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Monday, December 30, 2019

Christmas Afternoon

Guest Blogger Dept.: What better way to finish the year than with some holiday reflections by Robert Benchley? He describes the following piece as “Done in the Manner, if Not the Spirit, of Dickens,” and I think we can take him at his word.


WHAT AN AFTERNOON! Mr. Gummidge said that, in his estimation, there never had been such an afternoon since the world began, a sentiment which was heartily endorsed by Mrs. Gummidge and all the little Gummidges, not to mention the relatives who had come over from Jersey for the day.

Drawing by Gluyas Williams
In the first place, there was the ennui. And such ennui as it was! A heavy, overpowering ennui, such as results from a participation in eight courses of steaming, gravied food, topping off with salted nuts which the little old spinster Gummidge from Oak Hill said she never knew when to stop eating – and true enough she didn’t – a dragging, devitalizing ennui, which left its victims strewn about the living-room in various attitudes of prostration suggestive of those of the petrified occupants in a newly unearthed Pompeiian dwelling; an ennui which carried with it a retinue of yawns, snarls and thinly veiled insults, and which ended in ruptures in the clan spirit serious enough to last throughout the glad new year.

Then there were the toys! Three and a quarter dozen toys to be divided among seven children. Surely enough, you or I might say, to satisfy the little tots. But that would be because we didn’t know the tots. In came Baby Lester Gummidge, Lillian’s boy, dragging an electric grain-elevator which happened to be the only toy in the entire collection which appealed to little Norman, five-year-old son of Luther, who lived in Rahway. In came curly-headed Effie in frantic and throaty disputation with Arthur, Jr., over the possession of an articulated zebra.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Where There’s Smoke

From the Food Vault Dept.: Last New Year’s Eve, I sought a restaurant to which to retreat after a performance I give in Albany. The place has to stay open late and offer no price-jacked holiday specials. The only place I’ve been able to find is Smokey Bones, which has done a good job of satisfying those needs, although the service, unlike what’s reported below, can be glacial. I'm sure I'll be visiting again late Tuesday night. Here’s a review I wrote of the place when it opened in Albany in 2000, before Metroland established a policy of avoiding chain restaurants. Don’t expect the menu and pricing to be like this should you visit.


THIS IS A KILLER IDEA: chain-restaurant barbecue. The fact that it originates with the same company that gave us the Olive Garden gave me pause – after all, that emporium of pre-fab Italianesque food rises to the barely mediocre at best. And the fact that it’s combined with a sports bar theme made me even more nervous: there’s no greater torture for an uncoordinated endomorph like myself than to be remind of the humiliation of high school gym class.

Courtesy Smokey Bones
Yes, it turns out that you’re surrounded by TV sets, but at least you don’t hear them unless you specifically tune your table speaker to one of the channels. And it amused me, earlier this week, to see the Bush-Gore Supreme Court fight broadcast side-by-side with wrestling and ball games.

This place has two killer characteristics going for it: service is first-rate and the ribs aren’t far behind.

I visited twice to make sure this was true. The first time, a couple of weeks ago, my family and I showed up on a Saturday evening not long after the grand opening and joined a throng that had dug in for a 30- to 45-minute wait. I’m not a patient fellow, but my wife persuaded me to cool my heels, which wasn’t so bad when I found a space on the couch. We were assigned a large paging device that flashed in red when we were summoned, and that summons arrived within 20 minutes.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Rondo de Larrocha

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Pianist Alicia de Larrocha switched record labels in the late 1980s, and embarked on a project with her new label, RCA, to record all of Mozart’s sonatas and concertos. The review below looks at (or listens to) the debut recording in that series. She did, in fact, cover all of those sonatas, which are available now in a plain five-CD set on the Sony label; she also recorded the piano concertos 9 and 19-27 with Colin Davis and the English Chamber Orchestra, which are a little more difficult to find right now.


ALTHOUGH SHE RECENTLY PASSED the traditional retirement age, pianist Alicia de Larrocha obviously has no plans to retire. She has just begun a recording project that will see her through all of the 17 sonatas and 25 concertos by Mozart.

Last week the first instalment was issued, a collection of four sonatas that demonstrates the pianist’s masterful affinity for Mozart.

Although de Larrocha is quickly identified with Spanish composers – Granados, Albeniz and de Falla figure prominently in her repertory, and a new recording of Granados’ “Goyescas,” a sort of Spanish “Pictures at an Exhibition,” is due in September – it’s a mistake to pigeonhole her work.

Recording a piano can make as much of a statement as the work of the artist herself. It’s a difficult instrument to capture well, but RCA’s engineers have done a nice job conveying not only the color and range of the piano but also the spaciousness of the hall (in this case, an RCA studio) as well.

Which is kinder to the piano than the more brittle sound of de Larrocha’s earlier London recordings of Mozart.

Friday, December 20, 2019


Follow-Up Visit Dept.: As part of my research while writing a review of Gary Kleppel's book The Emergent Agriculture, I visited his farm. This turned into a companion piece for the review on the inspiring website


GARY KLEPPEL HAS PUT HIMSELF in an excellent position to practice what he preaches. He and his wife, Pam, own and operate the 16-acre Longfield Farm in Knox (Albany County), NY, where they raise sheep and chickens – and produce amazingly wonderful loaves of sourdough bread.

Gary Kleppel | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
How did he get interested in sustainable farming? “I didn’t know the real answer when I was writing The Emergent Agriculture,” he says. We’re sitting in the living room of his pleasant farmhouse, a building dating from the mid-19th century, which seems appropriate to the subject at hand. “I remember seeing a Leonard Cohen documentary, he adds, in which there was a song of his called ‘You Want It Darker.’ In it, he uses the Hebrew word hineni, which means, ‘here I am.’ It means, ‘I’m ready.’ And the song made me cry. Even now I’m choking up. So I asked the question, ‘What am I doing here?’”

He’s continuing to explore the topic in a new work, a book-in-progress titled Eden 2.0: How Farming with Nature Can Save the Food System (and Maybe the Planet). But the first inklings of agricultural aspiration came when he was a college kid. “I was driving to Cortland, to go to college, and we were going past these beautiful hills and pastures with cows – which I know now is all wrong – and all of a sudden the landscape turned to dairyland, and I was moved by that. I was in no way interested in farming – I was a pre-med student who didn’t want to be a pre-med student – and every time I would drive back and forth between Rockland County and Cortland, I would feel my shoulders relax, and I would feel my head clear.”

Monday, December 16, 2019

Fields of Dreams

WHAT’S MOST IRONIC about Gary Kleppel’s plea for sustainable agriculture is that he’s merely asking us to do what was done for thousands of years in the years before chemicals and industrialization dominated the fields: keep it natural, diverse, and local.

Kleppel sees his essay collection The Emergent Agriculture: Farming, Sustainability and the Return of the Local Economy as a conversation with the reader, a conversation developed over the course of his thirty years as a university professor. But it’s an academic text only insofar as his arguments are well-reasoned and backed with proof; otherwise, it’s a pleasant and inspiring manifesto.

His suggestions seem radical, but so do the threats of disease from unsafe farming and the loss of farming itself due to climate change. “If you attended an agricultural college in the past 60 years, this is how you were taught to farm,” he explains, describing the industrial model he’d like us to get away from, and he also castigates “privatizing elements of the food system (such as plant genomes) that have always been in the public domain and belong there.” So it’s not a book to make Big Agriculture very happy – but Big Ag doesn’t seem to care.

The iconic image of the American farm is very much at odds with its reality, where pollution and unsafe practices result in huge swaths of unusable farmland and ever-growing instances of food recalls. But the agri-business model persists, on the one hand strangling farmers with the costs of seed and equipment, on the other bottlenecking the farmers’ sales channels by owning the distribution system.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Turn of the Century

Guest Blogger Dept. It hardly seems like twenty years since we witnessed a turn of the century, making the turn of a century before that seem even more remote still. But Booth Tarkington witnessed it, and captured some of its spirit in his novels like the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Magnificent Ambersons. Here’s an excerpt (Chapter Three) from an autobiographical work from 1929 titled The World Does Move.


Booth Tarkington
ONE EVENING we had our own gaslight accident on the top floor. An Irish housemaid used a spiral paper taper to light the gas in the hall bedroom; then she dropped it to the floor and put her foot over it to extinguish it. But there was still a flame from the taper, and the girl’s skirt and petticoats, which of course were so long that they touched the floor, caught fire, and instantly she blazed from foot to head. The medical student and I heard her making strange moans of protest; but she was already in flight, a wild torch with her long thick hair aflame high over her head. We chased her down two flights of stairs before we caught her, and the medical student wrapped her tightly in a heavy curtain he had torn from a doorway as we ran.

She recovered, after a painful siege in the hospital; but the kind of accident she suffered was not infrequent and sometimes was fatal. Nowadays she would not use a taper to light the gas; she would not light the gas. She would not light the gas and drop the taper on the floor; but, if she did, her skirt would not catch fire. And, if her skirt did catch fire, her petticoats wouldn’t, because she wouldn’t have any; but if she did wear them, and if her skirt and petticoats did catch fire, her hair wouldn’t. No matter how they may look, girls are at least safer from fire to-day than they were then.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Berkshire Abduction

From the Vault Dept.: Berkshire Opera was founded by Rex Hearn in 1985; with a few changes of venue, the company lasted until 2008. It was re-started in 2016 under completely different artistic management. Here’s a trip some thirty years back in time to re-visit a production of a Mozart opera.


BERKSHIRE OPERA GENERAL DIRECTOR Rex Hearn finished his welcoming words to last night’s performance of Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” and dashed up the aisle of the Cranwell Opera House, stirring a fresh breeze in the still air.

Cranwell Resort, Lenox Mass.
It’s a metaphor for what he’s brought opera in the Berkshires these last few summers: a fresh breeze to enliven the classics of the repertory. This production only confirms what’s already been established.

The piece is skillfully placed in the odd little theater (it’s a former chapel), set by designer Kennon Rothchild in a whimsically-drawn Turkey draped in silks and pastel. The orchestra, led by Amy Kaiser, has never sounded better, and the cast is nicely chosen for this particular work.

Some fussy characteristics of the story make it a challenge to pull off. What promises to be a fast-paced tale of abduction and intrigue turns instead to the overrated question of virtue, leaving us wondering only who’s doing the chasing and who’s being chaste.

Friday, December 06, 2019

Mangia e Corri

From the Food Vault Dept.: And where did I dine back I went to that Penn & Teller show I wrote about earlier? The same issue of Metroland that ran my advance had this overview of an Albany-based pizza and casual dining restaurant called Mangia, which had three units in the area at its height. The place closed in 2008 and was demolished to make way for a more upscale place called Créo, which suffered a series of management vicissitudes that brought down the place after seven years. It’s now home to Jacob & Anthony’s, a casual-Italian restaurant with a sibling in Saratoga Springs.


MY FIRST RESTAURANT-BUSINESS FRIEND was a chef named Angelo who proudly ran his own eponymous place near the town’s post office and Grand Union. As a teen, I’d stop in for a lunchtime bowl of soup on the many days I skipped school, and Angelo would sit with me in the nearly-empty place and shake his head and complain, “People don’t want to go out to eat in a shopping plaza.”

Sound wisdom, I’m sure, but the Capital District’s exurbia is a far cry from small-town New England and a shopping-plaza restaurant has a better chance in an easily-accessed place like Stuyvesant Plaza. Besides, Angelo was offering fine dining. Mangia, the latest occupant of the plaza’s southeast corner, is a much more casual place.

What killed the Howard Johnson’s that was there I don’t know – people seemed to have grown used to the mediocre food. The sports bar that followed was phenomenally silly, so Mangia is a relief. The food is good, on the order of the nearby Coco’s, and the place has a gimmick: wood-fired pizza.

Monday, December 02, 2019

The Curse of Cassandra

From the Vault Dept.: In my ongoing effort to clear out desk and filing-cabinet drawers, I’ve been turning old paperwork into PDFs and old audio tapes into MP3s. Even though it’s unlikely that any of this material will be seen or heard again, it remins “there,” and it takes up far less space. I ran across (and digitized) my 1992 interviews with Penn and Teller, conducted in order to write an advance about their upcoming Schenectady debut; that piece is followed by my review of the show.


ONLY VERY RECENTLY has Penn Jillette referred to himself and his partner, Teller, as magicians. “When we first started we were very hesitant to let anyone anywhere call us magicians, because when people said ‘magic’ they pictured – and still do – a greasy guy in a tux with a lot of birds playing bad white-boy Motown music and pushing women around. And that’s not what we do.”

Penn & Teller, back in the day.
What they do do they’ll be doing at 8 PM Saturday at Proctor’s Theatre as they make their Schenectady debut. You’ll see needles swallowed, a straightjacket escape, an almost never-before-seen finale and the possibility that Teller won’t make it through the show.

Is it magic? “If you look the real definition of magic,” says Penn, “if you think past the image of Copperfield or Siegfried and Roy – all it really means is doing special effects that the audience can’t figure out. When something looks one way and is done another, that’s your definition of irony, which is a backbone of the theater. So magic is actually a very intellectual and adult form. It’s just that over the past fifty years, it’s been moved to the barrooms and it hasn’t really developed like the other art forms. I mean, Houdini was not a big star for magic. He was a superstar of his day. He was Bruce Springsteen. That’s what people forget. They start thinking, well, Copperfield is good for a magician – that’s like a Special Olympics type thing.”