SEPTEMBER

 

SUMMER, WHERE DID IT GO!

I say this every year and here I go again – it seems like our summer went by in the blink of an eye. It was a beautiful summer, a moderate summer for us in the Midwest, but it seems like it was just June and now here we are, September and  a day away from  official fall. Last week on her blog my friend wrote very eloquently about moving on seemlessly from summer to fall. But I’m one of those people who has  a tendency to cling to summer for as long as possible.

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Reading in my hammock for the very first time in the two years we’ve had it!

Our weather right now is playing along beautifully with me, holding on with temperatures still in the 90’s but there’s no denying that darkness is falling just a bit earlier each evening. I can no longer walk in twilight at almost 9 p.m. Far from it. It’s now 7:37 p.m. and it is pitch dark outside.

But how fortunate we are! The contrasts of weather in the country now are incredible. While I’m lamenting summer’s end, I think about those who have had their lives upended by the violent hurricanes that devastated  the south and  the islands this season. Three very powerful storms ripped through Texas and Florida and now several more  attacked Puerto Rico and the other islands off our East Coast.   And then the earthquake in Mexico.  When will it end for them?

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I get to put out the mums at my front door, this year a pretty rust color. We started trimming back our bushes. Because of the relative dryness this past month, leaves on the trees are already red and gold mixed in with those that are still green. I  have several stalwart hydrangea blooms hanging in there in this,  the most beautiful summer for hydrangeas that I have experienced in the almost thirty years we’ve lived in this house. I contrast that with those who have had their bushes and trees torn out of the ground and all the other things that have been lost, with loved ones injured or worst. I count my blessings as my heart breaks for them.

 

GETTING BACK TO COOKING……

Toward the middle of September, I generally start my way back into the kitchen in a semi-serious way. Magazines and food shows are all about easy living in the summer so it coincides with all of us being less formal about how we prepare and eat our food.

But September means the days are going to start getting slightly cooler, slightly shorter and things move inside, meaning I go back to cooking in the kitchen instead of on the grill. Also it means I review my magazines containing those design and food articles that have been languishing since spring; I cut them out and file them.     I have found that a number  of our friends this summer have taken vacations in Europe which for many of my fellow foodies meant that they have taken cooking classes in places like Hungary, Provence and Italy, leaving me incredibly inspired! I’ve decided that I will try at least two new recipes each week to challenge my skills and also to combat the boredom that sets in with making the same things week after week.

I really do love to cook. What I don’t like is the prep. I watch as Ina and Giada gracefully throw a pinch of this and a cup of that into their latest concoction, all ingredients and tools at their fingertips (let’s forget that they have staff and I don’t).    I’ve assembled a reasonably well appointed kitchen over the years with most of the accoutrements that the directions call for.   I also went out a few years ago and bought myself various sizes of those cute little glass dishes that I can fill in advance of needing them during the cooking process so that I can be prepared and not still foraging madly for the ingredient when the recipe screams, “Do this NOW!”

My one rule of thumb is that when I’m doing a recipe for the first time I follow the instructions to the letter.

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A picture of the original Poblano Soup from Better Homes and Gardens

Also I want it to look reasonably close to the picture in the book.

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My rendition of the Poblano soup – a very close likeness to the original in my opinion!

So I go about my task in my disorganized little way and I must say that although I can become frazzled, the end result usually is not bad and enjoyed by everyone which is really all the encouragement any cook needs.

Yesterday’s offering was Chicken and Poblano Pepper Soup. Never mind that the temperature outside was 91. Possibly I could have waited to do this one until later in the fall. Anyway, this soup was given the seal of approval by both my husband and me.    I will put a checkmark on the recipe meaning that we will have this again. It’s super easy to make and if you’re not a pepper fan, or don’t like spicy, don’t be afraid of this recipe. It’s really not overly spicy since Poblano peppers are milder than chiles and the Jalapeno’s are used only as a topping at the end, so you are in charge of how hot you want it. If you try it, I hope you will like it.

RECIPE – CHICKEN & POBLANO PEPPER SOUP
1 TBSP vegetable oil
1 1/2 lb tomatoes, cored and halved
1 fresh poblano chile peppe, stemmed, quartered, and seeded
1 1/3 cups thinly sliced onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 TSP dried oregano, crushed
4 bone-in chicken thighs skinned
4 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth

Tortilla chips
Toppings: crumbled feta cheese, cilantro, sliced jalapeno peppers, chopped red onion and/or lime wedges

In large pot heat oil over medium high heat. Using tongs, carefully place tomatoes, cut side down in the pot in a single layer. Cook without stirring 5 minutes or until well-browned. Add poblano quarters, onion, garlic, oregano, and 1/2 tsp. salt; reduce heat to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally until vegetables soften, about 5 minutes.
Add chicken and broth to pot. Bring to boiling; reduce heat. Simmer, coverd, 20 minutes or until chicken is done (175 degrees F)
Strain broth; pressing tomatoes and chile with a spoon; discard solids. Pull meat apart; discard bones. Return chicken and broth to pot; heat through. Serve soup over tortilla chips (I didn’t do it this way because I thought it would make a soggy mess – I served them on the side) with toppings. Makes 4 servings

From BHG.com/Poblano Soup

If you try it, let me know what you thought!

Until next time……….

 

 

SICILY

 

To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the key to everything. – Goethe

My last post a month ago anticipated our family visit to Italy, and, particularly, our first trip to Sicily LECCE AND LA SICILIA.     Lecce, on the heel of the boot on the Adriatic coast, is the birthplace of my mother in law and we visit family there every three years. My husband, son, daughter in law and grandkids and I  go to visit  the aunts, uncles and cousins.    Lecce never disappoints us with its beaches, antiquities and magnificent baroque architecture. But this year, for my husband and me, the crown jewel of our trip was Sicily, this rogue island just 2 miles from mainland Italy at its closest point. My Sicily-high is still very much with me!

My husband and I took our 6-day trip, with him driving us around the island from Palermo to Cefalu` to Santo Stefano di Camastra to Taormina, to Catania where we spent a few short hours on a relaxing Sunday, and then on to Agrigento.   This route took us from the northern part of the island around the east coast and down around to the south, taking us to most of Sicily’s major cities, with the exception of Siracusa, Messina  and Trapani.

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One of the old pictures of Santo Stefano many years ago

My primary pull to Sicily is that this island is where my grandmother was born. I wanted to see the places that she saw, however altered they have become in the 112 years since she left there as young bride in her late teens to come to America. In addition I wanted to know if I could find out if there were still Serio’s – her maiden surname – and if there was anyone I could talk with about Santo Stefano during my visit. My cousin’s husband in Pennsylvania put me in touch with his cousin who lives there and a friend who was born and still lives in this town. Sitting in a cafe in Santo Stefano with my cousin’s friend, I asked him if he had any idea what the town might have looked like when my grandmother lived there.  I actually went into the cafe and took some photos of the old pictures on the walls.   He said that the footprint then  was likely pretty much the same as what we saw. Of course, proper paved roads were put in, and buildings were updated. Many of the buildings we were looking at were most likely there when she was there since they were hundreds of years old, some dating from the 1600’s.

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Santo Stefano, town center

The town of about 5,000 inhabitants is known for its handmade pottery and ceramic artifacts, as well as agricultural production of wine grapes, citrus fruit, vegetables and olives.   We happily bought a handmade pottery plate that now hangs in our dining room made by a local artisan in Santo Stefano.

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The Sanctuary at Letto Santo

Before I left, there was one place I dearly wanted to see – the Sanctuary of the Letto Santo.  It’s a chapel sitting at the top of a mountain in Santo Stefano, a rendering of which is at the chapel at Holy Cross Park in Easton, PA, where many immigrants, including my grandparents,  from Santo Stefano settled when they left Italy.   The rendering is plainly visible in pictures of our family reunion that I wrote about last year COMING TOGETHER.    My husband gingerly drove us up the winding road leading to the chapel and, as we turned a corner,  there it was standing in front of me.

 

 

 

 

In preparation for our trip I tried to read as much as possible about Sicily. Universally ackowledged for its physical beauty, I have to say that much of what I read was not flattering to the island. In the readings, Sicily was often portrayed as poor, disorganized, perhaps dirty, struggling, corrupt and mafia-ridden. “To really appreciate this place, come with an open mind,” my guidebook cautioned.

Indeed Sicily carries stigma, complexities and mystique – but more interesting in some ways than the rest of Italy as I think Goethe was referencing in his quotation above. The cultural legacy alone boasts 25 centuries of foreign domination by civilizations such as the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Saracens and Normans, heritages that are deeply relevant,  that left their diverse marks on every aspect of Sicily and that are recognized to this day. In 1860 Italy, and Sicily along with it, were unified as one nation. But, although unified, Sicilians were no better off. It’s telling that from 1871 to 1914, almost one million struggling Sicilians, including my grandparents, emigrated to the US.

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Valley of the Temples

In fact, our guide at the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, an archeological site where ancient Greeks built their city of Akragas, talked about the astonishing amalgam of many cultural influences that makes this island what it is today. Throughout her tour, she would say, when discussing the factors that led  to today and how things may or may not have changed with unification into Italy, “After we became Italian…”she would say as she proceeded to elaborate on what had happened.   I found that  phraseology interesting because I view a nationality as something you either are or you aren’t, not something you become but I think with respect to Sicily, that’s a fair assessment.

Regarding organized crime, its important to note that while the mafia still exists, it really seems to have had its heyday from about 1948 to sometime in the 1990’s.  After World War II, the mafia gained its foothold when it was established as the administrator of the island in the absence of other suitable candidates for  this semi-autonomous region. Starting in the 1980’s, large and powerful anti-mafia resistance movements started to have an impact. Now fewer and fewer businesses  pay extortion protection money. New hot topics have taken over the consciousness such as  the  struggling economy and Sicily’s role as a gateway for the immigrants coming in from Northern Africa.

Natural Beauty…

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Mt. Etna in the distance as we started to climb

 

The natural beauty of Sicily is indeed awesome (I NEVER use the ubiquitous word “awesome” because I think it’s way overdone, so take note of the fact that I used it here). Neither my husband nor I were prepared adequately for the jaw-dropping beauty we saw at every turn.

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View of the sea outside our hotel in Cefalu`

 

Immense mountain ranges required that we navigate throughout the island in  miles of tunnels, kilometers of farmland were evident, there was the volcanic majesty of Mt. Etna, the Turkish Steps in Realmonte near Agrigento and the aquamarine coastline that surrounds the island  – it was just one beautiful site after another.

Enhancing nature is cosmopolitan elegance in cities like Catania and the medieval beauty of Taormina, once the capital of Byzantine Sicily in the 9th century, where we stayed at the San Domenico Palace Hotel, built on the original structures of a former Dominican monastery, dating back to the year 1430.

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Entrance to our hotel in Taormina, the San Domenico Palace Hotel

The Food…
Sicily’s cuisine has its roots in its multi-cultural past. Sometimes spicy, sometimes sweet, sometimes both. In all my reading, the one thing the authors could agree on was the high quality of the food. I knew it would be fabulous and it was. I ate very little meat while I was there – why would you, when you’re surrounded by seas full of the best, freshest seafood I’ve ever eaten. You can watch the fishermen come in in the mornings with their catches.

And the tomatoes! I ate tomatoes virtually every morning for breakfast and many times throughout the day. The color and the taste were beyond belief.

The olive oil – it is not that anemic yellow-ish green that we often see in the US. It is rich and dark green – from the very first olive pressings. The taste is crazy. And when there was nothing else to put olive oil on, I overate the bread that was everywhere. I ate my annual quota in bread in the month we were in Italy.   I can report that I’ve almost lost all of the  bread pounds I gained while I was there!

Pasta has been a staple of my diet all my life but the pasta I ate there was often handmade, served to al dente perfection and had ingredients that I hadn’t tasted before. For example, I ate spaghetti tossed in olive oil and cooked fennel, essence of sea urchins (ricci di mare), and clams. I was a little nervous about the sea urchins, I have to say. But the flavor was fabulous – it was truly just a hint of the urchins and it was like nothing I’ve ever tasted. I wonder where I can get sea urchins in the midwest???!!!  Never mind! There’s a reason the Mediterraneans live so long!

I’m not a huge sweets fan in any country I visit, so I’ll leave the talk of the gelato, cassata and cannolis to someone else.

The Traffic…

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The autostrada as we left the Palermo airport

The first thing we encountered as we drove away from the airport in Palermo, was the autostrada, the highway. Perhaps because of some of the negativity in my readings,  I may have been expecting cowpaths, narrow unpaved streets, better suited to catering to mules than to cars. Certainly something less primitive than I found!  What I found were thoroughfares that would make some parts of America envious.   Street signs, however,  can be misleading or non-existent but we were being guided by our GPS on our phone and, with one exception, it never failed us.  The one exception was finding ourselves caught in some construction late on a Sunday afternoon and being brought to a gravel road and a farmhouse off the beaten path on the way to Agrigento.   My husband deftly backed out of the road and got us re-routed onto the correct alternate route to our hotel.
In a country full of aggressive drivers, Sicilians are some of Italy’s most aggressive, with a habit of overtaking on blind corners, I found, especially in Taormina with its narrow streets. One gentleman on a motorbike came so close to me after turning a corner that he grazed my skirt! The next day we were with our guide, Manuele, trekking on the foothills of Mt Etna, and I had an opportunity to ask him why I didn’t see bodies strewn all over the roadways. He laughed, and said, “Nancy, you’re thinking too much. When you’re walking in town, just go ahead and do what you want to do and assume that everyone in your way will accommodate you!” After that, I paid particular attention to the choreography between drivers and pedestrians. I noted that Manuele was correct – everyone seemed to recognize their place in the dance and somehow each accommodated the other.   At least most of the time!

Ours was a short but unforgettable stay in Sicily.   I want to go back and see more: Trapani, Siracusa, spend more time in Catania and, of course, Santo Stefano di Camastra.   I’d love to have my son, daughter-in-law and grandkids with us.   I need to do more background work on my ancestry before going back.   I learned from my contact there that I will need to come with more hard facts about marriage and birth dates in the Serio family in order to access records in the local churches and town hall.  It’s an effort I intend to make before I return.

Until next time….

LECCE AND LA SICILIA

I have been to the mainland of Southern Italy quite a number of times now, visiting Lecce, the hometown of my mother in law. It’s a city that is in the region of Puglia. Puglia, a main jumping off point for travel to Greece,  has been touted for a number of years as the next big Mediterranean/Adriatic hotspot, and gradually some tourists weary of crowded Tuscany or Rome, make their way down and stay in Puglia. It’s a beautiful area that really has been left pretty undiscovered by large masses, but seems on the cusp of large-scale discovery at any moment. When people mention Puglia, however, they usually talk about the cities of Bari or Brindisi. It’s still pretty rare that you will hear American voices as you walk through Lecce, even though it’s  a drive of just an hour or two from Brindisi or Bari. Periodically I hear English and German tourists in the restaurants or shops. It seems to me that the regions south of Naples are unknown by Americans and are primarily visited only if people have an ancestral connection. The beautiful north and central regions are beloved and are rightfully American favorites: Venice, the Lake region, Rome, Tuscany, the Amalfi Coast, Florence where there is definitely an abundance of  beauty and history to explore. But I think one misses out if the cities and villages on the heel and the toe of the boot are overlooked.

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An Alleyway in Lecce

No mistake about it, if you end up in Lecce, it’s because you intentionally wanted to go there – it’s a long drive from Florence or Rome, way down on the heel. But when you get there, you’re rewarded with Lecce, often called “The Florence of the South”, because of its rich history, magnificent baroque architecture and beautiful beaches . It is said that what Florence is to the Renaissance, Lecce is to baroque.     Then there is the unpretentious, mouth-watering cucina povera, peasant food. The gnocchi, the olive infused focaccia, tarallini and yes, I’m told, fresh sea urchin.   And the olive oil that is a shade of green and a flavor not often seen or tasted in the U.S.

We love that our son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren now visit every time we do, and they’ll have a tradition and memories that, I hope, will stay with them a lifetime. They love the beach at San Cataldo just outside Lecce and will experience it again this year.

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On the beach at San Cataldo, three years ago

Besides the beaches,  the many churches and cathedrals, museums and  the culture of Lecce and the surrounding towns that are a few hours drive away are very much worth exploring.   I would love to  revisit the sassi caves of Matera, in which many impoverished inhabitants lived until the 1960’s when the sassi population was resettled in a burgeoning new town higher up on the gorge. Since we last visited the town, a new interactive museum, called Casa Noha, has been built that chronicles Matera’s  desperate past and its emergence as a film-making location, a draw for tourism and a designation by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.   Matera has also been named the 2019 European City of Culture.   Another historic place to visit would be Alberobello, home of neighborhoods of cone-shaped stone homes called trulli, another World Heritage site.  And we almost never leave Lecce without a trip down the coast a bit to Otranto, almost  at the base of the heel,  a town marked by its amazing cathedral with its medieval mosaic floor and where the bones of 813 martyrs are displayed in a glass case behind the altar.

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Part of the  mosaic in the floor of the cathedral in Otranto

 

One thing I have been eager to do for a very long time during my stays in southern Italy is to go to Sicily, the birthplace of my paternal grandmother, specifically the town of Santo Stefano diCamastra. I can’t believe that in the thirty or so years since I first visited Lecce, we have never made it over to Sicily, the Italian island just 25 miles off the toe of Calabria. I am grateful to have a cousin whose husband has been to Santo Stefano di Camastra many times since his ancestors also come from there. He was kind enough recently   to send me a detailed email about sites to see, friends of his to look up and points of interest relative to our heritage. One of my goals is to try to find out more about my family, if at all possible since my grandmother came to America about one hundred and ten years ago. Her maiden name was Serio and I know there are Serio’s still in Santo Stefano, so we’ll see what I can find out. I feel blessed just to visit the the area and walk the streets that she may have walked. Also Santo Stefano is known for its pottery and ceramics – how cool would it be to bring back a piece of art from her home town!

Whether you go by the ferries or hydrofoils that cross from a number of southern mainland towns, or fly, as we are doing, it’s a bit of a trek to get to Sicily. Our flight will leave Brindisi, fly north to Rome and then south to Palermo in Sicily, where we will pick up our car for our drive to three major places on the island: Cefalu, Taormina, and Agrigento. Sounds like we should have taken the ferry, you say? Well, first you need to get to a town from which a ferry leaves and then sail over. Reggio di Calabria is the shortest water route (35 minutes) but to get to Reggio from Lecce is a many hour car trip. From Naples, also a number of hours from Lecce by car, the water trip is anywhere from seven to eleven hours. So we decided to fly.
We will finally travel around for six days to some of Sicily’s major attractions, about which I  will report back in a blog post after we return. We’ll see how my pre-visit expectations and impressions will measure up or are changed. Universally, anyone I know who has visited Sicily has come back ebullient with praise for the beautiful seas surrounding the island, the resorts, the beaches, the architecture, the culture and, of course, the food. I expect that Sicily will be somewhat primitive, less developed, particularly in the central areas inland from the coasts – like stepping back into time in some ways. On the other hand, popular resorts like Taormina and Cefalu have been characterized to us by friends and our guide books, as magnificent, lovely historic centers with beautiful beaches catering to a long tradition of tourists who have been coming back to these cities for years. We will also be going to Agrigento, site of the Valley of the Temples, where ancient Greeks once built the city of Akragas. It is apparently Sicily’s pre-eminent travel destination. We’ve hired a private guide for this and also for a tour of Mount Etna near Taormina.
As one of my travel books characterizes it, Sicily is “overloaded with art treatures and natural beauty, undersupplied with infrastructure…” and unfailingly boasts that the people are wonderful and the local cuisine is authentic and of the highest quality. The main complaints that I have read are that the island is badly maintained, signage is poor, and there is a lack of care about its antiquities. My husband and I have traveled around much of Europe, and enjoy the freedom of being on our own.    Will Sicily prove to be too much for us or just right?   Book after book and article after article advise visitors  to enter Sicily with an open mind and a healthy appetite!   Will do!
Arrivederci!   Fino alla prossima volta (Until next time)!

SATISFACTION

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A few days ago my husband and I went with friends to see Exhibitionism at Navy Pier in Chicago, the musical history of the Rolling Stones. This is the first major Rolling Stones exhibit, apparently curated by the boys themselves, spread across 18,000 square feet of space and that encompasses about 500 items representing the band’s 50-plus year career. As a testiment to their continued popularity, since 2012, when they celebrated their actual 50 years together as a band, they have sold more than $400 million in concert tickets, according to Boxscore.

F8A64BCB-A84F-4DB8-8E8E-02E07FF9ACA3I didn’t particularly follow them in high school. I was totally devoted to the Beatles in those years, although if I am honest, I tended to like many of the Stones’ songs in the ’60’s, sometimes more than the Beatles’ songs. Ironically, the Stones first hit single was I Wanna Be Your Man which was written by Lennon and McCartney (as lore has it, while Mick and Keith were talking in the same room. The Beatles later recorded it as well.). Satisfaction came out the week before I graduated from high school and I remember that the song was played non-stop at the parties that night. Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown and Mother’s Little Helper were hits the following year. Brown Sugar came out a few years later, and on and on. Stones’ songs were certainly edgier and grittier fare than anyone else was doing at the time unless the song was about the Vietnam War. Even my beloved Beatles didn’t get particularly topical until Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles were the good boys (although we found out later that they really weren’t always!); and the Stones were the scruffy bad boys. While the Beatles still wanted to hold your hand, the Stones wanted to spend the night together. Where the Beatles initially came off as cute and funny, a little “cheeky” as they themselves said, the Stones had attitude, were sarcastic and seemed dangerous.

Over the years, while paging through tabloids, I paid scant attention to Mick’s highjinx with various fashion models, and drugs. I was also vaguely aware of Keith’s long stay in druggieland. Despite all the sex, drugs and rock ’n rolI, I recognized Mick’s shrewdness  and the band’s longevity although the top guys – Mick and Keith – obviously didn’t see eye to eye on many things. They apparently love creating music, know where their bread is buttered and somehow have seen it through.

In those rare occasions throughout my life when the subject of the Stones came up, I remembered joking with friends that the beauty of being Mick Jagger was that there was no aging process involved: he was as craggy-looking 50 years ago as he looks today. The old pictures that I saw in the exhibit reminded me that that was not at all true. While never what one would call handsome – he was no Paul McCartney, for example – I took note that as a young man he had a sort of menacing babyish face, always with those big sensuous lips. So in my dotage, I definitely can see why one might have given him a second look back in the day. But always being someone who believes that beauty fades, dumb is forever, much later when I learned that Mick was an A student in his primary grades and had the brains to be admitted to and studied at the London School of Economics, I realized there was likely more substance here than I was giving him credit for. That and his musical talent and his business instincts.

And what about Keith? I always viewed him as a supremely talented but burned-out junkie, blessed with the luck that the drugs and lifestyle didn’t kill him over the years, as it did many of his contemporaries. Much more classically handsome than Mick in his youth, as again the exhibit’s pictures reminded me, his current pictures show that his face is rather weathered, shall we say, and I’m being kind. I became intrigued by Keith after reading his widely-acclaimed memoir, Life. It shows us Keith as a boyhood choir boy, an Eagle Scout, a huge fan of the American and, particularly, Chicago blues world. It’s not hyperbole that he’s described as among the best blues guitarists in rock history and in the world. He takes us through his drug hell that lasted for years but a habit he said he kicked 30 years ago. And of course, in his youth, handsomer than Mick, and as a rock star, he too had his pick of women eager to hang on. Now he comes across as something of a country gentleman, living among his eclectic collection of books that he actually reads, with his wife of 32 years, his 5 children and his 5 grandchildren – a life come full circle indeed. As he holds his grandchild in one picture, he now sports a beautiful, wide grandfatherly smile. Besides Life, he’s also written a children’s book called Gus and Me, about his relationship with his own grandfather,  himself a dance band leader, who taught him to play the guitar and be a rebellious non-conformist. According to Keith, Gus told him if he could play Malaguena, he could play anything.”   And learn to play Malaguena he did! Gus and Me is  a lovely  book written by this erstwhile iconoclastic hellraiser illustrated by his daughter, that shows the bond between a grandparent and a grandchild – one I bought to read to our grandchildren. I just have to smile at the circle of life here.     3F230BCD-

About 15 years ago I went with some friends to my first and only Rollings Stones concert at the United Center. I went because I enjoyed their music, they were still a curiosity to me and I knew that it would be a fun night. My friends and I had great seats at the sold-out concert. But, I think maybe because of my diminutive stature (5 feet tall on a good day) that a guard actually came up to me and asked me if I could see. No fool, I said it might be better if I could be closer. At which point, he unexplicably ushered me to within feet of the stage! And there right in front of me was 60+ year old Mick, prancing around that stage like he was a teenager! His lithe body still fit and buff, not taking a break for almost 2 hours. His body was  impressive but when he talked with the crowd, what really captured me was how engaging, smiling and charming he was. And when he did finally take a break, there was his frenemy, Keith Richards, brilliant blues musician that he is, riffing on his guitar for a wonderfully long set. While Mick may be the business brains of the group, Keith is clearly, in my opinion, the heart and soul.

Oh yes, what about the exhibit? I loved it! My husband who was skeptical about going, also completely enjoyed it. It illustrated how it was Brian Jones who may be credited with bringing the group together when he posted an ad in 1962 for musicians interested in joining a blues band he was trying to form. Keith and Mick answered the ad. It showed the early years with a reproduction of the filthy hovel in which they lived and wrote their music. It has sidebar notes of some of the music as it was written. It chronicles how their costuming went from a short stint of wearing very staid hounds-tooth jackets to bizarre multicolored velvet dandy-wear.  It tells how their band logo was envisioned and commissioned to an art student by Mick, who eventually approved the “tongue” logo that has become probably the most oconic logo in rock history.     Their story in the exhibit evolves through the many years and ends finally with a fabulous 3-D concert performance of them doing Satisfaction. The whole exhibit was a lot of fun and very well done!

According to fan club questionnaire completed by the band in 1964, Mick Jagger’s response about his primary desire, he said wanted to “own my own business.” I’d say, “Mission accomplished.” So as this blog post closes, I have done what everyone who writes about them does – focus only on the Glimmer Twins even though today’s Rolling Stones also still include the substantial talents of Charlie Watts, Ron Wood.   Kind of like with the Beatles, back when Ringo was the cute one with his sad-sack eyes and George was the intense one with his spirituality and his virtuosity on the guitar but  Lennon and McCartney still got all the attention.

Until next time…..

 

 

IN THE PLACE WHERE IT HAPPENED….

84007032-6923-4C6F-B1CE-98985CE91AB1I know today is the fifth of July, but where I come from this is basically  Independence Week.

The Fourth of July is viewed as the birthday of our country.  Actually, July 2 is the date on which the Continental  Congress had voted unanimously to  declare independence from Great Britain.   July 4 was date that the text of the declaration Independence was approved.

I just came back from a visit to Easton, Pennsylvania, my hometown. If you’ve been following my blog for some time you may recall that I wrote about Easton and our holiday traditions last November when I was in Easton for Thanksgiving (HOMECOMING). During this past week’s  visit I had more time to  look around this town  where my father and his 12 siblings were reared and where my parents and I moved to when I was ten years old.

Easton was founded in 1752 by Thomas and John Penn, the sons of William Penn.   It  is positioned on the Delaware River, or more accurately at the Forks of the Delaware and the Lehigh Rivers.  It’s a city about 60 miles north of Philadelphia, where our Founding Fathers wrote and signed the document declaring our independence from Great Britain, and about 40 miles from Valley Forge, the military camp 18 miles northwest of Philadelphia where the American Continental Army spent the winter of 1777-78 during the Revolutionary War .  The other night I was watching the nightly news from Philadelphia and the reporter proudly declared that there was no better place to celebrate our country’s independence day  than  in the area  where it started.  Although the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776,  it wasn’t  until the Treaty of Paris in 1783 that the War ended and independence was finally won.

I lived in the midst of the history virtually my whole life, but the past few times I’ve been back, I have been especially struck by the fact  that I pretty much ignored it while I lived there.

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George Taylor home, member of Continental Congress, lived in this house, built in 1757 by William Parsons

 

George Taylor, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, lived there in this house on Ferry and Fourth Streets, a home that I passed without acknowledgement many times in my youth.    Easton was one of  three cities in which the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence was held on July 8 1776.

In July 1779, General John Sullivan began the southern leg of the one of the largest offensive campaigns in the Revolutionary War that came to be known as Sullivan’s March, which essentially passed through the bottom of the hill I lived on.

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Easton’s city flag unfurled on July 8, 1776

 

 

Easton’s is the first flag to use the stars and stripes and the red, white and blue colors, even before the flag made by Betsy Ross.   It flies proudly today on the light standards  throughout downtown Easton.

FEA8A90C-8E97-4678-A2FA-3D55AA65E128Since 1752 the town centre square, which we call the Circle, has been the site of the oldest continuously operating open-air farmer’s market in the United States.  So presumably during the Revolution, this market was available to locals, selling their wares.  Now every Saturday, the Circle is filled with vendors selling locally grown produce, honey, art, and meats.  In addition to the farmer’s market, the alleys are filled with local artisans selling jewelry and artwork. A new Public Market boasts a wide range of merchants selling gourmet vinegars and oils, cheeses,  wood work, chocolates, a creperie, a sandwich shop along with seating so that shoppers can grab a bite to eat.

The same city that welcomed representatives of the Continental Congress 241 Julys ago is  now in the midst of a resurgence as not only an historic capitol but  as a restaurant and artisan capitol as well – happily one that is not trading its heritage for glossy glitz. Restaurants and brew pubs have been springing up around the city but they are, by and large, not occupying new structures.  Many of the new proprietors are honoring and repurposing the old buildings with the skill and attention to detail that they deserve and the restoration  results are spectacular!

As an example, one needs to look no further than  the new life of the city’s Penn Building, an 1860 structure. Two years ago, the landlord of the building won the Easton’s Mayor’s Historic Restoration Award for tackling and excelling at the job of restoring the building’s rear apartments.   Once finished with that, he turned to the front facade of the building which presented the challenge that the right side of the building dated to the 1860s and the left half was from the 1930s. The owner wanted the entire facade to be 1860s.  No architectural plans  existed from which to work so the plans were sketched out as the building progressed by a masters-degreed architect and the owners general contracting company, both having expertise in historic restoration.   Eleven hundred days of  days of work later, the painstaking restoration is complete with a stunning result.  Now the home of a new microbrewery pub,  it’s one of the first buildings you see as you cross the bridge from New Jersey into Pennsylvania.    Another historic building dates back to 1810.  It too is now a local craft beer emporium as well as a farm to table restaurant.  The new owners have left the first floor barroom relatively untouched from the 1920s.   Beautiful  1920’s vintage tin ceilings were repaired and painted.   The original milk glass lighting fixtures and terrazzo floors needed only minor repairs and clean up.   I can attest that the outside of the building looks exactly as I remember when I used to pass by as a teenager.

The downtown is a juxtaposition of  the very old, newly  restored buildings and brand new structures created when building from scratch was the only viable option.  But it’s a downtown that I can still easily walk through with an old familiarity from my childhood.

This Sunday, July 9, Easton will hold its 41st Heritage Day.  Because of its  historic significance in this country’s birth, a celebration is held each year around the date of the first reading of the Declaration .     At noon on July 8, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was read on the steps of the old courthouse in Easton’s Centre Square.   A reenactment of that event and a festival organized around it first occurred during the Bicentennial Celebration in 1976.  From that year on, Heritage Day has been celebrated as Easton’s own Independence Day celebration.

Until next time!

 

MY YEAR IN MUSICAL THEATER

I am ready to confess that I have always been unashamedly a huge fan of musical theater. From my high school senior play, The Music Man, to seeing PippIn, the first play I saw on Broadway, I’ve been entranced.

For me, this has been a banner year for seeing some of my favorities live, starting with a phenomenol performance of My Fair Lady at the Lyric Opera. Each year, the Lyric reserves part of the month of May for a virtuoso production of a Broadway musical. My husband and I have made a bit of an annual  tradition out of going with some friends to see a Broadway show done spectacularly at the Lyric. We are never disappointed because the Lyric’s stock in trade is being entrusted with producing iconic works; they are used to taking precious care with every detail. I think I’ve seen this classic live at least four times over the years and, by far, this Lyric production was the best.

thumb_IMG_0498_1024Next we saw the current darling of musical theater, Hamilton, a show that can only be described as a masterpiece in its conception, its writing and its performance. Derived out of Ron Chernow’s historical biography about Alexander Hamilton, the orphaned flawed genius who was a principal designer of our federal government. When I told my husband, who takes history very seriously, that, yes, on stage Hamilton’s story unfolds in fast paced rap cadence, he had no comment, not sure if he wanted to see it or not. I too was skeptical:   I knew little about Hamilton and had not read Chernow’s book. Would I be able to follow and enjoy the story when told this way? Would it do serious justice to the story of the man who is arguably “the most important figure in American history who never attained the presidency.”    Also, think about it, Hamilton had the potential to be a real sleeping pill:  it’s about the visionary who developed  America’s banking,  tax and budget systems, the author of The Federalist Papers, and the Customs Service.   Is it finger popping time yet???  Anybody still awake out there??? No!   But Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton, the play, indeed turned all that into poetry.   He did a masterful job of synthesizing the vast story into a beautfiully executed, wildly entertaining night in American theater. In my opinion, telling the story with the hip, edgy cast enunciating in rap actually enhances the experience.    It is truly a show that will be seen and enjoyed, continuously in venues across the country, for many years to come. My history curmudgeon husband, our son, daughter-in-law and I were truly awestruck.

In the next two weeks I will see Aladdin which I hope will live up to the hype and that my grandkids will enjoy it. I can’t comment since we haven’t seen it yet but I’ve heard nothing but raves so I’m looking forward to it.

Hello, Dolly! with Carol Channing premiered on Broadway in New York in 1964 and became the hit of the year, eventually going on to win 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, a record that held for 37 years. Everyone sang the praises of the telling of the story of matchmaker, Dolly Levi. My 16-year-old self was vaguely aware of the exodus of people of a certain age going from my hometown to New York to see the play. Good for them, not for me. In the summer of ’64, I was too busy securing tickets to see The Beatles in Atlantic City; I had no time for Dolly Levi. My  full on  grudge with her however ensued when Louis Armstrong’s rendition of the title song of Hello, Dolly! came along and kicked my beloved moptops off the top of the charts.  The Beatles had first arrived in the United States in February 1964, and they had held first place on the Billboard chart for many months. There was no other rightful owner of that Billboard spot, in my mind.  When Armstrong’s song took first place, I was enraged and staged a one-person boycott of even having a thought of seeing Hello, Dolly! at the time.

But alas, the time has flown by and here I sit, having watched the Tony Awards last Sunday, and ready to visit my mother-in-law in two weeks’ time.   And she lives just 75 short minutes from Manhattan. If only there were a show that both she and I would love with a headlining star that I would give my eye teeth to see. What’s that you say? Bette Midler has just won the Tony for best female perfomer in a musical revival? I am overjoyed because I love Bette Midler. What, now? The show she has brought back to life is Hello Dolly!, itself winning the award for the best musical revival this year?  That’s it, let’s let 53-year-old bygones be bygones!   We’re going! Got on my Stub Hub site and scored two tickets while we are back East. I’ll be going with my mother-in-law since my husband has no interest.

And that, folks, is my year in Musical Theater ———so far.

See you next time….

MUSINGS

Is everyday a Saturday?

My son and I were talking about retirement recently and what it really feels like. “Do you have to think about what day it is?” he asked. Actually I do. When I worked, Monday was back to work day; Tuesdays often meant leadership meetings, etc. So I often got up having an idea of  what the day held in store for me. In retirement, except for Thursday, I have no defined task by which to identify the day. Thursday is defined by our Italian class. Other than that, as one retired physician once told me, “Every day’s a Saturday.”

My son and I both laughed about the universal “Sunday afternoon” feeling – the idea that the weekend can’t possibly be about to end already, can it? No matter how much one loves the job or school, in work life the fleeting of the weekend always comes as a somewhat wistful surprise. In fact just recently, my granddaughter, age 6 and in first grade, made reference  this past Sunday to going back to school on Monday. “It’s already time to go back to school,” she said, and she’s a girl who loves school. She’s already caught by the end-of-weekend reality.   No such feeling in retirement.

My working friends invariably laugh when I tell them when we’re going on vacation. “Vacation from what?” they say. “From what has now become our day to day; from this scenery and experiences to different scenery and experiences,” I laugh and answer. Or how about the working friend who calls me at noon or 1:00 in the afternoon, and, when I answer, jovially says, “Oh, you’re up!” Haha – very funny, my dear. It’s true, though, retirement and the livin’ indeed is easy.

After 43 years of work life, I’m still pretty much in the honeymoon phase of my freedom. But lest you think that retirement means just blowing in the wind (kind of does, happily) I do have obligations that I have voluntarily undertaken that require dedication, thought and some work – out of class Italian homework, for example. Writing this blog on a reasonably regular schedule, for another example. In the fall, I plan to join one of the many book groups in which I can participate as a member of the local American Association of University Women.   I love the idea that the assigned books in a book group are often ones that I would pass by if  left to my own devices.    I’ve found that I  want  just enough structure that I feel somewhat productive but not so much that I feel burdened.

The King of Cosmos

Last week, my husband, son, daughter-in-law and I went to see Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist disquised as a rock star who is head of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. Anyone who has seen him on a talk show or on his television series Cosmos, understands his easy, playful, comedic style as he’s describing the intricasies of the universe (or the multiple universes, that he posited are likely out there).  Going to this event fits in nicely with my desire in retirement to stretch beyond the usual forms of entertainment or knowledge that I enjoy and learn something new.

thumb_IMG_0399_1024The Chicago Theater was sold out and he stayed on stage for the better part of three hours, educating us from topics on the Big Bang to black holes to quarks to quantam mechanics. I know, it sounded way above my head too, believe me. I never even took introductory physics in high school. For people like me, he wrote a book called Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, for which this presentation was a part of his book tour.  I don’t want to know the minutiae; I won’t understand it anyway.   The book, a signed copy of which was given to every person (or couple) in the audience, is basically a Cliff Notes to bring us up to speed on the major discoveries behind our universe in readable, understandable English. I don’t know how he’s viewed in the physics community; it seems sometimes that  serious experts who become TV personalities often run into criticism from their peers in academia, medicine or science.  I really don’t think there’s anything wrong with  bringing esoteric information  to the masses if it’s done well.  You’re not going to come away knowing how to split atoms – his goal is just to make us fluent enough to be reasonably conversant (should we want to be) when the next cosmic headline comes along.

Like any rock star, NDT has his groupies – those college-age, middle age or senior followers who try to see him wherever he appears. I found that to be true of those who were in this audience because those sitting next to me told me that they also came the last year when he came to Chicago.    We were surrounded by college students – to the front, side and back of us – cheering whenever he mentioned a theory that they had studied with their professors: reminiscent of The Beatles in concert singing I Want to Hold Your Hand to screaming teenagers back in the day.   There were also children and seniors who asked impressively pointed, educated questions for Tyson at the end of the show.

If it all sounds too nerdy for words, it wasn’t.   At least not to me or my family.   Granted, you needed to have a smidgen of curiosity about the beginnings and evolution of the universe  to even go to the presentation but you required no expertise whatsoever in the subject matter to find it a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable evening.

Until next time…….