Archive for October, 2009

Sushi Friday

October 31, 2009

It is my habit to eat sushi for lunch on Friday – actually sashimi because the chef can’t disguise the fish with sweetened rice or rice vinegar or whatever. Most Japanese restaurants offer luncheon specials, so one gets soup or salad (sometimes both), rice and sashimi. Some places add California rolls (which are made with fake crabmeat). The prices are usually reasonable and the quantity of food means I don’t have to eat dinner.

Starting today, I will post an occasional review of one of these places, in alphabetical order, just to avoid any semblance of favoritism. They are all within about 15 miles of home, but I occasionally eat farther afield if there’s an excuse such as a library to visit or an errand to run.

Herewith the first review:

Asahi Japanese Restaurant

825 M Cromwell Avenue

Rocky Hill, CT 06067

860-513-0165

What I like: The place feels traditional, starting with the itamae (aka sushi chef). He bows to customers and displays true artistry in the presentation of his creations. But instead of the traditional shiso leaves, he balances the slices of fish on paper thin slices of cucumber.

The lunch is generous. Good basic miso starts the meal, though the last time I visited the lacquer bowl must have been in the fridge because the top was freezing and the soup was lukewarm. The Bento box contained a salad of the usual iceberg with shreds of red cabbage and carrot; rice sprinkled with sesame seeds; a mercifully small Cali roll; and gyoza. The latter are normally pork dumplings, but they make a special order of veggie for me. The sashimi includes are 12 pieces of sashimi, but there’s a drawback. (See below.)

The fish couldn’t be any more fresh.

The atmosphere soothes and relaxes. The music suits the quiet setting. It is sometimes Japanese, sometimes jazz with an Asian flavor. No one has to shout to be heard. Diners have privacy in the booths.

The waitresses are bit older, more traditional. They don’t hover.

There’s no hibachi so I don’t walk out smelling like someone else’s lunch.

After the main course, you receive an orange, from which the top half of the peel has been removed, and the pieces sectioned and cut from the bottom of the peel. It is served with an individually wrapped toothpick.

At $10.95 the price falls within the reasonable range, especially in light of the generous portions.

What I don’t like: The sushi bar (which only has four seats) faces away from the door so I can’t see who is entering. The place does a brisk takeout business so the door opens and closes constantly at lunch time. I generally try to go around 1:30 to avoid the hustle and bustle.

The sashimi luncheon has only three types of fish: salmon, tuna and a mystery white fish that has no grain and a faint sweet taste.

The location. Like a great many Japanese restaurants in the Northeast, Asahi is in a shopping mall, so it’s always an adventure to navigate the parking lot. Things improve after that.

Overall score: B+

Where’s George?

October 30, 2009

I found a special dollar bill in my wallet on September 10. When and how it arrived I have no idea. It was stamped in red with a lobster and a note: “Track this lobster/follow the seeing eye lobster at wheresgeorge.com.” So I went in and discovered that the purpose of the site is to track paper money, though I think stamping bills with red ink is a violation of some federal law or other. (According to Wikipedia, which I generally don’t trust, the Secret Service went after Where’s George for selling the red lobster stamps. They have since stopped but the SS still claims marking on American money is illegal.)

The history section for wheresgeorge says it was started in 1998 “for fun and because it hadn’t been done yet.” The thing has grown so popular (the dreaded Wikip says the site was tracking almost 160,000,000 bills as of mid-September.) Also there’s a forum where people can discuss the wanderings of their bills. I particularly like the notion of the Encyclopedia Georgicannica but it has wa–a-a-y more information than I need.

An added benefit: One can track Canadian money with “Where’s Willy?” Haven’t checked on the history of that version yet.

After I registered I discovered that my bill had started in New Hampshire and had arrived in Connecticut September 3. I decided to send George across the country, so I gave him to the van driver for the rental car company who helped me with my bag at the San Francisco airport. As far as I know George is still in California. I couldn’t access the information on “my” bill immediately because “monthly maintenance” wiped out the information. OK, so I just refreshed, and no one has updated George’s whereabouts, so I assume he’s floating around somewhere on the Left Coast.

A quick check of other bills shows most don’t travel that far. One was in Ohio in 2000 and had only made it as far as Missouri at the end of 2001.

If “my” George reappears, I’ll post it.

An Honor Well Deserved

October 29, 2009

A man whom I’ve known and loved for many years received a well-deserved and long overdue honor last night. Willard McRae was one of the people responsible for my getting my first full-time job, at the Middletown Press. He also engineered scholarship money for me when I went to law school. I was just one of thousands of young people he has helped and mentored over the years.

Willard has also been a member of the Middletown City Council, head of the out-patient mental health clinic at Middlesex Hospital, the first African American to chair the board of directors of Liberty Bank.

The bank choose to honor him last night with its community diversity award – and four hundred people showed up to help celebrate at gorgeous St. Clements Castle. Former state Sen. Biagio “Billy” Ciotto, who now works for Congressman John Larson, led off the presentations with a citation from the congressman. Ciotto said he had retired – he figured at age 77 he deserved a rest. When Larson asked him to come to work, Ciotto said he’d have to check with his wife. Larson replied, “I already have. She wants you out of the house.”

Folks from the state legislature also issued proclamations, and people who knew Willard in his capacity as a champion of education and as a dedicated social work administrator  talked of his many achievements in those fields. Sebastian Giuliano, the mayor of Middletown, praised his fellow Republican (though no one mentioned politics). He corrected a couple of his fellow speakers, who said “here in Middletown,” reminding the audience that we were across the river in Portland, “where I have no jurisdiction.”

Everything about the evening glowed, as if the guest of honor had lent his special charisma to the event. St. Clements [why is there no apostrophe in the name?] is exquisite. Despite the fog and drizzle the flowers leapt out with their reds and yellows, even the late roses by the door. The inside of the place, which is huge, features cranberry glass behind one of the (three) bars – and a replica of a stable with horse statues behind a paddock. They were a bit scary looking the first time I encountered them. Interior courtyards captured more greenery and flowers. The only thing I missed, because it was too foggy was what must be a spectacular view of “my” river. I consider it mine since I’ve lived in five towns along its shore.

The food, which was spread out over two rooms, featured a raw bar with oysters and clams on the half-shell as well as shrimp (cooked), a meat station with chicken, pork, ribs, as well as squash, cornbread, rolls, and so forth. A pasta station offered penne marinara with julienned zucchini and summer squash and a bow tie pasta alfredo with pancetta and peas, accompanied by salad and garlic bread.

I didn’t eat as much as I had intended because I was too busy talking to people I hadn’t seen in ages. Willard’s daughters flew in as a surprise, one from Savannah, Georgia and the other from Jackson, Mississippi. My dear friend Barbara Ann Davison arrived from Columbia, S.C., and Larry’s sister flew up from Columbus, Ga. (I wish these places had settled on either Columbia or Columbus because I have to stop and think which one is in Georgia, which one is in South Carolina, and which one is in Ohio. Oh, and there’s a Columbia, Connecticut, but I don’t think I’ve ever had occasion to write it before.) Friends and neighbors I’ve seen more recently gathered round as well. It was just a terrific evening in honor of a man who deserves the award and much, much more.

Over the years people have asked Willard to run for mayor of Middletown but he has always declined. When asked why, he said he used to travel with a former mayor and saw that the man was tethered to not one, not two, but three pagers, including one in case the nearby nuclear power plant (now decommissioned) went China Syndrome. Willard said he wanted to be free to hop in the car to go visit his grandson, who was then living in Texas, and those pagers would have kept him tied to home.

Though the city never benefited from his wisdom as mayor, we have all gained in myriad other ways as he and his wife Kathy nurtured and counseled hundreds of young people and sent them out into the world to help the rest of us. One of the things that Willard excels at is giving away money. The folks at Liberty Bank noted that he was the only one on the scholarship committee who read every single one of the applications and guided the committee in choosing the recipients. He retired from regular employment a number of years ago but told me the other day he had put in a twelve-hour day. My response, “Willard, that’s a full-time job, plus a part-time one! You’re working harder now than when you were getting paid!”

Willard’s speech, typical of him, was deprecating and funny. He acknowledged his fealty to Middletown by saying that his wife claims that when he drives over the Portland bridge, he gets a nose bleed. And he said that people had called him a “go-to” guy. He said, “Yeah, when people ask me a question, I go to you,” pointing at the audience. He acknowledged a great many people who had inspired him along the way, including his departed friend Wesleyan Dean Edgar Beckham, who now has a gorgeous building named after him.

The evening seemed complete at that point, but another surprise awaited. The bank retired the name Community Diversity Award. From now on it will be the Willard M. McRae Community Diversity Award. I cried when they unveiled the new banner. And today the city of Middletown is celebrating Willard M. McRae Day, as declared by the mayor.

Until recently, if one Googled Willard’s name, the first hit was the New York Times account of a wedding he performed in August 2008. (That should change with the creation of the Willard M. McRae Community Diversity Award.

I got all the way to the end of this tribute and neglected to mention the most important fact: He’s Larry’s uncle.

Housecleaning I

October 28, 2009

Before I left for California, I decided to eliminate most (OK, some) of the 170 messages in my Hotmail in box. That figure doesn’t include the spam, the political screeds, the widows live updates, and the messages that have already received replies. I had cleaned up my other account, reducing it from 107 to 25 or so.) Then I realized that I hadn’t emptied the trash. It had 650 messages!!! I think I heard the computer exhale with great relief when I hit the delete button.

So when I turned to Hotmail, here’s what I found:

  • three-year old jokes from my brother-in-law (whose ancestors came from Italy), including “Italian Dinner” and “Summer Classes for Men.” A sampling from the first, “Italian mothers never threw a baseball in their life, but can nail you in the head with a shoe thrown from the kitchen while you’re in the living room.” A sampling from the second: “Class 14 — The Stove/Oven — What It Is and How It Is Used. Live Demonstration”
  • messages about a couple of my mom’s works from a woman who hasn’t been at the agent’s office for three years
  • some gorgeous photos from a friend who now lives in Colorado, that’s the part with trees and not the scary part where my cousin seems determined to settle
  • verification from Google for a g-mail account I opened and forgot about. Can’t wait to see what’s piled up in that one.
  • wall writings and friend request/additions on Facebook that I took care of and never deleted. Also some friend requests from people that I don’t know, There were 26 of those that just went bye-bye.
  • a travelogue from my friend Diane’s husband Jay Halio dated May 18. I was doing the deleting in September but took comfort in the fact that it was May of this year. Diane and Jay had been to Taiwan where he lectured on “Shakespeare’s Concept of Tragedy” one day and “The Tragic Dimensions of Shakespeare’s Comedies” the next. (I’m thinking Malvolio in Twelfth Night and Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream because they’re the butt of everyone’s jokes.) His talk on Saul Bellow and Philip Roth was canceled because of a holiday. Jay is nothing if not versatile. He also described the magnificent museums, palaces, and the terrific food they ate.

When I finished deleting, I had winnowed the in-box to 53. Then I hit the delete button on everything except for one message that I will cherish forever. It came from my friend Puffin’s husband, who was the best boss on the planet. Not long before he died, I sent a special people note to Derry D’Oench, and he wrote back:

Dear Liz: Not for just an hour, not for just a day, not even for a season,
but always. Love. Derry.

I look at it every once in a while when I’m feeling blue. It lifts my spirits and makes me feel wonderful, even as I’m blinking away the tears.

Manual Removes the ‘Human’ From Human Services

October 27, 2009

The mail periodically brings stuff that belongs to people who don’t live here and haven’t been in the neighborhood for twenty years or more. I still haven’t figured out who these folks are, and there’s no way to forward their mail, which generally goes in the recycle bin. Late last week, however we received “Medicare & You 2010.” It is the official government (written in red) handbook explaining Medicare benefits.

The thing is 127 pages long. My first thought was: This booklet is going to people who are mostly elderly or ill, or both. Are they really going to be able to navigate the maze? I used to represent Medicare beneficiaries, and I was confused after the first few pages.

It didn’t bode well that immediately following the cover was an entire page explaining how to use the rest of the manual. The page listed the contents, which was separate from the two-page Table of Contents, which was actually just called “Contents,” followed the four-page Index, which should come at the end, not on pages seven through ten. Two parts of the “How to Use” page were labeled with symbols: “!” for important stuff and an apple for “preventive services.” But my favorite was the “Blue Words.” Blue words should describe the way readers would be talking after trying to sort through the information, but they were actually a reference to the definitions, a section not found at the beginning or at the end of the manual but tucked in the middle. Who writes these things? Do they test them before they unleash them on the unsuspecting public? I doubt it.

To be fair, “Medicare & You” is long in part because the type size is huge, the one concession to the recipients. But there are so many apples and exclamation points and blue words scattered about that the type may be a hindrance rather than a help.

When I read past the preliminaries and turned to the substance, I decided blue words didn’t cover what I was thinking – they were closer to purple. Here’s a sample from page 25:

If the Part B deductible [blue word] applies, you must pay all costs until you meet the yearly Part B deductible before Medicare begins to pay its share. See page 125 for the Part B deductible amount.* Then after your deductible is met, you typically pay 20% of the Medicare-approved amount [blue words] of the service. You can save money if you choose doctors or providers who accept assignment. See page 47. You may also be able to save money on your Medicare costs if you have limited income and resources. See pages 78-84.

*A check of page 125 says: “You pay 20% of the Medicare-approved amount for most doctor services (including most doctor services while you are a hospital inpatient), outpatient therapy,* most preventive services, and durable medical equipment.

*In 2010, there may be limits on physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech-language pathology services. If so, there may be exceptions to these limits.

Got that? My head is hurting, and I’m very glad I don’t have to deal with this stuff for real. (The time will be here soon enough and I can just imagine what new complications will arise.) No wonder doctors’ offices employ more people in billing than in providing actual medical services.

If you need a sleeping pill, read the entire booklet at “Medicare & You.

Here’s the Thing

October 24, 2009

I was going to title this “What Was He Thinking?” Or “Was He Thinking?” But I’ll let my heroine Eloise speak for herself. I had intended to post a serious essay on the 2010 Medicare manual that came for someone who hasn’t lived in this house for more than 20 years. But just before dinner I read Bruce Handy’s “Where the Wild Things Weren’t”  in the NY Times Book Review of October 11. (Yeah, I’m behind, again.)

The bulk of the essay discusses why children don’t like Maurice Sendak’s book. The pullout says it all: “Sendak’s classic may be one of those books that are appreciated more in theory, or by adults, than by actual kids.” I disagree. Critics do this same faux analysis with children’s TV, and I don’t see what purpose it serves. (RIP, Soupy Sales). But I was going along with the program until I arrived at the penultimate paragraph in which he denigrated Alice in Wonderland “(too druggy, too much knotty wordplay; Alice herself is a drip)”; Winnie the Pooh (“too twee”), and Eloise. I went ballistic. In fact, Larry ducked because he thought I was going to throw something.

Here’s the screed in place of a missile aimed at the wall. I can forgive the Pooh snark, after all Handy doesn’t have to admit that literature for children has changed any in the past ninety years. Nevertheless Pooh kept me sane when I was small. I remember being terrified of the dark and of all sorts of other stuff. If I drifted off to sleep with Mother or Daddy reading to me about Christopher Robin and friends, I was safe. Twee, indeed.

And then there’s Eloise. Handy says: “girls love the idea of Eloise, but has anyone ever made it to the end of Kay Thompson’s long bossy, punishingly fabulous text?)” Yes, of course. And more than once. And with pretty much every book because after I read them for myself, I’d read them to my babysitting charges. We all loved them. Handy missed the point of Eloise entirely because he neglected the subtitle of the first volume. “A book for precocious grownups.”

Even at age six or whatever, I got it. Eloise was my hero. She was not pretty. She was somewhat overweight with hair that looked like she wouldn’t sit still long enough for anyone to make it “neat.” And she had great energy.

When I first discovered her, she had been on the scene for some years, but she will always be six and she will always live at the Plaza Hotel, except for side trips to Paris and Moscow. She has a nanny, but her parents lurk in the periphery. Her mother “sends for her.” But Eloise is self-sufficient, and her aim in life is to avoid boredom. And boy, does she. She slides down the banisters at the Plaza and keeps the help and the guests on edge. Most of Hilary Knight’s drawings capture frazzled bellhops and door men with dog Weenie in tow – or carrying pet turtle Skipperdee (as I recall he usually traveled via bird cage). My favorite episode: Eloise was in Paris, and Skipperdee became ill. (How did anyone know?) Anyway, Eloise shipped Skipperdee home by diplomatic pouch. Now that’s power.

Handy says the books are long and bossy. Of course they are. And I wanted more. How could Noel Coward, Bennett Cerf and his own magazine be so wrong? Maybe he’s just upset since Sendak himself described Eloise as a “brazen, loose-limbed little monster.” Amen, sister.

Advice to Mr. Bruce Handy: Don’t over analyze kid lit. Oh, and remember to put the first name of anyone you mention in your essay. It’s Spike Jonze, not “Jonze” on first reference. I hope Eloise dumps some water in your mailbox and torments your wimpy, unimaginative kid.

Day Off

October 22, 2009

Takin’ a mental health day. The blog will return tomorrow.

Salmon Dijon

October 22, 2009

What follows is the recipe for the dish that I fixed for Ash and Kathryn and Anna. It is so easy that it almost doesn’t count as a recipe. I first ate a version of this dish at a rather noisy restaurant on the Isle of Skye where I had gone on a bike tour. The waitress came and took everyone’s order and then when it was ready called out a number. I remember she kept yelling, “Number 108! Number 108!” Our whole group was curious who had forgotten to pick up their meal and what Number 108 had ordered.

Anyway I ordered the cod with Dijon sauce. It turned out to be a wondrously fresh piece of fish topped with a sauce of Dijon mustard and butter. It was the fourth, fifth or sixth time on the trip that I was reminded of the longstanding close ties between Scotland and France. The two countries bonded over their hatred of the Brits. I reaped the benefits from the fish, the excellent (non-Brit) vegetables and the superb French wines – mostly reds – for about $2.50 a glass. Ah, those were the days.

As to my version of the dish, I seldom buy cod because the price tends toward the ridiculous. I also try to do my part to protect New England’s cod fishery. I make this dish when salmon is on sale. I normally serve it with parsley red potatoes and broccoli, but at Ash and Kathryn’s we had pilaf and salad. As I mentioned the fish was an enormous piece of Pacific salmon, which I cut into serving sizes before I cooked it. On the East Coast I use either steaks or fillets, about a third of a pound per person.

SALMON DIJON

serves four

4 salmon fillets or steaks (leave skin on the fillets)

1/ 2 cup Dijon mustard

1/ 4 cup olive oil

Preheat oven to 400 °

Wash and thoroughly dry the fish. Whisk together the mustard and olive oil. Cover the bottom of a baking sheet with aluminum foil (to aid in cleanup). Put several spoonsful of the mustard-oil mixture on the foil. Place the salmon skin side down on the sheet, sliding the pieces around so the underside of the fish is coated. Brush the remainder of the sauce over the fish. Bake for about 20 minutes for an inch-thick piece of fish. Adjust cooking time based on thickness.

What I’m Reading Now

October 21, 2009

Before the main event, if you want to be really jealous – well mostly except for the four days of wind, rain and cold – read Duetto Cruising and weep. I don’t know these folks personally. They are related to my friend and former colleague Nick Sambides, but they do know how to live. I’d love to see all those landmarks from the ocean side. Plus being able to escape the traffic between Connecticut and Maryland has to be worth the price of diesel for a boat any day.

So here’s another in the occasional series.

I started the 1,000 page Tale of Genji before I left for California but decided the two volumes were much too big to lug through various airports. Plus the books belonged to Wesleyan, and I didn’t want anything to happen to them. I finished volume one before I left (See ”What I’m Reading Now” from August 21) and a week or so ago I borrowed volume two.

A quick recap: The book came across my radar because of an article in the Times Travel section in which the author donned replicas of 1000 year old clothing and sat around in a park in Kyoto. Genji was supposed to be the earliest novel still extant. The fact that it was written by a woman added to its appeal.

Volume two magnifies the problems and pleasures of volume one. There are two chapters entitled “New Herbs” that are almost certainly not part of the original. At 100 pages, they are much longer than the other chapters, which average ten to twelve pages. They also lack the subtlety of the rest with explicit descriptions of illness and sex, if not death. They also contain less of the poetry that all the major the characters seem to compose at the drop of a funny-looking cap. The literary allusions of volume one are almost completely lacking in the “New Herbs,” and the prominent characters are far less interesting. I’ll have to go back to the introduction (in volume one) and see what the experts say about this whole business.

Aside from those differences confusion still reigns because of the huge cast of characters. Except for Genji, this volume lacks good character descriptions. One prince is very like the next. And of course more characters appear in volume two, so the confusion increases.

The “New Herbs” chapters do share some features with the rest of the narrative. Descriptions of the clothing offer a view of the world that one could not gain elsewhere. The red robes and lavender singles vs. the musicians in white, vs. the green singlets and pink robes lined with red leave the feeling that one has fallen through a rainbow.

I did learn several pieces of information from this second volume: High-born women were never allowed to be seen standing up, which means that Times reporter Michelle Green’s stroll through the streets of Kyoto was inauthentic. She should have ridden in a carriage, or the other players should have come to her.

Second, everyone believes in reincarnation. An unhappy life can be punishment for misdeeds committed in a previous life. With the amount of praying and the number of religions in play, it would seem that they could expiate minute sins, but it doesn’t seem work that way.

Third oddity: The writer must have taken poetic license with the weather. The twelfth lunar month is supposed to be December but the plum trees “smiled with their first blossoms” (albeit among the snowflakes) and spring “had come next door.” Since Kyoto is on a parallel with North Carolina and southern Virginia, the folks in Norfolk would be shocked if their fruit trees burst out when the average temperature was just above 32. Either the weather in Kyoto is confused or I am.

I’ve still got about 400 more pages of Genji, so stay tuned.

Smokin’

October 20, 2009

A couple of notes before I get to the heart of the matter: First, it feels spectacular to return to a regular schedule. I’ll be catching up on topics that accumulated in the interim. Subjects will include “Wish I Could … Read All Day,” “Gross National Happiness,” Salmon Dijon and excavating email.

Second, a quick update about the Ya-Yas. Sunday’s NY Times brought a fascinating essay on the international flavor of the candidates for the National Book Awards. Liesl Schillinger tied in Obama’s Nobel and last year’s criticism from the literature committee about the insularity of American fiction. Schillinger concluded that to the contrary, American fiction is world fiction. After surveying the field, she acknowledged that there are limits to the cosmopolitan view: “By the same token, why should anyone be surprised if the Middle East couldn’t care less about the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and its divine secrets…?” Poor Ya-Yas. They don’t play in Persia.

Now on to the main event. We had a hot time Saturday night at Cypress Grill when Kitty Kathryn performed with her Circle of Friends. This concert was all jazz, all the time – not the mélange of blues, rock, jazz and pop that she performed in the summer. That was good, but this was better). Kitty charmed the audience with a few stories about her days performing at the Monte Green and a wild trip to New York. And she charmed us even more with her soulful renditions of jazz classics – including my request, “God Bless the Child.”

Her circle of friends included a favorite, Paul Brown, on bass. The man is a genius of performance with a firm rhythm that can carry the tune and improvise off into the stratosphere. “The Professor” has been a leading light in the Hartford music scene for years. I’ve been enjoying his performances since the 880 was hoppin’ in the South End in the early 1990s. He also helped Jackie and Dollie McLean found the Artists Collective and on his own started the wonderful Bushnell Park Monday Night Jazz Series that is one of the best venues for jazz in the area.

I can’t give the names the rest of Kitty’s circle of friends, the sax player, the piano player or the drummer because she didn’t introduce them, except to say, “How about Baby Girl on the drums?” She wasn’t a baby, but she was certainly young enough to be the daughter or granddaughter of the rest of the ensemble.

The only stumble was the rendition of “Girl From Ipanema.” The key was too high for Kitty’s otherwise versatile voice, and the band didn’t seem to keep it together on the beat.

Everything else about the evening was spectacular, including the huge dinner we ate before hand with friends Nancy and Harvey at Puerto Villarta. I had quesadillas, figuring that it would be a smaller portion than other offerings. But no, they arrived loaded with zucchini, squash, carrots, mushrooms, bell pepper, onions, tomatoes and spinach on top of the cheese. Along the  edge of the plate, they piled quacamole, sour cream, lettuce and tomato. I managed to eat about half. Larry ate even less with his Burrito Vallarta – a single burrito stuffed – and they do mean stuffed – with crab, shrimp and chicken, topped with mushroom sauce, avocados, tomatoes and sour cream, and served with rice and beans. Harv and Nancy struggled through theirs as well.

OK, I’m reading this over and it’s getting close to dinner. Time to heat the leftovers!