Friday, April 30, 2010

Louisiana April 30, 1812

My very first trip to Lousiana was driving through it on my way from Texas to Massachusetts. I remember stopping for some Cajun food, but other than that, it was a blur. I was just beginning my third trimester of pregnancy and was mostly uncomfortable on the long car trip. My condition also allowed me to see a lot of Louisiana rest rooms along the way!

More recently, though, I presented a poster session on Information Literacy to the 2009 American Speech-Language-Hearing Association conference in New Orleans, and got a better chance to learn about this fantastic city. New Orleans is considered to be the most haunted city in America. I missed a chance to visit a haunted library while I was there, but I did take one of the Vampire Tours of the French Quarter. It was a nighttime tour, which wasn't just for the spookiness effect. There are some things that need to be shown at night to be fully appreciated. My tour guide, Jonathan, knew all about vampire lore, and could tell us where any story we might have heard about vampires originated. Many of course came from Hollywood, but others came right from the Catholic church and the Crescent City.

As a final wrap up to the Convention, I went to a party at Mardi Gras World. Conventioneers were able to walk through the factory where the floats are made, and then into the Grand Oaks Mansion for food and drinks. I felt like I was in the Hogwarts when I realized that the stars I was looking at were actually inside.

Food and drink are a big part of the New Orlean's culture. I enjoyed a walk throught the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, which gave a half price discount to convention goers. I learned about why red beans and rice were a traditional Monday meal - it was also laundry day and women could leave it to cook while they tended to the clothes, plus, they were able to use up the left over meat (usually pig parts) from Sunday's meal. There was also a display about chicory which is often added to coffee in New Orleans, and I remembered that a few years ago a fellow librarian from the area gave me a pound of Chicory blend Community Coffee when I told her that my husband studied coffee. It did taste good - made my pee smell funny, though. The museum is located in the Riverwalk Marketplace, which I correctly guessed was designed by James Rouse, the same person who created Harborplace in Baltimore and Faneuil Hall in Boston. For a great read about New Orleans food I recommend Chapter 16 in Simon Majumdar's book Eat My Globe.

I've mentioned before that I really like memoir as a genre of books. For my Louisiana selection I read In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White. A journalist, and publisher, White was sentenced to a 18 months at Carville, a minimum security prison, in New Orleans in 1993 for a white-collar crime. Upon his arrival there, he discovered that Carville was not only a prison, it was also the last "leper colony" in the country, and home to over 100 patients who had suffered from what is now known as Hansen's disease. Reading this seemed a bit surreal to me. I can only image what it was like for White. I never really thought of leprosy as a disease of the 21st century. Who knew? Understandably, White is wary of mingling with the patients, and wonders how it can be that the Bureau of Prisons can put inmates in this kind of harm's way. A few weeks into his sentence he experiences a "Sisyphysian" moment and decides to do an investigative expose - no longer an imate, he is once again a journalist and has chosen to be in Carville. Through his work though, he befriends some of the patients and begins to reflect on his own life and how he can change, and starts to see things from others' points of view. Ultimately the table is turned on the question of who is safe within the confines of Carville - the patients had been there before it was opened to prisoners, what must they feel having to share the space with convicts?

This was a good read. I especially liked how often libraries were mentioned! I laughed when I read the description of the prison library which was "organized by book size" to keep things "orderly". As a librarian, I have had any number of patrons request a book that they know neither the title or author of, but could tell me the size of the book and color of the cover. Perhaps the warden was on to something.

By the way, did you know that the nine-banded armadillo is the only species besides humans to contract Hansen's disease?

Interview with the Vampire was fun to watch after having been on the New Orleans vampire tour. I had seen it many years ago, but only vaguely remembered it. I didn't recall Tom Cruise, or a very young Kirsten Dunst being in it at all. James has pointed out that each vampire movie we see has its own set of legends it follows. In this one, vampires are not afraid of crucifixes, but can be killed by sunlight. The sunlight legend was actually invented in the original vampire movie Nosferatu. The director had to finish it up quickly and came up with that ending because it was convenient. Not too gory, and a bit sexy (especially with that Antonio Banderas), this one had everything I like in a vampire movie.

Although there were so many uniquely Louisiana dishes I could have made for our Lousiana meal, I opted for simple red beans and rice. In deference to my vegetarian daughter I made the meatless version, who informed me after a few bites that she doesn't like kidney beans anyway.

Other dishes on my list of things to try later are:

The famous Hurricane cocktail

And Whipped Sweet Potatoes with Pears

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Maryland April 28, 1788

What to say about Maryland? I guess the place to begin writing about my home state is with the flag. Marylanders like their flag. The alternating fields of yellow with black checkers, from the Calvert Family (Lord Baltimore) crest, and red and white crosses, from the crest of the Crossland family, may look a bit busy, but as an icon of Maryland, it is probably the most recognizable. Marylanders like their flag the way Texans like the shape of their state. The flag design is used on the state license plates, and highway signs. Travel through the Old Line State and you will notice the flag displayed on front porches as a symbol of Maryland pride. I first noticed this phenomenon a few years ago while visiting my family in Maryland. I hadn't really thought about it before, but it made me embrace my "Marylandness" in a new way. I have now lived away from Maryland for half of my life, and while some memories of the people and place there are fading, it has caused me to reflect on what it is to be from Maryland.

Entance to the Enchanted Forest

Marylanders of my generation are likely to recall trips to the Enchanted Forest in Ellicott City, a nursery-rhyme themed park. The park has been turned into a shopping center now, with the entrance left in tact as a marquee. I thank Clark Elioak Farm for transporting and restoring some of the memorabilia from this treasure. Old-timers also remember Hess Monkey Town, a barbershop at the Emondson Village shopping center in Baltimore that had real live monkeys in the window. I remember knowing even as a four-year old that that was something pretty special. Back before there were such a thing as malls, Edmondson Village was the place to shop in Baltimore.

One of the things I have been doing as part of my State Celebrations, that I have not blogged about before, is reading the essays in the bestselling book State by State edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey. This collection has one essay from each state, with each written by a different author. When I read Maryland's entry, by Myla Goldberg, I was stunned at how her experience looking back at growing up in Maryland reflected my own. Like Ms. Goldberg, I grew up in the suburbs near Baltimore and Washington, D.C. But what struck me the most was that she wrote about not realizing that the Maryland state song, "Maryland! My Maryland!", is a actually a civil war era confederate lament, with lines like "She spurns the Northern scum". A few years ago my husband and I decided to celebrate Maryland Day for the first time (the impetus for this project) and for the first time I looked up the words to the State song. Well, who knew? In school we only ever heard the tune of the song (which is the same as "Oh Christmas Tree"). No one is ever taught the words. Small wonder. Maryland seems to be a bit touchy about its role in the Civil War. In history class we are taught that while we are south of the Mason-Dixon line, Maryland really fought on the Union side. While this is all true, there is much more to the story than what they taught us in 8th grade. There have been movements to change the state song. So far, no dice. This NPR story tells of a recent attempt by some schoolchildren to get the song changed. Perhaps they are finally teaching kids the words.

Joni Eareckson was a name I knew growing up. I remember seeing information about her, and her artwork when I was young. Joni graduated from Woodlawn Sr. High school in 1967 (15 years ahead of me) and that summer was injured in a diving accident which left her unable to move her legs and with limited mobility in her arms. By learning to hold pens and brushes in her mouth she became an accomplished artist. The movie Joni tells her story from the time of her accident through 1979, when she began speaking about her spirtual awakening in the aftermath of the tragedy. The movie stars Ms. Eareckson as herself. This movie opened in Baltimore in 1979, and I remember that my sister was there. As a member of The Woodlawn Sr. High Madrigal Choir, she was invited to sing at the premier. I also remember that she was then asked to review to movie for the school paper, the Calumet, and she really resisted doing it. Because she did not much like the movie, she probably felt that she was put in an awkward position. She did end up writing the review and I recall that she said she said she was "disappointed" that so much of the movie focused on Joni's spirtiual journey, rather than her recovery and artwork. We unchurched Hayes kids didn't cotton much to spirtual things.  I had not seen the the movie myself until last week, and while I can say that the story is undoubtably inspirational, I agree with my sister that it is not a very good film. I cannot say I was disappointed, though. My sister's reveiw told me exactly what to expect. More information about Joni Eareckson Tada can be found at:

My taste in Maryland movies runs more along these lines:
1969 - Starring Winona Ryder
Saved! - Written and directed by Brian Dannelly - Fellow alum of my alma mater the University of Maryland Baltimore County
Tin Men - The restaurant scene was actually filmed in the now defunct Westview cinema. This was probably the first place I ever saw a movie.
Diner - from a simpler time, when the Colts were a Baltimore team.
...And Justice for All - After I watched this the first time I remarked that "all the innocent people were in jail, and al the guilty people went free." My sister explained to me what satire meant.
The Accidental Tourist - Starring fellow UMBC alum Kathleen Turner
Anything for Director John Waters - Watch Cry Baby for a glimpse at the Enchanted Forest! Kathleen Turner appears in his movie Serial Mom

I finally read a book that has been on my reading list for years: Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay by William W. Warner. First published in 1976, this Pulitzer-Prize winning book is a beautiful tribute to the crabbing culture of Maryland. Drawings by Consuelo Hanks enhance Warner's descriptive writing. I learned a lot about Maryland that I never knew and got an inside look at the work of those for whom crabbing is a way of life. This book also delves into some of the unsavory history of captains who offed their employees rather than paying them. I was particularly interested to read about dire predictions made when  Hurricane Agnes hit the Bay in 1972.  There were predictions of a possibly unsurmountable loss of crabs for the following season. The crabs, however, turned out to be much more resilient than anyone knew. I never knew about the National Hard Crab Derby Day run annually on Labor Day weekend in Crisfield, Maryland, with entrants from all over the country. Crisfield was also home to brothers Lem and Steve Ward, decoy carvers, or, as they preferred to be called, "waterfowl counterfeiters in wood". Although the Ward brothers were famous among decoy collectors, they gave up hunting themselves after a friend penned the poem "Remorse" which recounts watching a pair of wounded geese who died with their wings around each other. The poem reminded me very much of the story Paloma, written by Douglas Cox which tells a similar story of a pair of mating doves.

Like the flag, crabs are indeed an important part of Maryland culture. Until you have sat at a picnic table with a bushel-full of old-bay laden steamed crabs and picked out the meat in a truly messy, eat-with-your-fingers dining experience, you have not experienced Maryland. And, real Maryland crab cakes are unlike what you might see on restaurant menus in other states as "Maryland-style" crab cakes. Don't you bet on it. I find that outside of Maryland you get a cake made with way too much cracker or bread crumbs. If you want a real treat, the places to go to order crab cakes are Phillips restaurant, The Olive Grove or G & M restaurant. On  a recent trip to Maryland, I found out from a sample lady at the Giant Food Grocery Store that Phillips recipe crab cakes are available in the frozen food section there. She told me, however, that I would not be able to buy them in Massachusetts because Phillips made them exclusively for Giant Foods. Since I was flying home in a few days, taking some with me seemed difficult. Not to worry, James was on his way to a conference in Washington, D.C. soon after my return. He was driving down and took a cooler that he stocked with the frozen crab cakes on his way home, this was a much more resonable substitute for having them shipped to us from the restaurant (which is an option!).  We invited two other families over to enjoy the cakes with us, and served wine from the Boordy and Legends vineyards, and Clipper City Pale Ale,  all of which James also brought back from his trip. I also attempted to make the official Maryland State Dessert, Smith Island 10-layer cake. I managed to get 8 pancake-thin layers from the recipe and build a very lopsided cake. Part of the slantiness of the cake was in thanks to my uneven kitchen floor. With layers that were so thin, the batter kept sliding down to one end of the pan. No matter, it did taste good, and was very stripey.

These Maryland shape cookies were given to us the first time we went to the Old Mill Bakery Cafe in Ellicott City.

Pam and Paloma discover a University of Maryland sweatshirt at the "Ropa Usada" market in Atigua, Guatemala.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Puerto Rico book - Por fin!

James and I finally finished reading When I was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago. This memoir is about growing up in Puerto Rico, and about growing up. The story follows Santiago from what must be her earliest memories as a very young child in Macun, Puerto Rico through her audition and acceptance into the School of Performing Arts in New York many years later. Because of her parents tumultuous' relationship Santiago would be uprooted a number of times before her mother finally moved all the children to New York City, and away from their father, when Santiago was 13 years old. Readers get a taste of the Latin concept of Magic Realism through Esmeralda's experience closing the eyes of a dead baby so he can go to heaven. The ceremony and ritual surrounding this event are surreal. The chapter on "The American Invasion on Macun" in which she describes government officials during the Eisenhower administration coming to her town to explain the four food groups to the mothers, and the free breakfasts for children the government subsequently provides, gives true insight into why people need to be aware of cultural differences. It is both funny and sad that the government dismisses the food that was already being prepared and served, what we would now see as a local and organic diet, in favor of processed white bread, powdered eggs, and powdered milk which Santiago is ironically told was "made fresh this morning."

Santiago's audition at the School of Performing Arts must have been a real test of willpower for those saw it. Prepared for the auditon by a trio of well-meaning teachers at her Junior High school, one can only imagine how hard it must have been for them not to laugh at the "fourteen-year-old Puerto Rican girl jabbering out a monologue about a possessive mother-in-law at the turn of the century, the words incomprehensible..."

This is an appealing book with thoughtful insights into growing up, and descriptive passages that allow the reader a true glimpse into Santiago's world.

Other Puerto Rico posts:
Main Post March 2, 2010
Movie Post March 17