Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Frog Rock - Whidbey Island, Washington

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Review: At Home, by Bill Bryson

I should begin by saying that I adore Bill Bryson's books, all of which I have read, and most of which I have read several times. I love the gentle humor he sees in nearly everything (A Walk in the Woods, chronicling a hike along the Appalachian Trail with a Little-Debbie-snack-cake-eating friend), the way he demystifies even  the most complex subject (A Short History of Nearly Everything, covering the history of scientific achievement from the Big Bang through evolution and beyond), and his appreciation for the little quirks and eccentricities that permeate every aspect of our lives (Mother Tongue, on the origins of the English language). Trivia abounds everywhere in many of his books, and with each successive reading, I discover new things that I had not noticed at first glance, or I make new connections between those facts.

In short, Bill Bryson writes those wonderful books that you want to own, not borrow, and keep on your shelf and refer to every now and then, maybe even loan to a trusted friend - although be careful if you do; I've lost a few this way.

So I was ecstatic when I learned he had a new book coming out, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, which was released last fall and I ordered and read immediately - and I think you get some sense of what my own private life has been like that I am only just now getting to the review.

At Home is classic Bryson writing. His subject is home life, using as his framework the old English rectory that is his own home. He goes from room to room, starting with the hall and ending in the attic. Along the way he chronicles both the history of his specific house, built in 1851, the same year as London's famous architectural marvel, the Crystal Palace, as well as houses in general and the changing lifestyles of their occupants.

It sounds kind of dull, but in Bryson's hands, it isn't - for the examples he uses to make his points are often so quirky and unexpected, and the supporting historical evidence her cites are ... well, our own era doesn't seem so strange when you read them. Examples from various chapters include:

Gardens: For a time it was fashionable to build a hermitage and install in it a live-in hermit. One such hermit was fired after three weeks when he was spotted at the local pub.

Dining rooms: Came into fashion around the mid-18th century, due largely to a desire to preserve expensive upholstered furniture from guests, who wiped their fingers on it - and as late as the mid-19th century, it was considered acceptable for guests to "wipe their lips on a tablecloth, but not blow their noses with it."

Bathrooms: Originating with the ancient Romans and Greeks, baths fell out of use during the Middle Ages when it was decided that bathing invited illness; thus allowing devastating illnesses to arise on a vast scale.

Having devoted two previous books to the origins of the English language, Bryson's continued interest in the topic informs some of the writing. In the chapter on bathrooms, there is discussion of many of the diseases that spread during the Middle Ages, such as ergotism, which spread during the 1550's and caused the sufferer's cough to sound like a dog bark, and may be the origin of the expression "barking mad."
The sections on food were, not surprisingly, among my favorites. A lengthy section on spices starts by discrediting "the idea that spices were used to mask rotting food doesn't hold up to scrutiny. The only people who could afford spices were the ones least likely to have bad meat." At one time in history, sugar was so prized that those who couldn't afford sugar blackened their teeth to create the illusion that they could. The most unnerving section involved another occupant of the modern home, the rat, and I learned that, among other things, they really do enter houses through toilets*.

I had my beefs with At Home: A Short History of Private Life** - one of which was the fact that, having so thoroughly read his other books, I found myself running up against things I had read before, and wishing he had covered something new instead. But this was mostly an infrequent occurrence, and by and large, At Home joins his other work on my favorites shelf.

*Note to my husband: You will put down the toilet seat.
**Be honest - you knew I would.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Life Skills: Groupon

Friends of mine often post Groupon deals on Facebook, and I was intrigued by all the cool stuff - who can't use a discount on trapeze lessons?  So, I signed up for the daily email, but remained hesitant - because if something seems to good to be true ... well, you know. So I watched the deals hit my inbox, but did not actually purchase one.

I finally dipped a toe into the Groupon water with a half-off deal at my daughter's favorite Italian food place at the mall. It worked - quite nicely actually - but I remained hesitant, and I remained so until the day when I hemmed and hawed about a half-off dinner Groupon* at a very posh restaurant I have been dying to try - and still am, because the restaurant is still expensive and it was a limited-quantity Groupon, so by the time I mustered up the nerve, I had missed out.

Lesson learned: Come on in, the water's fine.

I bought a flying lesson Groupon for my husband for Christmas, and a cupcake Groupon for my daughter's birthday party ... and some brunch Groupons for the whole family ... and then a spa Groupon for me, because I'm worth it.

Specifically, I bought a "Chocolate Decadence Spa Package" which invited me to luxuriate in a cocoa bath spa pedicure, 50 minute deep-tissue massage with chocolate body butter, and a chocolate signature facial. I was promised I could lounge around in a spa robe "like an unemployed sultan" as the staff lavished me with hot cocoa, assorted chocolates, and a piping hot panini in between my treatments. A $310 value for $129.

Sold. Reserved for the first available date. Eagerly awaited.

I realized I was in trouble almost immediately when I arrived - the spa was off a busy street in an older, office-park type building, and nothing had been done to the interior that might alter this perception - the place is carpeted with faded brown-patterned carpet that had been worn down by several generations of Miltons in search of their red staplers. I was told to sit in the lobby, where I breathed in the heady scent of nail polish remover while watching other women get their pedicures - or watching traffic go by from the window. Finding neither option appealing, I focused my attention on my iPad, where I checked the spa's reviews on Yelp.com. High points of the various reviews there include:
  • Lackluster massage.
  • My pedicure was ruined by hairs that stuck to it when I walked  across the carpet, which has not been vacuumed for some time.
  • The entire time, I could hear people from next door, the reception area, and the street outside. 
And my personal favorite:
  • Receptionist locked herself out of the office while I was waiting, and had to climb back over her desk to let herself back in.
Still, some of the other reviewers complained that these reviewers were "too harsh," the place wasn't elegant but you get great services at a great price. I checked Groupon's refund policy - They claim: If you're unhappy,  we refund - simple as that. I was tired, and really wanted my massage. Can't judge a book by its cover, I told myself ... maybe that's true for spas, too?

After a wait, I was ushered up the hall to the massage room,  where I was treated to a massage that would probably have qualified as average, had I not been repeatedly startled by the slamming of doors in the hall, or fire engines going up the street - there was no soundproofing, nor was the noise drowned out by the pseudo-zen music playing on a small boombox in my room, or the music playing in several other nearby rooms.

Massage over, I was told to put on the spa robe, which I discovered was a short, thin, pink affair that barely closed - and I was ushered up the hall to a "tea room," where the advertised hot cocoa turned out to be Swiss Miss that I had to make myself in a paper cup, while the assorted chocolates were several varieties of Hershey's kisses in a glass bowl.

I was treated to a scalding foot soak while I waited for my next service. I distracted myself by trying to keep my short pink Sultan's robe closed while a parade of people popped their heads into the room to check on other customers, most of whom are checking their phones for - I'm guessing here - relaxing text messages.
I debated cutting my time short, but since a lot of the Yelpers actually had positive things to say about my next service, a facial, I decided to stay, and eventually was taken up the hall, past an open closet heaped full of dirty laundry, to another spa room.

I began to relax a bit when the overhead fluorescent lights were finally turned off,  and tried to self-induce a state of  tranquility, but the esthetician left the room and returned several times, and with each trip, she flicked those lights off and on, jarring me from my zen each time.

My facial began with the application of some cleanser, followed by a scalding towel to remove it, and  application of some other presumably organic vegan aromatherapy herbal treatment (I must assume so since nothing was identified to me and I am the eternal optimist**), and yet another scalding towel.

If you're into playing drinking games, feel free to take a drink of anything - a hot chocolate might be nice - every time I use the word "scalded," because no, we're not done yet.

The esthetician said she was going to put a masque on my face - although mask might be a better word, as she wanted to put it over my eyes and mouth. This did not sound like a good plan, so I told her to avoid my eyes. She then painted my entire face, eyes included, with a thin film, turned the lights on again to leave the room, then returned and layered my face with a layer of chocolate-scented ... something ... and then left again.

I lay on the table inhaling the decadent smell of the kind of cheap, slightly gritty, artificially flavored no-brand chocolates that come wrapped in tin foil in prepackaged dime store easter baskets - you know the ones I mean. As it hardened into a solid mass on my face - sealing my lips shut in the process - I noticed that I could no longer hear the music in the nearby rooms, as it was drowned out by the esthetician's own music, a uniquely unidentifiable blend of hip-hop and sitar that further confounded me with an endlessly repeated shouted chorus of "salami."

You can't scream when your lips are sealed shut, so I began to fantasize about being kidnapped by some lover of cheap chocolate. Cookie monster, save me!

After another scalding hot towel removed the mask,  I was free. I was sent back to the tea room, and treated to a freshly microwaved panini, which had lots of healthful dietary fiber from the napkin that was stuck to it.

For the last stop, my spa pedicure, I went back into the front room in my bare feet, and found myself squishing my way across cold, sodden worn brown patterned carpet as I approached a standard-issue pedicure chair. "The machine leaks," the girl said apologetically. I chose blue nail polish, to match my mood, and as soon as it seemed it might be sufficiently dry to survive the trip home - it wasn't - I fled.

Since I had previously researched groupon's refund policy, I shot them an email the next morning at about 8am. By noon, I had a nice letter of apology from them, along with a full refund credited to my account. I'm waiting now for a real spa deal to come along, so I can research it thoroughly and be pampered for real.

*Not sure it was Groupon. I think it might have been Dealpop, Living Social, Urban Dealights, or some other almost-quirkily-named competing service.
**No, not really.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Review: Pig Perfect, by Peter Kaminsky

On a recent visit to Las Vegas, my husband and I had dinner at Thomas Keller's Bouchon restaurant in the Venetian. I had the steak frites, my husband ordered a pork chop that he swore was, "the moistest, most flavorful pork chop" he'd ever eaten.

Now, I know I can buy a copy of the restaurant's cookbook and get the recipe for this pork chop, but I also know from experience that in cooking, it's all about the ingredients, so I called the waiter over and made some inquiries. Why, I asked, is my husband's pork chop so good? What do I need to know when I buy your cookbook and attempt this at home.

The waiter - who was as well-informed as one would expect a waiter at a foodie mecca to be - explained that it was all about the cut: Delmonico, which is extra thick and on the bone. That's it? I asked. And where exactly did your chef get this particular cut?

Well, the waiter explained, our pork comes from Snake River Farm. I encourage you to click on the link - because it's not just any old pork cut Delmonico-style that Thomas Keller is serving, and my husband is raving about to anyone who will listen.

So I was excited to read Peter Kaminsky's Pig Perfect, especially as Thomas Keller himself raved about the book with a blurb on the back cover, "I didn't want to put the book down, but finally had to when I got too hungry. Yes, it is that good."

Unfortunately, although Mr. Keller knows a fine piece of pork, I'm not sure he knows a fine piece of foodie literature: I found Pig Perfect to be a slog to get through.

The author's basic premise is that pork and ham has suffered greatly as a result of factory farming, and he goes off on a quest to find authentic flavorful ham, and discover how it is produced. He travels to meet artisan producers of country ham, European and American producers of heritage breeds of pig, and to answer other curious questions such about pork, such as why two different religions have taboos against its consumption.

This sort of thing fascinates me, and is filled with potential to be a quirky, personality-filled travelogue. But right off the bat, the Kaminsky's descriptions of what may be the most amazing country hams fell flat - I had no sense of the flavor or texture of them. I believe he thought they were awesome, but nothing about the descriptions made me want to run out and try them.

Kaminsky spends a lot of time on minutia that slow the writing down, for example, when he decides to learn more about the Ossabaw pigs:

I emailed Dr. Brisbin, or Bris as he is known to friends and colleagues. He wrote back that he would be glad to speak with me.

Well, that's swell and all, but doesn't really keep the story moving. When he gets to Ossabaw Island, he meets its last private resident, a 91-year-old woman who sells the property to the state for a song, just to preserve its habitat - a fascinating woman, I have no doubt, but his description of her conveyed none of her personality, or the life story that I sensed must be fascinating.

Kaminsky's writing suffers mostly from a lack of depth: He skims along the surface where he should dig in and try to tell more. I was interested to learn why both Muslims and Jews have a religious prohibition against pork, but in the chapter that discusses this, old theories (trichinosis) are dismissed with a single sentence, and only one theory is given any elaboration: that chickens were a preferable source of protein since they did not compete with humans for food. Never is it explained how this found its way into a religious prohibition, but it is explained that the theory "needs more research."

And that's the rub: so does Pig Perfect. Lacking in depth as well as background, it's quick to digest and the reader will come away with some entertaining bits of pig trivia. But unlike Thomas Keller's fabulous chop, it won't be savored and is ultimately rather forgettable.

My good friend Col over at Col Reads read this book along with me - why not cruise on by her blog and see if she liked it any better?
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