flavors.  A Wisconsin Friday night fish fry is another matter.   Enjoy your Chilean sea bass, your sushi and sashimi, your sesame encrusted medium rare ahi tuna, your grouper and rockfish fillets and steaks.   But when it comes to Friday evening in Wisconsin, there is nothing better than local bluegills, perch and walleye.   And how do we like it?   Fried of course.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Holiday Cheese Dreams

The holidays are certainly upon us, and with them comes a mail box stuffed full of end of the year pleas for charitable contributions and mail order catalogs of every size and description full of special holiday sales.  I give what I can, and in the era of COVID-19, I am shopping online more frequently.  Never having been a big shopper, I find this alternative more relaxing and satisfying.  Unfortunately, a great deal of this mail ends up in the recycling bin.  That said, I have always looked forward to the annual arrival of two catalogs in particular – The Swiss Colony and Wisconsin Cheeseman, two companies based in Monroe, Wisconsin whose products I have enjoyed for many years, especially during the holidays. 

The Swiss Colony was established in 1926 by Ray Kubly to market mail-order local cheeses.  He later added sausages and various baked goods.  The company changed its name to Colony Brands, Inc. in 2010 to reflect its new position as a parent company for an extensive portfolio of food and non-food subsidiaries and catalogs.  The Wisconsin Cheeseman, a privately held mail-order food gift company established in 1946, publishes several catalogs annually, also featuring Wisconsin cheeses, sausages, chocolates, baked goods and other assorted food gifts.  The company was more recently purchased by Colony Brands, and today the two catalogs are roughly similar in their content.  I still like to peruse each and dream of their mouth-watering offerings.
Back in the day, it was more than just a dream.  When I was returning home to Wisconsin during my holiday breaks from college in the early 1970s, The Swiss Colony still operated brick and mortar stores offering it many products individually and in the various gift boxes still offered through its catalogs.  What a treat it was to wander the aisles enjoying the aromas of fresh cut cheeses and sausages offered as samples to customers.  My favorite was a store located in the nearby Brookfield Mall which also had a small Swiss café in the back . . . a favorite place for soups and sandwiches to fortify one for holiday shopping. 
Those days are far in the past, but I still reflect fondly on them during the holiday season as I peruse this year’s catalogs.  And there is always a possibility that one of those lovely and tasty gift boxes will end up under the tree.

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Still Looking Toward Portugal -- Has It Really Been 14 Years??


The past beats inside me like a second heart.
      – John Banville, The Sea (2005)

It was late November 2008 and I was sitting in my in-law's study in Gainesville, Florida where we had assembled for an extended family Thanksgiving celebration in Tallahassee the day before.  I was working on some project notes and it struck me that it might be time to start my own blog.

It was something I had been considering for quite some time.  I had been reading those of others, and I decided I had thoughts and observations I might want to share.  I was not sure how it would play out, if at all, but I decided I was going to take a shot.  One can never tell what might happen.

A few days later, on December 1, 2008, my wife and I decided to spend our last day in Florida roaming the back roads around Gainesville – over by Cross Creek, Micanopy, Island Pond, and Hawthorne.  This trip became the subject of my first blog essay which I posted that evening.
Steve and SallyAnn Rogers.  Cross Creek, Florida. December 1, 2008
The narrow country roads passed under canopies of live oak festooned with long gray beards of Spanish moss. There was water in Cross Creek and in the River Styx (not always the case), and we observed white herons and egrets wading the sedgy marsh shallows looking for their next meals while an alligator rested on a nearby bank minding his own business.  We wandered around Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ farm at Cross Creek and the surrounding pine hammock, and we were lucky to have the entire place to ourselves.  I was reminded why I liked coming back to this special part of Florida.  Perhaps Miss Rawlings said it best. “It is necessary to leave the impersonal highway, to step inside the rusty gate and close it behind. One is now inside the orange grove, out of one world and in the mysterious heart of another. And after long years of spiritual homelessness, of nostalgia, here is that mystic loveliness of childhood again. Here is home.”  It was not my home, but I certainly felt at home there.  I do every time I return . . . , something I hope to do early in the approaching new year.   

So why am I "Looking Toward Portugal"?  I suppose this is a legitimate question and there is no big secret mystery.  For the past three decades I have been gravitating to the coast of Maine.  At first, it was only during our annual summer hiatus, but in more recent years I have returned every chance I get regardless of the season.  And each time I go back, I find myself standing on that rocky shoreline looking out to sea and pondering what lies beyond the farthest horizon.  Gazing in a general easterly direction from the Maine coast, you will see nothing but the rolling expanse of the Gulf of Maine stretching toward the southernmost extension of Nova Scotia.  Yet, if you continue across the Atlantic you will eventually arrive on the northern shores of Portugal somewhere near Oporto.

Doing this I was constantly reminded of Jack Kerouac’s observations when he stared out across the Atlantic from the shores of Long Island (he naturally gravitated to America’s two coasts) – “this last lip of American land.”  Writing in On the Road (1957):  “Here I was at the end of America . . . no more land . . ., and now there was nowhere to go but back.”  Doing this I guess we are reminded of our limitations, but we are also offered a hint of what might be if we only choose to look beyond those far horizons while at the same time considering what lies at our back.

I could have been satisfied with “Looking Toward Nova Scotia,” but I liked to think there was far more to consider beyond.  Looking out to sea from "the Portugal side" of my own life and pondering what lies beyond that meeting of water and sky, I know that my grand search will never be over. Certainly not in my lifetime. I will always return to that "last lip of American land."  It, too, is home.

For the past 14 years I have been drawing on past memories and present-day concerns to try and understand better how I might want to navigate what the future might hold.  
“The past is never dead,” William Faulkner writes in Requiem for a Nun. “It's not even past.”   Writing in Moon for the Misbegotten, Eugene O-Neill tells us “There is no present or future – only the past, happening over and over again – now.”  There is certainly something to this.  Perhaps Søren Kierkegaard said it best.  “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

This is what I hope to continue doing with this blog . . . looking to the past to help me understand where I am now and where I hope to be in the future.  The key to it all is hope. As the Buddha instructed . . . staying hopeful you will never know what tomorrow will bring.

Namasté.

Friday, November 18, 2022

There is Nothing Like a Chicago Hot Dog


I find it rather strange that cities, towns, and regions have over time become associated with various types of food.   Philadelphia has its eponymous cheese steak and Chicago its deep-dish pizza, the “Chicago Dog,” and its recently repopularized Italian beef sandwiches.  St. Louis, Memphis, and Kansas City are famous for their barbeque.  Montréal has its smoked meats and poutine and Halifax its donair kebabs (regular readers of this blog may recall my prior posting about these).  There is New Orleans po’ boys and etoufe, Baltimore and its crab cakes and blue crabs, DC’s half-smokes, and Maine its lobsters, oysters and chowders.  Don’t forget Boston’s baked beans and brown bread, New York’s deli sandwiches and bagels, Buffalo wings, Cincinnati chili, San Francisco’s ciopino and Tampa’s Cuban sandwiches (I have written about these, too).  There is Seattle’s Pacific salmon and Dungeness crab, and Nashville’s hot chicken.   I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea.  Many places offer their own versions of pizza, steak, tacos . . . you name it . . . and there are certain local standards as to what constitutes a genuine cheese steak, a deep-dish pizza, or even something as American and ubiquitous as the hot dog (wiener, weenie, frankfurter, or frank).

Hot dogs in their many local variations have been served throughout the United States since the late 19th century, and now they have adapted to the tastes of other countries, as well.  Just about every region of the US has its own particular hot dog style; some are more interesting than others.  Here in the DC area the so-called half-smoke is the local version popularized by the iconic Ben’s Chli Bowl in the U Street Corridor.  Similar to the standard hot dog, but usually larger, spicier, and with more coarsely-ground meat – often half-pork and half-beef – they are served with herbs, onions, and chili sauce.  Just up the road Baltimore-style hot dogs consist of a kosher beef sausage that is fried with bologna slices and served on a split-bread bun with a dill pickle spear.  California-style hot dogs have long offered a different twist on the hot dog, and I can’t help but recall the dogs served up by Tail of the Pup when I was a young lad in LA.  There are hot dogs with bacon, or dogs with jalapenos and sauerkraut, as well as veggie dogs.  On one of my first visits to the Pacific Northwest I was introduced to the “Seattle Dog,” a relatively recent offering consisting of a Polish sausage nestled in a hoagie roll and topped with cream cheese and sauteed onions.  Peppers and sauerkraut are often added along with yellow mustard.   A bit farther to the north, Vancouver, in Canada, has its “Japadog,” a chain of street food stands serving Japanese-style hot dogs, including variations on traditional Japanese foods like tonkatsu, teriyaki or yakisoba.  Anyone who watched MASH on TV will recall Corporal Klinger (Jamie Farr) praising Tony Packo’s famous Hungarian Dog in his and Farr’s hometown of Toledo, Ohio. It is a blend of beef, pork and garlic that is quartered and then fried and served with mustard, onions and a special chili sauce.
How can I write about hot dogs without mentioning the New England “red hot?”  It has been said that you know you have crossed into Maine when you go to the local market and the hot dogs on display are a bright, almost neon red.  They are not called hot dogs here.  They are red snappers, pure and simple.  Oh, you can get the regular hot dogs at grocery stores, but why when you can enjoy a red snapper instead?  Red because of their obvious hue, and snapper because of the sharp snap they make when you bite into one. 

And then there is New York.  The Big Apple seems to cast a large shadow on everything that happens in this country whether you like it or not.  The simple hot dog reigns supreme, traditionally topped with a spicy brown mustard and either sauerkraut or onions sauteed with tomato paste.   Then there is the Coney Island hot dog, perhaps the first hot dog served in the US having been introduced in 1867.  It is a beef frank in a natural casing and served on a soft, steamed bun and topped with all meat chili, onions, and a healthy squirt of yellow mustard.  

This past summer I read food writer and editor Helen Rosner’s “The Unbreakable Rules of the Chicago Dog—and When to Bend Them” in The New Yorker (July 3).  Recounting the now familiar story of how the hot dog came to the Windy City in the late 19th century, Rosner writes that “this food of convenience evolved into a holy cultural object, until the act of building a proper Chicago dog demanded a degree of attention and care that verged on the liturgical . . . Among the devout, none of the dog’s nine individual elements is unimportant, and any deviation amounts to sacrilege.”  I should be clear on one important point.  Although Rosner grew up in South Side Chicago, she moved east for college, resettling in New York City where she continues to live and write.  She understands what a true Chicago Dog is and should be, yet she has learned to bend the rules to approximate it with unauthentic ingredients.  “Work with what you have, adhere to the blueprint as best you can, and you will build something beautiful: a hot dog dragged through a garden of earthly delights. And then, five bites later, it’ll be gone, and you can make yourself another one.”  That’s fine.  Just don’t call what it’s not.  Being a native Chicagoan myself, however, I stand by the rules for a true Chicago Dog.  

Hot dogs made their first recorded appearance in Chicago at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, but the true Chicago-style dog was invented several decades later during the Great Depression when street cart vendors at the Maxwell Street Market came up with a way to offer a delicious hot meal served on a bun for only a nickel.   Perhaps the best known of these purveyors was Abe “Fluky” Drexler who first opened his street cart at Maxwell and Halsted Streets just west of the Loop in 1929, offering the so-called "Depression Sandwich" - a hot dog with yellow mustard and “dragged through the garden” . . . relish, onion, pickle spears, sport peppers, lettuce, tomatoes wedges, with a dash of celery salt and a side of French fries     A cosmopolitan meal.  Skip the meat and it only cost two cents.  Fluky added several more carts and business was good until World War II and the rationing of meat forced three of his four locations to close. The remaining stand closed in 1955 and did not reopen again until early 1964 as a brick-and-mortar establishment on North Western Avenue.  It quickly became the largest hot dog joint in the city.  There are still joints in and around Chicago that feature the so-called Depression Dog topped with crispy fries with mustard, onion and peppers.  Not a true Chicago Dog by any standard but still a good meal, especially served with a cold beer.  
So, what make a Chicago Dog unique and why?  In the Windy City the expression “the Chicago 7" * have a special meaning.  It refers to the key ingredients added to a boiled or steamed dog (never grilled) nestled in a steamed (never toasted) poppy seed bun: yellow mustard, “electric” green sweet relish, chopped white onion, dill pickle spear, hot sports peppers (there is no other acceptable variety), two slices of fresh tomato, and the pièce de réistance, a dash of celery salt to bring it all together.  “Finesse matters,” Rosner writes.  “A Chicago-style hot dog is an aesthetic creation as much as a culinary one.”  More important than anything else, there is one unspeakable and unbreakable rule of a true Chicago-style hot dog.  You should never, ever, ever put ketchup on it.   If you do, you might as well pack up and leave town.

Putting ketchup on a hot dog is referred to in some local quarters as an occasional “affliction” of young people who do not know any better.  Put ketchup on it and a kid will swallow anything. It has also been said that the only people who put ketchup on hot dogs are mental patients, and Texans.  Any sane adult should understand that ketchup is the quickest way to ruin an otherwise perfectly good Chicago Dog . . . or any hot dog for that matter.  There is no alternative.   There is no compromise.  When it comes to a hot dog, ketchup is streng verboten.  Why do you need it when you have slices of fresh tomato lining the edges of the poppy-seed bun?   Even Anthony Bourdain, the late chef, food reencounter, and dye in the wool New Yorker, agreed that the Chicago Dog is “the finest hot dog on the planet. There, I said it, and I meant it. Now f**k off.”  High praise, adding "I think there is a time and a place for ketchup, and I don’t think the hot dog is one of them.” What more needs to be said on this score?
In a city where the local hot dog is king, Chicagoans have their favorite place that prepares it just right to their particular tastes.  Some are loyal to Portillo’s which now has a number of outlets across the city and scattered about northern Illinois.  My favorite was just a half an hour from my family home in suburban Park Ridge.  Wolfy’s, at 2734 West Peterson Avenue, was relatively new when I first discovered it in 1968, and in the years since it has become an iconic landmark on the Far North Side.  What a treat to drive down Peterson and see that large frank skewered on a giant fork (even more impressive at night when illuminated in neon).  It offers all of the proper ingredients and it just seemed to taste better than any of the others offered throughout the city.  The kosher all beef Vienna brand franks (established in Chicago in 1893 introducing its hickory-smoked hot dog at the Columbian Exposition) are served either steamed or charred.  Your choice!   The Chicago Tribune “Sunday Magazine” ranked for perhaps the first time in 1974 the city’s top hot dog emporia. Wolfy’s was number one and so it remains in this native Chicagoan’s heart.

More recently in Condé Nast Traveler (November 2022), Rosner touches on something that rings true for me.  “Whenever I go home – no matter how long I live elsewhere, Chicago will always be home,” Rosner admits.  “Chicago has its own rhythms and moods, its own hierarchies and customs . . . it took leaving Chicago for me to truly love it, to really understand its grit and beauty.”   It has been a while since I was last in my hometown, and it has been ever so long since I enjoyed a true Chicago Dog.  I have eaten many wonderful hot dogs before and since, and each one is worthy of praise for one reason or another.   But they were not Chicago-style hot dogs without the “Chicago Seven” . . . accept no substitutes!  And regardless of where I might order a hot dog, I remain true to the gospel . . . no ketchup!!   Ever!!  

[[ * Since the late 1960s, the “Chicago Seven” has normally referred to the defendants charged with conspiracy to incite a riot, and other charges related to anti-Vietnam War and counterculture protests in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.  Certainly not Chicago’s finest hour . . . this from one who still recall’s the sting of tear gas along Michigan Avenue.   Thankfully it now refers to something that continues to bring culinary favor to the “City of the Big Shoulders.”]]