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Archive for the ‘cooking’ Category

Cod in Bilbao, Octopus in an Aldi in Madrid, a popcorn machine in Seville that fascinated.

(And a little bit in Italy)

We ate well in Spain, although it wasn’t a continual feast and it was never high-end. For the Seville part, there were six of us ranging in age from five to fifty-eight, of various dispositions, tastes and toleration levels. No, we had no pressing need to set out as a group to eat together for every meal (and in fact various divisions of the party would be off doing their own thing at times), but still, there were many factors to take into consideration which could be challenging at times. But knowing this, the smart person has already lowered expectations, and is happy to take whatever comes.

That’s not a bad suggestion for life in general, I think. Lower your expectations and be grateful for the gift of every moment. Yup.

Two other points:

First, my previous experience in Spain – Madrid and Barcelona on two different trips – had led me to expect more of the same regarding dinner times on this trip. It had been particularly acute in Barcelona, and perhaps I felt it particularly acutely at the time because I was traveling with a teen-age girl, an eight- year old and a four year old by myself. That is: they (Barcelona people – not my people)  don’t even start thinking about dinner until 9pm, and then, they really are just thinking about it. We’d set out at nine, confident that we’d  find a restaurant where we wouldn’t look like fools, as the sole customers – and were confounded every time.

So that’s what I was expecting in Seville. I was ready!

No need. Yes, “dinner” might not get rolling until that late hour, but the impact of the tapas culture is such that you can find people eating much of the afternoon and into the early evening.

Now, many restaurants are closed for a chunk of that – they might have been open for lunch from, say, noon to three or four – then they close and re-open at 8. But usually there are enough tapas bars that are open during that late afternoon-early evening hour that you can find something – and Spanish tapas is more than crackers and cheese. For light eaters, it qualifies as a meal.

So the point is that we never had trouble finding food being served somewhere. 

Secondly, while I enjoyed the food and by no means exhausted the local cuisine, I’ll say this about traveling to an area with a deeply-rooted traditional cuisine.

We look forward to it, right? We can’t wait to hit the pizza and pasta in Italy, the German sausages, the French sauces, the Spanish ham and potatos bravas. 

Well…

When I was in Italy (for two! days!), I was in the laundromat around the corner from our apartment. An American couple of about my age were also sorting and folding, so we got to talking. They were from Virginia and, like us, were on the tail end of a few weeks in Europe. I gathered that they’d been abroad a bit longer – more like four weeks. We had the usual conversation about how it had been great but we were ready to get home, and the woman said, I am so tired of pasta! 

And there you go. When an American travels to a part of the world with deep cultural traditions, we encounter a different world that is very attractive in some ways – in its richness and stability, its self-confidence. But, again, an American just might find some challenges in that landscape as well – I’ll talk more about this in a general way later, but since this is a food post, I’ll limit it to food.

What that stable, deep and rich culture means for food, in my limited experience, is that you encounter wonderful food that’s been centuries in the making, beloved, well-honed – and…not much else. So in Seville and around, the menus of most restaurants tend to share about 75% of the dishes in common: pork-related products (ham, of course, and also pork loin and chops), patatas bravasrevueltos (egg and vegetable scramble), snails (in season right now), and maybe ten other common dishes.

Restaurants doing anything different are scattered. We found one chicken-centered place not far from our apartment (there’s hardly any chicken on restaurant menus), and it was good, but most times we passed by, it was almost empty, as well.

Burger places are popular, though, and not just McDonald’s. There are several chains that do well – one we encountered often and ate at twice, I think, is called The Good Burger.

It’s not just so tired of pasta! It’s the beauty and the gift of the authentic diversity we have in this country  – with Mexican, Thai, Ethiopian, Nashville hot chicken, pizza and biscuits-and-gravy all within a couple miles of my house. A balanced world requires both – it requires the rich, solid, very-reluctantly changing and protected traditions – and the wildness of change and diversity. The trick is figuring out how to balance them, right?

Oh, and cost. You can eat very, very cheaply in Spain – in our experience. As I said, we didn’t go high end. So, for example, a tapas-centered dinner that filled all six of us up (including one five-year old, yes), including drinks – which included a couple/three beers – came, on one memorable occasion, to 43 Euros. Most tapas plates are between 2-3.5 Euros. Of course you can get larger plates, but we tended to stick with tapas-sized.

Anyway. Highlights of food, in no particular order:

 Spinach and chickpeas in Seville (very common); tuna & peppers (again, tipico) and some sort of potato-shrimp-chorizo thing in Seville (it was excellent); Asparagus and Migas in Trujillo – Migas – breadcrumbs, sausage, peppers and egg- a typical dish of the region. Then, snails in Seville. They were in season, and everywhere – and very good. The sauce was a rich tomato – more flavorful than most sauces I encountered in Spain.

Oh, that’s my advice for you if you travel to Spain to eat and have a typical American palate like mine: bring salt. Just a bit, to bring out those flavors a little more.

Asparagus is one of the more common green vegetables in the region. It’s so arid, they just don’t grow much, and they don’t really feature on the menus. Breakfast juice with strawberries. That weird, but tasty “zucchini tart” from Seville, and one of the typical pastries of Trujillo – basically, a custard.

Clockwise from top left: First two photos are from an excellent lunch in Merida. Tuna and peppers for me, delicious pork loin and chicken for the guys. . A typical breakfast in Caceras – toast (thick-cut bread) with ham and some olive oil. A typical pastry from Guadalupe – basically day-old cake bits bound with honey Then a break in Toledo with Middle Eastern food.

Same. Pizza in Lucca – the best, served as they do in Rome, with big sheets of it available for your choosing, sold by weight. Then a very good chain burger place in Seville called Goiko Grill – probably the most expensive meal we had, but they said the burgers were great, so it was worth it. Lamb brains from on of the Seville markets. Tapas that came with drinks in Toledo. Typical bakery in Chinchon. The beginning of pintxos in Bilbao.

In the south you have tapas – served generally from a menu. In the north, you have pinxtos – piled up high at the bar. If forced to choose, I would probably go with the pintxos – the olive/pickles orientation is more my style. The other feature of pintxos is slices of bread with…stuff piled on top. I thought I had photos, but I don’t. It’s easy to find them, though. 

We ate more than this, but a lot of my photos of those meals tend to have family members’ faces in them, and while many social media types have no problem using their families in that way, well, you won’t find that here.

One more: a tale of two montadillos.

There are different kinds of sandwiches in Spain, of course. The smaller is called the montadito. There’s a very popular chain called 100 Montaditos – and that’s exactly what it is. A menu featuring 100 kinds of montaditos priced at 1 Euro each.

I see that they have a few American stores – in Florida. Sandwiches are not a buck each – they start at 2 and go up. 

It’s truly fast food – I would say hangover food, really.  One of our party was fascinated with the concept and wanted to hit it every time we saw one (we didn’t.). I mean – for a euro? It was fine. Hit the spot.

But. 

These on the right  were better. Recommended in many guides, this bar – Bodequita Antonio Romero –  specializes in montaditos, and they were wonderful. I think not too much more than a Euro, but easily five times as flavorful. It’s the kind of thing you really wonder about – why can’t we have this here? Just go up to a bar, order a couple of little sandwiches, have a beer, and move on. Everyone’s professional and courteous, but there’s no need to treat the experience as if you are binding yourself to the establishment for life or need to be assured that you’re loved and appreciated.

(Two reasons, probably – it goes back to the deeply rooted cultural aspect of this food and these places – they’re just part of the fabric – and the no-tipping culture, as well. I found the waitstaffs in Spain to be sometimes on the brink of brusque, but always just…professional. As a person who will go an extra mile for self-checkout and who wants to Death Stare the next server who cheerily asks, How’s it goin’ guys? Having a good day? …this is definitely more my style.)

 

One more random note: While in Seville, most mornings, I went out and got pastries for breakfast from this bakery, called Colette – they were really some of the best I’ve ever had. On the quick jump over to Italy, I was reminded why I am not fond of the Italian take on these pastries – like croissants – they put a glaze on them. 

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Writing/Saying: 

I was in Living Faith yesterday – here’s that entry. 

I’ll be on the Spirit Mornings program on KVSS this morning at 8:40 central talking about the Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols  – the Mondayinterview will probably already have aired by the time you read this, but I’m guessing it will be archived at their page. 

Two other posts published today  – both on St. Bernard of Clairvaux, whose feast we celebrate. One here and one here. I might have one more coming – not on St. Bernard – so perhaps return for that.

I am speaking in San Antonio on Saturday, so I outlined that talk.

Surfing: Kayak, Google Flights, the Marriott site. Trips west (Kansas) and east (NYC) in the works so far.

Reading: A few things, all over the map.

First, I reread Merton’s little book on St. Bernard, which I mention in one of the posts. You can find the book here, on Scribd. 

This is an excellent New Yorker article on the impact of e-commerce on rural China. Writer Jiayang Fan offers the intriguing observation that in the United States, the Internet had transformed and disrupted commerce, as it has replaced brick-and-mortar stores, but China did not have the same kind of commercial landscape so:

In China, what is sometimes called “the shift to mobile” never happened—hasn’t needed to happen—because the country’s wealth is too recent for people to have been swept up in the PC revolution, the way Americans were. Instead, they went straight to phones, an example of a phenomenon known as leapfrogging, in which non-participation in an older technology spurs early adoption of whatever innovation comes next. Jack Ma, of Alibaba, has argued that the entire e-commerce sector in China exemplifies this pattern: people happily shop online because there haven’t been Walmarts everywhere. In the U.S., “e-commerce is a dessert,” he said. “In China, it’s become the main course.”

And it’s fascinating to read her description of drone delivery – which is extensive and more common by the day.

And then then my main course of the weekend – the novel The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea.  Oh my word, I enjoyed this novel so much. It won’t be for everyone – but what is? That’s why I don’t get into the business of “recommending” books, movies or television shows. People have different tastes, what engages me might alienate you, what absorbs you might bore me. I’m just saying what I’m saying – that’s all.

The House of Broken Angels is the story of an extended Mexican-American family, told via the events of a day or so – the funeral of an elderly woman and, the next day, the birthday of Big Angel, her son – the patriarch of the family. Of course, the narrative flashes back and forth in time within that 36-hour framework, so we ultimately get the gist of this family’s whole story, beginning decades ago in La Paz, in Baja California.

Coming down from Seattle to the gathering is another Angel – Little Angel, the youngest brother of Big Angel, but a son of their dead father by another mother – an American woman named Betty. The two Angels, both broken in various ways, and their siblings, spouses and children embody all the varied layers of immigrant experience and the almost unimaginable distance between the struggle and poverty in Mexico half a century before and the present day, surrounded by English-only speaking, smartphone-wielding grandchildren.

The dialogue is sharp and realistic, both revealing and elusive, just as human language always is. The writing can be gorgeous:

And everyone loved sunsets. The light lost its sanity as it fell over the hills and into the Pacific–it went red and deeper red, orange, and even green. The skies seemed to melt, like lava eating black rock into great bite marks of burning. Sometimes all the town stopped and stared west. Shopkeepers came from their rooms to stand in the street. Families brought out their invalids on pallets and in wheelbarrows to wave their bent wrists at the madness consuming their sky. Swirls of gulls and pelicans like God’s own confetti snowed across those sky riots.

Pulling all of this together is the fact (no spoiler – it’s clear from the beginning) that Big Angel is dying, in the final stages of bone cancer. His mother dies, and his birthday will be the next day, so he’s convinced that this will be his last birthday. So the novel, even as it weaves many stories together, is essentially about Big Angel: his journey, his sins, the gifts he’s leaving and, in the end: his gratitude. For his friend and spiritual advisor, Fr. Dave, a Jesuit priest, has given him small notebooks in which he’s told him to note down what he’s grateful for.

The notebooks had a title: My Silly Prayers…..
marriage
family 
walking
working
books
eating
Cilantro

That surprised him. He didn’t know where it came from. Cilantro? he thought. Then:

my baby brother

Every day, he found his gratitudes more ridiculous. But they were many, and they reproduced like desert wildflowers after rain.

It took me a day or two to get into it, mostly because I found the riot of characters pretty confusing, and had to keep flipping back and forth to establish who was who and who was married to whom and whose kid this was. But when I finally got all of that straight, I couldn’t put it down. It was lovely and wild, jumping back and forth through time and space – which is my experience of consciousness and reality – and hilarious. Loved it.

Watching/Listening: Older son had to work into both Saturday and Sunday evenings, so there was no watching of things, at least by me. Sitting in the living room, reading St. Bernard, I listened to Thelonius Monk. Appropriate, I suppose.

Cooking: A batch of this Mexican Braised Beef, which is fantastic. It’s so simple – I replaced the plain canned tomatoes with Ro-tel or some other tomato/pepper mix. I also don’t have a slow cooker, so it’s all in the oven. Oh, and a batch of chocolate chip cookies. With the ritual burning of the second batch as I wander off and get distracted, of course.

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I’m going to start a daily thing here, mostly for the sake of quickly warming up my writing muscles again. It will probably end up being like most of my other well-intentioned plans and collapse after a few days as I get interested in something else, but let’s give it a shot. Just a daily digest of what I’m reading, writing, watching, eating/cooking

Mondayand getting peeved about. And maybe other things.

Reading: It dawned on me that periodicals circulate in our local library, so I did a lot of New Yorker reading last week, in my favorite spot – lounging on the back patio in 90 degree weather. Actually, that’s not my favorite spot – that would be lounging by water – but I cancelled our pool membership, and we’re four hours from the ocean. So. In reading the New Yorker, I ignore politics, focusing on culture and so on. Like Adam Gopnik on a California vintner and Burkhard Bilger on gourmet/heirloom legumes. 

Books? I dug out Excellent Women by Barbara Pym from our basement. A couple of decades ago, I went through a Pym phase, reading a lot of her books. I got halfway through this one and was enjoying it, so during a library stop, I pulled several more, anticipating a week or so of immersion in that world. But by the time I’d finished Excellent Women, I was already tired of that very world. I started another one – I don’t remember which one – got five pages in, and thought, No, I actually don’t want to be in this world for even another hour. That’s enough. 

Then, on Friday, I think, I read Saints at the River by Ron Rash – which begins with an intriguing hook: it’s about the conflict between a family whose daughter drowned in a South Carolina river and environmentalists: the family of course wants to recover her body, but there’s no way of doing so without disturbing the ecology of the area. I thought, great idea for a story! And although Rash is a well-respected writer, especially of short stories, I found the writing flat and while I did finish the book (in a day) – mostly to see what happened – I wasn’t inspired to read more.

Then onto a book I’m reading via the Internet Archive: I Was Dancing by Edwin O’Connor, author of, among other books, The Edge of Sadness, a recent edition of which I edited for the Loyola Classics series. I’m really enjoying it so far, but will hold off writing about it until I finish it – probably tonight.

Writing: This!

Also – I think after I finish this, on the Monday of my first full week in which I no longer have any excuses, I’ll pull out the Guatemala stuff once again and see what I can make of it. I also have a short story that’s half-finished, which I will look at again, after some months.

I also have a series of blog posts on technology/social media mapped out. I’m hoping to start that today. We’ll see. It looks like it’s going to be another sunny day and I have another issue of the New Yorker waiting before it has to go back to the library.

Watching: 

Better Call Saul, of course – new episode tonight, which is always so great to pause during the day and consider. Ahh…Better Call Saul will be on tonight. 

I’ve also started rewatching Breaking Bad   – with the boys. Yup. After last year’s Lost mega-viewing (which was, I repeat, one of the best things I’ve ever done with them – I recommend it), I had been thinking about moving to Breaking Bad.  For the record, the guys are 17 – not too far from 18 – and almost 14. I really wanted to get it in before the older one goes off to college, because it’s such a spectacular, layered piece of storytelling with a lot of moral resonance.

The only issue I have is that the versions that are currently streaming are just a bit rougher than what originally aired on AMC, but honestly – the language is not much worse than you hear on the much-vaunted, Stranger Things – especially season 2. There are some scenes that I’ve fast-forwarded through (if you remember the first episode of the entire series – you’ll know what I’m talking about. They are certainly scenes that illustrate Walt’s character, er, development – but not, as we say in this house “appropriate.”)

It’s great though. We’re up through episode 6 of season 1, and believe me, there is so much to talk about – which is why I do this. Such as the moment in “Gray Matter” when Walt has (again) a profound choice to make, is about to step out of the car to hook up again with Jesse, and grace – in the form of Gretchen – calls up on the phone with another way through the problem, a way that doesn’t involve sin, but does involve setting aside pride – well, yes. Lots to talk about.

Listening: A lot of piano jazz – Bill Evans and Thelonius Monk, mostly. Handel’s keyboard suites, trying to help M figure out which one he wants to play. Ginastera’s Danza del Gaucho Matrero as M learns it, trying to get the rhythms right. The Ink Spots’ My Echo, My Shadow and Me because one of the boys was watching the first part of Better Call Saul with me last week – and it was the framing song for the opening, and he was taken with it. And plays it several times a day now.  Nothing Else Matters by Metallica – on keyboard, because M is learning it to play with this flutist jazz teacher.

Eating/Cooking:  I tend not to cook a lot in the summer. The “summer foods” that I like – lots and lots of salads – are not popular in this house, so I don’t bother. We also take the summer to do a lot of eating out – trying out various holes-in-the-wall in and around town, mostly. But a local restaurant – the Miami Fusion Cafe – ran an Instagram photo of a big pan of Ropa Vieja –  so I looked up the recipe and made a pot of it yesterday – and yes, it’s delicious – and not spicy, which is appreciated by some around here.

Surfing: Related to some of the content in this post – a couple of sites to recommend:

Serious Eats is one of my favorite recipe sites and they have a great Instagram, too.

Neglected Books has smart commentary on literature, in general, and is so helpful if you want something to read that you’ve never heard of – which is always what I’m looking for.

Travels: Wearing out that path back and forth to school again, that’s all. But San Antonio is coming, so there’s that!

Not, unfortunately, to Sorano – featured, for some random reason, in this graphic. My ideal place: a gorgeous, half-abandoned Italian hill town, filled with stray cats, where no one really wants to talk to you and you couldn’t understand them even if they did.

 

 

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When you imagine traveling abroad, is food a part of the picture? Do you imagine yourself lingering over long dinners in Paris bistros or Italian trattorias, discovering humble geniuses creating marvels on hidden Tuscan roads?

Yeah, well. I like food – most food – and look forward to eating adventures when I travel, but really, most of the time, I end up hacking up a roast chicken and boiling some pasta for overtired kids in a kitchen where I’m never quite sure if I turned the gas off properly or not.

Obviously, children – and the constraints of time and money – impact the experience of food when you’re traveling.  Mine are not the pickiest eaters in the world, but nor are they the most adventurous, although there’s been a lot of growth over the past couple of years on that score. Palates are definitely maturing.

But what that has meant is that dining has never been a focus of travel for us, as it is for some. We need to eat, we eat when we can (I always tell them  when we’re traveling: When there’s food in front of you…eat as much as you can. You never know when your next chance for a meal is going to come. )

We’ve had some good meals, but we’ve also eaten a lot of street food (which is almost my favorite) and plates of cured meats and cheese and bread in the apartment at night (which is my absolute favorite and why expensive plates of charcuterie offered in American restaurants irritate me – I can get the same and more of better quality from any Italian grocery store for a fraction of the price…). It’s a challenge (and expensive) to depend on restaurants as the focus of dining when you’re traveling, especially with children. Especially in southern European countries, where dinner is late – oh, my.

The first time we went to Spain, I knew they ate late, but I didn’t know how late until, starting about 8, I would descend from our Barcelona apartment and take a walk down the block, looking in restaurant windows – is anyone in there yet? Not at 8, not at 8:30. All still empty. Finally, at 9, I decided that this was ridiculous. I had a teenage daughter, an 8-year old and a 3-year old. The kids had to eat. Nine pm? Still no one in the restaurants. We finally settled on a Chinese place, where there were indeed a few occupied tables – perhaps we wouldn’t feel like complete idiots there. Except when I asked the server for napkins and she returned and tossed a stack of paper napkins on the table. Still in the plastic package. Um, gracias? 

So yes, when traveling, we eat lunch out, but dinners have been mostly takeaway eaten in the apartments we’ve rented, and that’s fine. Cheaper, too.

But this was different. Part of the reason was undoubtedly the guide. It’s not that he took us to every single meal, but with his help, we were guaranteed that at least half of our meals would be interesting and we would understand what we were eating, and do it right.

And it was also different because of the food. It was mostly just….good. Dependably good. It was fresh and freshly made, from the tortillas to the steamed or lightly boiled vegetables. The vegetables had not come out of a can, the meat had not been thawed from Cotsco bags. The meals were prepared, not warmed up, and the kitchens were in sight. It was farm-to-table, mostly open kitchen, but it was simple, not self-conscious, normal, not trendy, and offered with a sense of care and pride just because that’s the way you treat food and eating in this culture.

So, the week of eating. It started out fairly average then greatly improved as the week went on.

Sunday

On a Sunday evening in San Ignacio, there wasn’t a lot open. Actually, as I think about it, it was late Sunday afternoon, not evening – we hadn’t had lunch, so this was filling that gap as well. We ate at Tandoor Restaurant and Bar – Indian-owned, with a mixed menu. (There is a large population of Indians and Chinese in Belize. In fact, most small retail is owned by Chinese now, which is a whole other, interesting story) The place is on Burns Street, which has been closed to traffic, and as a pedestrian walkway is clearly party central. Buckets of beer on offer everywhere and so on, ready for the student/hipster/hikers back from their day of adventures.

I had escabeche – a traditional Belizean onion soup, that was..full of onions. Which it’s supposed to be! But they weren’t that strong, and the soup was very filling with good spice. My son had a chicken quesadilla, which he said was good.

Monday

Monday lunch was at El Sombrero, which is an ecolodge near the Yaxha ruins. We ordered lunch, and then took a boat ride out to the Toxopate ruins on a nearby island, then returned, where lunch was quickly presented to us. I honestly don’t have a vivid memory of the meal – it was late in the afternoon, we’d had a very bumpy ride in the morning in an unsuccessful bid to see one set of ruins (the roads ended up being impassible), then toured Yaxha, then the island ruins, with the drive to Tikal still to come. I’m pretty sure I had grilled chicken, served with the usual sides. It was tasty.

Dinner was at the Jungle Lodge, which, as I mentioned yesterday, has a very mundane menu. I had an antipasto plate which was well prepared – the eggplant clearly just grilled and so on – I don’t remember what my son had. I was mainly irritated at the menu. Onward!

Tuesday

Tuesday was Sunrise Tour day – meaning we rose at 4 am, met our guide at 4:30, walked through the jungle, and climbed up Temple IV for sunrise at 5:30 or so. So yes, by 11, it was time to eat.

Neart the hotel area at Tikal are several comedors or small, informal restaurants. We had a little bit of back-and-forth about the exchange rate, but that didn’t mar the experience of the food, which was very good. I had a chicken dish and my son had beef of some sort.

Here you can see the typical plating: the protein, rice, vegetables (carrots and a kind of squash), with tortillas and pickled carrots/onions/jalapenos.

 

The place, as they all are, is basically open air – there’s a roof, but no walls. One woman serving, the other in the kitchen. There’s a wait because they’re cooking the food, not warming it up. Very, very good.

The comedors aren’t open for dinner, so you’re stuck with the hotel restaurants. We ate this one at the next door Jaguar Inn, and the food was a little better than it had been at our hotel. I had a fruit plate – the best pineapple I’ve ever had and excellent other fruit.

Wednesday

We slept late on this day – rising at 6 am, not 4, so that was exciting. After a morning at Tikal and a bumpy ride around the edge of the park, we arrived in the village of Uaxactun, which features ancient ruins on both sides of the modern-day village which in turn is centered on a now-unused airstrip, built for the time when the surrounding jungle was harvested for chicle (the natural gum that was the original chewing gum – hence, Chicklets). Now, the forest is managed to harvest two resources: a type of fern that is exported to Holland for use in flower arrangements, and hardwood. We went into the small, quiet restaurant with chickens and pigs roaming around outside the door – quiet but for the moaning and chanting of prayers from the evangelical prayer meeting next door – placed our order for lunch, then toured the first set of ruins.

We had two choices: chicken or deer (hunted from the jungle). Of course we chose deer!

 

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Avocado and refried black beans also on the plate, in addition to the usual rice and vegetables. 

Dinner was in Flores that night. We wandered around a bit, saw a few possibilities, and then studied the menu outside of this one tiny place. My son was hankering for a hamburger, and this menu featured it. I have no idea what the restaurant was called. There were maybe five tables inside, and no customers. The cook/server/owner was an older woman sitting at a table with a newspaper, watching a telenova. She was very friendly to us, and didn’t seem to mind being interrupted – after she took our order, she changed the channel, presumably for Michael’s benefit, to some weird game-show type show featuring Vin Diesel in which cars were driven from second story windows and smashed up.

Anyway, Michael got his hamburger, and I got a very fine chicken soup. I’m pretty sure the vegetables had been prepared just for the soup – after our order, I heard the chef chopping away up there in the kitchen.

amywelborn17

 

In the corner of the tiny restaurant was this:

(Forgive the size – you can’t resize videos on WordPress, unfortunately.)

Thursday

Thursday was another adventurous day involving much boat riding. After seeing the Aguateca ruins, we returned down the creek to the town of Sayaxche to the Cafe Maya. No written menu, but five or six choices presented to us. I chose the local whitefish – Michael had shrimp.

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The cafe was filled with workers on their lunch break, most of them either medical people or telecommunications employees, judging from their uniform polo shirts. No McDonald’s for these folks, lucky them.

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On our way across the river to Sayaxche. It was a small boat. Two women with a motorcycle crossed with us. 

This was a long, tiring day, and lunch had been late, so when we returned to Flores at 7:30, neither of us were interested in a lengthy dinner, so we settle for tacos at a bar/cafe – no photos, but the chicken and pork tacos were very good.

Friday

Friday was our last day with our guide  – he’s been taking us to the Ixpanpajul nature preserve outside of Flores, then onto the Belize border. On the way, after the park, we stopped at El Porta del Yaxha – a restaurant built originally to serve the crew of Survivor Guatemala when it filmed at Yaxha for three months in 2005. It was a lovely, open-air restaurant right on the highway, complete with hammocks if you needed a power nap.

The food was great. We started with a simple soup served in these cups. Then I had pepian stew – a chicken stew with a spice and ground pumpkin seed base that was rich and fabulous. Accompanying the meal were the usual pickled vegetables, black beans, tortillas and fresh cheese. Our guide said I should be able to find the base for pepian in a good Hispanic grocery store, and since we have one of those, I’m hopeful.

Dinner – well, I had wanted to go here for dinner, but the kid was again hankering for a hamburger. It wasn’t just being an American kid – he was hoping that he’d have a hamburger made with Guatemalan beef and it would be amazing. So we stopped at this place – Ko-Ox Han-Nah (which means “Let’s go eat” in a Mayan dialect, I think.) I don’t know if what he got turned out to be exactly amazing, but he liked it. And he saw chili cheese fries on the menu, and wanted those. I had thought I’d go to the other place after he finished, but by then, I was tired and full from a cucumber/yogurt appetizer I’d had, so I decided against it.

Oh- one more thing from San Ignacio – the first night were there (Sunday) we’d had a bit of street food – a bit of meat and cheese freshly fried between tortillas. It was great. I could have eaten a lot more of those…

Saturday:

Time to go home! I wasn’t going to eat anything really, but when we got to the Belize Airport there was a sort-of cafe setup  – you ordered it from a woman standing at a booth, they cooked it somewhere, and then brought it back in take-out containers. They had some Belizean dishes on the menu, so even though it wasn’t in my plan, I thought it was my duty to try something – grilled chicken (I had wanted shrimp, but the woman said, “The shrimp is finished.” Poor shrimp.)

Look at this!

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A lot of chicken filets, rice and beans under there, good fresh vegetables, a grilled/baked plantain….excellent and a ton of food.

So there you go. I’m sorry I didn’t get to that restaurant in Flores, and our food explorations were limited by the fact that were in Tikal for two days, and food is not the focus of the Tikal experience. But I was struck by the food I was served in Guatemala and Belize. It was carefully and thoughtfully prepared. It was fresh. It was pretty balanced and healthy. In just those few days, what I think I experienced was a confident, authentic culture that is centered on the idea that if I’m going to serve you something to eat, it’s inhospitable to give you anything less than the best I can offer at that moment.

Gracias!

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Lunch for the tapirs and friends at the Belize Zoo.

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As promised, this is one of two posts I’m going to write on our trip to Belize and Guatemala (July 16-22, 2017) This one will be about the the practicalities, with tips and mini-reviews, and the other will be on the food, which was consistently great.

Why in the world did you go? Should we?

We went on this trip because my 12-year old has a strong and serious interest in Mayan history and archaeology, his brother was doing another out-of-town activity for the week, and I gave him the chance to pick a destination, and this – specifically Tikal – was it.

There are 2000 Mayan sites in Guatemala alone (some just one mound covering a temple, but still…), some quite extensive. Tikal is the most well known, but is close to some other very interesting sites, so we decided to make it the focus of the trip.

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There are other reasons to go to this part of the world. A lot of North Americans head down there for recreational and adventure reasons – you see more of it in Belize, which is becoming a very popular destination, not only for tanned retirees heading to fish, but families and young people as well. People go diving, fishing, caving and tubing. It’s a popular cruise ship stop. There are lots of all-inclusive resorts (including three owned by Francis Ford Coppola) and it’s popular with North Americans because the first language of Belize is English, they take US dollars everywhere, and the exchange rate is easy to figure out on the fly (basically 2:1 Belize:US).

Guatemala has plenty to recommend in this regard as well, and more, considering the geographical diversity of the country.

People also go to Guatemala for the family and cultural connections they have, and to do mission work. Our flights into and out of Belize each had at least two mission groups aboard, and I saw more than a few vans on the road crammed with blonde-haired Anglos and guitar cases visible through the back window – I assumed they were mission groups ,too. Was I wrong? Maybe, but I doubt it.

So. Should you go?

If you want to, sure!

I felt safe and, after a day or two of adjustment, at ease in the culture. Everyone is very friendly and helpful, and the sites we saw were fascinating. There were many American and European families with younger kids at Tikal – none at the other sites we visited, but then, we were mostly the only people at those sites, anyway, so…..

If Mayan culture interests you or you want to expose your family to that part of our hemisphere’s history, Tikal and the other sites are great. If you have never done anything like this before, it might be a little easier to start in Mexico with Chichen Itza and Uxmal, perhaps using Merida and Campeche as bases or Cancun if that is your thing (although crime is becoming more of a problem in the Mexican resorts, it seems, so I’m not so sure about that…).

Or, if you want your family to experience ancient American cultures…try the Southwest. No, it’s not the Temple of the Jaguar, but it’s still interesting and important to understand.

As for the other activities in the area, they don’t hold much appeal for me at this point. When it comes to outdoor type of activities there’s so much in this country that I haven’t experienced – the Florida Keys, the Rocky Mountains, the Northwest – that any energy for that kind of thing that I have…I’ll direct to those places.

How Should I Get There?

When I first started planning, I assumed we would fly in and out of Guatemala City – until I figured out how far it is from Peten, the area in which theruins that are our focus are located. It would be an 8-9 hour drive unless I wanted to fly from Guatemala City to Flores – which is expensive.

So the next possibility was Belize City, which is what I ultimately decided on. Weirdly, it was cheaper to fly from Birmingham to BC than Atlanta to BC – I mean, I’m happy about that, but that’s not the norm and I don’t know why it was so.

Another option is Flores, which is right there.  Unfortunately flying into Flores from either Birmingham or Atlanta was far too expensive. However, if you can fly, for example, out of Houston, the fare is very decent. So if you can get to a major hub in the southwest, check out the fares for Flores.

I worked this journey as two separate flights. I had enough miles to get us down there on American at no charge, but not enough for a round trip, and the AA flights back were at bad times and expensive. So I opted to fly United, one-way, back from BC. This would have been a lot cheaper if we lived in South Florida or Texas…just sayin’.

Should I Drive?

All right. It depends. I won’t bore you with the back-and-forth I went through in my head on this. Well, not much of it, anyway.

I am a very independent traveler. I like to be in control of my own destiny, at all times. The long-haul public transportation in Belize and Guatemala is confusing and not great, especially in Belize. So, should I drive? My reflexive answer was not “NO!” and in fact, I did consider it.

The real question before I went was renting a car and taking it across the border. It can be done, but it adds a level of complication to the border crossing between Belize and Guatemala that might already be fraught. You have to drive the car through fumigation portals, etc, plus there’s the documents you have to have…yeah. And then you’d have to do it again. All that.

But I will say that after spending a week being driven around Belize and Guatemala, if I were going to do anything like it again, here’s what I would do.

First, though: if you are a timid driver – forget it. Don’t even try. I’m not a timid driver, so given that I see how it all works now, if I went back, and were only going to be in one of the countries, I’d drive, with a couple of caveats.

I’d drive in Belize, no question. The roads are fine, and the driving doesn’t seem too crazy. I wouldn’t drive in Belize City, but then I wouldn’t drive in any foreign city if I could help it.

Secondly, I would sort of  drive in Guatemala. Maybe. Sometimes.

It would be considerably more challenging, but having seen those challenges, I could manage. Yes, the roads are not smooth. Yes, there are people on the side of the road, including little kids some of whom are dragging machetes because every male seems to carry a machete around in rural Guatemala. Yes, there are dogs, horses, chickens and pigs on the side of and often in the road. Yes, there are frequent and potentially damaging speed bumps. Yes, there are loads of motorcycles, perhaps 3% of which are being driven by people wearing helmets, and a surprising number of those motorcyclists are transporting small children and babies. My favorite was: 2 adults on one cycle, with a toddler in between them and a baby in a carrier strapped to the driver’s front.

But yeah, I could do it. However….

The roads leading to most of the ruins except for Tikal are terrible. Even Yaxha, which is a major site, and perhaps the most visited in the area after Tikal, involved about 8 miles of really rough road.  Even if I had the most comprehensive insurance on the planet (which is what I would have), I would be extremely tense about driving those roads myself because, well, what if something happened? I can change a tire, but you know what? I really don’t want to, especially in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country.

And since visiting sites would be our major interest…there’s no reason to spend 70/80 bucks a day on a car that I’d have a nervous breakdown driving because I’d be afraid of puncturing a tire or the gas tank or whatever. And I wouldn’t drive at night. Yeah, all that. So while I don’t particularly like being dependent on others for my transportation, it really doesn’t make any sense to do otherwise. Jesus, take the wheel.

Conclusion?

Renting and driving a car in Belize and Guatemala is expensive, and if you did this, you’d want plentiful insurance coverage (and would be required to get it if you rented in Belize and traveled to Guatemala), which makes it even more expensive.

For long distances, you can take buses, but the Belize buses are not great – don’t know about the Guatemala buses. Mexico has really nice buses, but Belize, at least, doesn’t have that kind of service at this point.

In communities, taxis and collectivos (vans) and tuk-tuks (in Flores and probably other places) are plentiful and inexpensive. Everyone, it seems to me, uses taxis to get around because relatively few people actually own cars. You have a motorcycle, probably, but if you need to carry things or take more people, you just get a taxi, no big deal.

In addition, there are plenty of shuttle services, and every taxi driver you encounter will amywelborn78nose about for more business: So…are you going to Tikal? Do you need a driver? Are you going to the airport? Do you need a driver tomorrow for that? But if you do go long distances via shuttle, build that cost in. So, for example, this past Saturday, I paid $100 (50 each) for us to be driven in a shuttle from San Ignacio, Belize to the Belize Airport, about 73 miles away, with a 90-minute stop at the Belize Zoo. I wish I didn’t have to spend that kind of money, but in the end, hiring a driver ends up being not that much more expensive than renting a car in these countries, and while you don’t have the freedom to go anywhere whenever, you have freedom from stress about responsibility for driving mishaps. Life, as I like to say, is a trade-off.

Where Should I Stay?

Again, I’m writing this for people interested in Tikal and other nearby sites, so I’ll start with Tikal.

If you look at a map, you’ll see several possibilities. People do day trips to Tikal from spots in Belize, as well as closer Guatemalan communities like El Remate and Flores. It’s certainly possible, but there are advantages to staying in the park itself.

The best times to experience Tikal are in the morning and late afternoon. Not surprisingly, those late morning and earlier afternoon hours get hot, plus the jungle is quieter during those hours, as the animals are sensible and taking a rest as well. So to experience the jungle and the ruins in their fullest, in the most convenient way – it makes sense to stay in one of the three hotels located in the park.

It makes particular sense if you’re going to do the Sunrise tour, which necessitates you start walking to Temple IV at about 4:30 am. Adding an hour drive to that would be…torture.

There are three hotels in the park: The Jungle Lodge, the Jaguar Inn and the Tikal Inn.

All are located near each other in the same area. We stayed at the Jungle Lodge, and I was very happy with the accommodations. They are separate cabins that were constructed originally back in the 1950’s for the team from the University of Pennsylvania that was excavating the ruins.

(Here’s an article published in 1970 upon the completion of the team’s work. 

Here’s a set of really interesting archival videos on the project – they are silent and just that – archival – but interesting to dip into.)

The bungalows are very clean – as was my experience in all three places we stayed. There is no air conditioning, but there is a ceiling fan. The unusual thing about this to keep in mind is that most electricity is turned off during certain hours in the middle of the day and from about 10:30 pm to 7 am or so – with the ceiling fans being on a separate generator that keeps running. But if you get up for that Sunrise Tour, if you haven’t brought flashlights (we did), you’ll need your cell phone flashlight, which probably isn’t great. You should take a flashlight anyway because you’ll need it for the walk to Temple IV for the Sunrise Tour, and if you go to another onsite restaurant in the evening, you’ll need it for walking on the grounds – there are no streetlights around the parking lot, it’s pitch black and the great thing? The stars.  I’d never seen them so bright and in such an array. It’s what I had hoped to see at the Grand Canyon but didn’t. Gorgeous.

So yes, the Jungle Lodge is more expensive than other accommodations in towns outside the park, but again – everything has a cost, and it’s up to you what currency you want to use – do you want to pay with money or do you want to pay with the extra time and hassle of being an hour away from the park? I’d say it’s worth it to spend at least one night in the park.

The restaurant at the Jungle Lodge is not what I expected and I wouldn’t recommend it, unless you have nowhere else to go (and there are other places – the other two hotels both have restaurants, and during the day, there are comedors – or small restaurants just down the road. The comedors only take cash though, so be prepared.). The service was fine and the food wasn’t terrible, but it was oddly enough, not at all Guatemalan, Central American or even vaguely Hispanic. It was mostly sort of Italian. Weird and overpriced.

In Flores, we stayed at a hotel owned by the same people – the Isla de Flores. Very nice – good sized room and bathroom. The best noise-blocking windows I’ve ever experienced in a hotel. Could have used them in Madrid where the party just gets started at midnight…

Bookending the trip, we stayed at Martha’s Guesthouse in San Ignacio, Belize. I highly recommend it. Very nice people running the place and the room we stayed in was very large, with a balcony.

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Miscellaneous Tips:

  • When you cross the Guatemala-Belize border, you’ll be immediately swarmed on either side by men offering to exchange money. Don’t do it. I had gotten Guatemalan money before we went – I usually don’t do that, but I knew I would need cash right away to buy Tikal tickets (next tip), so I made an exception this time. It might be a good idea to do the same, but there are secure ATM’s in banks all over the place – not in villages, but in towns.
  • Make sure you understand the process for buying Tikal tickets – research it or if you have a guide, he or she will explain it. Because of long lines, delays and corruption, the government took Tikal ticket-selling away from the park and you must buy them at a branch of a certain bank now – there is a branch at the border and at the airport and other places, but just be prepared. You have to pay cash and know exactly what kind of tickets you want because there are no tickets sold at the park.
  • They take American dollars all over Belize. They also took them in souvenir shops in Flores and at the shops and snack places around the Tikal park. I would advise downloading a currency exchange app on your phone to avoid conflict and confusion – you can just punch it numbers and show it to the clerk or server – end of argument. If you think you might use US dollars in Guatemala, make sure they are clean, unmarked and not too folded or wrinkled. The problem, as our guide explained, is that the Guatemalan banks will not accept US dollars that are in less than good condition – so if a vendor accepts one and tries to deposit them and they’re rejected – they’ve lost that money.
  • San Ignacio, Belize and Flores Guatemala are full of tourists. Young American and European backpackers and adventurers, retired Americans and lots of students. It’s got that kind of vibe – a mix of locals hustling to make a living, mostly off the tourists, and the tourists hoping what they’re experiencing is “authentic” – San Ignacio is much more ramshackle than Flores, though.
  • The tourist-centered economy of these places means that they’re full of tour companies. Choose wisely and read reviews. Plan ahead if you want (I did) but I think it’s easy to pick up a guide or join a tour on short notice.
  • Internet: I have a cel-phone plan through T-Mobil that provides free service overseas. The data is slow, but it’s there. I had access through my phone in most places except in Tikal. It was weird – we trekked through various other jungles that were more isolate than Tikal, and I had access in those places, but not in Tikal. The hotels all had wi-fi, but the Jungle Lodge’s service was provided only in the lobby and at the pool and it was terrible. Everywhere else, the wi-fi was fine. Now. Before anyone scolds about “just unconnect! Be free!” – listen to me.  I am a single mom, who had one minor child up in Chicago while I was in Guatemala. I needed to be available. My finances are all on me – no one else – and I needed to keep an eye on my bank account and credit card account to make sure there were no ATM or other shenanigans brewing. Wi-Fi wasn’t important because I wanted to check Facebook. It was important because most of life is on the internet now, for good or for ill, I’m the head of the household with responsibilities that are all on my shoulders, so yeah…making sure I’m in range is important. No apologies.
  • We prepared, health-wise, by loading up on probiotics for a couple of weeks before. It probably wasn’t necessary. We were very careful and never drank tap water – I don’t think most natives do either – and were fine.
  • Do take good insect repellent. I got this one, and it worked great. We were in a rainforest amid swarms of mosquitos, and they didn’t touch us.
  • What did we pack? Our clothes filled one small satchel. M wore hiking boots and packed his sandals. I took hiking sandals and tennis shoes. We each had a backpack – mine is one I bought for the 2012 trip that holds a camera in the bottom and has a laptop sleeve. I took regular camera, phone, laptop and chargers for each. We had journals and pens, and a couple of books. Two small flashlights, insect repellent, the usual toiletries and basic first aid (band aids, itch cream, antibiotic cream) that I always travel with plus Pepto-Bismol and After-Bite. I wasn’t sure about the Jungle Lodge electricity situation – I knew they turned the power off at night, and didn’t know if that included the fans or not, so I bought a small cheap cordless fan and took that. I didn’t “need” it, as it turned out, but it did add some extra breeze on those two nights.

 

Should I Hire a Tour Guide?

Unless you yourself are an expert on Matters Mayan, yes. You can get the basics about Tikal from a book, but having a good guide puts it all in context. You must have a guide for the Sunrise Tour. The other sites we saw are incomprehensible without prior knowledge or a guide. There was English signage at Tikal, but everywhere else was Spanish only, ,which is decipherable for me, but very basic. As I said above, you can easily grab a guide on site or in one of the outside towns, but I needed a guide and driver for the entire week, so I made arrangements ahead of time – based on recommendations on the TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet discussion boards, I went with Marlon Diaz of Gem Guatemala Travel. It was a great decision – he was smart, flexible, deeply knowledgeable and a great animal spotter as well.  Here’s my TripAdvisor review of his service. 

So there you go…I might add to this as the day goes on and more occurs to me. Ask questions if you like either in the comments or to amywelborn60 – at – gmail – dot- com.

 

Tomorrow: the food. And that will be it for blogging on it – look for an ebook with a complete account in a few weeks, I hope. 

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2019 Update!

I’ve added a few more ads that have turned up. They’re at the bottom. 

What to cook for those Lenten meals? Such a dilemma!

Me, I always have dreams of various interesting vegetable-based stews and soups, but you know what it always ends up being?

Cheese pizza. Lots and lots of cheese pizza. With maybe some pancakes and eggs tossed in there for variety.

For some reason, I went on a bit of a rabbit trail last night..I have no idea how I happened to think that there might be a treasure trove of Lenten-themed vintage food advertisements out there…but there is. It’s at an advertising design archive website, and, yes, there is a “Lent” keyword, although several of the ads in that category are Valentine-themed, but who knows.

But then I thought, Wait. The Era of Regrettable Food was also pre-Vatican II…when Catholics abstained from meat every Friday anyway…what were the Lenten regulations right before the Council? Why would Lent-themed advertising even be a thing if Catholics were going meatless on Fridays all year?

Turns out that it was: fasting every day of Lent except Sunday, of course, fasting and abstaining from meat on all Fridays and Ash Wednesday, and on the other days, meat allowed in one of those “one regular and two small meals” of the fasting days. So that explains the advertising directed at helping the cook be creative within those constraints since less meat would be consumed for several weeks…hence Lima Loaf.

(Too bad they changed that. Really. It lends a sense of greater body/soul continuity to the season, in my mind.  It’s also kind of insulting that they thought we couldn’t handle that mild of a regime any longer, but what else is new. )

Of course, not all of this is regrettable. Some is just quite normal – vegetable soups, hot cross buns and pancakes and such. Some is surprising – using Lent to even advertise peanuts! – and a reminder of a time in which religious practice was just considered…normal and as amenable to commercial exploitation as any other part of life!

So enjoy, and may these be an inspiration…

of what not to cook during Lent, that is….

(You should be able to right click on each ad for a larger version)

Bring on the Cranberry-Fish Souffle Salad, the Velveeta Jelly Omelet and the Individual Tuna Dreamboats!

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STEEL CANS LADIES' HOME JOURNAL 03/01/1954 p. 15

HEINZ FOODS BETTER HOMES AND GARDENS 03/01/1960

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Even peanuts get in the Lent game!

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Because everyone want prawns, pineapples and egg scramble.

Or a tuna-olive-cream of mushroom soup biscuit ring.

Penance!


2019 Update. Here are a few more. None quite match the Tuna Dreamboats, in my mind, but they’re fun nonetheless. And interesting – again, from a time when the family needing to eat Lent-centric food was a worthy market to pursue.

I was also looking over all of these again and was a little puzzled by the Birds-Eye ad above – why is it a big deal to eat CORN during LENT? And then I realized – well, that’s because people ate far more seasonally then, and so the sales pitch here is that frozen corn during Lent would be a treat because it would give you the fresh taste you wouldn’t expect until summer. Supposedly. 

And notice the contrasting appeals between the Banquet and the Knox Gelatin ad – Banquet echoing St. Basil the Great and encouraging us to “give up cooking for Lent” and rely on their frozen meals – and Knox suggesting “While you’re keeping Lent…make unusual dishes!”

It’s not obvious, but the Lent angle on the Quaker corn meal ad is over on the right – it’s a “Young Idea for Lent.”

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(Click on images for full screen version.)

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On a less gruesome note, there were, in that era (as there are in ours) many cookbooks and handbooks to help a Catholic homemaker make her home…Catholic. Some are still in print and are very good. One that I have was published by the National Catholic Rural Life Conference. I have a post on it here, with a reader evaluation of a modern reprint. But in case you don’t want to head over to that old post, here’s the first page of the Lent section, so you can see how substantive it is:

If a healthy penitential attitude is to grow with our children, it should be fed with their daily Lenten bread.

…or tuna-olive-cream of mushroom soup biscuit ring.

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You all know how this sort of entry begins: I was poking around the Internet looking for a public domain book to read

..and I found the first few pages of The Professor’s House by Willa Cather. It grabbed my interest, but it was late at night, so I made a mental note to see if the library had it.

And yes, it did.

Last night I settled down with it, and revisited, for the first time in a long time, that wonderful – wonderful – feeling of having a real book in hand and thinking, I’m going to read this tonight.  As in: read from beginning to end, start and finish, and long after everyone has gone to sleep, I’ll be in dialogue with an intelligent companion, listening to her story.

It is not a long book, but even so, I almost didn’t finish it – I got quite tired at the end, but did manage it, although the next day (today) I did have to refresh my memory with the last "amy welborn"few pages as to how it all came out.

It’s a bit of an odd book. It seems a touch cobbled together, which, in a way, it was, considering one element of the story took shape in Cather’s mind long before the framing story. The description on the cover of the edition I got from the library says The story of a cloistered scholar’s discover of his own soul through contact with the world of reality.

Well, okay. Sort of.

I really hate summarizing plots, so I will let someone else do that part of it. From Goodreads:

On the eve of his move to a new, more desirable residence, Professor Godfrey St. Peter finds himself in the shabby study of his former home. Surrounded by the comforting, familiar sights of his past, he surveys his life and the people he has loved — his wife Lillian, his daughters, and Tom Outland, his most outstanding student and once, his son-in-law to be. Enigmatic and courageous—and a tragic victim of the Great War — Tom has remained a source of inspiration to the professor. But he has also left behind him a troubling legacy which has brought betrayal and fracture to the women he loves most.

I experienced this novel as a meditation – a meditation on the relationship between scientific understanding, technological development and the rest of life. A meditation on the purpose of our life’s activities. It has a touch of idealized romanticism that almost makes it veer off-course, but not quite. The characters do not quite work as one-hundred percent realized human beings – they all seem to stand for something more than exist in the real world, but I found Cather’s writing powerful enough, especially in descriptions of landscape and the tenacity with which she excavates the professor’s inner life  – to let it go.

What I saw here were characters who have lost touch with the spiritual, not in the sense that they have lost faith mediated by religious institutions, but simply in that they are materialists: they have forgotten that life on earth and the earth itself are more than what our senses tell us.  We know more about how it all works and we can manipulate it with great efficiency and profit from what we do with the things of the earth, but none of that connects us with what is most real.

And although Cather herself was not Catholic, it is, as it usually is for her, Catholicism that offers the alternative. The rather mysterious inspiration for much of what happens, whom we know died in the Great War before the events of the novel commence, is Tom Outland, orphaned as a young man in  the Southwest. He is taken care of by a kind family, works hard for a railroad company, then has a profound spiritual epiphany out in the wilderness, when he encounters the remnants of ancient civilizations in a fictional place that was inspired by the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. That initially inchoate sensibility is then helped along and given form by a Belgian missionary priests who takes Tom under his wing and teaches him, simply Latin, the knowledge of which – and the readings in Virgil and so on he has done – are all he takes with him when he shows up at the professor’s house.

Even more importantly, I think, is the character of Augusta. She is a German seamstress who shares the attic space in the professor’s old house. She sews for the family during the day, and her patterns and dress form keep the professor company at night while he works there, his preferred space to that more formal study down in the family home. She is a sensible, forthright woman, and a Catholic.

The two of them have an understanding. The novel begins with the two of them bantering, and ends with them in the same room, one having rescued the other. They have both done good work in that room, with all of its flaws, a room that was less than ideal for both of them. What happens in between the first chapter and the final is the end of one stage of life, a recognition of its goodness and its limitations and a hint of how to move forward. For the professor, the Catholic seamstress represents a way:

If he had thought of Augusta sooner, he would have got up from the couch sooner. Her image would have at once suggested the proper action.

It is a bit of a challenge to unpack that without revealing what incident precedes it, and I actually saw it coming from the beginning…call it Chekov’s gas heater…but I don’t want to spoil it too much, in case you are moved to read the novel. The point is that nothing else in his life, not his loving family, not his successful career, prompted him to dig down and keep living – except for Augusta, sitting there with her prayer book.

The professor has come to a point in his life in which nothing in the present really engages him. He’s done. But, that glimmer:

There was still Augusta, however; a world full of Augustas, with whom one was outward bound.

I hasten to add that this is not romantic – Augusta functions as a symbol of the spiritual reality of life, a reality that is not about dreams or phantasms, but about the spiritual dimension of life – any life, even one spent stitching drapes, tending to a home, and faithfully, quietly, going to Mass.

The professor is changed. He’s not in ecstasy, he’s not George in It’s a Wonderful Life. He just knows something, he knows something real, and “At least, he felt the ground under his feet.”

There are “plot points” that aren’t wrapped up. There’s not a lot of resolution here. But it’s a book that gave me quite a bit to think about as Cather roams through the professor’s consciousness, and then with him and the other characters through the upper Midwest, Europe and the Southwest. And there’s this, which you might appreciate – it’s from one of the professor’s lectures:

I don’t myself think much of science as a phase of human development. It has given us a lot of ingenious toys; they take our attention away from the real problems, of course, and since the problems are insoluble, I suppose we ought to be grateful for distraction. But the fact is, the human mind, the individual mind, has always been made more interesting by dwelling on the old riddles, even if it makes nothing of them. Science hasn’t given us any new amazements, except of the superficial kind we get from witnessing dexterity and sleight-of-hand. It hasn’t given us any richer pleasures, as the Renaissance did, nor any new sins-not one! Indeed, it takes our old ones away. It’s the laboratory, not the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world. You’ll agree there is not much thrill about a physiological sin. We were better off when even the prosaic matter of taking nourishment could have the magnificence of a sin. I don’t think you help people by making their conduct of no importance-you impoverish them. As long as every man and woman who crowded into the cathedrals on Easter Sunday was a principal in a gorgeous drama with God, glittering angels on one side and the shadows of evil coming and going on the other, life was a rich thing. The king and the beggar had the same chance at miracles and great temptations and revelations. And that’s what makes men happy, believing in the mystery and importance of their own little individual lives. It makes us happy to surround our creature needs and bodily instincts with as much pomp and circumstance as possible. Art and religion (they are the same thing, in the end, of course) have given man the only happiness he has ever had.

 

 

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