Posts Tagged ‘culture’

visiting american gothic

A couple weeks ago, I wrote that before leaving Iowa in two weeks, my number one goal was to visit the American Gothic House — the house with that famous upper-story Gothic window in Grant Wood’s American Gothic, which is, yes, a real, standing house in a small, 1,000-person town in southern Iowa called Eldon. And yesterday, with B. in tow, I did.

Eldon was a pretty out-of-the-way destination for Grant Wood, too. He lived in Cedar Rapids — not far from us! — and found himself in Eldon in 1930 for an art festival. During his visit, a local artist offered to drive him around the town (then a booming railroad community), and Grant Wood was captivated by this tiny country home outfitted with such a “pretentious” (his words) window. He asked the owner if he might include the house in a painting (she consented, and promptly cleaned the residence from top to bottom, not realizing he only meant the outside) and drew a quick sketch.

Back home in Cedar Rapids, Grant Wood asked his sister and dentist to sit for the father/daughter portrait. He assured them that they wouldn’t be recognized. His dentist, Dr. B. H. McKeeby, was, and it ended their friendship. When he painted his sister Nan, he elongated her face to further distort her appearance. Dr. McKeeby and Nan were painted separately in his studio — not standing before the house. The artist never returned to Eldon.

It’s not clear what commentary (indeed, if any) Grant Wood meant to offer with this portrait. It’s known that he set out to paint the sort of people who would live in the house with the pretentious window. Some have interpreted the figures’ sour expressions as a satire of the rigidness and narrow-mindedness sometimes associated with Midwestern types, though it seems fairly unlikely that Wood, who adored his early years on his family’s farm, intended such a reading. The painting can also be seen as a celebration of the virtue of hard work and seriousness. Likewise, it’s not clear what the inclusion of the Gothic window implies: was Wood mocking the homeowners’ attempt to make the house look grander than it was, or honoring their effort to insert beauty into their everyday life?

Seeing the house (the real house!) in situ was quite extraordinary. If you look closely at the painting, you’ll note that the patterned curtain in the Gothic window has been swapped out for a gauzy white one. But it is otherwise completely unchanged. There is the same sense of attempted grandeur — a literal window of beauty — in an otherwise plain house, in an otherwise unglamorous town.

You’ve probably already guessed at the interpretation I prefer, if for admittedly sentimental reasons. I like to think Wood made the painting in praise of the farmer and daughter’s grasps at elegance. His topmost gold shirt button, her cameo brooch, the curl escaping her bun, the Gothic window — despite their dour faces, there are these extra efforts, the appeals to the aesthetic, for no real purpose and no functional reason. Just that it feels good to look at pretty things. It’s beauty for beauty’s sake.

So this isn’t exactly sound art historical theory. But it’s what I’m sticking with. Thanks to this quick road trip (the house is less than ninety minutes away), I can check off my number one Iowa goal and feel just a wee bit more connected to to the rolling prairie hills, via this house that has defined the state for so many.

The house center is manned by two grandmotherly sorts, and it stocks costumes for those (aka everyone) wanting to recreate the painting — and add to its already rich history of parodies. And … of course … what would a trip to the American Gothic House be without a photo op?


cooking up letters

I don’t know what Miss Manners or Ann Landers would say about this, but my thank yous to recommendation-penning professors have fallen into a pattern: a letter and some biscotti. I’m not quite sure how it happened. A compulsive gifter and, perhaps more to the point, an over-enthusiastic baker, I like to chase my cards with token gifts of thanks. And biscotti? Well, gift certificates feel a little too impersonal (not to mention more like money, which stumbles upon the awkward idea of paying off your professor), and cookies a little too juvenile. But biscotti? I mean, those are Italian. They are very grown up, not to mention they travel well and last a while.

I only have one (and a half! I saved a half!) biscotti left. But if I had an infinite stash, here’s who they’d go to: Dear Forever21, thank you for setting up an outpost in Iowa City. I’m informed I’ll be needing a maxi skirt this summer, and I’m betting you can do the trick for a couple pennies. Dear Anthropologie, the truth is, more than any particular designer line or dress shape or love of lace, I can’t quit your unabashed embrace of constant whimsy. It’s the sort of effortless, high-low, undone loveliness that I try to cultivate on a daily basis. It’s silly, but it’s inspiring. Dear Bank Account, is practicality really the most important consideration?

Dear Weather, I’m not digging your peak-a-boo sun routine, but these temperatures are pretty close to a home run, and I’m taking a vow of abstinence from complaining. Just … please hold out for our barbecue tomorrow night? Dear Katy Perry, When I’m driving with the girls I babysit and one of your songs comes on, odds are I change the station. What the hell is that “Peacock” song? Besides “INNUENDO DO YOU GET IT?” It is simply unendurable. But “Teenage Dream“? I’m a little embarrassed to admit how much I love it. It’s infectious and nostalgic and has this sweet, retro/new sound. And I definitely did not spend an hour youtubing Glee and Idol covers, thank you very much. Dear Boyfriend, I think your new retro Star Wars lunchbox shoe shine kit is perfect.

Sigh. Biscotti. They’re just the ticket.

Lemon-Walnut Biscotti
(Gently adapted from Bon Appetit Desserts)

Makes around 30 biscotti, depending on how you shape and slice them

  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/8 tsp baking soda
  • 5 tbsp unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 2/3 cups sugar
  • 1 tbsp finely grated lemon peel
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 egg, beaten to blend
  • sugar for sprinkling

Whisk flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in a medium bowl.

Using an electric mixer, beat together butter, sugar, and lemon peel in a bowl until fluffy. Add the egg and beat thoroughly. Add lemon juice, then flour mixture. Stir in walnuts.

Divide dough in half. Place each on a sheet of plastic wrap or wax paper. Form dough into an 8-inch logs and flatten to 2 1/2 inch-wide logs. Wrap plastic around logs and chill until firm, at least three hours and at most two days.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees and line baking sheet with parchment paper. Unroll logs from plastic wrap and set atop baking sheet. Brush with egg and sprinkle with sugar. Bake until golden brown and just firm to the touch, about 50 minutes. Cool logs completely and reduce oven to 300 degrees.

Using a long, serrated knife, carefully cut logs on the diagonal into 1/3-inch thick slices. Arrange biscotti, cut side down, on the same baking sheet. Bake until golden around the edges, around 10 minutes. They’ll crisp as they cool.

our favorite late-night bites

Whenever B and I come back to New York, our mealtimes eke out a tender balance between returning to our favorite college haunts and keeping up with new restaurants. It makes the list quite long — indeed, often too long. A trip to Motorino is made at Grimaldi’s expense; breakfast at Clinton Street Baking Company likely means postponing the Donut Shop again. But there are some non-negotiables.

For Billy, it’s Pommes Frites, a tiny shop on Second Avenue that attracts out-the-door lines of nightly visitors. They fry the thick-cut potatoes in two vats of boiling oil directly behind the counter, toss them with seasoning salt, and pack them into paper cones for on-site or take-away consumption. And the sauces, of course. They are the point. Dozens ranging from basic mustard to Vietnamese Pineapple Mayo and Parmesan Peppercorn. The Sundried Tomato Mayo is our favorite, a sort of gussied-up, glossy ketchup.

For me, it’s dessert from the Dessert Truck — which began as an actual, roving truck about four years ago, but soon after switched operations to an actual brick and mortar store. I’m sure business has only gone up since, but I selfishly hated their move. The truck always parked on Third Avenue (extremely central), and the store is in deep into the Lower East Side (less so). But last night, as B and I crossed Astor Place, there was that little truck, making an exceptional appearance in its former stomping ground for this week only. Their chocolate bread pudding makes me cry. It’s warm and dense, surrounded by a moat of creme anglaise and a hat of whipped cream. No ordinary creme anglaise custard, mind you: get the bacon flavor, which won the Throwdown against Bobby Flay and imparts a smoky flavor to the whole thing, balancing the sweetness of the chocolate and pushing the entire dessert beyond.

thought of the day

Art galleries are laboratories where artists can take chances. And that’s a scary thing. Not just for the artist, but for the viewer. Unlike a museum, there’s no docent, no wall text, no art history book to tell you what’s good or bad, what it all means, why it’s so expensive or what it’s made of.

That’s scary, yes, but it can also be thrilling, as with anything that’s brand new. There’s a rush that comes from being among the first to experience something that’s never been seen before.

— Michael O’Sullivan in the Washington Post

three things the kindle taught me about books

(Or, that one time a flight attendant told me, “Please turn off your book.”)

1. Weight is overrated.

I suppose it’s just a brilliant conflation of timing, convenience, my booklist, and the gift-giver’s identity (hi, Mom!) that made my first kindle read Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen, which is only out as a heaving, two-pound hardcover. That’s four times heavier than the kindle. So yes, I was very thankful to have the latter. I lugged effortlessly tossed the book from Virginia to California to Iowa. I held it up, propped it open, and turned the pages with one hand. Honestly, I am rather missing this lightness now, seven pages into Apollo’s Angels, which has Freedom beat by over 100 pages.

2. Page turning is not, and neither are page numbers.

Is there anything more satisfying than turning a page, especially if it’s the last one? There is not, and the Kindle has not overlooked the importance of this mini-ritual. There’s actually two “Next Page” buttons, which seemed silly until I found myself using both. But a wag of my finger must go to Amazon’s stupid, inane decision to trade page numbers for “locations,” which I originally (and incorrectly) thought indicated line numbers and now do not understand at all. I know the text on the screen may not correlate exactly with one, printed page, especially when you consider enlarged fonts or margins, but seriously: No page numbers!? Not even as an option?? Bad call!

3. Books are about the words.

Here’s the truth: I have a book fetish. I really had no choice about the matter: my parents’ house has bookcases in every room — and for those keeping track, that’s two in the dining room, one built into the kitchen, one built into the basement plus three more freestanding, one per bedroom and four in the two offices. Oh, and one bathroom has two, too. The only person who might have outdone us was my Grandma in Kansas, whose shelves were filled with first editions — and the first editions themselves stuffed with the original New York Times book review and clipped “Collect First Editions!” newsprint ads, with the selling price circled.

I remember coming home from school and asking, “Do we have such-and-such by Baudelaire, or Moliere, or Rimbaud?” and my parents would roll their eyes and say, “We have about four.” One of my most salient early(ish) memories is sitting on the floor of my Mom’s office as she opened three moving-sized cardboard boxes filled with the complete works of Freud. “Are you going to read all those?” I marveled. “Well, maybe not all at once, but it’s just a good thing to have,” she said.

A good thing to have. Books are just a good thing to have. I love the weight of the page and the scraping sound of one turning. I love the look of a finished book — it looks like it’s done yoga, you know, the cracked spine, the loosened-up pages, the wrinkles from dog-eared corners.

But there is a moral here, one that your neighborhood book fetishist can sometimes, er, forget in the lovely smell of old pages: we love books because of the words. The book part is incidental. It’s like the place setting on a table: sure, it’s nice to have handsome flatware and plates, but that’s not the part that tastes good. And words, I firmly believe, do not give a whit whether they are transcribed in printer’s ink or pearl e-ink technology. (Side note: Believe the hype. A Kindle screen is nothing like a computer screen.)

Words work either way. You can click “Next Page” just as anxiously as you would turn a physical one. The categorization of “contemporary questions, like what about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was is true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts OK politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood? Was it true that the glaze of old Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead? Was it possible to raise unprecedentedly confident, happy, brilliant kids while working full-time? And had anybody in the history of St. Paul ever had a positive experience with a roofer?” — it still works. And a certain scene that was nominated for (but did not win) the Literary Review‘s Bad Sex in Fiction Award remains quite as cringe-worthy, laughably scatological (or is it scatologically laughable?), and apt to trigger the gut reaction, “Obama is reading this, too??” I promise. Really, just take my word on it.

I’m not hitching my whole wagon to the e-reader train quite yet. But I’ve thrown a bag aboard. And really, an e-reader that makes you remember the entire point of reading, the whole life of books, can’t be all bad.

a fancy sandwich

We actually got a good dumping of snow last night — and it’s still flurrying — and I say “actually” because I didn’t know it was supposed to snow at all. Way to check the weather report! Way to salt the driveway! The view out the window this morning was quite a surprise. When we left Chicago yesterday afternoon the snow was just beginning to dust the city, and it must have crept westward under the cover of night.

Another thing sticking with me from the weekend: our Friday sandwiches at Grahamwich, of Graham Elliot restaurant fame. We made a beeline for the joint immediately after checking into the hotel, and after a few minutes of purposeful hovering managed to snag a corner seat at their long communal table in back. Otherwise, there’s some counters for elbow-parking and sandwich-chomping, but most people, on Friday at least, we taking away. I’d hate to think of the crush on Saturdays.

We started, as is our wont, with the truffle oil popcorn, the same kind diners get for free at Graham Elliot, and which they have thankfully exported here. It’s five dollars, but comes in a huge bag that we could only barrel halfway through. And I kept thinking, kernel after kernel, We could make this at home. Hold the truffle oil, sure, but grated parmesan, chopped chives, black pepper and sea salt? Pantry items! This may be worth investigating.

Billy, in his Billy way, got the reuben: pastrami, rutabaga sauerkraut, toasted caraway seeds, gruyere fondu and 1000 island dressing on marbled rye. I’m not a reuben girl, but this was fantastically delicious. And messy. Plus, just look at it! Beautiful!

I am a grilled cheese girl, though, especially if it’s Wisconsin cheddar (for taste), cheese curds (for ooze), prosciutto, and tomato marmalade on a Pullman loaf, all toasted together. It was one of the best grilled cheese sandwiches I’ve had: savory, powerfully gooey, with some salty meat and the tomato soup already built-in. Not that I’m biased or anything, but we definitely got the best options on the menu. (Except maybe the short rib sandwich. And the pork shoulder press.)

It’s true, hipsters don’t have any problems finding the place, but don’t let that stop you. It’s just one good bite after another. And if at all possible, leave some real estate in your stomach for their desserts, including Greek yogurt soft serve sprinkled with dark chocolate, pomegranate seeds, and glazed chestnuts, which I did not try but have dreamed about. Yum!

eating through chicago

B and I went to Chicago this weekend — or, as I have taken to calling it, ChiacGOING.

Because we’re always GOING there.

Get it?

In typical fashion and in no way deviating from the norm, the trip was a total food glut. A rolly polly, happy glut. On the drive in, we made straight for Pequod’s, an unassuming dive outside the city serving up cast-iron skillets full of the Windy City’s best, caramelized-cheese-crust deep dish pizza. We mercifully skipped the appetizers this time, but felt no less roll-able an hour later, as we rolled down to the car and on to the skyscrapers and ever more food comas.

Somehow, I summoned enough strength to drag boyfriend (and enough self-denial to drag myself) shopping afterwards. So on to Anthropologie, JCrew, Bloomingdales, and more glimmering lights on Michigan Avenue. Shockingly, little pleased me. I cannot imagine why. Surely it had nothing to do with the pizza hangover/gut.

The next day, we spent a couple hours at the Art Institute (more later), and then traipsed across the street to what has become our post-Institute lunch staple: Gage, an English-style bistro-pub featuring what I’m calling haute barnyard fare, plus a masterful beer selection.

I would like to point out that I have now used seven hyphens in about ten sentences. It’s a disease.

We both had one of their seasonal brews on tap, Dogfish’s rich and full Punkin Ale. Served in its own, appropriate glass. Beer: it’s just like wine! B had their signature burger, piled high with caramelized onions and Camembert whereas I, in an admirable bout of restraint, ordered their brisket, yes brisket sandwich with mustard, green apples, caramelized onions, and arugula.

Then we went for a run.

Or an espresso and a nap.

What do you think?

That night, dinner at Graham Elliot, a restaurant which deserves a post all its own and which I will merely foreshadow with the words: Truffle. Oil. Popcorn.

I will now go continue my diet of lemon water and leaves. Thank you for your time.