Monday, December 30, 2013

The Best of 2013

Here is my list of the best of 2013:

1.      My readers.  Thanks to all who follow this blog.  Thanks, too, for your comments and suggestions.  The night sounds and tastes of summer posts were inspired by your comments as is item number 2, below.

2.      Burgers lost and found.  Our reader Carol was studying the Mormon migration from Illinois to Utah.  On the trip, she had a burger in Hamilton, Illinois and decided it was the best ever; it was, she reports, “the burger of dreams.”  Since then, any burger she has had is measured against the one she had in Illinois.

My favorite burger memories, my favorite lost burgers, include the employee meals that Paul Hunting served at a Long Island restaurant and burgers at O’Malley’s in East Hampton.  
     While the restaurant where Paul cooked has changed hands and O’Malley’s is closed, Café Max in East      Hampton has an East Coast burger that measures up to the burgers of my memory.

I thank my daughter and friend Dennis for introducing me to In ‘n Out Burgers.  For under $6, you can get an excellent burger, fries that are crispy without creepy additives and a medium drink.  For $2 more, you can get a chocolate shake better than any mousse, brownie or chocolate cake.

3.      Le Mirage Restaurant.    We first discovered Le Mirage on 43rd Street between 5th and 6th Avenue on a cold morning.  The coffee, breakfasts and lunches were a tonic against the wind chill factor.   

We returned to Le Mirage on a wet summer day and found its menu is also delightful during the warmer months.  The place has an incredible variety of fresh and appealing breakfast and lunch dishes.  They have omelettes, eggs on rolls, pizza, sandwiches, wraps and a buffet. 

 4.      Apple picking.  In 2013, apples were in the kitchen every day of harvest season.
Apple picking at Indian Ladder Farms,
Voorheesville, NY.   Photo courtesy of D. Holt
 We picked apples at Indian Ladder Orchards and at our friend Jack Brennan’s house.  It’s really cold, but I still taste those great apples and it reminds me of when the weather was more temperate.

A back country stream near Yosemite.  Note the shirt from Tom Smith
and how the shorts undo efforta to avoid the sun (photo courtesy of D. Greninger

5.      The Eastern Sierras.  When Dennis and I returned to the mountains, trout were caught every day.   And . . . we enjoyed much good food, scenery and history. Yosemite.  My only regret: we were fishless on lower Rush Creek, whose looks screamed “trout.”  If Dennis couldn’t find a trout, they must have all been traveling to Albany, going apple picking.  Seymour helped me acquire trip provisions and set up a pre-trip training table at Ernie Jr’s Mexican restaurant.  Pasadena Casting Club friends offered encouragement; Tom Smith provided an expedition shirt to screen out the infernal high country sun.

     We got to Yosemite, saw the effects of an ancient waterfall on igneous rock in the desert,
enjoyed the Alabama Hills Café again and discovered new deli at the intersection where the road climbs the mountains to Yosemite.
The newly redone Tioga Gas Mart and
Whoa Nellie Deli on the road to Yosemite

6.      High Hook Wineries.  One of the nicest 2013 wine moments, that’s wine moment, not whine moment, was meeting Mike Seymour and John Heus, High Hook’s proprietors.  Mike and John are congenial and capable; their wines are tasty.  I hope to enjoy more of them in 2014. 

7.      Top of the Morning Café, Utica, New York.  When a favorite restaurant closed, I needed a breakfast place.  I found Top of the Morning Café north of the Utica Thruway exit.  The place is bright, the staff welcoming and the food is great.  Readers who have stopped by liked the place.

8. Pizza: In 2013,  I got to end the year with a few slices of pizza from Prima Stella Pizzeria in Manorville, NY on eastern Long Island.  Prima Stella has a thin crust pizza that is tops among pizza in the New York metropolitan area - - maybe even the nation.

      Also in 2013, Mark's Pizza opened a new store in suburban Rochester.  Mark's Pizza has a crust that is part way between thin crust and Sicilian.  The restaurant cuts a slice that is generous in size, amount of cheese and toppings.  Plus, the staff are capable and welcoming.  There are several other Mark's in the Rochester area.  If you plan to pass through the area, look this local restaurant up and save some time to stop in!

9. American Hustle.  Okay, Okay.  I know this is being written in 2014, but . . . our last event before the ball dropped in Times Square was to see the movie American Hustle.  This movie is based, to some degree, on the ABSCAM sting that the FBI set up in the late 1970's to catch crooked politicians.

      However, I think the director and screenwriter used ABSCAM as a starting point for a movie that felt like a big, flowing novel onscreen.  Throughout the movie is a satisfying mix of drama, humor, exercise of raw power and countless plot twists.

      Perhaps most noteworthy is the high quality of the performances.  Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper and Louis C.K. do a masterful job of transforming themselves from A list celebrities into striving, conniving and often desperate hustlers from America's Garden State.  This is a must see!

If you have any favorites of 2013, please leave a comment and share them with all of us!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

San Francisco Cuisine: Eat Your Heart Out

San Francisco: A Food Biography is best read on a full stomach.

If you do not follow this advice, the appealing descriptions of San Francisco cuisine and restaurants will cause you to go out and eat something, perhaps a sandwich on sourdough bread, a seafood dish or a burrito inspired by the Mission burritos made in San Francisco in the 1960’s and 70’s. 

This well-written, comprehensive and well-organized book is the second in the Big City Food Biographies Series, edited by Ken Albala and published by Rowman and Littlefield.  The first book in this series is Elizabeth Williams’ New Orleans: A Food Biography.  The publisher has just released New York: A Food Biography and has a Boston food biography in the works.

Although this book may be the first time many have heard of Erica Peters, she is well suited to write about San Francisco food.  This is her second book, her first is Appetites and Aspirations in Vietnam and she is a director and cofounder of the Culinary Historians of NorthernCalifornia.

Peters is an excellent writer.  She lets the material tell the story.  She provides the narrative, sets the pace with strong structure and then lets the people she met in her research tell the story: celebrities such Mark Twain and Trader Vic or less familiar people such as Abby Fisher, an African American woman who was renowned for her southern cooking and wrote one of the first modern cookbooks in the region.

Peters has a formidable talent for organizing material.  She covers the history of food in the region from its earliest settlement up to the present day.  To do this, she immersed herself in anthropological and archaeological research, cookbooks, many hundreds of newspaper articles, biographies and histories of every aspect of the economy, society and ecology of the City on the Bay. 

San Francisco: A Food Biography has a topical format, opening with a chapter on how Bay Area climate and ecology influences cuisine.  The next two chapters explore Native American cooking and how ethnic groups in the City - - Spanish, African Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Italians and others - - arrived and adapted their home cuisines. 

From here, Peters offers chapters on: food markets and retailing; famous restaurants: San Francisco cookbooks; and signature dishes, those recipes which people think of most when they think of San Francisco. 

Americans take it for granted that fresh produce appears in markets every day of the year.  Peters suggests San Francisco was one of the first places in America where people realized California agriculture could supply fresh and nutritious food year ‘round.  This realization occurred around the time of the Gold Rush in 1849 and would have been a great relief to residents and miners who had to live on bland and doughy foods.

Peters reports on her subject in a balanced manner.  For example, she discusses the racism and exclusion that nearly every ethnic group faced, when arriving with new foods.  But she also shows how the racism was overcome and local society has moved forward.

I have been lucky to visit San Francisco and eat in some of the restaurants that Peters describes.  From personal experience, her restaurant and food descriptions are exactly right.  When she describes the City’s signature dishes, it took me back to great meals in San Francisco restaurants and homes, meals enjoyed with long-time friends and family.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

How Do You Like Those Apples?

On the Atlantic side of America this fall, we had a bumper crop of apples.  And in this bumper crop, one of my favorite moments was when my friend Jack Brennan invited us to pick Golden Delicious apples at his house.
            Jack and his wife, Mary, live in a corner of New York’s Capital Region that is emphatically rural - -  despite the python-like pressure of suburbs all around.         
            When we got to Jack and Mary’s house, Jack, an author and delightful story-teller, told how he became an orchardist.  “When my daughter, Mary Ann, was attending Cornell,” Jack said, “she took a course in pomology - - how to grow apples.”  “One of her class assignments,” he continued, “was to graft a Golden Delicious onto root stock.”
            Mary Ann brought home her graft of a Golden Delicious.  It was, Jack recalled, “about the length of a yardstick and the diameter of a man’s thumb.”  The Brennans planted this sapling on the east side of their house, for the sun and shelter from the area’s raw west winds.
            Despite a fragile beginning, 30 years later, the tree is over 40 feet high.  At some point along the way, Jack thought, “If one tree is good, then two must be better” and planted a companion, also a Golden Delicious.
            Over the years, the harvest waxes and wanes.  Jack and Mary eat the apples raw, feed the most blemished ones to cattle in a neighboring field and make applesauce with the rest.  With a lot of elbow grease to core and peel the apples and a recipe that his mother gave him, Jack sets up an apple sauce assembly line for a week or so in October.
            On the day we visited, the sky was one of the brightest blue of all season and the temperature was nearly perfect.  Low-hanging fruit was already applesauce in Jack’s freezer but many more apples were available from for anyone willing to climb a ladder and catch apples in a long pole cutter.
            Jack does not spray the trees.  With spots and a gray black scale on them, the apples look a bit scary.  Neither, however, hurt people - - and neither hurts the taste.
            These apples are like snow flakes in that none tastes exactly the same.  Eating the apples is also like watching the light reflect off a diamond’s facets.  One bite can be sweet, the next tart.
            Often, store-bought Golden Delicious apples are useless for baking.  They are too sweet or get mushy too soon.  Jack’s apples stayed firm, right into November.  When my wife Dorothy made the last portion of apple crisp with these apples, they had many brown spots that needed to be removed but the fruit was still firm.

            Although the weather is colder than it was when we picked apples in October, the taste of that apple crisp will remind us of the pleasant autumn senses almost to Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Happy 100th LA Aqueduct! Seeing the LA Water System from the Road

Mammoth Mountain, on the west edge of the Owens River watershed

           While looking out the window on drives to and from the eastern Sierras, I enjoyed the vast landscape between Mammoth Lakes and Los Angeles.  The view includes Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48 states, lava flows, extinct volcanoes, desert and oases.
            As the drive went on, rolling by at highway speed, I started seeing glimpses of the water system that hydrates LA.
            Dennis has been driving between LA and the eastern Sierras for decades and pointed out aqueducts and reservoirs along the way.  Jane Galbraith, a public information office at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP), helped me decode the water system in the landscape, as did information on the DWP website.  One of the main things I learned is that much of the system is visible from the car - - and more if you can get out and walk.
            Much of LA’s water supply is surface and well water from the several thousand square mile Owens River watershed.  The watershed’s western boundary includes: Mount Whitney; eastern Yosemite National Park and numerous Sierra peaks over 10,000 feet high.  The Inyo Mountains on the eastern boundary have a bristlecone pine that is the oldest tree in the world.  The Inyos and the Whites form the start of the basin and range country that stretches across Nevada and into Utah.
            From the Owens valley, the DWP moves water nearly 400 miles south to LA, using the Owens River and an aqueduct system.  The entire system is gravity fed, delivering water regardless of whether or not the power is on.
            Tuesday, November 5th, is the centennial of this system, whose planning, design and construction was managed by William Mulholland, an Irish immigrant who rose from ditch tender in 1878 to superintendent of the entire system.
            Mulholland was a larger than life figure, so much so that when Roman Polanski conceived the movie Chinatown, about water skullduggery in LA, he needed two characters to encompass Mulholland.  There was Hollis Mulwray, the cerebral technocrat and brash, aggressive Noah Cross.
            Here are some of the sights from Mulholland’s wonder that you will see along the way.

            The Aqueduct:  Route 395 crosses the LA Aqueduct in several places, such as north of Haiwee Lake and south of the village of Independence.  At these locations, you can see the water rustling downstream to thirsty Angelenos.  When looking at the Aqueduct, you may reflect, as I did, that something so small is serving so many people.  Where the Aqueduct is not directly visible from the road, you can see its right of way on the hills to the west.

            The Owens River:  Parts of the Owens are a natural aqueduct moving water to LA.  With steady flow in this part of the river, great trout fishing is available almost all year round.
            Owens Lake:  When Mulholland opened the aqueduct in 1913, all the water flowing to Owens Lake went south instead.  The Lake became a liability, with wind blowing the alkali soil high into the atmosphere and violating the Clean Air Act.  To control the dust, DWP uses water releases to re-flood the lake bottom, irrigated vegetation and gravel coatings.

Grant Lake, photograph courtesy of Tom Schweich

            Reservoirs:  The water system has several large reservoirs throughout the watershed.  One of largest is Grant Lake, near Lee Vining.  Seeing the water level in this reservoir so low was unsettling.  Let’s hope for a nice snowy, rainy season to fill it up.
            Sluices and flow measuring gages:  If you are on back roads and truck trails on the slopes of the eastern Sierras, you will see small sluices, with ponds behind them and antennae.  You will also see flow measuring gages on creeks and ditches, about the size of a garbage can.  The gages, part of the water system nerve center, help DWP determine how much water there is and where it is coming from.

            Visitor’s Centers: At the InteragencyVisitor’s Center on Route 395, one mile south of the village of Lone Pine, you can get information about the Owens valley and the surrounding mountains from DWP and Federal, State and local natural resource agencies.  The MonoLake visitor’s center near Lee Vining has information about efforts to restore lake and stream levels in the Lake and its watershed.

            Seeing this complex water system in the midst of such grand nature is fascinating in its own right.  The experience is also a landscape-size example of the dance, delicate at times, lead-footed at others, that people perform with the natural world.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

I'm Not Done Yet

When it comes to autumn fishing and gardening, four words, delusional in the face of the impending cold weather, define my outlook.  Those words are, “I’m not done yet.”
            The folly of these words in the garden becomes quickly apparent.  The late planted peas never got started and tomatoes, even the prolific cherry tomatoes, are wasting away.  The savior for home grown produce this week are the cool weather crops, such as kale and chard.
            With fishing, the delusion that it will last forever is easier to maintain.  The fishing right now is wonderful.  Saltwater fish like striped bass are migrating.  Some trout and salmon are on the move to spawn.  Fish in general are said to be feeding more aggressively now, to bulk up for the coming winter.
            The fall can be a great time to learn something new about fishing.  My friend Seth is getting ready to take up trout fishing from a kayak and that has started a conversation and research that has expanded to include my friends Seymour and Phil.
            During a break at a recent meeting, my co-worker, Keith, told me about his favorite fly fishing tackle: a three weight fly rod that is six and three-quarter inches long.  Keith likes this rig as it is nimble enough for fishing the small streams he likes the most; the light weight makes the fight of even the smallest fish, “feel like a tuna.”
            If you are not trying something new, there is much delight in the tried and true.  My recent fishing has been saved by an elk hair caddis pattern tyed by my friend Dennis.  It has also been saved by one of the Woolly Buggers that my friend Barbara gave me, a tough, durable and beautifully tyed fly that her cousin Steve gave her.

This brown trout took Steve's Woolly Bugger 

A California fishing trip saved by one of Dennis' flies


          One caution: If you are out in the next few weeks, be prepared for cooler weather and have a back-up wardrobe in case the weather gets even cooler or wetter.  This past week, my waders sprung a leak while I was fishing Salmon Creek, a tributary to Cayuga lake in central New York.  Even with the car heater turned to “high,” driving home in wet jeans afterwards was no fun

            Angling should be good to great on waters still and flowing on all three coasts.  If you have a story you want to share, please post - - or share it and I will update this blog!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Founding Fathers Pub and Allen Town District in Buffalo: Photos courtesy of Founding Fathers Pub

            This is a perfect time to be in Buffalo, New York.  The blast furnace heat and humidity are gone and the blizzards have yet to arrive.
            We have had great weather in upstate New York and it extends as far west as Buffalo.  The city is having its share of golden afternoons, complete with red, orange and gold fall foliage.
            One of the neatest parts of Buffalo is Allen Town, the Arts District.  One of the neatest eateries in the Arts District is Founding Fathers Pub on Edward Street, near the intersection with Delaware Avenue.
            Michael Driscoll, owner of the pub, is a retired social studies teacher, who tended bar in college.  Driscoll brings his love of history, politics and geography - - and his bartender’s congeniality - - to this appealing pub in a historic building that was a livery in the nineteenth century.  Fittingly, the place opened on Election Day, 1985.
Inside, the walls are covered with historical memorabilia and flags.  It appears every President is represented with a portrait or photograph.  Driscoll explained that he gets some of the flags when he travels but many people bring in flags from far flung places, to add to the atmosphere.


             Driscoll, his bartenders, waiters and waitresses are welcoming, as are the patrons.  Early in the evening, people stop for a drink or dinner.  Later on, college students come in.  Both groups seem to co-exist, smoothly, and the place is pleasantly lively.
            The menu is reasonably priced, tasty and has fun items.  Free nachos and popcorn are available.  One of the appetizers is ground chicken meatballs, made with a local brand of Buffalo sausage and coated with Buffalo chicken wing sauce.  Founding Fathers has a few pasta dishes and a delicious variety of burgers and hot and cold sandwiches.
Both menu and website talk up a fried bologna sandwich, but I am not yet adventurous enough to order it.  Daily specials are noted on blackboards in the dining room and in the bar.
            A high point at Founding Fathers is the monthly trivia game that Driscoll hosts on the first Tuesday of each month.  If you cannot attend the trivia game and are sitting at the bar, Driscoll may toss off a trivia question or two.  On a recent visit, he asked which President was born in Illinois - - and it was not Lincoln or Obama!
            For patrons who want more history, take time to walk in the neighborhood.  On the corner of Edward and Delaware is the Mansion Hotel, a full service hotel in an old mansion.  A few steps away to the east, on Franklin Street, is a pavement-busting sycamore said to be the oldest tree in Buffalo.  Around the corner and north on Delaware is the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Historic Site.  A short drive to the north is the Albright-Knox Art Museum, which was collecting and showing Picasso’s work at least a decade before the Museum of Modern Art in New York City was even formed! 
            If you can’t visit Founding Fathers Pub, or cannot return soon enough, please visit their website.  It has a cartoon of George Washington crossing a river, possibly the Niagara River, on a burger, great writing, pictures and the menu.  

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Summer Night Sounds

As summer began, I asked readers about iconic summer experiences. My friend Maureen Franz, from Staten Island, replied that she enjoys, “the chirping of the crickets in late summer evenings. There's nothing like sitting on the back porch and hearing their symphony. The cicadas, crickets and chasing fireflies are among my favorite summer memories.”

The fireflies are gone, although I saw a single, elegiac firefly in the grass a week or two ago. Yet, the symphony by night insects is still going strong.

To write about sound is challenging; I may not be up to the task. As a backstop, I listed two excellent audio resources at the end of this post.

Nevertheless, here goes . . .

Crickets and katydids make most night sounds. You may also hear a frog, toad or mammal making noise in the night.

Insects may not be Beethoven, or even hip-hop stars. However, hearing the buzzing, whirring, twirring and croaking is soothing and reminds us that life is lively, even if day lilies, lightning bugs and raspberries have come and gone.

Most of what I now know about night insects, beyond my sense of wonder about night sounds, came from a recent discovery of Tom Ashbrook’s March 16, 2011 interview of John Himmelman, a naturalist who loves the night and wrote the book Cricket Radio: Tuning in the Night-Singing Insects. Although I have not yet read this book, based on the interview it sounds, sorry for the pun, like a great book.

Himmelman states “the main reasons night insects sing are to establish - - or challenge - - territories and attract mates.” He goes on to say that sound character is set by temperature; insects are cold-blooded, fertility of each insect and the reaction of insects to each other.

There might be a tendency to think that singing insects at night are found only in the eastern United States. However, in a recent e-mail, Himmelman said, “yes, there are singing insects in the West.”

Night insects are almost uniformly some of the ugliest of insects. They are not as attractive or streamlined as butterflies or lightning bugs. However, it’s not likely you will see the insects - - and there is nothing like the sounds they make.

It’s great to listen to crickets and katydids in a giant natural symphony. However, there are specific voices in the insect symphony, such as Round Tipped Cone-Heads, a kind of katydid that sounds like a live wire and Greater Angle-Wings.

The Snow Tree Cricket, or “thermometer cricket;” speeds or slows it call as nights warm or cool. Himmelman explains that if you count the number of chirps in 13 seconds and add forty to it, you get an approximate air temperature.

Carolina Ground Crickets are typically the last audible insects. A single Ground Cricket will intrepidly call out as the nights get frosty - - sometimes it finds a refuge and sings into November.

Audio resources: On March 16, 2011, on Tom Ashbrook’s program On Point, Ashbrook and Himmelman, play and identify several species of crickets and katydids. Himmelman has his own website, with the sounds of night insects. At Music of Nature, one can listen to snippets of night insects or buy mp3 downloads of night sounds.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Italian Ways: A New Book about Italians and Their Trains

Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo, by Tim Parks, W.W. Norton and Company, 264 pages, $25.95

Why is an essay on Italy, its trains and people appearing in a blog on America’s East Coast, West Coast and Great Lakes?

Trains and people are a universal interest in travel writing. You can read this book to learn more about trains and people. Or you can read it as one of the best travel books of the year: well-written and dryly witty.

The first four chapters in Italian Ways are about travel between Verona and Milan. Parks devotes two of these chapters to a commuter train and two to first class travel on one of Italy’s new high speed trains. The remaining three chapters are about trips elsewhere in Italy, including a trip to from Verona to Sicily and the heel of the Italian boot.

My favorite train writer is E.M. Frimbo, whose essays appeared in The New Yorker. In Frimbo’s stories, the writers, Rogers E.M. Whitaker and Tony Hiss, said just the right amount about the technology and people of rail travel and the communities along the tracks.

In Italian Ways, Parks shows himself to be an heir to Frimbo. He writes well about everything: trains, the railroad system and people on the trains: passengers and train crews.

Here’s a sample of his writing . . .

This hiss of metal on metal, the very slight swaying of the carriage, the feeling of being enclosed in a comfortable, well-lighted space while the world is flung by in glossy darkness outside, all this puts me in a mood to read, as if the material world had been suspended and I were entirely in the world of the mind.

Parks is an organized writer and thorough researcher. The book’s organization is helped with illustrations by David Atkins, maps with small drawings of the trains Parks rides.

You may have no idea of how Italian train travel works or where the train is taking the author. Yet Parks has a gift for giving the reader the feeling that he or she will not get lost or in trouble - - even if he does occasionally.

Parks writes truthfully and respectfully about his subjects. Some travel writers are besotted and say nothing negative about their subject. Others focus on the negatives. He clearly explains the challenges of riding Italian trains.

Train schedules and ticket machines can be mysterious and hard to understand. It is often confusing if a person must line up and buy a ticket at a window. Some rail workers are capricious or officious. Yet, he appreciates and respects Italian trains, their crews and fellow passengers. When he relates frustrating events, he writes about them honestly but not peevishly.

He shows how a person who carefully prepares can get practically anywhere in Italy without a car. He reminds people that Italian railroad engineering is beyond world class. For example, Italy constructed three challenging long tunnels under the Alps. One of these, the Sempione, was the world’s longest tunnel for many decades, until in 1979 a Japanese tunnel was finished that went a mile longer.

If you love trains, you will love Parks’ wonderful, informed writing. If you wish to write about travel, you would do well to read Parks to see how a master does it. Whether you are on the beach or reading in the fall, put Italian Ways on your to-read list!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Black Raspberries

A Black Raspberry harvest, photograph courtesy of Marvin Pritts
Mid summer is prime time for picking raspberries.

Raspberries are at their peak. Strawberries and mulberries may have already peaked in generous harvests and blackberries and blueberries have yet to appear.

Perhaps my love of raspberries comes from my mother. Her father lived next door to the Cimonetti family in Glen Cove, on Long Island. Whenever we visited, Nicky would bring over fresh raspberries, just picked that morning.

While living in Bloomington, Indiana, we moved several times. My father may have made one of the moves for my mother; next door was a large garden with a healthy grove of raspberries. Other kids sneaked out at night to smoke; I was sneaked out and tried to tell the difference between ripe and hard fruit without a flashlight.

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, someone said that a fungus was going to make the species extinct. So, when I found raspberries in a San Francisco Safeway, during a visit to friends Jim and Yvonne, I bought several pints and called my parents from the airport.

Even though the traffic to JFK was horrible that day, my parents met me between planes and were happy to get the berries.

In the supermarket, Driscoll’s is often the main brand of raspberries. But my favorite berries are in our backyard and on the local road in front of our house.

Black raspberry bushes: the red raspberries in this picture
are berries that are not yet ripe.
Photograph by Marvin Pritts

The biggest black raspberries, or black caps, as they are also called, in the backyard have a diameter no larger than a dime. According to Marvin Pritts, Chair of Cornell University’s Horticulture Department, and a raspberry fan himself, “Genetics tend to limit the size of wild black raspberries.” “Even if a person carefully tends the plants,” he continued, “they are still likely to be smaller than plants that have been bred and selected for larger fruit size.” Cornell has an excellent website with lots of information about raspberries and other appealing fruit.

I have a circuit through the backyard, which hits all the berry bushes. Most of the time, my companions include many mosquitoes and flies. On a good day, half an hour will yield about a pint of berries.

It's not a pint's worth of a good day, but this batch of
black raspberries made two bowls of cereal
a much better breakfast

Black raspberries always seem to be there but they have a precarious existence.

According to Pritts, black raspberries “prefer full sun and well-drained soils. They tend to die out once trees grow up and start to shade them.” They appear to prefer “habitats that receive periodic disturbances (e.g. fires, clear cutting) as the roots can persist for many years under shaded conditions. When the disturbance happens, they grow rapidly (since they are already present on the site) and tend to dominate a site for several years.”

This is consistent with berry life in the neighborhood. Three years ago, there were berry bushes along the road. Rose the Dog, a white Samoyed, and I were a distinctive sight as we walked along. I would eat the higher up berries; Rose would delicately lick and nip the berries off the lower canes.

These bushes are gone because of shading and my neighbor’s changed mowing pattern. But new bushes appeared in the backyard after Hurricane Irene dropped several trees. Some of the best berry patches near the house still get enough sun but are entangled in wild grape vines and goldenrod.

E.B. Poling from North Carolina State states black raspberry canes live for two years. In year one, the cane grows. At the beginning of year two, the cane flowers and then fruit forms. After the berries are gone, the cane dies. In addition to the North Carolina State University website, Virginia Tech has a nice electronic page on black raspberries.

Pritts explains that the ancestors of raspberries came from Asia. He suspects “the black raspberry evolved in North America, although there is a different species with black fruit from India.” “Regardless,” he concludes “we find black raspberries in eastern North America (naturally) and no where else in the world.”

Adding black raspberries to a morning bowl of cereal or snacking on them while mowing are great treats. Whether it’s a cool day or a humid blast furnace, the sweet taste and the way each fruit is delicious yet unique, a sort of horticultural snowflake.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Summers Second Starry Night

Lightning Bug
Photograph by Chris Meyer, courtesy of Indiana University

Thanks to lightning bugs, we can enjoy a second starry night sky in summer- - regardless of clouds or rain!

On the East Coast, North Coast (the Great Lakes) and place s in between, lightning bugs are brightening evenings.

In a recent e-mail conversation, Cole Gilbert, a Cornell University professor of entomology, shared two important facts: “Lightning bugs, or fireflies, are neither bugs nor flies.  They are adult lampyrid beetles.  ”Fireflies that flash in the evening," Gilbert continued, "are not found west of the 100th meridian.” The 100th meridian is at the western boundary of Oklahoma, just before the panhandle shoots many miles more to the west.

Lightning bugs start arriving, a few at a time, in mid-June. As the weeks progress, they become more numerous and it seems, more vivid in lighting the night.

Some evenings in our yard, the lightning bugs are so numerous that a person might think someone had installed miles of small lights in the grass and bushes. When Gilbert looks at lightning bugs, he is awed and delighted, and sees “the yellow green Morse Code magic of a summer evening.”

According to researchers Sara M. Lewis and Christopher K. Cratsley, lightning bugs flash at night to attract mates. Male lightning bugs fly through the night flashing certain patterns, perhaps the lightning bug equivalent of “Hey, come here often?” Female lightning bugs tend to stay on the ground and watch. When they see a pattern they like, they flash in reply and the male flies to them.

There are chemical reasons that lightning bugs can make light. However, I do not think I can explain the chemistry in a concise manner to fit the blog.

If something glows at night, one might think this is suicidal behavior, that the light will draw predators. Lewis and Cratsley summarize research that shows lightning bugs have certain chemicals that make them unpalatable to predators. However, the researchers also cite other research that there are predatory lightning bugs. One of them in the eastern United States can mimic the mating lights of a female, luring a male in and then making him dinner.

Lightning bugs are declining in parts of their range. The two main reasons for the decline are light pollution and habitat destruction. suggests that landowners can help by leaving rotting logs and leaf litter on some parts of their property for lightning bug habitat. Other suggestions include leaving some parts of a lawn unmowed or reducing pesticide use.

Another good source for lightning bug information, which one of my friends pointed out after this post went up, is the Boston Museum of Science's website. See the web address below.

Linda Brown and the Harvard Dialect Survey, suggest that the name a person uses for this insect suggest where they are from. Brown suggests that Southerners tend to call these insects “lightning bugs.” The Dialect Survey found that the term “lightning bug” tended to be used in the South, lower Midwest and parts of New York. The term “firefly” tended to be used in the upper Midwest, western New York and New England.

Lightning bugs appear in literature. My favorite is from Mark Twain, who once wrote, in a letter to George Bainton in 1888, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” My friend Seth discovered that Marilyn Kallet has a nice poem, about the many emotions triggered by seeing fireflies, on her website.

In the witty spirit of Mark Twain, one reader wrote that this post inspired "looking at fireflies in a whole new light."

It was fun to research this post. But now, it’s time to turn off the lights and go watch lightning bugs.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Tiger Daylilies

Tiger Daylilies on June 26th

Tiger Day Lilies on June 29th
 In just the last few days, the tiger daylilies in our yard have started to bloom. The plant’s vivid orange blooms are brightening yards and roadsides on the East, West and North Coasts - - and everywhere in between.

Researching this lovely plant shows the confusion that common plant names cause. My friend Don Stauffer, an excellent Master Gardener, calls the plant a “tiger lily.” I thought it was called simply a “daylily.” The plant is also called a “tawny daylily” or a “ditch lily.”

According to a blog post by James McInnis, the scientific name for the tiger daylily, Hemerocallis fulva, means “beautiful for a day.” Each bloom on the flower’s stem opens in the morning and lasts for just a day.

The same flower patch on Monday July 1st!  Note the wilted blooms that have already lasted for just a day.

However, each stem has many blooms. A patch of the plants will bloom for several weeks.

The tiger daylily came from Asia. In reading cooperative extension fact sheets found online, there is not a consensus on how the plant reached the United States. One explanation, also dismissed as a “legend,” is that the sea captains transplanted the flowers from Asia and brought them home to their wives. Another source said the plant came to the United States with English colonists.

Regardless of how the tiger daylily got here, it is a vivid and delightful presence. The mass of long green leaves, topped by scores of orange flowers, is a perfect expression of the vigor and bounty of mid-summer.

I love the orange of tiger daylily blooms. On Staten Island, we used to see the blooms on back roads throughout the Island’s pine-oak forests. The orange was an appealing contrast to the shade and forest greens.

When you find daylilies on a roadside or in a remote, undeveloped place, it takes thoughts back to summers past. You might wonder what the place looked like when the flowers were first planted. You may also wonder who planted the flowers and what happened to them. Did they move West or move into a city?

Tiger daylilies in Winchester, Ct. 
Photograph courtesy of Seth Edelman

Deer will heavily graze tiger daylily shoots as the snow is melting.  In Virginia, my friend Steve Jaffe finds the deer wipe out his daylilies; in my backyard, the plant grows so exuberantly that it bounces back from the deers' attentions.

The vigorous growth that outlasts the deer can be a delight - - or a curse. They are likely to spread rapidly and take over. Some gardeners suggest planting them in places that are not likely to be used for other plants or in poor soil where nothing else will grow.

My friend, Seymour, sees flowers in Los Angeles florists that look like the tiger daylily. It also appears there are tiger daylily look-alikes that bloom longer than the original plants do - - or bloom in different colors.

Long lasting lilies are beautiful. They were the main flower at our wedding and brighten up a trip trudging around the supermarket when the weather is less temperate.

But seeing a flash of bright orange tiger lilies by the road for a week or so is an iconic view of mid-summer.  It happily reminds me of my wedding and sustains me through August heat or January cold.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Great Moments of Summer

Just as these day lilies are about to bloom, so too is this blog about to
bloom with stories about summers great moments!
 In the next few weeks, look for posts about the great moments of summer.  Some of mine include watching lightning bugs, enjoying the appearance of the riot of orange with day lilies, swimming and campfires.

If you have any moments you like, drop a line and let's see if we can fashion a post - - or a conversational string on a post - - about your favorite moments!

Friday, May 31, 2013

Green is Back!

The progress of spring offers a feast for the senses.

Wildflowers are in bloom. Even the smell of lilac blooms, whoch sends me into an allergy tail-spin, is a delight after the monochromatic winter.

Trout stream insects are appearing, dancing over fast-moving water. And one of these days soon, trout will be rising and taking these insects.

One of the most delightful parts of this season is the variety of light and color.

This morning, I enjoyed seeing the contrast of sunrise light and shadows from the woods. Seeing a sunny morning was even more delightful after a four days of rain and overcast.

But even the overcast offers gifts of light. For some reason, a rainy or overcast day energizes the greens in a landscape. Ferns and other plants become a deeper, more intense green.

I am not an expert on why this happens. However, until I learn why, I am going to enjoy the colors and experience!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Good Wine, Good Food and Good Fishing

Albany, New York is home to an almost warehouse-sized liquor store called Empire Wine and Spirits.

Empire is a festive place with a strong selection of almost every kind of wine. To find a wine in Empire, people use one of four strategies: choose an already known brand; ask the smart, helpful staff; buy what is offered at the frequent wine tastings; or make a pick by criteria unrelated to wine.

Recently at Empire, I saw a Pinot Blanc white wine. I knew nothing about Pinot Blanc but I bought it because the label had a vivid painting of a striped bass. Intrigued, I bought the bottle, went to the vineyard website and now know three guys who make great wine.

Mark Seymour, John Heus and Stephen Cary own High Hook Vineyards and offer East and West Coast residents appealing Pinot Noirs and Pinot Blancs. Pinot Noir is the red wine made famous by the movie Sideways; Pinot Blanc is a grape that is closely related to Pinot Grigio.

High Hook Vineyard came to life through a mix of friendship and serendipity.

Seymour, the Vineyard President, came to wine making after a 30 year career as a wine salesman. One day, at dinner with Heus, a former winemaker who is now a film maker, Seymour and Heus decided they would like to make and sell unoaked Chardonnay.

Seymour then asked his friend, Stephen Cary if he could make this kind of wine. Cary did not want to make a chardonnay but made a counter-offer. He proposed making a Pinot Blanc instead.

With Cary’s offer to make a Pinot Blanc, a business plan started taking shape. Seymour added a Pinot Noir because “I love Pinot Noir and I really love Oregon Pinot Noir.”

Cary works at an Oregon vineyard; Seymour and Heus live on the Atlantic coast. While working on the business plan, Seymour learned that striped bass, which he enjoys pursuing in the waters around Cape Cod, are also found in the Pacific. When he realized the winery would be a bi-coastal business, it seemed a perfect fit to have a bi-coastal fish in the brand.

High Hook Vineyards’ present production is 1,400 cases of Pinot Noir; 500 of Pinot Blanc. The partners are emphasizing quality over quantity; Seymour states, “Our objective is to make good wines that are terroir-based, that have a sense of place.” “Our wine,” he continued, “is made to go with food, not just to be a wine-tasting experience.”

Seymour recommends serving their Pinot Blanc with white fish, shrimp, oysters, pesto; the Pinot Noir with roast chicken, pan seared or grilled salmon, sausages. We had the Pinot Noir with orecchiette pasta and sausage dish; it was very nice.

Along with good wines, the vineyard is a good neighbor and good corporate citizen. It donates part of its income to the Ocean Conservancy and encourages customers to participate in sporting and environmental groups. The winery operates with sustainable wine-making and publicizes local fishing guides.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Ruth Rudner and Forgotten Pleasures: An Appreciation

This 50th post is an appreciation of a nature book that remains readable and timely!

But, before we appreciate books, let’s appreciate readers and all the people who helped with this blog. Thank you for reading this blog, for trying to work around the software and for helping me make the posts accurate and attractive with art work!

In 1978, Ruth Rudner, a nature writer who now lives in Montana, wrote Forgotten Pleasures. By sharing simple and direct ways to enjoy nature, Forgotten Pleasures was as ingenious as Walden or John Burroughs’ intimate views of the outdoors.

Ruth Rudner (photo: David Muench)

“Our current enthusiasm for getting back to Nature,” Rudner wrote, “has made so great a mystique of equipment that the adventure seems nowhere near as important as the gear we must first purchase.” She went on to explain that adventure can be found in the simplest natural acts, grabbing a bucket and going berrying, or watching the night sky.

Following this vote for experience over equipment, Rudner described nearly 50 ways to simply enjoy the outdoors. Some are complex, such as building a replica of Huck and Jim’s raft.

Huck Finn rafts aside, most of the experiences might be summarized as “hiding in plain sight.” Rudner chronicles walking, hiking, flying kites, canoeing, learning about butterflies, collecting mussels, body surfing, collecting shells or rocks, skipping stones, sledding, skating and cross country skiing.

Rudner knows how to say just enough about a topic, opening a chapter on walking by writing, “When I was a child my father and I simply walked out the door, down the street and into the woods.” Later on she observes, “Nature is made up of grizzly bears and sequoias, but it is made up even more of spiderwebs and star flowers. You have to go gently to see them.”

In celebrating the particular, Rudner anticipated the revival of small farms, locavores and enjoying nature at a time when gasoline prices are climbing again. If a person does not want to spend a lot of money to go out of town, Rudner offers a vast array of great ideas for appreciating nature in the neighborhood.

In the late 1970’s, I found Forgotten Pleasures on a pleasant summer evening in a small bookstore in Amagansett, on eastern Long Island. But then, when I wanted to reread the book, I could not find it. I wasn’t sure of the author’s name or title. It was out of print.

Finally, a kind person on an ABE Books blog gave me the correct title and the author’s name. Then, thanks to a wonderful place called Watkins Books in Dolgeville (, on the northern edge of the Mohawk valley, I found a replacement copy.

Since she wrote Forgotten Pleasures, Rudner has been writing about nature in general, animals and national parks, tackling the latter subject with her husband, the photographer, David Muench. In a recent note, she wrote, “Writing about wilderness has become important to me; it is one of the ways I can help preserve what we have left of wild country.” That’s a fitting vocation for someone who enjoyed walking out the door with her father, down the street and into the woods.

Friday, March 8, 2013

On the Edge: Late Winter and Spring?

On March 1st last week, I thought we had turned the corner on winter. Bathing suits are now prominently displayed in the department stores.

But then, winter returned and is queen again. The snow is present on both the East and West coasts, as this photo of the San Gabriels in LA county shows.

Photo courtesy of E. Rowen

With friends John and Rose, I enjoyed two excellent days of cross-country skiing. In the spirit of Ruth Rudner’s book Forgotten Pleasures, about simple outdoor excursions, and in honor of locavores everywhere, we needed only drive a mere 15 minutes to find great conditions.

From Pennsylvania north, a large storm dumped lots of snow on the eastern seaboard.  On the Virginia coast, my friend Steve reports, " We had about an inch accumulation, lots of rain, probably 2 plusinches, which melted the snow and some decent wind."

In Albany, in upstate New York, the storm set a record for Friday March 8th, with 6.5 inches of snow.  Fortunately, the snow accumulated gradually, but steadily, as the following two photographs show.  The other fortunate part of the storm was that the snowblower, which my friend Don gave me when he moved, started on the first pull and made fast work of the white stuff!

Thursday at dusk

Friday morning

By day’s end Friday, the snow had stopped and the snow had melted from most of the highways.

If the weather forecast is correct, it will soon be over 40 degrees and more of the snow will roll back. This coming Sunday, Daylight Savings Time will start. Having the extra time in the evening will help many people take another step to getting in the spring and summer mindset!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Top of the Morning Cafe in Utica, NY

If you get hungry for breakfast while driving through Utica on the Thruway, Top of the Morning Café in north Utica, is a delightful, reasonably priced breakfast destination.

On the winter morning when I came to Top of the Morning, I pulled into the parking lot half an hour before sunrise. The restaurant was bright and cheery in the overcast dawn.

Inside, the restaurant has a large, bright dining room with a counter for diners in a hurry. On the walls are many appealing color photographs taken in Ireland. The photograph by my table showed the Cliffs of Moher, on the rugged west coast of Ireland.

The waitress was welcoming, cheerful and efficient.  On the menu are a variety of offerings. They include omelettes, pancakes, waffles and eggs. Also available are egg dishes made with egg whites and oatmeal.

I started with coffee.  It was hot and just strong enough.  Then I had two eggs over medium, with dry white toast and potatoes. The eggs and potatoes were just right and not at all greasy. Although the breakfast was cooked to order, it was also served quickly.

The café has a lunch and dinner menu. I did not look at them but, based on how well they prepared breakfast, this would be a good place for lunch or dinner.

Top of the Morning does not have a website but can be found on Facebook at 

The café telephone number is 315-507-3141 and is about five minutes from Thruway Exit 31, the main Thruway exit for Utica. If you want to locate the café by GPS or computer mapping, the address is 414 Trenton Road, Utica, NY.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Winter Storm Nemo

The day after the storm in Guilderland Center, New York

For now, it looks like the snowy weather in New York and New England has settled down. However, in mid-Long Island and mid-Connecticut, Nemo took its best swing, leaving up to three feet of snow.  Actually, since writing this yesterday morning, one reader wrote that the deep snow was more widely distributed than I thought.  There was 30.5 inches of snow 15 miles west of Boston!

To all my New England and Long Island readers: hope you are dug out soon and that your power and other utilities stay on or come back on as soon as possible!

The snow was great for snow-blowing. 
Photo courtesy of D. Holt

The snow is starting to blow around
    In New York’s Capital Region, the snow fall was eight to 10 inches in most places. The snow is light and fluffy.  Thanks to the gift of a snow blower from my friend Don, clean up was easy.  Later on, however, blowing and drifting snow across the highways may make driving challenging.

Before the storm, some odd things happened. At Empire Wine and Liquor, a steady stream of people lined up to buy red wine - - probably a heart-healthy move for snow shoveling.

At the Guilderland Hannaford, the shelves were thoroughly shopped - - but not stripped bare. However, all the shredded mozzarella was sold out. Did all those people at Empire decide they wanted a homemade pizza with their wine?

If you have a story from this snow storm, please comment below.  If the commenting software is too difficult to use, please drop me a line and I will add it in for you!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Trout Fishing Countdown

Hot Creek, near Mammoth, California. 
Photograph courtesy of D/ Greninger

New York state's trout season is approaching faster than one might think, opening in less than 60 days, on April 1st. 

In many parts of upstate New York, it is tempting to compare this date for the first day of fishing with the jokes and pranks of April Fools Day.  On a regular basis, hopeful anglers find streams inaccessible from snow drifts or ice - - or unfishable from high runoff.  In 1983, Ben Lockett and I were fishing the Battenkill on Opening Day and found ourselves in the midst of a snow storm that felt more like February than April.

Anglers have a doctrinal split about April 1st.  Some people go because it's time to get out of the house.  Even if conditions are bad or marginal, they think a bad day of fishing is better than a good day of a lot of other things. 

Others, say that fishing on April 1st is an empty ritual.  They prefer to wait until the water warms up and the insect start hatching for fly fishing.

Regardless of how you feel on this issue, Opening Day is getting ever closer. 

If you do not want to wait until then to fish, there is plenty of fishing around, weather permitting.  New York and California, for example, have catch and release trout regulations where the fisheries are open all year.

The picture at the top of this post is of Hot Creek in the eastern Sierras of California. 

When Dennis Greninger was at Hot Creek, he saw an angler fishing with nymphs.  This angler caught two fish while Dennis was watching.