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Monday, September 30, 2013

Fleisher in the Studio

WAYLT Dept.: I warned you in this posting that the Leon Fleisher Complete Album Collection was coming. It's here.


HAD THERE NOT BEEN a lengthy interruption in his career, pianist Leon Fleisher undoubtedly would have filled out his catalogue of recordings with an impressive sweep of works old and new. His performing career began in the 1940s, when he was in his teens, and his recording career began in 1954 on Columbia’s subsidiary label Epic. Although his early solo-piano recordings ranged from Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat, D. 960, to Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Handel, he really hit the ground running when collaborating with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra.

Their 1958 recording of Brahms’s Concerto No. 1 remains for me the finest performance of this piece, and – perhaps because it was so early in the stereo era – the articulation of the orchestra reveals details you won’t hear anywhere else. This was a benchmark work for Fleisher, who already had performed it with Szell, but they went on to capture the same magic when they laid down Brahms’s Concerto No. 2 in 1962.

Between those events came all five of Beethoven’s concertos, with Mozart’s Concerto No. 25 and the warhorses by Grieg and Schumann as well. The Fleisher-Szell catalogue also includes a mono recording of Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on Theme of Paganini” and Franck’s “Symphonic Variations.”

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Keeping Your Edge

My Arm Is Complete Again Dept.: We looked at chef’s knives in this posting; now let’s consider how to keep them sharp.


THE BLADE DESCENDS to the edge of the tomato and, with little applied pressure, eases through the skin with no resistance, leaving a rich red slice to fall to the cutting board below. It’s one of my defining moments of summer. It requires a superbly sharp knife.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
I’m sure that your cutlery is beautifully maintained, but that you share my despair whenever you visit a friend’s kitchen and can’t find a chef’s knife with a decent edge. “I keep my knives dull on purpose,” a friend of mine tried to argue. “That way I won’t cut myself.”

In fact, the opposite is true. It’s the dull blade that inflicts damage, because so much more force is required to accomplish anything and so much less control is therefore available. A good, sharp knife does its work with what feels like minimal effort.

To make sense of the challenge of keeping a knife that sharp, we need to look closely – microscopically, even – at the blade. It’s like a saw. Enlarge the edge and you’ll see a row of tiny pointed teeth. Freshly sharpened, those teeth stand upright, ready to grab that tomato skin and, as you give the knife some lateral movement, inflict a clean incision.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Archguitar Renaissance

From the CD Shelf Dept.: Several years ago, I wrote a series of program notes for CDs issued on the Dorian Recordings label. Here’s another one featuring Peter Blanchette, virtuoso of the archguitar. (You’ll find an earlier-posted one, “Had Miles Met Maurice,” here.)


THOMAS MACE, AUTHOR OF THE 1676 treatise “Musick’s Monument,” preferred adjectives to accuracy and decorated his prose with terrible verse. Describing a trip to Italy, he mentions seeing “lutes, archlutes, guitars, and archguitars.”

“By archguitar, he probably meant the chitarrone, which is basically a big guitar,” says Peter Blanchette. “No musician I know ever heard of an archguitar. So I co-opted the name.”

Blanchette grew up playing electric guitar in the Boston area, but a Julian Bream concert changed his life. He switched to lute and guitar, but felt frustrated by the limitations of both. He wished for more bass notes on the guitar, and it wouldn’t hurt if they were fretted, as on the softer-sounding lute.

He worked with guitar maker Walter Stanul on putting a playable form to these ideas, and in 1982 the new instrument was born. “For the first five or six years I played it, people would ask me what the heck it was. Eventually, I came up with ‘archguitar.’” Now all of the expanded-range instruments that Walter Stanul built for Blanchette and the others who play them are called archguitars.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Modem Markets

Brink of Tears Dept.: Don’t read this. I’m not even trying to cajole you into it with reverse psychology. It’s truly mind-numbing. It’s part of a large assignment I took on nearly twenty years ago to summarize computer industry market-survey info for Frost & Sullivan. Trouble was, it was so deadly that I took far longer than I should have, with the result that as I neared the end of the project, the data for earlier chapters had changed, necessitating rewrites. I had a nightmare fear that I’d be locked into the thing for the rest of my life, so I arranged to spend a week in Manhattan working in the company’s office, which did the trick. It was so cheerless there that I had no distractions. Here, minus the many charts, is an analysis on the market for modems.


AS PERSONAL COMPUTERS have gotten smaller, faster, and comparatively less expensive, modems have followed that trend. Very early modems were acoustically coupled to a telephone handset by means of a box with what looked like suction cups to make a soundproof connection. Now they plug directly into a standard RJ-11 telephone jack, and usually offer a secondary jack into which a phone can be plugged. A modem's speed is measured in bits per second, referring to the amount of data (measured in binary digits, or bits) that can be modulated and sent. An early standard was 300 bits per second (bps), which is the equivalent of a slow typist. It soon quadrupled to 1200 bps, which is considered the high end of the low-speed modems considered in this report.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Iconoclastic Rustic and the Apropos Acorn

Guest Blogger Dept.: Let’s welcome back my favorite light versifier, Guy Wetmore Carryl, with another of his Fables for the Frivolous.


"An acorn fell abruptly."
Drawing by Peter Newell
REPOSING ‘NEATH SOME spreading trees,
A populistic bumpkin
Amused himself by offering these
Reflections on a pumpkin:
“I would not, if the choice were mine,
Grow things like that upon a vine,
For how imposing it would be
If pumpkins grew upon a tree.”

Like other populists, you’ll note,
Of views enthusiastic,
He’d learned by heart, and said by rote
A creed iconoclastic;
And in his dim, uncertain sight
Whatever wasn’t must be right,
From which it follows he had strong
Convictions that what was, was wrong.

As thus he sat beneath an oak
An acorn fell abruptly
And smote his nose: whereat he spoke
Of acorns most corruptly.
“Great Scott!” he cried. “The Dickens!” too,
And other authors whom he knew,
And having duly mentioned those,
He expeditiously arose.

Monday, September 23, 2013

True Knights Pastime

Coming Attractions Dept.: A performance by the excellent Brooklyn-based orchestra The Knights kicks off the new Troy Chromatics concert series at 7:30 PM Sun., Sep. 29 at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. The program includes works by Bach, Stravinsky, Reich, Haydn, and a chaconne written by the orchestra itself. They performed here early last year. Here’s my review of that event.


THE CONCERT WAS PHENOMENAL. Where were the people? It would be depressing if it weren’t so absurd. The night before The Knights appeared at Troy Music Hall, they performed in Manhattan at WQXR’s Greene Space studio, at floor level with an enthusiastic crowd. (You can find online video of the event.) The concert shared some numbers with the Troy program, but, not surprisingly, the Manhattan event was more adventurous, featuring a John Adams piece that calls for audience contributions.

The Knights | Photo by Sarah Small
Something you don’t dare risk in the Capital Region. We have one of the world’s finest concert halls, and Troy Chromatic Concerts was enlightened enough to present one of the world’s more innovative and exciting orchestras, and most of the audience-that-might-have-been sat home on their asses and did who-knows-what, although if I find out it had anything to do with television, I’m going door to door to strangle some people.

“I hear a lot of excuses,” someone associated with Troy Chromatics told me. “People say they have rehearsals or other plans.” And I say to those people, your priorities are feeble. Your pretense to artistic enlightenment is just that: pretense.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Visit to Uncle Pop’s

Blue Plate Special Dept.: The first several months of my Metroland restaurant reviews were based on announced visits, as the copy below describes. I was tipped off about Uncle Pop’s by Ralph Buess, with whom I worked in the kitchen of Schenectady’s Mohawk Club before he opened and ran The Tory Tavern in Schoharie for many years. As Ralph promised, it was an anomalous a restaurant as you could imagine. It was open for at least another three years after my review ran, and then Mo and Judy left, I was told, for a warmer clime.


Reviews for Byron’s Blue Plate Special are written after Byron finishes dessert. Before that, he picks a place, tells the owner when he’s coming and mentions that a) he expects to be wined and dined like royalty and b) he doesn’t plan to pay for any of it. Your dining experience will no doubt be under dissimilar circumstances, but don’t let that stop you from visiting the fine establishments surveyed in this space.

NO, MOHAMAD HARB ISN'T UNCLE POP.  His wife, Judy, chose that name for their little diner to honor a real-life uncle of hers. If the name sounds a little incongruous, take heart: it’s far less incongruous than the restaurant itself.

After all, where else in Schoharie County are you going to find falafel and hummus alongside burgers and fries? And, if Mo is in the mood, enchiladas, a chicken stir fry, veal parmesan? Where else in the world, you might ask!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Commotion Sickness

Working in Coffeehouse Dept.: The workaday world quits the coffeehouse before nine, leaving late morning for those untethered to the timeclock. I would characterize them as noisy, except that each wave of customers I share this shop with has its own noise level to achieve. And it tends not to be very low.

The solitude of working at home is negated by the need to work on the home. A full complement of projects and repairs invariably beckons – right now I’m in the midst of rebuilding the front of the porch – and the work gets done because it’s annoyingly easy to tear myself away from what ought to get written and wield a hammer instead.

So I commandeer a coffeehouse table, near one of the few outlets, if my timing is right, and try not to listen to the counterside conversations that snake past as each thicket of customers makes its way from salads and bagels to coffee and payment.

When the noise lulls, I look for the possibility of some disaster having cleared the place – shootist in the parking lot, sudden and total collapse of the economy – but there’s a rhythm to the rises and falls of volume.

Soon enough, my irritation gives way to immersion in the noise of the – there’s no other way to put this – voices in my head, the voices of the characters whose lives I’m limning. I work on a novel, a scene in which a woman who’s just buried her mother meets a man who proves to have been a old friend of the woman. I work on a play, a scene in which a mismatched couple is at comic cross-purposes over the terms of their divorce. And I realize that the voices around me fuel these narratives. I’m not borrowing any of the words I hear; it’s the energy of this noise I hate that comes in such handy.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The First Season

Farming the American Dream Dept.: “The First Season,” a compelling documentary about the joys and travails of running a small, family farm, has beern released as a video on demand today by Cinedigm Entertainment. Here’s a trailer for the movie. Here's a current piece about it. And here’s the Metroland cover story I wrote when the film debuted in 2012.


THE DOCUMENTARY “THE FIRST SEASON,” follows Paul and Phyllis Van Amburgh and their children through a year’s worth of changes as they pursue a crazy midlife dream of operating a dairy farm. They’re slaves to a relentless schedule and, as the movie ends, they’re in more debt than ever before. But there’s a sense not only of hope but also of accomplishment.

Paul and Phyllis Van Amburgh
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
And, as Paul assured me after the movie’s New Year’s Eve premiere in Chatham, “It’s gotten a lot better for us. We’re actually looking at turning a profit this year.”

This is director Rudd Simmons’s first project in that capacity, but the list of directors he’s worked with as a producer is impressive, with Jim Jarmusch (“Night on Earth,” “Mystery Train”), Stephen Frears (“High Fidelity”) and Wes Anderson (“The Royal Tenenbaums,” “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”) among them. He also produced the first season of “Boardwalk Empire.”

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Ninth

From the Bookshelf Dept.: While Harvey Sachs continues work on his new Toscanini biography, let’s take another look at his wonderful book about a musical work that always warrants another listen.


HARVEY SACHS HAS A GOOD EYE for musical history. He visited conductor Arturo Toscanini in three books and pianist Arthus Rubinstein in one, informing the out-and-out biographies with a lively and appropriate historical context – especially useful when your subject was active for several decades, as were both of the aforementioned.

The Ninth takes a different approach by concentrating on one year: 1824. As he explains in an afterword, it won over competitors 1913 (The Rite of Spring, Pierrot Lunaire and other works) 1876 (Brahms’s Symphony No. 1) and 1830 (Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, among others) because of Sachs’s “desire to talk about Beethoven and his world.”

It’s a splendid and necessary discourse. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has become such a repertory bulwark and is seen as such an undisputable masterwork that it’s almost context-free, save for a few stories about the deaf composer being turned by a soprano so that he could see the enthusiastic applause at the work’s premiere.

The Beethoven who emerges in this study is a man of genius and temper, who knew his own talent and struggled to make sure Vienna knew it, too. Beethoven the Impudent we’ve met before, but here we understand why his impudence was suffered by the royalty he served and insulted: they knew how important he was and forgave him his rash eccentricities.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Where Did You Get That Hat?

Personal Narrative Dept.: The photo below was taken about forty years (and twice forty pounds) ago, not long after I graduated from high school. It reminded me that the hat therein pictured – a classic bowler – still sits in my closet, in its original box, hand carried from London. Not surprisingly, there’s a story attached . . .


The author relaxing between takes.
THE BOWLER HAT, or derby, or billycock hat, dates from the mid-19th century, and the best story attached to its legend of origin is that a design was sought to avoid losing one’s hat to an ill-placed tree branch while on horseback. The bowler’s popularity in England was matched in the U.S. as it became the topper of choice for cowboys and other personalities of the American west.

I made my second visit to London in mid-February 1973. I was a high-school senior. The visit, like one I made the year before, was for the purpose of play-seeing. Most of the students also were involved in the school’s plays, which meant they weren’t averse to partying. You may think that the sports crowd would have a lock on high-spirited carryings-on. You would be wrong.

Trouble was, I have a layer of reserve that’s like an igneous crust. What I wanted to do on this trip was declare my passion to any or all of the several young women with us who’d captured my heart. What I did instead was indulge in oddball sightseeing.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Gentle Julia

Guest Blogger Dept.: An excerpt from Booth Takington’s 1922 novel Gentle Julia. The title character is 20, and is the romantic cynosure of her midwestern town. This phenomenon fascinates her 12-year-old niece, Florence, and a young cousin, Herbert.


Julia. Illustration by C. Allan Gilbert
THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF A LADY who is almost officially the prettiest person in a town persistently claiming sixty-five thousand inhabitants are often heavier than the world suspects, and there were moments when Julia found the position so trying that she would have preferred to resign. She was a warm-hearted, appreciative girl, naturally unable to close her eyes to sterling merit wherever it appeared: and it was not without warrant that she complained of her relatives. The whole family, including the children, she said, regaled themselves with her private affairs as a substitute for theatre-going. But one day ... she went so far as to admit a note of unconscious confession into her protest that she was getting pretty tired of being mistaken for a three-ring circus! Such was her despairing expression, and the confession lies in her use of the word “three.”

The misleading moderation of “three” was pointed out to her by her niece, whose mind at once violently seized upon the word and divested it of context—a process both feminine and instinctive, for this child was already beginning to be feminine. “Three!” she said. “Why, Aunt Julia, you must be crazy! There’s Newland Sanders and Noble Dill and that old widower, Ridgley, that grandpa hates so, and Mister Clairdyce and George Plum and the two new ones from out of town that Aunt Fanny Patterson said you had at church Sunday morning—Herbert said he didn’t like one of ‘em’s looks much, Aunt Julia. And there’s Parker Kent Usher and that funny-lookin’ one with the little piece of whiskers under his underlip that Noble Dill got so mad at when they were calling, and Uncle Joe laughed about, and I don’t know who all! Anyhow, there’s an awful lot more than three, Aunt Julia.”

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Cold Comfort Food

Chillin’ the Air Dept.: Even with summer set to squeak out a few more days, those end-of-year temperatures are creeping upon us and I’m hauling out a six-year-old piece that suggests some appropriate comestibles. Dig in!


COLD WEATHER IS IMPRESSIVELY THOROUGH. We wrap ourselves in space-age synthetics, confident that we’ll move through the bluster in a cocoon of warmth – and then, during the short sprint from front door to car, a malicious wind finds its way past velcro and zippers and stabs like an icy dagger.

You can’t trust walkways and streets, sheeted as they may be with invisible ice; you can’t trust your car battery to yield enough cranking power. But it’s the wind that’ll get you, blasting your chest into such a frigid state that you’re aware of the size and location of each internal organ.

Hence the primal urge to warm them. They can only be thawed from within, which is why this is the time of year for thick lentil soup, spicy chili, creamy hot cocoa.

Food takes on a special urgency when the thermometer hovers at the single-digits end. “I’m going to need some real food when I get home tonight,” a friend offered earlier today. “Something my mom used to make.”

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Cremation of Sam McGee

Guest Blogger Dept.: Let’s welcome Canadian poet Robert W. Service with his most famous, most enduring, most surprising piece of doggerel. I, like many others, have fallen so completely under its spell that I’ve performed the piece in concert, throwing it (with wonderfully crafted piano accompaniment by my longtime music director, Malcolm Kogut) at an unsuspecting crowd. It never fails in its effect. And there seems to have been a real Sam McGee, as you can learn about here.


Robert W. Service
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
      That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
      But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
      I cremated Sam McGee.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee,
   where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam
   ‘round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold
   seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way
   that “he’d sooner live in hell.”

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see;
It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Chance of a “Ghost”

WHEN CARLA STEWART saw the musical “Ghost” on Broadway, “I was super-excited! I wanted to be in that show.”

She’s an actress from Chicago who moved to New York four years ago, studied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, and quickly established herself as a powerhouse performer, with shows like “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Rent,” “Grease,” “Hairspray,” and “The Wiz,” in which she played Dorothy, to her credit.

"Talkin' 'bout a Miracle" Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Last year she appeared in the jukebox musical “What We Do for Love (and Other Desperate Measures),” singing a number of classic songs, but when it came time to audition for “Ghost,” she chose the uptempo (and uplifting) “Fabulous, Baby!” from the musical version of “Sister Act.” Having toured the country as part of the Illinois State Baptist Association Choir before she got to New York, she knows her way around this kind of song.

There’s a common thread between the shows: the original films of “Ghost” and “Sister Act” featured Whoopi Goldberg, and it’s Goldberg’s role, as the possibly fraudulent psychic Oda Mae Brown, that Stewart is playing in “Ghost” the musical.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Upgrade That CPU!

From the Tech Vault Dept.: For purely nostalgic purposes, let’s look back sixteen years at where computers were in terms of processing speed, and thank heavens we no longer have to deal with this. We can relax knowing that – what? Intel has announced a new chip architecture? My computer suddenly seems so slow!


LIKE A STUBBORN SERVANT, your old 486 won’t do Windows. That is, it bogs down sluggishly when you try to run Windows 95. But you bought that particular computer with the idea of taking it along an upgrade path. You already were hearing about faster processors when you unpacked the system; now you know it’s finally time to grab more speed.

It’s the easiest computer upgrade you can make. Pop out your old CPU chip, slip in the new one. Five minutes, tops. A little longer if you have to adjust a motherboard jumper or two.

Is it the shrewdest and/or most economical way to get more speed? Probably. If you’re running a 486DX/33, definitely. Lots of components conspire to slow your computer, however, so make a checklist of what’s in there before you go shopping.

Although upgrade options are available for 386 and (yes) 286 machines, so many bottlenecks boondoggle those systems that a complete motherboard upgrade is the way to go. On the other hand, if you have the uneasy feeling that your aging Pentium is moving kind of slow, take heart. A new batch of upgrade chips are available to kick more speed into it, too.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Meeting Evil

Friendly Enemies Dept.: Chris Fisher’s film version of Meeting Evil, which went straight to DVD last year, suffers the problem that has bedeviled the handful of other adaptations of Thomas Berger’s novels: scriptwriter and director (who in this case are one) don’t understand the complexity of the book, which lies in a virtuoso combination of myth and language. Even Little Big Man, which made a reasonably successful trip to the screen, became merely picaresque. Here’s my review of Meeting Evil – the novel.


OUR WORST NIGHTMARES have an especially keen emotional acuteness without needing a detailed setting. The evil comes from an interaction with other people, and Thomas Berger’s 18th novel is a short, intense nightmare in which straight-laced John Felton becomes an accomplice to an arson, murder and robbery spree.

And every malevolent action is justified by Richie, the easygoing perpetrator, in terms almost too sensible-sounding for John to argue against.

Like a nightmare, John’s awful adventures are characterized by confusion: the details of Richie’s crime spree aren’t quickly apparent, and real-estate salesman John is driven to a nearby town that is nevertheless unfamiliar. When he breaks away from Richie and seeks safety in a farmhouse there, he’s held at gunpoint by the householder.

John heroically breaks free, and “the larger man proceeded, strangely, to fade away. He seemed intangible. Not that John wanted to touch him, let alone do him harm of any kind, but the man appeared to think otherwise and shrank behind crossed arms while growing shorter owing to a joining of knees, schoolgirl fashion: he was undergoing a process of physical degeneration through fear.”

Monday, September 09, 2013

Re-Anthologizing Harry

Payback Time Dept.: Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music” was a huge success when originally issued on six LPs in 1952 and when reissued on CDs in 1997. It influenced generations of singers and songwriters, and a tribute anthology (of performances recorded in 1999 and 2001) appeared in 2006. Here’s my review.


HAVING COME BACK TO LIFE ten years ago, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music is proving as persistent a force now as it was a half-century ago, when the Anthology was a six-record set collecting ancient recordings of folk songs – commercial recordings aimed at rural markets, and featuring such performers as Mississippi John Hurt, Dock Boggs, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Uncle Dave Macon.

Bob Dylan was fascinated by this set; so were Dave Van Ronk, Roger McGuinn and many others who, after obsessive listening, would go on to shape the folk music boom of the 1960s.

The question for producer Hal Willner was how those songs might be interpreted by an array of contemporary singers. Elvis Costello, Nick Cave, Richard Thompson, Marianne Faithfull and Geoff Muldaur are among those tapped for the three concerts (London, New York and L.A.) from which the material for these two CDs and single DVD were drawn.

The answer proves the wisdom of Smith’s project – and the enduring legacy of songs that burrowed deeply into our unconscious. Take “The Butcher’s Boy,” sung in a 1928 recording by Buell Kazee on Smith’s Anthology, later covered by Joan Baez and the Clancy Brothers.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Hope, Human and Wild

Hopeful Pessimist Dept.: One of the most wonderful aspects of human nature is the sense of hope we’re all born with, a sense vigorously drummed out of us by public schooling and television, those twin beacons of consumerist despair-mongering. Back when he lived in the Adirondacks, Bill McKibben sought to rekindle that sense of hope through a wise look at the environmental challenges that dog us to this day. Here’s my review. (Keep an eye out for his forthcoming book Oil and Honey.)


BETWEEN THE END OF NATURE, a dark assessment of the extent to which industrialized humans have destroyed all hope of ecological balance, and Hope, Human and Wild, which looks at practical approaches to a more environmentally conscious way of life, Bill McKibben edited a collection of writings by John Burroughs. The Delaware County-born Burroughs was one of this country’s most celebrated nature writers, although the acclaim has dimmed considerably since his death in 1921.

Reading Burroughs, you can’t help but wish for an environment free of the plunder we’ve since wreaked. Looking out his Adirondack Park window, McKibben couldn’t help but notice the return of trees and bushes and animals that earlier logging had dismayed. Living lightly, as he terms it, is helped by an abundance of natural resources – or at least the space and freedom to grow them. That’s all very well when you’ve got a wilderness around you. To see how such issues can be wrestled in urban environments, McKibben visited the city of Curitiba in southern Brazil and the Indian state of Kerala.

Both crowd a lot of people into little space, both deal with extremely low per-capita incomes. We meet the mayor of Curitiba, an imaginative man who concocted a deal that lets citizens turn in sacks of garbage for sacks of food and who helped institute what may be the world’s most efficient bus system; Kerala, where a communist government often prevails, has a record of success with education and health care that should be the envy of all industrialized nations.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Friday, September 06, 2013

Dorm Room Dining

Back to School Dept.: Welcome back to college, kids! Tuition is higher than ever, the workload sucks, and on top of all that, there’s no time for finding and cooking your own food. Or is there?


THERE’S A HORRIBLE MOMENT that occurs early in the academic year as your schedule comes together and you’ve made sense of the travel required to get from class to class and the time those classes will demand – time that eats into what ought to be a time for yourself. In other words, time that eats into eating.

You’ll feel this most poignantly if you’re fortunate enough to have access to cooking facilities, when you fall victim to the scenario in which you scoop up a few promising grocery items and have to choose between a hot meal or a night’s sleep.

So it’s important to get stuff cheap, and learn to cook it easily and therefore quickly.

Acquiring discounted foodstuffs is all about timing and location. The local supermarket chains – Price Chopper, Shop-Rite, Hannaford – compete against one another with coupons and sales. Keep an eye on the circulars and you can nab some great two-for-one items, like the crushed tomatoes you can turn into sauce, and look in the stores themselves for the shelves where soon-to-expire or otherwise rejected items (produce, especially) are deeply discounted.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Fresh from the Farm

Open-Air Aisles Dept.: We have come a very long way since I wrote this piece 27 years ago.


“I've roamed the Spanish Main,
Eaten sugar cane,
But I never tasted cellophane
Till I struck the USA.”
 – Noël Coward, “I Like America”

THINK FARMER’S MARKET: Sweet tomatoes swollen and moist; firm, crunchy let-
tuce; reds and greens at their reddest and greenest. There is something right about buying produce from the people who grew it, at the edge of the farm with an arable field in view.

The markets range from tiny sheds for a single-crop field of fresh-picked strawberries to sophisticated complexes that may include a full line of food supplies. Few farmer’s markets can survive selling only what the owner produces, but all have in common the desire to maintain a tradition that is increasingly foreign to supermarket shoppers. Your chain-store produce manager yanks his product from boxes, not from the ground; he does not have dirty fingernails.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Slow Cooking

Pease Porridge Dept.: Although this was written for and during the beginning of winter, the rush to slow things down should take place throughout the year. At least that’s my excuse for blog-posting it now. I’m taking it slow.


SOME OF MY FAVORITE MEMORIES are the night-before-Christmas marathons my mother used to hold as she prepped for a relatives-intensive holiday feast. I think I inherited my own penchant for staying up late from her, as it’s usually a time of relative peace and quiet and, if your brain doesn’t complain, you can get a lot of work done then.

In her case, it was a chance to attend to the cooking unimpeded by the well-meant but never-helpful help of others, and I’d sit and watch provided I didn’t get in the way myself. And this time was needed because there were no shortcuts she was willing to take. Even in the antediluvian days of my boyhood, many supposed worksaver products were flooding the foodstores, with accompanying ads that characterized the time spent in lengthy food preparation as an evil, selfish thing wrenching you from the much more important time you could spend at work or with family.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Dunning and Dining

Uncle Ned Dept.: Yet another in a series of short stories I managed to slip into Metroland a quarter-century ago, before it went all alternative and everything.


THE WOMAN BORE DOWN on me with all the subtlety of an Ethel Merman song. “Neddie!” she cried. “Can it be?”

“No,” I told her. “It can’t.”

She peered into my face and shook her head. “No. I can see that now. You looked so much like him from a distance, but he was much thinner, of course.”

I had been enjoying my iced tea and cheesecake on the outdoor deck of a little restaurant a few miles up the Mohawk River, having just concluded a torturous visit with my brother-in-law Ted the Yuppie and his family. Something calming was required before the drive home, and an early dinner in the open air at a place I remembered from boyhood seemed like just the thing.

The place had changed. The original owner had retired and his bickering children took over operations, so you couldn't be absolutely sure of getting the same meal twice; but a cool drink on a sunny porch with the sweet scent of grapes on the breeze made up for a lot.

My assailant plopped into a chair and continued to study me. “You have his eyes, you know.”

Monday, September 02, 2013

The Rich Man and the Poor Man

Happy Labor Day Dept.: Let's celebrate with a 1932 song by Bob Miller that never will lose its relevance.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Top Job

How’s Your Job? Dept.: Celebrate the holiday with a look at one of the few shows that has tackled the subject: Working, based on the book by Studs Terkel. Here’s my review of the 1987 Cohoes Music Hall production, followed by a preview piece.


THE SET LOOKS LIKE an airplane hangar, dressed in corrugated tin with a battleship-gray raked deck. The cast is first seen in silhouette; one by one they reveal themselves to be performing, by rote, a task in pantomime.

Wilfore, Combest, and Barden in Working
The challenge Studs Terkel faced and met when he wrote Working was to keep intact the voices of the workers. To further refine those voices into a musical would seem restrictive indeed, but Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso fashioned an adaptation that even preserves those voices in the lyrics of the songs.

And the production currently on display at the Cohoes Music Hall is another success for Heritage Artists.

Director-choreographer David Holdgrive is by now an old friend, having staged so many acclaimed productions at this theater during the last two seasons. He brings his trademark energy to Working as a dynamic cast of thirteen brings us through the everyday lives of close to thirty different workers, each caught in the midst of The Job.