Dinner with friends.

Caviar and Sprats.
On the left are Riga sprats with thinly sliced lemon and parsley, and I think some butter. That is not marmalade on the left, but caviar of some type. But you probably knew that. I have to take a deep breath before eating either one, but they certainly look lovely.

I put this post into the “What we’re cooking” category even though it’s not about my own cooking.  I think it counts, though, because we were very much enjoying someone else’s cooking, and especially since we were enjoying it with them.  Food is always so much better when you are sharing it with good friends, and then when you’re sharing it with friends and sharing a few bottles of really good wine- well, that takes it to another level altogether.

We are fortunate enough to have friends on many continents (I love that) and from many different backgrounds, so saying that our Ukrainian friends fall into the “Most Interesting” category is no small thing.  But they are definitely that.  They are interesting in so, so many ways, beginning with the dinners that they serve.  These people know how to host a dinner!

This is how it goes:  You arrive at around 6:30 and are nearly immediately seated at the dinner table, which is laden with cheeses, a platter of cucumbers, tomatoes, and chopped fresh dill, a plate of cold cuts from an Atlanta institution called Patak Meats, cooked mushrooms of some type- either cooked in sour cream and covered with cheese, or wrapped in pastry, a platter of Olga’s homemade pickles, another piled high with Olga’s homemade bread, and if you’re lucky, that beet salad made with unrefined sunflower oil that might convert even the most diehard of beet haters.  Sometimes caviar and smoked fish.  And of course there’s wine.  There’s always wine.  I’ve learned to sip very, very slowly and remain constantly vigilant against Oleg and his stealthy pouring; apparently, he is opposed to empty wine glasses and takes his job as glass filler quite seriously.  And for the next 2-3 hours, you will sit and eat all the delicious things that have been piled on that table, and you will talk.  World politics is a favorite topic, with the Pilot and I often playing the role of avid listeners as Olga delivers passionate discourse on topics such as the state of the Ukraine.  She had me in tears the other night over the current situation; they have family still in that country, after all.  Olga’s passion is countered only by Oleg’s calm, quiet demeanor as he gently suggests that she take a moment to calm down with a cigarette (they are Europeans, after all) out on the balcony.  She always takes his suggestions.  This time, I joined her.  Sans cigarette, of course.

Literature and history are also favorite topics.  Did I mention that these friends are highly educated, both having trained as engineers at the Kiev Polytechnic Institute?  And then immigrated here when the Soviet Union fell apart, where they worked hard to learn not only a new language but a new career, or two?  They are both brilliant and fascinating, and this makes for incredible conversation when you add my equally brilliant husband into the mix.

After you’ve spent 2-3 hours enjoying the cold cuts, vegetables, and cheese, it’s time for the main course.  Yes. The main course, at 9 p.m.   I learned this when I traveled to that part of the world back in the 90s:  Don’t be fooled by the copious quantities of food in front of you that this is all there is.  And certainly don’t fill up, because there will be more food, and lots of it.  And you will miss out if you’re already full.

The other night, the main course was a stuffed cabbage dish called golubtsy.  It’s a classic Ukrainian dish that’s also made by Russians (but PLEASE do not mention that around Olga these days) and it is filling and delicious.  It consists of cabbage leaves filled with meat and rice and then cooked in a pot on the stove till everything is tender and the flavors blended.

Served, of course, with more wine.  And more conversation.  And then, usually by around 1 a.m., when I can’t even imagine eating another bite and can barely keep my eyes open, I manage to get the Pilot’s attention and suggest that it is quite possibly time to head home, against the pleas of Olga that “It’s early still!  You can’t go!”  coupled with the hint of a dessert that is yet to be served.  I have yet to be able to eat dessert at their home.  But I always leave completely satisfied, filled to the brim with friendship, good food, and the promise of the next time that we will see this lovely family.

 

Summer reading.

“Is it really possible to detect talent in fourteen-year-old children?” Bernard asked.

“Yes, but it’s rarely possible to predict whether the divine spark will keep burning with enough steadiness to survive the world.”  From “Clara and Mr. Tiffany,” by Susan Vreeland.

Our summer reading menu has been a bit paltry thus far, I’ll admit.  Who has time to read with all the traveling we’ve been doing?  It’s been especially hard since the kids and I do some of it by listening to books on tape in the car, and we haven’t been doing much driving these days.  There’s been a lot of flying, but little driving.  In fact, we’ve been listening to the same two books for over a month now, and that is unusual for us.  Ordinarily, we finish them quickly.  We can’t stand not to, even if that means sitting in the car in the driveway while the neighbors wonder about our sanity.

But one of the books that I have managed to read this summer stands out.  This book spoke to me in such a way that I can’t bring myself to return it to the library yet; it feels like I will be losing a friend when I do so.  The overdue fines are racking up along with the guilt at being a book hog; this unwillingness to return it isn’t coming from a logical place, I assure you.  Since I’m finally writing down what it meant to me, though, I should be able to let go soon.  Maybe today…

In any case, the book is called “Clara and Mr. Tiffany,” by Susan Vreeland.  It’s historical fiction, which is a favorite genre of mine.  The author has done an excellent of job of fleshing out the characters, so much so that I really did feel like they had become my friends by the end of the book.

The book is about the history of the Tiffany Glass Co., but from the viewpoint of one of the women artists who worked for the company back at the turn of the last century.  What a beautiful perspective it offers on so many aspects of New York in the late 1800s:  the plight of immigrants, the difficulties faced by women, in particular single women who needed to support themselves.  A main point of the book is in fact the main character Clara Driscoll’s singleness; a Tiffany company policy doesn’t allow women to work once they are married.  Early in the story, Clara marries, leaves the company, and then comes back a short time later after the death of her husband.  She is an artist, and finds so much fulfillment in the work that she pleads for her job again so that she can go back to doing what she loves.  I find it hard to imagine a time when a woman would have to choose either marrying or continuing to have a career.  Oh, wait, maybe I can imagine it…

But I digress.  In the end, the choice in many ways is made for her.  I won’t spoil the book, but when the man she has been friends with for years finally admits his feelings for her, she describes it thus:

“Breathless and half frightened at the prospects, I glimpsed my larger self shining in his eyes, and I loved him for showing it to me.”

Isn’t that what we all want, even if we don’t realize it?  Someone, friend or lover, to show us the best in us, our larger selves?  And yet, for someone who has kept the divine spark of artistic talent glowing within herself, what a terrible thing to be forced to give up. Ah, the beautiful dilemma of it!

Okay, now that I’ve shared about the pleasure that this incredible book gave to me, I feel better.  I think I can now quit being a library delinquent and finally give it back so that others can enjoy it as well.  If you live near me, here in Atlanta, Georgia, go check it out at once.

I just happen to know of a copy that will be available later this week.

 

Vreeland, S.  (2012).  Clara and Mr. Tiffany.  New York:  Random House.

 

 

PS-  I did finally return it and pay my overdue fines on all our books from this summer.  It was an all-time high $8.50 for me, but my debts are now paid.  I can sleep at night.  But I probably should have just bought a copy of it!

Juneau, Alaska.

IMG_4325 Before this past month, I’d never been to Alaska before.  Now, I can say that I’ve been twice.  Twice in the span of 4 days, but twice nonetheless.  When you’re tagging along with aircrew, flying along on their routes, you get a lot of time in the air and enough time on the ground to feel rested before you’re back in the air again.  As for that time on the ground- you’d better make the best of it.

But the time in the air, coming in to Juneau, is something spectacular.  The route goes from Seattle, up over the mountains of British Columbia, and then in to the Juneau airport.  If you’re lucky enough to have a clear day, you have a view of the most pristine expanse of snow-covered peaks that I’ve ever seen.  Untouched by humans, or at least untouched for a very long time- it’s a true wilderness that you fly over, and it lifts my heart to know that there are still a few places that we humans haven’t messed up yet.  For the two hours it takes to go from Seattle to Juneau, you get a macro view of this extraordinary stretch of the Coast Mountain range of British Columbia. And then, as you begin the approach into Juneau, you can start to see the details of that expanse of wilderness- a glacier here, a waterfall there, the channels along this coastline where the ocean cuts into the landmass.  It is these channels that make Juneau so remarkable in many ways; the word that comes to mind is extreme.  The mountains are high, the channels are deep and narrow.  There are no roads in or out.  You do not go to Juneau accidentally- you have to want to go.  It gives the place a strange energy, this isolation.

So, what do you do with 30 hours in Juneau, Alaska, which is what we had (twice)?  You get out and enjoy nature, whether that is through hiking, whale watching, or glacier walking.  You do not try to stay in town, because you will run out of things to do long before your 30 hours is up, I promise. There isn’t much to this town, and most of what there is caters to the many cruise ships that stop here each and every day.  Imagine the daily ebb and flow of people arriving, and then leaving, via these huge ships that pull into port.  Many of the shops cater to these people coming in- resort wear and sandals in a place that rarely gets above the 60 degree mark?  And I don’t need ANYTHING made of fur… Yes, nature is the reason you come to Alaska, not the shopping or the coffee.

And so seeking opportunities to enjoy nature is what we did. Fortified by a lunch consisting of the freshest halibut and salmon I’ve ever tasted, paired with a view of the mountains and the seaplanes coming and going, we took the tram to the top of Mt. Roberts for some hiking.  Mt. Roberts is just one of the many mountains that cradle Juneau, and the word extreme does indeed describe them all, so taking the tram up to 1800 feet and then beginning your hike is the way to go.

I thought I was in shape before attempting this hike.  As it turns out, I am not.

But, I gasped and panted my way towards the peak, and the view as we progressed along the trail towards the summit was the reward for my hard work.  It was nothing short of spectacular.  From high up on Mt. Roberts, we could see up and down the channel to the snow capped mountains that are on all sides.  It was a clear, relatively warm day for hiking, a rarity in this temperate rain forest, and many others were out taking advantage of it as well, which somewhat allayed my fears of bears, moose, and other wildlife that call Alaska home (that old joke about only having to out run the other person, not the bear?  Yes, that came to mind).  The only wildlife we saw, which I am thankful for, were the bald eagles wheeling and calling overhead as they caught the updrafts coming off the mountains.  I love animals, but I don’t like the idea of riling a grizzly.

In any case, I only made it halfway up the 6 mile round trip trail.  When we got to the snowy parts, I decided that I’d hiked quite far enough, and parked myself on a ledge to enjoy the view while the Pilot hiked on to the top (he has a bit of an obsession with completing things.  You can’t stop halfway!!  I do not share this belief, thankfully, and stopping halfway suits me just fine).  From my vantage point, I could enjoy the beauty of the place, feel the sun and the breeze on my skin, and watch the canoes of the Alaska native population as they approached for a festival celebrating their heritage, which was happening while we were there.  The lupines were in full bloom, the sky blue, the air cool but the sunshine warm; what better place could there be just to sit and enjoy life?

That evening, we enjoyed Alaska in a very different way.  I’ve already mentioned the native heritage celebration that was going on, and I count myself very fortunate to have been able to watch the parade of all the different groups through town as they headed for the opening ceremonies.  Though I have no idea what was going on, really, I do know that it was all part of that very human need to celebrate where we’ve come from and who we are.  And I understand the beauty of it; the colors of each group on their button blankets, their furs, their unique adornments spoke to me.  The parade was followed by a meal of more halibut, which has now become my favorite fish.  The stuff is like candy!  So sweet and tender- just don’t get in the way of its natural flavor and you have my attention fully.  Fully.  And then some.

And then to the Alaska Hotel for its bar.  You have to have your priorities straight, you know.  I’m not much of a drinker, having a two glass limit at all times and all.  But for people watching and good conversation, and if you’re lucky, some live music by characters that look like they are straight off a movie set only they aren’t, this is your place.  Neither the hotel nor the bar have seen a remodel since, well, ever.  Built in 1913, it looks exactly the same as it did in 1913, and in my opinion, that is not such a bad thing.  If you find yourself in Juneau, go here, if for no other reason than to marvel at the beards that you will find.  I can’t say this emphatically enough.

Trust me, I will be taking my own advice when I am back there again in a few weeks.  But I will be purchasing a bear bell.*  That way, hopefully I don’t have to outrun anybody.

 

* Whether they work or not, it will make me feel a little better.  And make my mom feel better, too.  She’s even more concerned about bears than I am.

IMG_4308

IMG_4339