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Friday, June 05, 2020

The Stuff of Sondheim

From the Theater Vault Dept.: We’re going back 35 years here, re-visiting my piece about the Sondheim Melody Dilemma. With no Sondheim show on a nearby stage at that moment, I seized upon the cable-access showing of “A Little Night Music” to inspire this rant.


There’s not a tune you can hum.
There’s not a tune you go bum-bum-bum-di-dum.
You need a tune you can bum-bum-bum-di-dum –
Give me a melody!

Why can’t you throw ‘em a crumb?
What’s wrong with letting ‘em tap their toes a bit?
I’ll let you know when Stravinsky has a hit –
Give me a melody!

– Stephen Sondheim, “Merrily We Roll Along”

Elizabeth Taylor in "A Little Night Music"
STEPHEN SONDHEIM IS FOND OF decrying his naïvete as a fledgling lyricist working on his first Broadway show, which happened to be “West Side Story.” In the song “I Feel Pretty,” Maria sings the line, “It’s alarming how charming I feel.” “Right there,” says Sondheim, “you get the feeling that Noël Coward just walked into the room, where there’s supposed to be a Puerto Rican immigrant.”

With his most recent show, “Sunday in the Park with George,” taking the Pulitzer Prize (rarely does a musical achieve that honor), it’s interesting to note how far Sondheim has come since 1957 – and how he’s now perceived by theatergoers.

Monday, June 01, 2020

Re-Thinking the Kitchen

“FOR US IT'S BEEN about asking ourselves, how can we still show hospitality at such a weird time and place in our industry, when our traditional means of showing care and attention have been taken away from us?” So muses Jinah Kim, the owner of and unstoppable force behind Sunhee’s Farm and Kitchen, the Troy-based Korean restaurant that we profiled here.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
“Like every other New York restaurant, we’re restricted to takeout and delivery right now,” she says. “For our business it hasn’t been that bad. You hear about fine-dining restaurants that are being hit from 50 to 75 percent; for us, it’s closer to 30 to 50 percent. So it was easy to transition into that kind of a quick-service model.”

Kim opened Sunhee’s Farm and Kitchen on May 15, 2016, fulfilling a long-held dream – although it wasn’t, at first, of a restaurant: “I was thinking along the lines of a café or a farm, which then turned into the idea of a gathering place that would start out as a restaurant and evolve into a space where people would feel comfortable, and a place that could be a learning environment.”

To that end, she has been offering classes for immigrants, teaching English and computer skills among other subjects – but everything changed in March. “I think back to that initial week when the NBA suspended its season and things were getting really serious – and we were waiting in anticipation of what was going to happen next.” She describes a sense of vacillation between keeping the business open to continue an income stream, “but also to be able to take care of our staff and think of the well-being of our community.”

Friday, May 29, 2020

"A" is for Excellence

VIOLINIST LARA ST. JOHN’S RECORDINGS include works by John Corigliano and Matthew Hindson, a collection of folk tunes and improvisations from eastern Europe, and a pair of improbable yet uplifting CDs as part of Polkastra, an ensemble that merrily re-channels a variety of songs, classical included, into two-four time.

Her newest recording, “Key of A,” pairs sonatas by Beethoven and Franck, which would seem to be much too staid for her – until you reach track two, the second movement of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata.” It’s a theme and variations, each section marked with a repeat. But those repeats don’t go as marked: the second iterations feature variations on the variations, usually with trickier technical challenges for both violin and piano.

“That’s basically how it would have been done in Beethoven’s time,” St. John says with a laugh. “He wrote this for himself and for Bridgetower, who by all accounts was totally insane – so they would never have done a variation exactly the same way twice.”

History notes that George Bridgetower – a Polish-born, Afro-European violinist – was indeed an impulsive fellow. Forced to read from the sonata’s manuscript over Beethoven’s shoulder during its 1803 premiere, Bridgetower made some improvised alterations that delighted the composer. That they later had a falling-out had more to do with a woman than with music, and that’s why the composer changed the work’s dedicatee to the stuffy Archduke Rudolphe Kreutzer, who dismissed the sonata as too difficult and never played it.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Whose Garden Was This?

From the Computer Vault Dept.: Back in the heady days of late-’90s tech growth, I wrote for a number of computer magazines, among them the nascent Yahoo! Internet Life, which was intended to serve as a guide to the nascent World Wide Web. Here’s one of my pieces, written early in the magazine’s life. (Here’s its cousin.) It seems appropriate, with garden-planting season at hand – but let’s see how many of the sites recommended below still exist!


A POT OF DIRT, a little sunlight, a regular sprinkling of water – you’ve got yourself a garden. Whether you’re doing it for food or simply to admire, a garden puts you in touch with an inspiring cycle of growth and regeneration. Voltaire and Joni Mitchell both emphasized the need to enjoy quality gardening time, which at the very least is a nice diversion from the workaday world. Thanks to the many Internet gardening sites, you can at the very least wander through a virtual Eden, but the photos and how-to pieces should inspire even the most reclusive apartment-dweller to hang another houseplant in the window. The best sites combine good inline images and helpful information, and there’s a growing network of suppliers and fellow gardeners waiting to guide you--or at least sell you some seedlings and gardening gear.

The Best

The New York Botanical Garden (still here). [* * * ½] is about as close as you can get to nature without actually stepping outdoors. The handsome site promotes a garden complex located in a New York City borough, and therefore exhorts you to become a member and participate in Botanical Garden events. But those are only introductory stops on a lengthy ramble that takes you through such famous floriculture sites as the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden, where you’ll be reminded of the old history of rose-giving (“a full-blown rose placed over two rose buds meant ‘we must be secret’”). Take a look at Daffodil Hill for some awesome photos and helpful cultivation tips, then continue the tour through collections of daylilies, herbs, and even an arborvitae maze for kids. Most of the pages are illustrated with beautiful photos that look even better in their accompanying larger versions.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Double-Barreled Drama

From the Theatrical Vault Dept., or, Look Who We Had in Town! Sometimes there are legitimately surprising surprises to be found in my dusty archives. Take this advance I wrote in 1984 for a visit by the British American Drama Academy with a pair of plays in repertory. “Game of Thrones” star David Rintoul headlined the cast – and I regret that I wasn’t able to see the shows in question. I regret, too, that I had no interview to go on, so I did an admirable, show-offish job of treading water.


“I PRAY YOU ALL, tell me what they deserve that do conspire my death with devilish plots of damned witchcraft, and that have prevail’d upon my body with their hellish charms! Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? Men should be what they seem. Macbeth shall sleep no more! I have lived long enough!”

David Rintoul, pre-GOT
So declares “Sir,” the aged actor in Ronald Harwood’s play “The Dresser.” This upsets his dresser, Norman, who remonstrates him: “Now look what you’ve gone and done ... go out, go out, you’ve quoted the Scots tragedy.”

“Did l? Macb –  ? Oh, Christ!”

Whereupon Sir is forced to leave the dressing room, turn around three times, knock before re-entering and swear. (“Pisspots.”)

When Peter O’Toole mounted a version of the Scots tragedy at the Old Vic a few years back, it was beset with mishap and fared poorly. Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” the shortest of that author’s dramas, is said to carry a curse as well as the usual share of difficulties inherent in any Shakespeare play; perhaps that’s part of its appeal.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Sequestration Two-Step

I rise at nine, or maybe ten –
There’s nothing really pressing;
I spend an hour deciding when
It’s worth the trouble dressing.

I set the coffee up last night,
And eggs and toast await;
But all that shit is down a flight:
I’ll be a little late.

The outfit I took off last night
I’ll wear again today,
And expedite the odor fight
With shots of Febreze spray.

I’m at my desk to meet my doom
(It happens every day)
As fifteen other folk on Zoom
Find nothing new to say.

Those noontime beers are so sublime,
By one, the pain’s diminished.
By three it’s dry-martini time;
By five, the bottle’s finished.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Terpsichorean Duo

From the Dance Vault Dept.: It’s easy to see what I was doing one weekend in April 1986: attending dance concerts. I reviewed two of them in the same issue of the Schenectady Gazette, I retain pleasant memories of the experiences, and I offer them below.


PETER MAXWELL’S “BALLROOM DANCE THEATRE” is a show in the form of a series of dances for partners, the sort of thing linked to the name of Arthur Murray.

Peter Maxwell and partner
The performance yesterday afternoon in the Egg at the Empire State Plaza, Albany, was one of the first few this new company has given. It’s an original concept for a full-length show, it has moments of sheer wonder, and it ought to get better and better as the concept evolves.

At its best, it shows a company of four couples smoothly displaying the different aspects of a particular dance.

The tango sequence in the third act was the high point of the piece, bringing together excellent dance, attractive costumes, good music, and just enough characterization to carry through the six tango numbers.

Maxwell choreographed the bulk of the dances, with assistance both inside and out of the company. The individual couples boast long experience as partners and it shows in the dance; the challenge, then, must be to work out the method in which the dancers perform outside of their usual units.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Motion Sickness

From the Food Vault Dept.: Harkening back to the days of luxury travel . . . well, this isn’t quite it. It’s what passed for dining on Amtrak’s Montrealer in 1986, although it’s still a damn sight better than what’s offered now. Or will be, when it makes sense once again to travel by train.


“OVERNIGHT TRIPS ARE WHAT train travel is all about,” I assured my wife as we planned our vacation. “You get your bedroom – for a price – and best of all, you get to eat in the dining car.”

Amtrak's "Le Pub," c. 1973
My pleasant memories came from a series of trips I took between New York and Chicago many years ago. I waxed reminiscent. “The tables have thick white cloths on them. Fresh flowers in a heavy metal vase. All of the dinner service has a great sturdiness to resist the motion of the train.

“There’s a kitchen at one end of the car, and the meal is cooked fresh, served by waiters who have been in the business for years. The closest thing to that is the feel of Hattie’s Chicken Shack in Saratoga.

“And you order on a little slip that’s placed on the table with your menu. No verbal orders. Oh, I know the choices have dwindled down to three or four and I’m sure that microwave ovens have crept into those kitchens, but still, there’s nothing like dining on sautéed filet of sole as the plains of Ohio sweep by.”

Friday, May 08, 2020

Rainy Days and Mondays

I JUST WATCHED the most forbidden movie in America. Or so it seems. Dropped by Amazon Studios and picked up by no other U.S.-serving distributor, it opened in Poland and has since garnered a respectable box-office return throughout the rest of the world. “A Rainy Day in New York” is a light comedy, skillfully executed, starring big-name stars. But it was written and directed by Woody Allen, whose name has become anathema in certain circles.

Selena Gomez and Timothée Chalamet
Unfortunately, this essay has to be as much about the Allen controversy as about the movie itself. Well; it doesn’t have to, but enough (more than enough!) ignorant bile has been spewed on the topic that I’m compelled to offer a voice of reason in rebuttal.

Let’s start with the movie. It’s the story of a romantic weekend in Manhattan beset by mishap and misadventure, chief among the former the steady titular rain. Ashleigh Enright (Elle Fanning) is a student at Yardley College, a Vassar-like liberal-arts institution. She has just secured an interview with elusive film director Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber), which means a trip to Manhattan. This is great news to her boyfriend, Gatsby Welles (Timothée Chalamet), who grew up in that city and is eager to give Ashleigh a personal tour. All he has to do is avoid his parents, because he begged out of the lavish annual party his well-heeled mother gives.

Monday, May 04, 2020

The Opportune Overthrow of Humpty Dumpty

Guest Blogger Dept.: We welcome the return of virtuoso versifier Guy Wetmore Carryl, and another of his lively creations from Mother Goose for Grown-Ups. Remind you of anyone?


Drawing by Peter Newell
Bombastically sat
A boastful boy, and he was quite
Unreasonably fat:
And what aroused a most intense
Disgust in passers-by
Was his abnormal impudence
In hailing them with “Hi!”
While by his kicks he loosened bricks
The girls to terrify.

When thus for half an hour or more
He’d played his idle tricks,
And wounded something like a score
Of people with the bricks,
A man who kept a fuel shop
Across from where he sat
Remarked: “Well, this has 
   got to stop.”
Then, snatching up his hat,
And sallying out, began to shout:
“Look here! Come down from that!”

Friday, May 01, 2020

The Devil You Say

From the Vault Dept.: O, how I took for granted the tours that came through the nearby towns! Even before the performing arts ground to a halt, the greater Albany, NY, area stopped welcoming tours of anything but pop-culture highlights, with a few chamber-music and jazz concerts tucked into cultural hidey-holes. Perhaps I should have been less grumpy about this “Faust,” but I’m going to say that the Devil made me do it.


THERE’S ALWAYS A TANG OF DEVILISHNESS about self-indulgent pleasure, and no legend better serves that sense than that of Faust and his bargain with Mephistopheles.

Charles Gounod
The New York City Opera National Company appeared at Proctor’s Saturday night with a production of Charles Gounod’s opera of the legend according to Goethe in an exciting performance that just fell short of the kind of excellence we’ve grown to expect from this group.

That’s the problem with setting standards so high – anything less than perfect becomes a disappointment. But there certainly was no lack of talent or innovation. The sets, by Peter Dean Beck, suggested Gounod’s obsession with Catholicism by using a vast, vaulted corridor to serve with various backdrops as tavern, garden, and prison.

The cast was headed by Keith Olsen as Faust and Randi Marrazzo as Marguerite, the woman he loves and spurns. They have the youthful good looks that you miss in some of the more seasoned stars, but neither had the riveting presence that leads to stardom. Craig Heath Nirn, as  Mephistopheles, has a wonderfully evil presence and rich, deep voice, but he didn’t seem always to be in control of his singing.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Transfigured Concert

Remember Live Music? Dept.: I’ve long been in love with Pamela Frank, both as a violinist (she, not I) and on a fundamentally carnal level. But the two intertwine, in my fevered sensibility, so thoroughly that I have muted this passion for many years. I’m telling you about it now because we’re all too sequestered for it to make a damn bit of difference. Here’s my account of a memorable performance from many seasons ago.


Pamela Frank
THE OPENING EVENT of the Union College Concert Series is always a rewarding experience, and those who remained to enjoy Arnold Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night” were treated to a spectacular performance by a string sextet clearly enjoying one another’s musical company.

Those who bolted at intermission missed the concert’s highlight. They also showed an unfortunate ignorance of where the piece falls in Schoenberg’s creative life. They’re tempting the gods to consign them to an afterlife of Richard Clayderman music.

The friends violinist Pamela Frank assembled are top-flight players who, as far as I can tell, don’t perform together regularly, although a light web search yields any number of connections among them (not least the connubial connection of Frank and violinist Alexander Simionescu). But the concert proved that a like-minded ensemble of risk-takers can generate plenty of performance excitement.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Uptown, Downtown Gets Down

Remember Live Performance? Dept.: One of the most compelling shows presented at Albany’s Capital Rep nearly a decade ago was Leslie Uggams’s two-week appearance in her solo show “Uptown, Downtown.” I had the chance to meet her after the performance I saw, and she was just as lively and fascinating – and downright nice – as she seemed to be on stage. Here’s what I wrote.


WHEN ALL EIGHT PIECES OF THE BAND are wailing as Leslie Uggams gives a powerhouse treatment to “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” you can’t help but be impressed by all that energy. It’s a great sound, reminding us of the majesty of jazz-inflected music and song.

Amy Sussman/Invision/AP
But Uggams’s own instrument is mutli-hued, and there’s just as much energy in the delicacy of the Goffin-King anthem “Up on the Roof” – but this one is delivered as a wistful ballad with only the affecting guitar work of Steve Bargonetti behind it, and it’s one of the show’s most magical moments.

“Uptown, Downtown” came to Capital Rep for a two-week stay, and I wouldn’t let this one get past you. A remarkable singer-actress pays tribute to her long career (she started performing while still in single digits), framed by the contrast between her uptown (Washington Heights) childhood and her eventual (downtown) Broadway career.

Monday, April 20, 2020

The Burger Master

From the Food Vault Dept.: Look, I’m as socially responsible as the next fellow. Trouble is, the next fellow isn’t typically very socially responsible. So while I’m spending a lot more time at home, eating, I like to think, in a socially responsible manner, there come errands. Yesterday, my daughter and I went shopping – or, rather, she went shopping as I waited in the car, the better to limit my risk of contracting infection to passage from a loved one. Near the supermarket is a Five Guys outlet. I installed the phone app and placed an order to us. We enjoyed a guilty pleasure, and I was reminded of a visit that I documented a decade ago.


A WIDELY HELD BELIEF maintains that confessing your sins is the first step on the road to forgiveness. I’m not sure that it even counts as a venial offense, but here goes: I enjoy dining at Five Guys Burgers and Fries. Here’s something even more surprising: so does my wife, Susan. She professes to despise all things fast-food related, and claims she’d rather starve than ingest fodder from McDonald’s, but she’s astonishingly eager to lap up a Five Guys meal.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
I’m also violating a self-imposed interdiction against writing about chain restaurants, but justify it by suggesting that there are things to be learned from such places, a topic I’ll return to. This is also inspired by the fact that Five Guys topped the recent Readers’ Picks poll, thankfully nosing out the overhyped, overpriced Red Robin. So I’m guessing you’d like a closer look at this place.

Once you start confessing things, subsequent revelations come more easily. Here’s my next one: I don’t think the Five Guys burgers are all they’re cracked up to be, and for one reason only: they insist on cooking the things to well-doneness. I know the argument, and I can’t fault them for it. Thanks to an insufficiently regulated meatpacking industry, ground beef may contain pathogens that lurk in the rare parts, so this cook-the-red-away policy has become ever more common in the chain-restaurant world.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Small Footprints, Great Success

KEEP IN MIND THAT BAYER AG (best-known as the aspirin company) remains in a legal hot-seat over its weed-killer Roundup, a product it inherited when it bought Monsanto. Although Bayer agreed to pay almost $40 million over allegations that it ran misleading ads about the product, it’s still got about 13,000 lawsuits – and nearly 43,000 plaintiffs – seeking damages over the link between glyphosate, Roundup’s active ingredient, and a form of cancer known as Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Bayer, of course, insists there’s no link.

Dr. Zac Bush
Dr. Zach Bush disagrees. He’s a cancer researcher who tracked what he termed the explosive rise of cancer cases between 1996 and 2007, and discovered that the concentration of such cases was greatest not only where midwestern farmers were using heavy amounts of Roundup on their crops, but also in areas served by Mississippi River drainage tributaries. A map of the river and its drainage areas is a grim duplication of the cancer-cases map.

But this is only one of the several sobering issues presented in the 20-minute documentary “Farmer’s Footprint” (directed by Nicol Ragland) which was produced by Bush and can be freely viewed online. It takes a broad view of the consequences of corporate-style farming and the need for regenerative practices. As a companion piece, “Unbroken Ground,” a 25-minute documentary by Chris Malloy, looks at themes of regeneration in several fascinating contexts. Produced by Patagonia Provisions it can be viewed for free on the company’s website. We took a look at both.

Besides being a film, Farmer’s Footprint is also a coalition of doctors, farmers, and others seeking to reveal the terrible consequences of chemical farming and encourage regenerative agricultural practices. They offer consulting and other educational resources, but they’re also spreading the word with the first of what they plan to be a series of short films.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Go and Look

From the Cinema Vault Dept.: This way-too-brief review hardly suited its subject, a two-and-a-half-hour masterpiece of disturbing storytelling that mixes war story with grim fable. I attended an afternoon preview of the film and emerged as shattered as I’ve ever felt by an artistic experience. I’ve since watched the movie – available on DVD – a couple of times more, but have yet to persuade my wife to watch it with me.


THE TITLE IS A TAUNT, not an invitation. Released in 1985, this two-and-half hour film was a nine-year project that follows a young man's grim struggle to survive in Nazi-occupied Byelorussia, a Soviet province that borders Poland.

Florya (Alexei Kravchenko) is an adolescent who eagerly leaves his family to join the partisans protecting themselves from the retreating German army, revealed to us at first only as an almost-silent presence overhead in omnipresent Blohmen-Voss aircraft.

The quiet drone of those planes joins the incredibly complex soundtrack of this epic drama of the senses, as we combine with Florya in seeing and hearing the tragedy of the destruction around him.

Director Klimov, president of the Soviet Filmmakers Union, uses tight closeups and an active Steadi-Cam to lock us into the youth's point of view. There is a documentary feel to the film even as it explores the rich scope of the boy's emotions.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Delight Fantastic

From the Vault Dept.: Bob Bowyer found the humor in ballet and offered magnificently endearing shows with his troupe, American Ballet Comedie, during the 1980s. In 1992, he died (at the age of 45) of an AIDS-related illness. Here’s a wistful look back at his 1985 visit to Schenectady.


ANY CULTURAL PHENOMENON can take itself too seriously and ballet is no exception. Its hallowed traditions invite respect, true, but they also invite someone like Bob Bowyer to take a few potshots. That he does so with a highly skilled ballet company makes a performance by American Ballet Comedie even more enjoyable.

Marianne Claire, Bob Bowyer, and JoAnn Bruggeman
The company paid a return visit to Proctor’s Theatre Friday night, with the pokerfaced Bowyer again demonstrating that ballet can be used to tell hilarious and compelling stories when it isn’t being lampooned.

The group started right out with a big opening titled, and why not, “The Big Opening.” To the strains of “That’s Entertainment,” eight dancers clad in glittering tails performed stunts with hats and canes that made it seem as if there were eight Donald O’Connors onstage.

Great comedians need to master all theatrical basics; great comic dancers must be similarly outstanding. “The Big Opening” works because of right-on-the-button timing and energy that throws a smile to the back of the house.

Monday, April 06, 2020

All You Can Handel

From the Vault Dept.: Capitol Chamber Artists has been presenting music in the Albany, NY, area for over a half-century. They have been responsible for fresh versions of old favorites as well as new and unusual works. Here’s my review and, non-chronologically, my advance on a concert celebrating 1985's Handel tricentennial. These were also among my final pieces for the Albany Knickerbocker News, which paid shit money but took exception to my writing for another area publication.


CAPITOL CHAMBER ARTISTS, a small group which has doggedly managed to present several seasons of chamber music to this area, is finally attracting the size of audience it deserves, judging from the turnout at a concert in celebration of the birthday of Handel.

George Frideric Handel
The auditorium at the Albany Institute of History and Art on Sunday boasted a larger crowd than has attended many of the group’s previous concerts, and the audience was treated to a very energetic performance of some of Handel’s best-loved music, the high point of which was soprano Mary Anne Ross’s presentation of selections from “Messiah.”

The program opened with the “Largo” from the opera “Xerxes,” originally an aria and now a mainstay of young violinists and wedding processionals. Performed by an ensemble of strings, flute, bassoon and harpsichord, it was given the stateliness it deserves, and was an effective prelude to the music which followed.

The orchestra was augmented for the “Messiah” selections with the addition of oboe, although the recitative sections were sung to continuo. Ms. Ross had the unique distinction of being absolutely intelligible all the time, without resorting to the florid overpronunciation which dogs many a singer.

Friday, April 03, 2020

Downtown Place to Be

From the Food Vault Dept.: Remember restaurants? How odd it would have been for me were I still actively reviewing them! Here’s a throwback – quite far back, to 1996 – look at a downtown Saratoga Springs institution that we watched decline thereafter, until it received a $28 million renovation four years ago. I haven’t been there since it re-opened.


MY EXPECTATION OF VICTORIAN-AGE ANYTHING includes ornate architecture, potted palms, and, however improbably, Rudy Vallee crooning by the bandstand. A weird mix of styles, but it can work--as demonstrated by Saratoga’s Adelphi Hotel.

The old Adelphi in a postcard view.
It’s almost the last of the grand old places, and it maintains an elegant air of the bygone days, from the plush parlor you see upon entering to the old-style desk where reception awaits. During the warm weather, it’s my favorite place to go for a tasty fruit daiquiri, enjoyed in the garden that’s reached a couple of rooms beyond the entrance.

Last week, my wife and I visited for dinner, something we haven’t done at the Adelphi before. I’m glad we discovered it. I’m only sorry we’ll have to share it with August’s crowd.

You have a choice of dining venue. The bar has several tables; beyond that is a smaller room. A larger room follows, and then there’s the garden. We made it to the almost-outside room, hedging against a cool breeze that was blowing in.

Monday, March 30, 2020

O, Isolation!

TRUTH TO TELL, there’s not much different going on here. Rural life has a built-in social-distancing factor, although that’s the thing that causes neighbors to crave any manner of get-together. Take the farm-supply store a half-mile down the road from me. It’s a long-established retail outlet that stocks every possible tractor-repair part, along with tools and boots and feed and hardware, and it draws customers from many miles around. But there have been days when you could raise a beard while waiting in line for the next cashier. My theory is that this is the first human contact some of the customers have had in many days, and they’re making the most of it. (You don’t count spouses or farmhands, of course; familiarity is conversation’s worst enemy.)

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Now the store, essential business though it has been deemed, is usually fairly empty and the line, if there is one, moves quickly. We’re getting ready for spring planting and need seeds and mulch, although this is something practiced here in a comparatively compact way. Around us, the farm tractors are disking wide furrows for the feed corn that dominates the late-summer landscape; here, a lone roto-tiller pushes through our unkind clay.

It’s not so rural here as to be without supermarkets and big-box stores, which perch about twenty minutes away in the struggling city of Amsterdam. But the supermarkets here (as have yours, I’m sure) are now limiting their hours and the hardware giants are limiting the number of customers allowed within, asking their overflow customers to wait in a well-spaced line, said spacing demarcated by PVC pipe sculptures reminiscent of a Christo installation.

Monday, March 23, 2020

How to be a Doctor

Guest Blogger Dept.: The rising need for medical personnel is bein matched by a rising self-sufficiency among the quarantined masses. According to Stephen Leacock, we can combine these pursuits, as reflected in his 1910 essay, reproduced below. At the time this was written, Leacock was a professor at Montreal’s McGill University. He began submitting articles to the Toronto humor magazine Grip in 1894 and soon his humorous pieces were appearing in magazines throughout Canada and the United States. In 1910, he privately published a selection of these as Literary Lapses, which was picked up by a British publisher, who issued editions in London and New York. Leacock soon became the most famous writer of his time.


CERTAINLY THE PROGRESS OF SCIENCE is a wonderful thing. One can’t help feeling proud of it. I must admit that I do. Whenever I get talking to anyone—that is, to anyone who knows even less about it than I do—about the marvellous development of electricity, for instance, I feel as if I had been personally responsible for it. As for the linotype and the aeroplane and the vacuum house-cleaner, well, I am not sure that I didn’t invent them myself. I believe that all generous-hearted men feel just the same way about it.

Stephen Leacock
However, that is not the point I am intending to discuss. What I want to speak about is the progress of medicine. There, if you like, is something wonderful. Any lover of humanity (or of either sex of it) who looks back on the achievements of medical science must feel his heart glow and his right ventricle expand with the pericardiac stimulus of a permissible pride.

Just think of it. A hundred years ago there were no bacilli, no ptomaine poisoning, no diphtheria, and no appendicitis. Rabies was but little known, and only imperfectly developed. All of these we owe to medical science. Even such things as psoriasis and parotitis and trypanosomiasis, which are now household names, were known only to the few, and were quite beyond the reach of the great mass of the people.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Some Little Bug Is Going to FInd You

My cabaret partner, Malcolm Kogut, and I spent yesterday recording the song embedded below. It's from a 1915 operetta by Franz Lehar, "Alone at Last," although it's not a Lehar number. It was common then to have interpolations to showcase a particular star's specialties. Unlike the other videos I could discover of this song, we went through all five verses, which you'll probably regret when you get to about verse three. Dr. Munyon, by the way, was a famous homeopath back at the beginning of the last century.

Monday, March 16, 2020

A Litany in Time of Plague

Guest Blogger Dept.: Thomas Nashe (or Nash; he signed it both ways) was a poet, playwright, and pamphleteer – and a devout Catholic, who lived from 1567 to 1601 or so. He wrote the lines below as a meditation on the Black Plague – which may well have brought on his own death. He is thought by some to have collaborated with Shakespeare on “All’s Well That Ends Well.” He also is purported to have written one of the most pornographic poems of his era, “The Choice of Valentine.” You may get more enjoyment out of that one than this one.


Thomas Nashe, or so it's reckoned
ADIEU, FAREWELL, Earth's bliss;
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life’s lustful joys;
Death proves them all but toys;
None from his darts can fly;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Friday, March 13, 2020

Grocery Story

YOU’VE PROBABLY CONTEMPLATED doing more shopping at your local food co-op for many reasons, among them that you’ll probably find healthier fare and you’ll be supporting the local economy. Once you finish reading John Steinman’s Grocery Story, you’ll wish never again to set foot in a supermarket.

Even as the book explains in anger-inducing detail how the supermarket chains got where they are today, it gives you enough info to help you realize how thoroughly such stores manipulate pricing structures, shelf placement, and, ultimately, you, the captive shopper.

Steinman is a food journalist who produced “Deconstructing Dinner,” a six-episode TV series, in 2013, and a syndicated one-hour radio show produced from 2006 to 2010, originating in Steinman’s home town of Nelson, British Columbia, where the author also served as a director for several years of the Kootenay Co-op, Canada’s largest.

But the Grocery Story begins in the U.S. with the A&P, a supermarket that began in the 1850s, swelled into an impressive national chain as it reached its height in the 1930s, and sputtered to its bankrupt finish in 2015. Its history is instructive. Early in the 20th century, A&P wielded enough buying muscle that it could institute aggressive pricing practices to undercut competing stores. As Steinman reminds us, this led to A&P losing a court case because of such predatory pricing – which then paved the way for the grocery chain to developing its own manufacturing facilities. Or contracting with other companies to provide house-brand goods, often aping a well-known brand in order to capitalize on a hard-earned image while undercutting its pricing.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Blowin’ up a Storm

MOSAIC RECORDS HAS BEEN VERY GENEROUS with its Woody Herman reissues, and for an excellent reason: Herman’s jazz bands (and there were many) were among the most exciting and innovative in the business. Why they’re not mentioned in the same breaths as the bands of Ellington, Goodman, Shaw, and the like, is puzzling. Herman had no shortage of hits during the big bands’ heyday. Perhaps his constantly mutating image worked against him.

Perhaps it’s the partisan nature of his current fanbase. Many jazz commentators are fond of picking this or that period of the Herman realm and disparaging the rest, but Herman’s lapses, such as they may be, occurred on an individual basis. He recorded any number of second-rate songs (who in the business didn’t?), and there were some questionable choices of session personnel when Woody had to pay the bills. But all of his bands, or herds, or whatever you wish to call them, gave off sparks – the result of Herman’s ability, again and again, to pick great performers and arrangers.

The new Mosaic release, “The Compete Woody Herman Decca, Mars, and MGM Sessions (1943-1954),” fills in the gaps created by two earlier (spectacular) Mosaic boxes. “The Complete Capitol Recordings of Woody Herman” is a six-CD collection that ranges from the end of 1948 to ’50, and from 1954 to ’56, which whetted the fans’ appetite for the release that followed: “The Complete Columbia Recordings of Woody Herman and His Orchestra & Woodchoppers (1945-1947).”

Friday, March 06, 2020

The Maddening Mystery of the Missing Manor

From the Editorial Trauma Dept.: Here’s a piece that could have been a favorite of mine, written in 1986, as I successfully traced a historic building that traveled from the Albany area to Williams College and back to Albany again, losing a great deal of its architectural luster along the way. But the piece I wrote was so badly butchered by an incompetent editor that I still shudder at the recollection, and I’m dismayed by the terrible changes that remain under my byline. This dates from before I was archiving my work carefully, so it’s all I’ve got.


THE MORNING WAS MISTY AND COLD as only spring in Albany can be. I stared down at State Street from my grimy office window wondering how the greenery could look so gray and decided that this might finally be the year I would have to clean the soot from the panes.

Van Rensselaer Manor,
as painted by Thomas Cole in 1841
The intercom buzzed. “There is a man here to see you,” came my secretary’s voice. “A Mr. Stimson.”

I gave her my devil-may-care rumble, although I know she is never impressed. “Send him in.”

Robbe Stimson was a tall, lanky fellow with sandy hair, tinted eyeglasses and a big, broad smile, a country gentleman in jeans and corduroy jacket. His Tennessee Walking Horse was probably parked outside.

“A detective’s office right out of Raymond Chandler,” he said, examining my dingy room with amusement.

“Mysteries are a sort of hobby of mine,” I replied, trying to sound like I’d breakfasted on whisky.

Monday, March 02, 2020

Getting a Rise

ALONGSIDE ITS INCREDIBLE RESOURCE of helpful information, the internet also has brought us the scourge of YouTube how-to- videos. This is not to say that I haven’t found many of them useful; I have. But the useful ones tend to be simple, self-produced video essays with a comprehensible presenter who didn’t begin by intoning, “Hey, guys,” and who saw merit in the use of a tripod.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Now we’re bombarded with overproduced videos featuring overexplanatory hosts, overdoing it at attempts at humor while overusing all available technical devices. And in no realm is this worse than in the matter of the cooking video.

I’m learning to make sourdough bread. I like to experiment in the kitchen, and this is an item that gives me plenty of room to do so. Previous attempts at breadmaking have been woeful – enough so that I will cop to using a bread machine, which I wrote about here – and sourdough has always seemed the most elusive of missions.

I was intimidated, right off the bat, by the concept of making a starter. It seemed as if it would take forever even as I threw out, day after day, half of whatever it was I had brewing. So I didn’t give it much thought until my daughter, a Manhattan resident, announced that she had started a starter, would be bringing it to my house on a recent trip, and expected oven access.

And I have to say that the loaves she turned out were pretty impressive. She wasn’t happy with the “crumb,” which is the inside texture. The flavor was there, but the loaves seemed dense. She left me a little starter and a lot to think about.

Friday, February 28, 2020

1999: The Year Ahead

Crystal Ball Dept.: O, those prognotications of the year ahead! They fade so easily that by the time summer arrives we’ve usually forgotten whatever it was we expected. Unless you commit those predictions to print, as I did at the end of 1998. Of course, this was also a convenient way to weasel out of having to trek through snow to review a restaurant.


THE BUSINESS OF REVIEWING RESTAURANTS got its own book-length treatment in Dining Out, by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, in which leading critics, chefs, and other restaurant people held forth. How many visits are appropriate? How much does the food figure into the final assessment? And what the hell is with those stars?

Look for this book – it came out last year from publisher John Wiley – for a thought-provoking examination of a subject that’s obviously dear to my heart. But don’t look for my comments within. We review drudges in the not-so-major markets didn’t make the cut.

After all, I’m like many others who file a review each week in that I get reimbursed for one visit only. Would it be fairer to the restaurant to show up three or more times? Probably. If things go really wrong during my visit, I have to figure out what caused the problems and guess whether it’s unique or ongoing. And if my experience is transcendent, I might raise your expectations to an unrealistic height.

Last week we looked at 1998's best. Let’s start the year with a glance ahead, along with some explanation of what goes into a Metroland restaurant review.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Ragging Annie

From the Theatrical Vault Dept.: I reproduced in these e-pages an opinion piece I wrote in 1984 after the premiere of a Raggedy-Ann musical inspired an Albany-area mom to get her panties in a bunch, as she complained that “there were portrayals of gruesome characters, a mother deserting her child, death and even suicide.” In popular entertainment? Can you imagine? Although I wasn’t won over by the musical itself, I saw nothing in it to warrant this woman’s whining. You can read my editorial here; below is my review; below that, a preview piece that ran the week before.


DERIVING A FULLY-STAGED musical fairy tale out of the classic stories of “Raggedy Ann” seemed like such a good idea that the Empire State Institute for the Performing Arts has done it twice, the most recent attempt a revamping of last year’s unsuccessful staging.

With a new book by a different playwright – in this case, the renowned William Gibson – and a revised score and lyrics by Joe Raposo, a wholly new show has emerged, with a completely different thrust: Gibson has wisely put the idea of making this a no-holds-barred fairy tale to the forefront, and the result is a vivid dream-cum-nightmare in which dolls come to life, a bed floats and flies and a young girl undergoes a series of confrontations with problems that are literally killing her during her waking hours.

As a starting point, Gibson borrowed the real-life fact that Raggedy Ann’s creator, Johnny Gruelle, invented the stories for his sickly daughter, Marcella. It is Marcella who becomes the focus of the show; a trio of doctors cannot diagnose her malaise, and her dipsomaniacal father tries to soothe her with a rag doll, to which he affixes a heart.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Powerless Cooking

From the Food Vault Dept.: We’re still in early March, so don’t be fooled by the melting snow. It’s only clearing a space for what’s bound to surprise us before the month is out. Here’s a piece I wrote during the waning months of Metroland to discuss the business of stocking up for a snowstorm – or even, if you want to fresh reason to panic – a pandemic.


I HIT THE SUPERMARKET ON MONDAY. I wasn’t sure that I needed anything more to get me through the predicted apocalypse, but I felt reluctant to miss a chance to surge through the crowded aisles among my panicky neighbors.

Grim were their miens as they whipped their heads from side to side, studying the cheerful abundance as if they’d never seen such foodstocks before. And then a tremble, and then a pounce! – and a canister of raisins gets snagged as surely as a cat grabs hold of a vole.

Soon enough I took my place at the end of a long, winding line to the checkout register, my view so obscured by these towers of comestibles before me that I was unable to mark my progress. No sense of we’re-in-this-together lifted our spirits, and, as we now know, no actual disaster arrived to maroon us.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Émigré Debut

From the Concert Vault Dept.: My stint as a classical-music reviewer began after I submitted samples to all the area newspapers, correctly conjecturing that there was little competition in this field – and it was back in a time when the periodicals thought it part of their missions to cover the classical-concert scene. Here’s the second piece I wrote for the Schenectady Gazette. I’m delighted to report that Victoria Mullova is still going strong, and still championing the music of Prokofiev.


VICTORIA MULLOVA ATTRACTED MUCH PUBLICITY last summer when she left her luggage and Soviet-owned violin in her hotel room and defected from Finland to the American Embassy in Sweden.
Victoria Mullova, shortly after
her arrival in the U.S.

Upon her arrival in the U.S., she announced her affection for this country and its attractions, particularly baseball.

Any suspicion that the young violinist’s art may have suffered from so many distractions was swept aside last night, as Mullova made a triumphant East Coast debut in Troy Music Hall.

Later in the evening, following a standing ovation, Mullova was presented with a violin from the collection of Troy resident Henry Ainsworth (he is making a gift of two instruments, one of which was given to her during the concert). Assemblyman Neil Kelleher made the presentation with a speech worthy of an Academy Awards ceremony.

The program was well-chosen not only to demonstrate her considerable talent but also to attract and please an audience. Opening with Bach’s Partita No. 1 for violin solo (one of the least-played of his six unaccompanied sonatas), she displayed a rich, warm tone and fine sensibility to baroque interpretation.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Back with Bacchus

From the Food Vault Dept.: What, I occasionally ask myself, did I have for dinner thirty years ago? In many cases, it’s on record, and in this case, it was a lavish meal at the (then) Albany Desmond Americana’s (now-defunct) annual wine festival, as described below. I also wrote a piece for the occasion profiling Joshua Wesson for the Schenectady Gazette; that you can read here.


THE ALBANY AREA is the second-largest market for wine in the state, having edged out Buffalo and Rochester to stand just behind New York. Attendance at the Desmond Americana’s annual Albany American Wine Festival also grows, with this year (the fourth) bringing close to 2,000 people through the hotel for the weekend’s events. Which include an auction, many seminars, lavish buffets for Friday dinner and Sunday Brunch, lots and lots of wine waiting to be tasted – and a special dinner Saturday night.

This year’s dinner improved on the previous three by adding a special twist to the theme of wine and food matching. Joshua Wesson, co-author of the book Red Wine with Fish and co-publisher of the magazine Wine and Food Companion coordinated the matches with menu selections from his book.

Craig Goldwyn, publisher of the International Wine Review, selected the wines from among those awarded top scores by his magazine. Then he and Wesson filled in the foods.

Yes, of course there was red wine with fish. There had to be. But such a meal begins with a sparkling wine, and hors d’oeuvres were passed to the pouring of champagnes from Domaine Chandon, Chateau St. Jean and Iron Horse. Anyone arriving with a notion of American champagne-producing inferiority got that attitude washed away.

About 350 people were seated in the hotel’s grand ballroom for the dinner itself, and they were fairly comfortably accommodated. It was for sheer number alone that I shaved half a point from the ambience: my preferred head count is two.

Monday, February 10, 2020

España in Brass

From the Vault Dept.: I wrote a series of liner notes for the mch-lamented Dorian Recordings label back when they were headquartered in Troy, NY, producing superb-sounding CDs at the nearby Troy Music Hall. This is from one of the label’s final releases. Burning River Brass endures, however, and the group’s website is here.


SPANISH MUSIC IS INSTANTLY RECOGNIZABLE because of its unique rhythmic and textural characteristics, so much so that we even credit forays by the obviously non-Hispanic (Bernstein, Gershwin) as deserving of the appellation. Purists may object and hold the works included here by Georges Bizet and Tony DiLorenzo as that of outsiders looking in, but then you might as well say that Django Reinhardt didn’t play jazz. As soon as it leaves its native land, a musical style is owned by the world.

In the case of Spain, by the time of the Renaissance it was the source of many of the musical instruments popular throughout Europe, and many were dancing and singing to such Spanish musical forms as the chacona, zarabanda, españoleta, and canarios.

One form that resisted export was the zarzuela, a larger-scale entertainment that was  was created – or evolved into a recognizable form – in the mid-17th century, as a play with songs and dance, usually telling amusing stories of lower-class life. By the end of that century, Italian opera had infiltrated the form, increasing the amount of sung material. Combined with the ascension to the throne of Philip V, which started the era of Bourbon rule, Italian culture dominated Spain – to the point of favoring Italian over Spanish as the spoken language of the gentry.

Friday, February 07, 2020

Tradition on Tap

From the Vault Dept.: Early in 1984, B. A. Nilsson vanished from the pages of Albany’s Metroland Magazine, and a similarly erudite scribbler called George Gordon took his place. Thus was I hidden from the greedy Knickerbocker News, a paper that wanted my exclusive services but would pay nothing approaching a living wage. And what kind of threat was my Metroland counterpart offering? A piece of here’s-what’s-coming puffery was the first.


WHETHER YOU’RE LOOKING FOR a wind quintet or a string quartet, a chamber choir or an evening of dance or an excursion into the world of new music, this weekend should offer you something to suit your fancy.

Arthur Hall's Dance Ensemble
There will be a free concert on Thursday by Qwlndtessense, a group made up of five area wind players: flutist Mark Russo, oboist Gene Marie Green, clarinetist Paul Aldi, bassoonist June Partch and french horn player Ronald Patrick. The performance will take place at the Schenectady Library branch at Liberty and Clinton Streets.

Another chamber concert takes place in Troy on Friday night: The Friends of Chamber Music presents the Mendelssohn Quartet in concert in the Kiggins Auditorium at the Emma Willard School. The Quartet was founded five years ago; in 1981 it won the Young Concert Artists International Auditions, and has gone on to tour the country to great acclaim. On Friday’s program will be quartets by Beethoven, Dvořák, and Ruth Crawford Seeger.

Monday, February 03, 2020

Clouds in the Hall, Clouds in the Sky

From the Vault Dept.: I mentioned in last Friday’s post the situation that emerged as I took on the post of classical-music reviewer for Albany’s Knickerbocker News. I was already writing for Metroland, the area’s alternative newsweekly (or soon-to-be; it was on the verge of changing its stripes, so to speak), but the Knick News wanted exclusivity. So I spent several months publishing in Metroland under the pseudonym George Gordon (there’s an abstruse connection) until a goofy press person phoned the Knick News “looking for George, or Byron, or whatever he’s calling himself now.” The Knick News editor clutched his pearls and indignantly fired me. This for twenty dollars an article. The paper went under soon under, but I take no credit for its demise. Here’s the first piece of mine that ran in that periodical.


SEVERAL MEMBERS of the Houston Symphony Orchestra were delighted to see the 18 inches of newly fallen snow at the Albany County Airport. They rarely have snow in their home city. Although the weather made local traveling difficult, it did not stop a small but enthusiastic  audience from enjoying the orchestra’s concert Wednesday at Proctor’s Theater in Schenectady.

Sergiu Comissiona
Andre-Michel Schub, soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2, was the star of the concert. Beethoven wrote the concerto to show off his prowess as a pianist, and with Schub at the keyboard, the work was in good hands.

Schub has a startling dynamic control of the keyboard, which he used effectively to bring out the contrasts in the work without giving way to too much storminess. The concerto abounds with humor, which was tastefully handled: The soloist doesn’t always enter when, according to the tradition established by Mozart, he would be expected to; what is set up as a cadenza in the  second movement is interrupted by the orchestra; and the rondo begins with a theme which must rank as one of the silliest Beethoven ever used, sounding like a childish taunt that heralds a brisk workout for soloist and orchestra.

Under the direction of Sergiu Comissiona. the Houston provided superb backing for Schub, with well-matched tempos and dynamics.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Cultivating the Vine

From the Literary Vault Dept.: Did this piece actually run in Metroland? I can’t remember, and I’m not curious enough to go digging through my attic-clogging stacks. But I enjoyed Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland enough to write two reviews of it. One ran in the Schenectady Gazette; it’s reprinted here. The one below would have run under the pseudonym I used at Metroland for while to hide my activities from a witless editor at Albany’s long-defunct Knickerbocker News, who insisted that I write for his paper exclusively (even through they were paying me the grand sum of twenty bucks for the once- or twice-a-week notices I filed).


SOME CRITICS HAVE BEEN HUFFING AND PUFFING in the papers that Vineland isn’t the novel they were expecting from Thomas Pynchon, especially after waiting 17 years. It’s stirred up interest enough among readers, however, to shoot it up near the top of the best-seller lists, which is a credit to this mind-jarring novel.

Is it important to go on record with once-and-for-all opinions? That’s a handy critical crutch but it tells you more about the critic than about the work in question. So I’ll restrain myself from taking pot-shots at posterity and simply say this: Vineland is a hell of a terrific read.

It’s a roller-coaster of a book, which you expect from the author, but it goes beyond mere bouncy thrills. It’s an exquisitely crafted work, layered like a gooey French pastry. You bite through those layers in the course of digesting the book, and each holds another sweet – or sometimes tangy – surprise.

Foremost of the delights is Pynchon’s screwy sense of humor. It comes through in everything from character names (Brock Vond, Frenesi Gates) to lunatic plot twists to the insanest of puns (my favorite is a dizzying jingle for a lawn-care specialist calling himself the Marquis de Sod, part of a TV ad ...

Monday, January 27, 2020

Climbing the Wall

From the Vault Dept.: Some thirty years ago, Proctors in Schenectady tried a noble experiment by inaugurating a small, separate theater series dubbed Proctor’s Too. An engaging lineup of not-so-well-knowns was engaged, and every performance I witnessed was a dazzler. The first space was a small brick building across Broadway from the Proctors block, but the brief lease ran out and it was turned into a car wash before being demolished. The second incarnation was on the grounds of Union College. There was no third incarnation.


AT THE HEART OF THE SHOW – and the stage – is a large brick wall. It has ledges and hidden doors. It has an alcove. A clever fellow might climb that alcove with his back to one side and his feet jammed against the other, inching upward like a beetle.

Mur-Mur, but from a much more recent performance.
But the DynamO Théâtre, a Montreal-based group, sees much more of a challenge in such a wall. This quintet of acrobats, clowns, jugglers and mimes used it both as challenge and impediment during their short, furious show at Proctor’s Too last week. It was there to be conquered; it was also there to play against.

They assigned themselves roles as a sort of family of superannuated children. Two couples pair off right from the start, dancing their way into adolescent romance, while the fifth wheel, the Huntz Hall-like “Ralphie,” is a puckish mischief-maker.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Tours de Force

From Somebody Else’s Vault Dept.: Here’s an unsigned piece from the Chatham (NY) Courier’s “Rough Notes” section. That it comes from nearly 90 years ago seems incredible. It could have been written yesterday.


THIS IS THE SEASON for tourists to stop at carefully restored old homes, castles, etc., for the guided tour and the spiel that often goes like this: “G’afternoon, everyone, and welcome to the 4:15 tour of Sprawling Mansion and Palatial Gardens. My name is Jeri and I’ll be your guide of one of New York's most historic landmarks which – after a 13-minute stop – should.get us back here by approximately 5:27.

Remain with the group at all times and I don’t mean the fringes. Dawdling is prohibited by state law. Anyone who goes into a roped-off room will be apprehended by a Landmarks Commissioner. Refrain from touching anything, take pictures only in designated Snapshot Areas.

There will be 17 opportunities for Personal Looking. When I’m not talking, feel free to gaze at Official Interesting Things, marked by placards, along the way. Avoid poking your head around a corner before others arrive. You will be given the signal to advance 2½ steps into the next room, then halt. Speak only in hushed tones so as not to disturb the antiquities. No sitting down except where yellow stickers mark Official Tired Zone. Leaning is hazardous except in posted Slouch Areas.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Hidden Treasure

From the Food Vault Dept.: I ran into Joseph Soliman while food shopping today (I buy in large-enough quantities to justify going where the restaurateurs shop), who assured me that his excellent restaurant, Sage Bistro, is still going strong. I’ve never had a disappointing meal at either of his establishments. My Metroland review of Sage Bistro is here, and I’m accompanying it now with my two reviews of his Hidden Café, which is where we met, and which, I should warn, has long since closed. Go to Sage Bistro for the kind of meal described below.


GAZE THROUGH THE LARGE WINDOWS at the front of the restaurant and you see ... a white wall on the other side of an alley. It’s hidden, all right, tucked into the apex of the two major wings of Delaware Plaza.

The Hidden Café opened less than two months ago in a space that “unassuming” hardly begins to describe. A dozen tables, a long bar, a register near the door, white walls, few decorations – it’s a place in the throes of first life, but it’ eager and the food is good and dinner business, the owner assures me, is already taking off.

The lunch menu leads with the welcome surprise of omelettes ($4.25-$5.25), with even more welcome variations. The house omelette, for example, sports garlic and mozzarella, seasoned with cumin and cilantro; the “oinking omelette” has bacon and ham. Burgers, wraps, salads and specialty sandwiches are all priced under $7, and scaled-down versions of dinner specials also are available.

Those burgers, wraps and salads are repeated on the dinner menu, some priced slightly higher to accommodate more side-dish offerings. Among the specialty sandwiches are grilled chicken breast with pesto sauce ($8), Reuben ($7) and grilled veggies (onions, carrots, portobello mushrooms and zucchini, among other ingredients, $7).

Friday, January 17, 2020


AS A TERM OF SOCIAL IMPORT, sustainable, like so many politically charged buzzwords, threatens to blur into non-specificity. “Sustainable,” the documentary by Matt Wechsler and Annie Speicher, seeks to re-focus the term into a term of art. And they do so by making the best kind of argument in favor of a social ideal: a look at its successful implementation. “Sustainable” won the 2016 Accolade Global Humanitarian Award for Outstanding Achievement.

Wechsler and Speicher are the creative talents behind Hourglass Films, which also produced the Emmy-nominated documentary “Different Is the New Normal, Living a Life with Tourette’s” (2012), which was shown on PBS, and “Right to Harm: A Public Health Crisis Too Big to Ignore” about the health effects of factory farming on rural Americans, which premiered in 2019.

Acclaimed chef Rick Bayless opens the award-winning “Sustainable,” asking simply, “How am I going to make great food if I don’t have any connection with the people who are growing that food?” Bayless, host of the Emmy Award-winning PBS series “Mexico: One Plate at a Time,” has famously made a point of working with local suppliers in his Chicago-area restaurants.

It’s one of those suppliers who is the focus of the next ninety minutes. Marty Travis and his family own and operate Spence Farm, a 160-acre farm about two hours southwest of Chicago. He’s the seventh generation of his family to work the farm; with his son, Will, alongside him, there are eight generations in the fields. Twenty years ago, Marty returned to a family property that had been factory-farmed for many years and then left fallow. He applied an eco-responsible approach that has turned his farm into something both profitable and exciting, and the film follows his family and farm through a cycle of the four seasons, reminding us of the seasonality of all these efforts.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Bacon Grabbers

From the Food Vault Dept.: It was a mob scene. The 2012 Bacon Fest in Hudson, NY, attracted so many attendees that almost no food remained by the time I got there to be one of the judges. I described the experience in the Metroland article below.


IN A PERFECT WORLD, there would be no bacon. A perfect world, that is, for nutritionists and vegetarians. In a perfect world, there would be bacon galore. A perfect world for those who’ve succumbed to the rasher’s charm. In the imperfect world of Hudson’s first-ever Bacon Fest, we experienced both, which is a fancy way of noting that the festival’s many charms were overshadowed by the fact that it was visited by the worst possible problem: the bacon ran out.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Sunday, Sept. 2 – the Sunday of the holiday weekend – the morning was warm and clear and the day seemed to grow hotter and sunnier. I’d been invited to the festival as a judge, and who can turn down an opportunity to sample a varied canvas of bacon?

This came on the heels of a tasting a I attended last month, at a whitewashed gallery space on Manhattan’s Mulberry St. It was the launch of Jennie-O brand turkey bacon, joining a line of other processed-turkey products made by this Hormel subsidiary, and it was presented as a healthy alternative to the traditional stuff, with high-energy TV chef Devin Alexander on hand to guide us through a quartet of breakfast-y preparations, each of which substituted altruism for flavor.

Turkey bacon is like a frozen dinner – a simulacrum that should be taken on its own merit. When real bacon sizzles at you from the stove, there’s no mistaking it for any other foodstuff. For many, it’s a cheerful link to childhood. For some, it’s a rebellion against our over-protective age. But I’m guessing for most it’s purely sybaritic. The combination of fat and crunch and meat and salt is as compelling a culinary experience as you could desire.