Posts Tagged ‘travel’

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?

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black and white

Cookies, no. Cupcakes, yes. On Saturday, after an Australian-themed brunch with two excellent New York friends on the Lower East side (complete with bottomless mimosas, in proper brunch fashion), three of us trooped down the street to Sugar Sweet Sunshine, a retro-vibed bakery on Rivington. I’ve talked about Magnolia Bakery and Billy’s Bakery here on the blog before, and in fact ended that entry, exactly 364 days ago, with the lament, “I wish we’d gotten to Sugar Sweet Sunshine, located on the Lower East Side and apparently the next big thing.”

Finally, that wish has been granted — and vindicated. Sugar Sweet Sunshine may no longer be the next big thing. Just a big thing. A big deal. It has legions of followers, and I feel (once again!) a bit late to the party. Nonetheless, their cupcakes are sensational. Late date notwithstanding, I am jumping on the bandwagon.

The problem with Magnolia is that, while the cake was always light, fluffy, and flavorful (and I know I am increasingly in the minority here), their frosting was over-poweringly, tooth-achingly sweet. The frosting at Billy’s is a sight better, but the cake is too dense. I know I am Goldilocksing you all, and I’m sorry, but there’s a light at the end of this paragraph: Sugar Sweet has that fluffy cake AND the sweetly balanced frosting.

We bought three. Two were the “Black and White,” evidently chocolate cake with vanilla buttercream frosting. The other was their eponymous “Sunshine,” or yellow cake on vanilla buttercream. (In this case, dyed green.) B and I each had one when we got back to the apartment . . . and I ate another when we got back from a friend’s house that night. A cupcake at 10:30pm, when the alarm clock’s set for 3:00am for a 6:00am flight? Probably not the best idea.

But it was worth it.

the last of london

Believe it or not, I did do things in London other than eat. I went to most of the city’s big museums — starting with a duck inside the British Museum for an hour before closing time on Thursday to glimpse the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone, and finishing with several hours at the National Gallery, during which I am convinced I saw every room. I took the obligatory Big Ben and Parliament photos. I walked through the Kensington Palace grounds and the perimeter of Buckingham Palace. So here are some final images from last week’s trip.

On Friday, I found the row (or just a row?) of colorful houses that feature prominently in Notting Hill, the movie, and actually exist in Notting Hill, the neighborhood. I walked the entire way down (up?) Portobello Road, stopping of course for a cupcake at Hummingbird Bakery and to examine the kitschy knick-knack antique stores.

Then I walked down through the Kensington Gardens (and glimpsed the palace through the iron wrought fence). Families, cyclists, grandparents resting on the park benches — everyone seemed to have started the weekend early. I walked on to the V&A and the Natural History Museum.

I hadn’t planned on the Natural History Museum. I had quite enough on my hands with the art museums. But when I popped into a friend’s boyfriend’s gallery, near Notting Hill, he said I should absolutely make time for it; that it was perhaps better than the American Museum of Natural History in New York. This was enough to persuade me, and I was immediately rewarded with this dinosaur in the entry hall.

After walking through Borough Market on Saturday, Clara and I spent a food-coma hour at the Tate Modern. It was definitely not enough time — but frankly, we couldn’t have managed more. We were cold and weighed down with blocks of cheese and bottles of vinegar. It was enough to take some photos of inside, stream by Ai Weiwei, and return home for an immediate nap.

On Sunday, I went to the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square and got lost in its labyrinthine maze of galleries for several hours. Well, lost on purpose. It was a wonderful way to pass an unseasonably cold afternoon. Afterward, armed with gloves and a camera, I walked down to the Thames and wound my way towards Parliament, past the London Eye, as the sun set and nighttime lights clicked on.

The Westminster Bridge was packed. Don’t let this photo deceive you. Tourists, photographers setting up long exposure shots, what I shall charitably call “magicians” doing tricks with coins and cups, even a man with a bagpipe. But it was very pretty.

And finally, because it’s just A Thing One Does, I walked to Buckingham Palace on Monday morning before catching the Tube to Heathrow Airport. None of the things there were open — the stables, the queen’s gallery, the palace tour — when I arrived, and I had to leave at eleven o’clock, but I was still happy to check this final London activity off my list.

borough market

Can’t say what it is, but I adore open-air food markets . . .

Oh wait, I can say what it is. The constant grazing. The free samples. The local merchants who named the goats who produced that cheese. The smells. The bustle and crowds and je-ne-sais-quoi that seems at once intensely historical, as though out of a Dickens novel, and immediately contemporary.

Last Saturday (has it really been a! week!), Clara and I went to Borough Market for a pre-Tate Modern lunch. Of course, the exploring the hundreds of stalls quickly turned into the main event. We spent several hours sampling fois gras, syrupy balsamic vinegars, dozens of hard cheeses, exotically flavored Turkish delight, broken-off squares from local chocolatiers, cider and mulled wine and prosecco, Spanish jamón, candied nuts — and on, and on.

Of course, we couldn’t resist bringing some of those fantastic flavors home. I bought a jar of goose fat (sounds gross, or at the very least weird, but goose fat roasted potatoes will change your life), mushroom pâté, a tin of hard-to-find Mexican chiles, an Italian “drunk” cheese (so named for its red wine crust), a container of roasted zucchini hummus, and a rustic loaf of bread. Together with the freshly made duck confit pasta Clara picked up, we pulled together a marvelous late dinner — one which not even an exploding bottle of truffle oil vinegar could spoil.

british food

And so I went to London. I got back Monday night, but spent the better part of yesterday (and today) in pajamas and have only just started going through my photos. There are lots. I will spare you. But the first thing I wanted to tell you all is: I ate really well. No really, I did! I embarked for London on Wednesday afternoon, perhaps not a total acolyte to the stereotype of dreadful British food, but certainly a passive believer. I expected to be wowed by the museums, the neighborhood walks and how posh everyone sounds, but not the cuisine. (Remember that old joke that hell is where the police are German, the cooks are English, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss, and it is all organized by the Italians?)

I was hoping to be proved wrong. And I was. Don’t you love it when that happens? There were mussels and fries with an English friend from uni, authentic pizza at a Notting Hill restaurant inhabited entirely by Italians, fabulous currys and biryanis and buttered naan at a self-proclaimed “Bombay Cafe” near Leicester Square. But this is all foreign food, of course — it’s Belgian and Italian and Indian. I also had British food. And it was splendid.

One afternoon, after walking all around Notting Hill and South Kensington, I spent an hour in the V&A’s beautiful tea room with scones and a pot of Earl Gray. (Confession: I will always retain a particularly fond memory of this particular pick-me-up, because it’s when I learned of my acceptance into another grad school, with potential for fellowship money.)

I also went to Sunday Roast. I’d never heard of Sunday Roast before, but that English friend (of mussels-and-fries fame, above) described the slow cooked meat, roasted vegetables, Yorkshire pudding and gravy in such rhapsodic terms that I knew I had to try it for myself. So Clara (who lives in London and was sweet enough to open her flat to me) and I went to the Princess of Shoreditch, a restaurant less than two blocks from her building — and oh how we ate. My order, the “Mixed Roast” option, came with a slice of pork belly, a slice of Irish sirloin, a quarter roasted organic chicken, as well as duck fat roast potatoes, roasted vegetables, spiced red cabbage, Yorkshire pudding, and, of course, the incontrovertible gravy. Hearty, abundant, exactly the comfort food to counteract a night out. The mouth waters. I imagine that no matter where I end up next year, I will be incorporating the roast into my weekly routine.

And finally, on the words of a friend who wrote, “Eat a pie for me!,” I had a pie. It was in the airport, but from a chain encouragingly called Eat (The Real Food Company), and which I had spotted around town, so I ordered their chicken, ham, and leek pie. A little puff pastry savory, with some mashed potatoes and there again, the gravy. I loved it. I ate the whole thing. I think the English might be onto something.

five things

{having inherited my mother’s need to eat at least every two hours, i never travel without a snack — this time, it’s trail mix plus peanut butter and and milk chocolate chips}

In just a couple hours, I’ll be getting on a plane to Dallas, and from there a plane to London. I can’t wait: I’ve only been to London once before, and that over ten years ago, so I remember little apart from Big Ben, a Thames river cruise, and the crown jewels. I’m so excited for a new, grown up experience that’ll include the British Museum and the Tate Modern, Indian food and gastropubs, vintage markets, and a walk down Portobello Road. This visit is ostensibly a test drive to see if I’d like living in London for a year (I’ve been accepted into a graduate program there), but I’m sure to have a splendid time with Clara, high school friend and London resident, either way. In the meantime, as I ready myself for a jet across the pond, here are five things I can’t travel without.

{my increasingly ancient ipod loaded with some new favorites like adele and florence + the machine}

{scarves are my jam: my collection numbers in the dozens and i wear them as much in summer as in winter. this floaty turquoise number will be coming with me and doubling as a blanket or pillow on the plane}

{i was super proud to score this watch one for over 60% off the retail price on ruelala}

{books are friends, and i can’t wait to travel with this new one — i’m counting on its 330 pages to last me the way there and back home}

two more newbies

Grahamwich wasn’t the only new restaurant Boyfriend and I tried on last weekend’s trip to Chicago. We returned to Mercadito and The Gage for two winning dinners, but every lunch and brunch was an entirely new venture, and a successful one to boot.

We had planned on a sushi place slightly outside our geographic comfort zone for Saturday lunch. Then it was Saturday, it was eleven o’clock in the morning, and we were just beginning to stir. Hungrily. A quick poke around Yelp pointed us to Friends Sushi, right off Michigan Avenue and only five blocks from the Museum of Contemporary Art. Ding, ding, ding! Outside was bitingly cold, with a fierce wind roaring up the avenues, and when we tumbled into Friends — frozen fingers, runny noses and all! — it felt like the warmest place in the world. It felt like a warm bath. I am not joking. I can tell that, if I lived in Chicago, I would while away whole afternoons here: the heat, the ying-yang shaped tables and plates, the vaguely purple walls, it’s all very soothing.

We started with some nectar-of-the-gods miso soup and sinus-clearing pork shumai infused with wasabi. Then we split three fabulous rolls. The Crispy-Creamy, which is (and I copy directly from the website) shrimp tempura, avocado, asparagus, scallions, cream cheese, wasabi tobiko, spicy sauce topped with parmesan cheese, tempura crumb, creamy wasabi sauce, and unagi sauce. I know it sounds like TOO MUCH, like PICK A THEME AND STICK WITH IT, but it wasn’t. It all married perfectly in crispy-creamy mouthful. Then the Big Friends roll, because I am incapable of omitting eel from a sushi experience, which includes soft shell crab tempura, spicy scallop, asian pear, avocado, masago, topped with unagi, shrimp, unagi glaze, and spicy mayo. Asian pear! I know! It gave the whole roll a wonderful fresh crispness. Finally we had the deceptively named Fire Wing, about half as spicy as the name implies, with fresh salmon, avocado, asparagus, masago, scallions, and spicy sauce, with a layer of tuna and white tuna on top. I have no idea how their outlandish-sounding concoctions manage to amount to much more than their elaborate and many parts; it’s just the magic of a clever sushi chef. (And Chicagoans, take note: they deliver!)

The other new place was Yolk, a locally famous brunch spot that was nearly overrun with Bears fans last Sunday. We waited a perfectly reasonable 20 minutes to be seated, and then began the terrible task of sifting through the dozens of menu items, including fritatas, skillets, omelets, scramblers, benedicts and their ilk, pancakes, crepes, french toasts, and every imaginable combination of egg/meat/potato. Here is the old adage about the 21st century made abundantly clear: we are afraid to chose, because each choice necessarily shuts another door. I was tempted by their veggie skillet, I truly was, even though I was going to negate its, um, “health benefits” and order a side of bacon AND PANCAKES, but then I saw their Tour de France French Toast.

Three specialty breads, dipped in an egg-and-cream batter, grilled, and topped with fresh fruit. And syrup. There wasa sweet orange bread with strawberries, a banana nut with bananas, and the best, a lemon-poppyseed with blueberries. My mouth waters just thinking about it. These weren’t true french toasts, with that classic exterior crunch and gooey center, but they were wonderful all the same. A true case of dessert for breakfast, but I happen to think vacation warrants such excesses. And I want to go back immediately.