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Friday, January 01, 2021

Kitchen for the Holidays

From the Food Vault Dept.: One of the joys of skidding into the year’s end was diving into the cookbooks that crossed my desk. Being no fan of televised cookery, I avoided the celebrity-driven titles, although, as you’ll note below, I wasn’t immune to the lure of such celebrity chefs as Ferran Adrià (whose elBulli restaurant closed in 2011) and Heston Blumenthal (whose Fat Duck restaurant continues to operate west of London). Here is the roundup I wrote in 2008.


COOKING AND COOKBOOK READING are separate activities in my house, and I’m a devotee of both. Where others plunk themselves in front of the cacophonous Food Network, I prefer to enrich my culinary ambitions with the quiet majesty of the page. Then I photocopy the recipes that intrigue me so that the books themselves remain as pristine as possible.

Shopping from my list, therefore, puts you in no danger of presenting a loved one with some overhyped celebrity-driven screed. The celebrities we’ll meet are the chefs themselves, generally as insane as any A-list actor or music star, but at least proffering actual nourishment.

Heston Blumenthal, for example, injected one of his sous chefs with hot pepper essence and studied a brain scan of the result in order to pinpoint where the hotness hits. Dedicated? Insane? You might as well ask the same of Van Gogh or Beethoven. Blumenthal’s The Big Fat Duck Cookbook (Bloomsbury, $250, celebrates the intricately creative fare at his Berkshire, England restaurant, a perennial Michelin three-star winner. Not surprisingly, this big fat book is to cookbooks as a Blumenthal entrée is to more standard fare: unpredictable and gorgeous, with a spectacular design by artist Dave McKean.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Diner Indecision

From the Food Vault Dept.: I ended the year 2008 with a review of an Albany-area diner, the Metro 20. Two years later, it changed hands and changed name, and endures today as the Capital City Diner. I can’t tell you about its current incarnation, although re-reading the pieces below do inspire a longing for the post-Covid world when I can check out such eateries without worry. I’ll bet you’re feeling the same way!


IT’S BEEN JUST OVER A DECADE since the Metro 20 Diner put down stakes – or, as it looks at night, neon ablaze, dropped from deep space – on Western Ave. not far from Crossgates and the Northway intersection. As far as architecture is concerned, it’s about as handsome a diner as you’re likely to find north of New Jersey, and the glitter of the exterior is carried onto the inside walls, with art deco poster-style motifs.

Photo by B.A. Nilsson
That you can get breakfast items at all times the diner is open reinforces a certain otherwordliness about it. You can lose your sense of time here, as you do in a gambling casino. Although the Metro 20 closes at midnight or 1 AM, arrive after dark and it feels like four in the morning. Even daylight visits make me feel as if I’ve pulled an all-nighter, but that has more to do with my decades-long tradition of shoveling eggs and sausage into myself after staying up all night than it does with the diner itself.

I visited with my family in 1998, when that family included a one-year-old. It was, and remains, a good place to bring kids. Its spacious enough to accommodate a range of customers in a range of stations, although customers tend to be consolidated in a dining area during the slower stretches.

Friday, December 25, 2020

A Fighting Chance

AT SOME POINT during my single-digit Christmas years, I learned to impress my parents and other elders by declaring that what I really, really wanted as a holiday gift was World Peace. What I really wanted, of course, was to parlay such pearly altruism into a personal reward. Which puts me in alignment with those double- and practically triple-digit political leaders who pay lip service to notions of peace while scheming to profit off the next armed conflict.

Bending the Arc is an important book that collects 17 essays about pathways to a peaceable world, placed in the context of an annual conference that has been going in New York’s Mohawk Valley since 1998. It began as the Kateri Peace Interfaith Pilgrimages, started by U.S. Marine veteran (and president of the Albany chapter of Veterans for Peace) John Amidon as an extension of his protests against the School of the Americas – an institution he more accurately terms the “School of Assassins” because of its training of Latin American military savages who used that training to slaughter hundreds of thousands of Latin American citizens.

The first two years were pilgrimages; in 2000, Amidon turned it into a peace conference. He describes the first few years of the event in the book’s opening chapter, putting them in the context of disturbing world events, ever hoping for tangible signs of the conference’s effect. The second half of the history is continued by Maureen Baillargeon Aumand, who has co-coordinated the conference since 2004 and helped bring more activists and would-be activists to it. The theme of the event has changed from year to year: 2009's was “Harnessing the Winds of Change,” 2013 brought “The Moral Imperative of Activism,” and the 2016 call for action was titled “Confronting the Politics of Fear.” Ambitious topics, ambitious events, but Aumand ends her essay by asking, “Have we found the way forward to shared planetary sustainability where war is seen as abomination and justice and equality rule?”

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Christmas Eve

EVEN IN THIS STAY-AT-HOME version of the Christmas season, we're bombarded with music. Music that easily can drive the sensitive human into fits of depression and despair. Let's ease into the holiday with a different kind of song: one that should be able to drive you to despair far more quickly.

Friday, December 18, 2020

An Unfinished Christmas Story

Guest Blogger Dept.: We’re hurrying O. Henry back into the fray in order to set the holiday mood for us. He did it brilliantly in his most beloved tale, “The Gift of the Magi,” but that also has overshadowed another of his contributions to the season. Enjoy for its atmosphere and tone of voice; who knows where the plot may have gone had the author finished it.


NOW, A CHRISTMAS STORY SHOULD BE ONE. For a good many years the ingenious writers have been putting forth tales for the holiday numbers that employed every subtle, evasive, indirect and strategic scheme they could invent to disguise the Christmas flavor. So far has this new practice been carried that nowadays when you read a story in a holiday magazine the only way you can tell it is a Christmas story is to look at the footnote which reads: (“The incidents in the above story happened on December 25th. – ED.”)

O. Henry (William Sydney Porter)
There is progress in this; but it is all very sad. There are just as many real Christmas stories as ever, if we would only dig ‘em up. Me, I am for the Scrooge and Marley Christmas story, and the Annie and Willie’s prayer poem, and the long lost son coming home on the stroke of twelve to the poorly thatched cottage with his arms full of talking dolls and popcorn balls and – Zip! you hear the second mortgage on the cottage go flying off it into the deep snow.

So, this is to warn you that there is no subterfuge about this story – and you might come upon stockings hung to the mantel and plum puddings and hark! the chimes! and wealthy misers loosening up and handing over penny whistles to lame newsboys if you read further.

Once I knocked at a door (I have so many things to tell you I keep on losing sight of the story). It was the front door of a furnished room house in West ‘Teenth Street. I was looking for a young illustrator named Paley originally and irrevocably from Terre Haute. Paley doesn’t enter even into the first serial rights of this Christmas story; I mention him simply in explaining why I came to knock at the door – some people have so much curiosity.

Monday, December 14, 2020

B-Side Yourself

IT WAS ONE OF THOSE smack-your-forehead, it’s-so-obvious ideas: collect the other sides of all the 78s that Harry Smith chose to include in his iconic Anthology of American Folk Music. A few enthusiasts pursued this idea, and thereupon pursued Lance Ledbetter, whose label Dust to Digital has produced many stellar releases of neglected music.

The project kicked off in 2013, fighting delays caused by finding the best-quality copies of these long-neglected discs, by running them through as fine a digitization process as is possible, by securing rights, where needed, to the recordings, and by putting together an attractive package with appropriate (whimsical, inventive) essays and song explanations. And by a pandemic that cam just in time to stymie the hoped-for production schedule. The set finally was released last October. It was worth the wait.

If it’s a mirror of the original Anthology, it’s a somewhat faded one. Not because of the quality of the music – this is old-time stuff at its best – but because of the unexplainable but magical quality of the programming of Smith’s original 84 sides, an array spread over three two-LP sets and categorized as “Ballads,” “Social Music,” and “Songs.” Some of it can be rough going: there are recorded sermons that seem endless and Cajun bands that sound wildly out of tune, but you hang through it all for a cumulative effect that, when you reach the final bars of Henry Thomas’s “Fishing Blues,” feels as if you’ve been through an emotionally fraught but satisfying wringer.

Friday, December 11, 2020

The Executive

Guest Blogger Dept.: We welcome, for his first appearance on this blog, the great juggler and ventriloqist – and he had something to do with radio as well – Fred Allen. He was a great fan of newspaperman-turned-humorist H. Allen Smith (and wrote the forward to Smith’s 1941 debut book, Low Man on a Totem Pole) and enclosed the following doggerel in a letter to Smith written in November 1940 (punctuation per the original).


Fred Allen | Photo by Philippe Halsman
National Portrait Gallery |

The Executive
James Whitcomb Allen

The Executive is
A busy man
Who sits around
On his frustrated can

He presses his buzzer
He jiggles his phone
And barks his commands
In stentorian tone

His every word
Is a slogan ... a phrase
He checks ... He ties in
Buttons-up ... and okays

He mother-hens it
He thinks in the groove
He knows his competitor’s
Every move