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Monday, April 29, 2019

Seriously Fortunate: The Armadillo

From the Food Vault Dept.: I tried to combine my longer trips with restaurant reviews back in the days when I took long trips and wrote restaurant reviews, and here’s an example of such: a nifty Mexican restaurant in Kingston, NY, that’s still very much in business.


SHE’D ALREADY BOUGHT AN UPSTATE HOUSE, upstate in this case being Kingston, as defined relative to Manhattan. “I’m a child of the first Woodstock generation,” says Merle Borenstein, “and I love the area. So I bought this place, but I’m still working in the city.” Working in the restaurant business, as it happens, managing a prestigious operation. “I’m vacation in my upstate home, thinking I’d like to run a restaurant in the area. But I didn’t tell anyone.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
“So this customer comes in one day, a regular customer at the Manhattan restaurant, and he says to me, ‘I have a space I’d like to rent to someone who’ll know how to use it.’ And wouldn’t you know, it’s in Kingston!”

Borenstein looked at it. “It had nothing! No kitchen! It was a bar in the 1890s, I was told, but at this point the neighborhood was run down and brutal. A tough neighborhood, they told me! I looked at it and said, ‘I’m from Brooklyn. It looks fabulous.’”

Thus the Armadillo Bar and Grill opened in May, 1987. “You know how you’re supposed to have six months of salary and other expenses in the bank? We had nothing. We opened with a fundraising event, for Hospice, and it did very well. And we’ve been going ever since. We’re very seriously fortunate. And we’ve stayed small.”

Friday, April 26, 2019

Regaining Your Roots

FOR BROTHERS DAVID AND DAN PODOLL, one of the solutions to the economic stresses of operating their North Dakota farm turned out to be heirloom seeds. The brothers’ farm has been in their family since 1953, with wheat and turkeys providing their main revenue stream. But their ability to continue farming in southeastern North Dakota had been hit by shifts in both economics and weather, and conventional approaches were no longer succeeding, at least on the small scale the Podolls practice.

They’re one of three farm families located in three different parts of the United States, profiled by Lisa M. Hamilton in her engaging book Deeply Rooted, Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness (Counterpoint, Berkeley, CA, 2009). The common threads are devotion to the land and innovative approaches to maintaining it, usually in the face of resistance from those too steeped in what passes for tradition to see how tradition is failing.

“Revenue from three acres of seeds roughly equals that from the farm’s three hundred acres in grains,” Hamilton notes, and the heirloom seeds that the Podolls are producing are cultivated to flourish in less-than-ideal conditions. They include a medium-sized watermelon they named “Dakota Rose,” alongside Dakota Tears onions, Dakota Black popcorn, and Uncle David’s Dakota Dessert squash.

But the enemy of the heirloom seed and the Podolls’ approach to farming is the incredibly profitable world of corporate science. Monsanto (now a division of German pharmaceutical company Bayer AG), a leading developer of GMO technology, sells patented single-use seeds, the purchase and use of which obligates the farmer to a draconian set of rules and restrictions.

Monday, April 22, 2019

The Digital Decision

From the Tech Vault Dept.: There’s a rain barrel outside my house that has spawned a large sunfish, swimming within. I was going to blast it with my .22, but decided it would be easier to regurgitate the column below. I believe that everything referenced in it is completely obsolete. Even me – I certainly no longer resemble that photo!


ABOUT FIVE YEARS AGO, I tested a then-representative pile of digital cameras for Computer Life magazine, concluding that they all were pretty good in delivering images of mediocre resolution – good enough for Web pages, say, but not what you’d use to archive vacation memories.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
A few hundred dollars would buy you an entry-level camera; for professional applications, such as magazine photography, you’d have to spend well up in the thousands.

As is inevitable, the technology has improved – and it’s improved pretty amazingly. I looked at a few current models that are priced in the hundreds and found cameras that are easier to use, more versatile and capable of producing very high-resolution output. Let’s look at the best of those, as well as what you can do with those photos you take.

Olympus, well known for its traditional cameras, got into the digital biz early and evolved a series of cameras that have been in the forefront where features, price and ease of use are concerned (but keep in mind that pricing in this realm is well above that of the film-camera cousins).

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Grand Mississippi Babes Mill

From the Record Shelf Dept.: All right, CD shelf, but even what sounds more up-to-date is charmingly antiquated. At any rate, here’s a look back some thirty years at a pair of significant releases of music by now-forgotten American composers.


FERDE GROFÉ WROTE MUSIC in a self-consciously “American” vein, trying to achieve the same formal identity European composers were perceived as having. Victor Herbert was one of those European composers (born in Ireland, trained in Germany), but ended up in America, promoting American composers even as he continued to write his successful operettas.

“Babes in Toyland” (1903) and “The Red Mill” (1906) are about as American as you’d find on the musical stage at that time, which is to say that they’re very German even as they ape the then-popular French operettas that were so successful in England. The nicely recorded Naxos CD offers two suites, proving how thoroughly Herbert’s catchy tunes insinuated themselves into the musical language. We know them as folk tunes, and when “March of the Toys” wraps up the “Toyland” suite, we’re comfortably back in a childhood state of mind.

Monday, April 15, 2019

War and Pieces

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Pianist Gary Graffman, who turned 90 last October, is still active as a teacher and performer (and numbers Lang Lang and Yuja Wang among his distinguished students. Here’s a look at a visit he paid to New York’s Capital Region nearly fifteen years ago.


BIRTH, DEATH, THE THREAT OF WAR, the aftermath of war – the programmatic or circumstantial elements of the Albany Symphony Orchestra’s triumphant performance at the Troy Music Hall last week touched on topics never more relevant than today, painting them through the emotional abstraction of music. Which may be the most compelling emotional manipulator of all.

Gary Graffman | Photo by Charles Grove
By the time Ravel’s “Concerto for the Left Hand” kicked into gear, with piano and orchestra merrily jazzing along, the effect was very uplifting. An excellent melding of soloist and orchestra gave the work both excitement and transparency.

By way of background, pianist Paul Wittgenstein (philosopher Ludwig’s brother) had his right arm shot away during World War I, and thereafter built up a commissioned repertory of left-hand-only piano works that included concertos by Prokofiev, Britten and, of course, Ravel, who wrote his contribution alongside his other (two-handed) piano concerto.

Wittgenstein also paved the way for soloists like Gary Graffman and Leon Fleischer, both of whom became right-hand-disabled at their career peaks. Graffman (who has himself commissioned works from Ned Rorem and William Bolcom), now president of the renowned Curtis Institute, has lost none of his performance fire, and, unless you could see the keyboard as he played, you’d easily forget the work’s dexterous restriction.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Troy’s Tasty Italia

From the Food Vault Dept.: I began my restaurant-reviewing career, such as it was, in 1986 with a column titled “Byron’s Blue Plate Special” in Albany’s Metroland magazine, which had yet to become an alt-weekly. Because we had no budget for meals, I suggested we ask restaurants to comp us, and write about what it is they do well. That format lasted nine months, after which a budget was found. And I promise you that I eventually turned in more interesting pieces. This piece also dates from a time when Troy, NY, was on the brink of becoming an exceptional  culinary center – but, like so much in the Capital Region, that went away.


HOW DO YOU GO FROM running an art gallery to running a restaurant? If you follow Anthony and Joseph Busone’s example, you just add the restaurant. Actually, they had a gallery a few doors down from their current location at The Italia, but now feature showings of area artists that hang in the dining room for eight weeks at a time.

The author (L) with Anthony and Joseph Busone
Photo by Drew Kinum
“Something for the eyes, something for the ears – and something for the palate,” is how Joseph described the experience of dining at his restaurant, because the brothers’ interest in music also plays a part. When there isn’t live jazz, as happens Friday and Saturday nights, there is recorded music, hailing from the golden age of jazz and swing.

But our tough mission was to sample the food. We picked a quiet time for the visit: a late weekday afternoon. We were joined by Drew’s brother, an Italian-food specialist.

Although the menu is divided into categories of pasta, seafood, chicken, veal, and so on, the top-of-the-page specialty was good enough for me as an entrée. For an appetizer, I chose from a hand-printed list of daily specials: Carciofi Ripieri features that edible cousin of the thistle, the artichoke. In this recipe it is stuffed with a mixture of bread crumbs, seasoning, and artichoke hearts.

Monday, April 08, 2019

Whatever Works

From the Tech Vault Dept.: Listen, my children, and you shall hear of an era with DOS to fear. That’s right: once upon a time we had no graphical interfaces on our computers (and cell phones were bulky monsters that lived in our cars). We toiled in the character-based interface of a thing called DOS, for “Disc Operating System,” which was what brought those early computers to life. (It’s still there, but well-concealed. Run “cmd” in Windows and you’ll see its enigmatic face.) WordPerfect was an early favorite for DOS-based word processing; in 1992, the company spun out a suite of companion programs, which I reviewed for the long-defunct PC/Computing magazine.


WORDPERFECT WORKS is an all-in-one package that makes a lot of sense for anyone who’s already part of the WordPerfect family. And, with such a low list price, it’s an excellent introduction if you’re thinking of joining.

Clustered within this integrated system are modules for word processing, spreadsheet and database work, graphics editing and communications, tied together by the Shell program familiar to users of WordPerfect Office. It’s a terrific laptop bundle – it takes up 5 Mb of disk space – and may even be all you need on a desktop.

The outside world may be a little baffled by a group of applications that uses function keys so differently from everyone else: F7 (not Esc) is the exit, F3 (not F1) asks for help. But Works now even sidesteps those conventions by offering stronger-than-ever mouse support and menus.

If you know the WordPerfect line, the only unfamiliar module is Communications, and even then it’s reminiscent of MTEZ, a program bundled with many modems (both were written by MagicSoft).

Friday, April 05, 2019

Portrait of the Artist

From the Darkroom Dept.: As I mentioned a few days ago, I found some interview and promo pieces I wrote for Capital Repertory Company’s 2013 season brochure. This one is dear to my heart, because photographer Joe Schuyler was a very good friend and an endless inspiration. I’m delighted to read this again.


Joe Schuyler
“I TEND TO LIKE PLAYS that are a little off-kilter and visually interesting,” says Joe Schuyler, which, if you know his work, is no surprise. And you do know his work. It hangs in the lobby of Capital Rep’s theatre and greets you on the company’s web page. He’s the company’s resident photographer, and has been capturing its signature moments since 1988, seven years its founding. Which gives him a longer association with the theater now than anyone else working there.

“The first play I did was ‘Saint Florence,’ by Elizabeth Diggs,” he says. “I’d already been photographing shows for ESIPA in the ’70s, and Soho Rep and the Lake George Opera. I even did a season at Williamstown, which didn’t pay very well. Of course, unless you’re doing Broadway and Off-Broadway, it’s not a lucrative gig. You have to have some reason other than a monetary one to do it.”

In his case, he confesses, he loves the world of theater because he married an actress. “I started photographing plays in Boston, then New York, now here.” Eileen Schuyler is known to the area audience for her work with a number of companies, including Capital Rep’s recent “33 Variations.” She spent many years working the Empire State Institute for the Performings Arts and its successor, the NY State Theatre Institute. Most recently, she played the title role in “The Old Mezzo” at Pittsfield’s WAM Theatre.

Monday, April 01, 2019

Meat: The Parents

From the Cinema Vault Dept.: I’ve written very few fim reviews over the years, which is surprising given my intense love of the cinema, and unsurprising given the crap I’d be asked to write about. But I’ve been able to cherrypick a few choice assignments over the years, and this was one of them (albeit an uncharacteristically brief example).


MANY YEARS AGO I attended a lecture describing an island culture that resolved its aggressions through “dream therapy,” the conscious manipulation of the unconscious state that allowed the dreamer to conquer an oppressor by imagining and then eating the person’s image.

Randy Quaid, Bryan Madorsky, and Mary Beth Hurt
Writer Christopher Hawthorne and director Bob Balaban may not have had this in mind when they embarked on the film Parents, but it certainly examines one nightmare case of parental oppression in terms both ghoulish and frighteningly familiar.

The familiar ones are the scariest, a tribute not only to the abovementioned and an exceptional cast but also to design consultant Yolanda Cuomo, who reproduced the look of 1958 Indiana in all its Eisenhower-loving glory.

Nick and Lily Laemle (Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt) have just moved into a spanking clean town with their 10-year-old son, Michael (an astonishing debut performance by non-actor Bryan Madorsky). They drive the right car and wear correct clothing. Dad works a nine-to-five job (he’s a defoliant expert for Toxico) and Mom keeps house.