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Friday, September 20, 2013


You reach a point when your moleskin's been cut to ribbons, you're nearly out of aspirin and your underwear's been washed a bunch of times in the hotel bidet.
You see yellow train timetables when your eyes are closed and say "Me scusi" to the American tourists in the station when you accidentally wheel your bags over their toes.
When you start losing track of who you are, where you are and why you are, it's time for a vacation from the vacation. No monuments, no agenda, no guidebooks.

There's no better place to do that than the countryside of central Italy. We're currently ensconced in a stone cottage overlooking rolling valleys of olives and vinyards. Cicadas are scratching away in the umbrella pines and the sun is sliding behind the spires of distant hill towns. Up in the main house the cook is making pasta and roasting pork in pomegranate sauce, while the padrone is pouring Scotch for a pre-dinner drink with my father and my husband. My mother's in the bedroom going over her notes on meals and small churches for her next blog post.
There's nothing big here. You can jump in the car and drive on roads that twist and bound over the hills to Orvieto or Tuscania or Civita de Bagnoregio.

Or not.

Under my feet the the soil is undoubtedly full of Rennaissance coins and Roman columns and smiling Etruscan tombs. I'm content just knowing they're there.

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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Wherefore Art Thou, Verona?

It seemed like a simple enough idea: Take the fast train along the toes of the Alps from Milan to Verona while my parents are off having lunch with old friends. It's only a little over an hour, and the little town's a sweet Renaissance fairyland with a Roman amphitheater and settings at which tourists like to imagine the events of "Romeo and Juliet" actually happened.

But after oversleeping due to an over large and over late dinner, we arrived at Milan's looming Central Station with about twenty minutes to catch the Freccia Bianca, the "White Arrow" fast train (not the "Really Fast" train, but the "Fairly Fast" one.) We skittered across the marble floors to the bank of ticket machines and bravely thrust in the credit card. Lights flashed, then went blank. A synthetic female voice, generically Mediterranean like Sophia Loren as HAL from "2001," purred "Please-a remove-a your card-a." Steve repeated this operation enough times that I began to suspect he was rather enjoying "Sophia's" dulcet tones, but no tickets were forthcoming. I finally had the bright idea to use cash. Sophia kindly informed us that all seats on the Fairly Fast train were now sold out.

We went for the next train, which was not fast at all.

Squeezing ourselves into window seats, we were quickly joined by two teenaged Italian girls. As the train slid out of the station, the talking started. It was not to let up for a moment of the journey.

Despite many visits to the Italy, the lack of opportunities to practice Italian in Seattle means I release whatever tenuous grasp I have on the language the minute the doors shut on the plane for the flight home.

So for two hours Steve and I were mere boulders lodged in the middle of a rushing whitewater of teenaged Italian babble.

The astute reader will have noticed I wrote "two hours" rather than "one." The Not Fast at All train stopped.

A lot.


Outer Milan.

Way Outer Milan, With Slightly Less Grafitti and Fig Trees Sprouting in Cracks in the Platform.

Unknown Industrial Town With Cement Factory.

Unknown Industrial Town With Scrap Metal Recycling Plant.


Lake Garda.

Subdivision on the Other Side of Lake Garda.

Through it all the torrent of words kept coming. If one girl stopped to draw breath or take a swig from her bottle of aqua minerale the other leapt in with a handoff worthy of an Olympic relay team. Sometimes they talked on their telefoninos, sometimes to the boys sitting in the seats across the aisle. But never did it end.

At last the train arrived in Verona. We bolted for the ticket machines and purchased evening seats on the Fairly Fast Train back to Milan.

With a truncated day in Verona I can't say we really saw much of the town. We ate pizza and drank German beer near a corner of the Roman arena, but didn't have time to cross the stone bridge over the Adige river to see the perfectly preserved Roman amphitheater where plays are still performed.

We joined the river of tourists flowing past the luxury clothing and antique shops, breaking off into little tributaries down side streets. We saw a wedding outside the cathedral.

I took the usual pictures of doors and shop windows.

Then we trudged back to the station.

As the Fairly Fast Train skimmed through the fields and factories and the sky turned from pink to violet to black, I reflected that Shakespeare, who never visited Italy, certainly got the "never running smooth" part right.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


Milan plays Chicago to Rome's Washington, DC. Like America's capital, Rome is a pile of white marble buildings full of squabbling politicians. Milan is all muscular skyscrapers and business. Its colder, grayer climate is better suited to knocking back a quick espresso than a three-hour limoncello-marinated lunch.

Italy's second city is a double-shot of activity, racing in spike heels and Gucci loafers toward the next big thing. No time to glance up from the cellphone at the Art Deco buildings or the shimmering modern skyscrapers.

Milan does in fact have an ancient history, having been settled by Celtic tribes before the foundation of the Roman Empire. But the city's penchant for the "do-over" blossomed early. In the 4th Century AD the emperor Constantine moved the capital from Rome to "Mediolanum" to be closer to the ever-more-restive frontier. After the empire's fall, Milan changed hands repeatedly between the Holy Roman Empire, the French, the Spanish, and the Austrian Hapsburgs. Much of the city was bombed to rubble by the Allies during World War II, and immigrants from the less-prosperous south flooded in after the fighting ended. Milan grew prosperous as an industrial power and world center of clothing and furniture design, and the population never looked back.

To visit the city in the days leading up to Fashion Week is to see the Milanese at their best. Always impeccably dressed, the locals whirl past storklike models posing for pictures in front of the Duomo, the city's mountainous cathedral. The high-fashion shops on the nearby streets are a frenzy of nervous activity as retailers race to outdo each other with ever-more-outrageous window displays.

Dress made of fashion design sketches:

A Formula One racecar:

Chocolate shoes:

But when it all gets to be too much, the best thing to do is escape up 250 steps (or by elevator if your high-heeled boots aren't meant for stair-climbing) to Duomo's roof where you can wander among the stonework filligree and serene statues and gaze beyond the skyscraper to the distant Alps.


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Thursday, September 12, 2013

Last Tangle With Italy

Sometimes there is no story.

Sure, the experts will tell you you're nothing without a cracking good yarn; that travel writing is all about the hairsbreadth escape from the rampaging elephant in Tanzania, or the little old lady in Krakow whose heartrending act of kindness changed your worldview forever. No doubt that's true, and I've had a few hairsbreadth escapes from rampaging little old ladies in my day. But I've also had memorable moments just sitting in a piazza drinking beer and breathing in air filled with diesel exhaust and the dust of centuries.
This trip to Italy is likely to be heavier on beer and piazzas than National Geographic moments. But it's my blog, so sue me.

My parents, now they're the ones with the stories. They lived in Rome for eleven eventful years in the 1980s and '90s. They sailed on a boat that nearly sank off Anzio and watched opera in the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla. They were interrogated (and released) by the carabinieri under posted organization chart showing the Pope on top. My mother once slipped on a subway platform and nearly had her legs severed by a graffiti-crusted train car before being pulled to safety by strangers. My dad killed vipers on the golf course and saved his friend's life with CPR when he collapsed with a heart attack on the fairway.

My parents explored every nook and cranny of Italy and most of Europe, read mountains of books and made a small army of friends from all over the world.
I did none of those things. I flew to their apartment every year at summer or Christmas from law school or this job or that job. I slept off jet lag in the guest bedroom. I unpacked bags of aspirin and Life cereal or anything else that was expensive or in short supply in Rome. I sat on the terrace drinking espresso and feeding crumbs to the lizards and blackbirds and listened to the latest stories. While my mother was at work my dad and I would drive the Alfa out to the Alban Hills to drink white wine in a nameless hill town and solve all the world's problems.

Then I'd fly back home with a suitcase full of my favorite candy and flea-market cashmere sweaters and resume life under Seattle's comforter of clouds.

My parents retired to Edmonds, Washington, which is nice but not at all like Rome. So the went back regularly to revisit old haunts and friends. I tagged along when I could, sitting at the trattoria table pushing strands of spaghetti pomodoro around with my fork, engrossed in tumbling rapids of tales recounted by my mother, father and friends.

By my count this is my eighteenth trip to Italy. By my parents' account it's going to be their last. I've been beyond fortunate to have had the opportunity to share their adventure, and I'm delighted to accompany them on their last lap around the Italian peninsula. Sure, I have my own stories to tell, but this time I'm just happy to be a part of theirs.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

You Say "Cicada," I say "Western Tent Caterpillar"

As usual, the East Coast gets all the attention. "Entire nation flambéd in summer heat" cries the network weatherman, while Seattleites watch the fireworks in down jackets. So it goes with insect infestations.

Seventeen-year cicadas are all the rage, with live coast-to-coast coverage of the Eastern Seaboard's current eruption of noisy, red-eyed tree-huggers (no, I'm not referring to hippies celebrating marijuana legalization). But if Central Park were located in Puget Sound, (well, it would be under water, but stay with me on this) New Yorkers would be fleeing down Broadway clutching their knishes a desperate attempt to escape Seattle's very own Zombie Apocalypse: The Western Tent Caterpillar.

Being native to the West Coast, these bugs are more laid back than cicadas about keeping to a strict timetable. But roughly every decade or so little dun-colored moths with cute fuzzy faces and feathery antennae slather the trees with gray, styrofoam-like egg cases that expertly mimic the bark to which they cling. As it so happens this camouflage is totally unnecessary because the entire operation takes place in the fall when it's raining so torrentially that no Seattleite in his or right mind would go outside to witness a slug performing Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" on a tiny Fender Stratocaster, much less look for tent caterpillar eggs.

By spring, it's too late. The eggs hatch, and rivers of orange caterpillars begin flowing along the branches of every deciduous tree, stripping the leaves bare and filling the canopy with thick webs.

Within a few weeks entire neighborhoods look as though they've been toilet-papered by a fraternity over Halloween, all bare branches draped in white webbing. A walk through a grove of now-naked alder trees is accompanied by a white noise hiss of falling caterpillar poop.

When the creatures run out of leaves they go in search of more. Their tour-group-like habit of following each other causes them to trudge around and around houses, cars and lawn furniture in ever-growing masses. They're on the driveway. They're on your clothes. They're falling into your latte while you gaze hopelessly at your denuded garden.

The caterpillars dominate every conversation. Behind in homework? Tent caterpillars. Arguing with your spouse? Tent caterpillars. Late to work? Tent caterpillars (to paraphrase Dave Barry, I am not making that up. They crawl across roads in such numbers that they slicken the pavement, causing accidents).

The traditional remedy involves cutting the nests out of the trees and burning them. Unfortunately, every outbreak sees a few deep-frying-turkey-type accidents as a result of this practice. It's also ineffective, as the caterpillars are out foraging during the day. They laugh at the hapless gardener stomping out the flames on his $400 Patagonia jacket, their mouths full of foliage from the prized cherry tree.

Thankfully what nature giveth nature taketh away. Just when the line from the movie "Aliens" about nuking the site from orbit comes to mind, biology is one step ahead of you. Tent caterpillars are preyed upon by minute wasps whose reproductive habits were an inspiration for the creature in that film. It takes a few weeks for the wasps to catch up, but eventually each caterpillar has a tiny white egg stuck to its body. Nature takes its course, and by midsummer all that's left are empty caterpillar husks, each bearing an astonishing resemblance to Keith Richards.

The trees leaf back out and all's right with the world for another decade or so.

So, all you East Coasters enjoy your sweet little cicadas. Out here, we've got real pests.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Jeanne Baret, The First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe

A version of this article originally appeared in " The Travel Belles" Magazine:

Neil Armstrong.

Ferdinand Magellan.

Roald Amundsen.

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

The first men to set foot on the moon, circumnavigate the earth, reach the South Pole and climb Everest are well known to history. But the first woman to travel around the world? More than two hundred years later, few have heard of her.

And that’s a pity because Jeanne Baret’s story is a cracking good yarn. Her Hollywood-worthy adventures unfolded on a cramped wooden sailing ship calling at exotic destinations like Rio de Janiero, the Staits of Magellan, Tahiti, New Ireland, Mauritius and Madagascar. She made scientific discoveries, encountered indigenous people, and endured hardships ranging from starvation to assault.

All while disguised as a man.

Jeanne Baret was born to a family of poor day laborers in France’s Loire Valley in 1740. Highly intelligent and keenly interested in the natural world, she became an “herb woman,” versed in the healing properties of local plants and sought out by residents of her village for medical treatment.

In Enlightenment Europe, herb women were also in demand by practitioners of the newly-emerging science of botany. Formal education was still almost exclusively from textbooks at the time, so any aspiring scientist wishing to truly understand the natural world needed to consult with local people who knew it best.

One such scientist was the aristocrat Philibert de Commerson, who met Baret when he was studying plants near her home village. He was married at the time but fell in love with the quick-witted country girl who knew every tree and flower. Soon they were lovers, traveling the fields and hills collecting plant specimens. Eventually they moved to a house in Paris, where Baret bore Commerson’s son. She placed the baby in an orphanage, a not-uncommon practice in eighteenth-century Paris. The historical record is not clear, but Baret may have hoped that Commerson, whose wife had since died, would marry her and raise their child. Sadly, their baby did not survive and marriage was not forthcoming.

In 1765 the well-connected Commerson received a royal appointment to join an expedition led by the famed naval commander Louis Antoine de Bougainville. It was to be France’s first circumnavigation of the globe. The voyage was expressly charged with collecting specimens of flora and fauna that might have commercial value and could be grown in France or its colonies around the world.

French naval regulations prohibited women aboard ships. But Commerson needed an assistant, and Baret was eager for an adventure. So she bound her breasts in tight strips of linen, donned baggy clothes, and boarded the Etoile with Commerson in Rochefort harbor in December 1766.

From the beginning the crew was suspicious of the scientist’s small companion, who kept to Commerson’s cabin and never seemed to use the “head” or open-air toilet. A group of sailors publicly confronted Baret on the deck, demanding to know her sex. Tearfully, she “confessed” to being a eunuch, a state so horrifying to the sailors that they immediately backed down. Her story was plausible as Ottoman pirates had been known to castrate their captives. This brilliant deception hid Baret’s true gender while keeping her tormentors at bay regarding her identity.

"Eunuch" or not, Baret was subjected to the brutal hazing rituals inflicted on all new sailors during the traditional “crossing the line” ceremony at the equator. Dragged through the water with other seamen in a sail strung beside the ship, Baret was groped and pelted with chamberpot filth.

Her disguise proved a misery to maintain. Baret had little opportunity to wash her increasingly dirt-crusted clothes. The linen straps binding her breasts chafed horribly, causing her skin to break out in hideous, constantly-weeping sores.

When the Etoile finally docked in Rio de Janiero after months at sea, the little assistant was soon seen clambering though the tropical rainforest outside the city in voluminous, sweat-soaked garments. Baret gathered boxes of plant specimens for Commerson, who was laid up in his cabin with an ulcerated leg.

One plant she brought back was a towering woody vine with showy red flowers. Commerson named this impressive blossom “Bougainvillea” after his commander, whose ship Le Boudeuse had docked in Rio months earlier after a mission to evacuate French colonists from the Falkland Islands. This honor may flattered Bougainville into ignoring the renewed and spreading suspicions that Baret was really a woman.

The ships sailed for the Straits of Magellan. The air grew cool, then cold. Whales and seals appeared. Towering, snowcapped mountain ranges drew close to the sea.
Once the expedition reached Tierra del Fuego, Baret and Commerson spent days scaling rocky slopes collecting and preserving plant and animal specimens. They encountered tall, nearly-naked Fuegian aboriginal people and marveled at their ingenuity in adapting to their harsh environment.

Eventually the ships burst out of the narrow, icy passage into the radiance of the South Pacific. They came upon numerous palm-fringed coral atolls teeming with inhabitants, and dropped anchor at the largest of these islands, Tahiti. The archipelago was unknown to them when they arrived, although the first Western explorer, the British commander Samuel Wallis, had actually visited the islands the previous year.

The Tahitian people welcomed the ragged French sailors enthusiastically. Bougainville named the islands “New Cythera,” and praised their inhabitants’ beauty, friendliness and apparent innocence.

Months later, Bougainville wrote in his log that a group of Tahitians had surrounded Baret and immediately realized she was a woman, to the “shock” of everyone, including Commerson! The entry read, in part:
“..she well knew when we embarked that we were going round the world, and that such a voyage had raised her curiosity. She will be the first woman that ever made it, and I must do her the justice to affirm that she has always behaved on board with the most scrupulous modesty. She is neither ugly nor pretty, and is not yet twenty-five.”
Bougainville’s feigned surprise may have been due to a desire to avoid criticism for violating French naval regulations. Whatever the reason, Baret was now free of the need to maintain the fiction that she was a man. However, she became once again a target for the sailors.

When Bougainville’s ships arrived at the island of New Ireland, near New Guinea, the crew was starving. Attempts to land at islands beyond Tahiti, and on New Guinea itself, had failed due to hostile inhabitants or bad weather. Once the desperate, famished sailors finally came ashore and found food and water, they turned their attention to Baret, catching her alone on a beach. What followed was described only vaguely in the officers’ journals, but Baret was carried back to Commerson’s cabin, where she remained for weeks in seclusion while Bougainville’s ships passed through Indonesia and on to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius.

There, in the first French territory they had encountered in two years, Baret and Commerson left the expedition. Why? Baret was once again pregnant. With the baby due before Bougainville’s ships could reach Europe it would have been impossible to hide the fact that a woman had been on board.

Baret and Commerson remained on Mauritius as guests of a hospitable governor. When the baby arrived, Baret placed her second son in the foster care of a local plantation owner.

During their sojurn in the colony Baret and Commerson went on an expedition to Madagascar, gathering yet more hitherto unknown species of plants and animals for the scientists in Paris. When they returned to Mauritius, however, they found all their boxes of samples and specimens neatly packed up for departure. A new, less-accommodating governor had arrived from France.

Commeson and Baret purchased a house on Mauritius, as no landlord would rent to the peculiar couple with the stacks of smelly and strange-looking preserved plants and animals. Commerson was never to return to his native country, dying in the house from an infection.

Baret remained on Mauritius for seven years. She met and married a French naval officer who was passing through on his way home. The couple returned to France in 1774 or 1775, with the boxes of specimens, which were duly turned over to the government. Baret and her husband settled in his home in the Dordonge and disappeared from history. However, records indicate she was awarded a comfortable pension from the French government. No one knows who secretly arranged for this reward, but suspicions fall on Bougainville.

Baret died at the ripe old age of 67, unheralded as the first woman to circumnavigate the world. She is a spiritual ancestor of those of us who today visit every corner of the globe because “…such a voyage raised her curiosity.”

I am indebted to the excellent book.“The Discovery of Jeanne Baret,” by Glynis Ridley, (Crown publishing 2010) for material for this article.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Big Night on Vashon

By the time we arrived I'd nearly stopped worrying about the timpano.

In the depths of a dull and foggy January we'd been invited to Vashon Island's renowned farm-to-table restaurant La Boucherie for a feast inspired by the 1996 movie "Big Night."

The film is the story of two Italian immigrant brothers, Primo and Secondo. Their Jersey Shore restaurant is failing because 1950s America is unprepared for chef Primo's authentic dishes. Customers demand spaghetti and meatballs with their risotto all milanese while the uncompromising Primo fumes in the kitchen. In desperation Secondo, the practical-minded manager, accepts a rival restauranteur's offer to invite bandleader Louis Prima to the brothers' restaurant to generate publicity. Primo pours his entire artistic being into this do-or-die evening. The meal's centerpiece is timpano, a monumental baked pasta dish the size and shape of the kettledrum for which it's named.

Like most Americans I claim to love Italian food but rarely eat it the way it should be served. Usually it's rushed plate of rotini and a glass of Trader Joe's prosecco while fast-forwarding through commercials. Or a Starbucks panino between meetings.

In Italy, a meal is meant to be savored over hours in good company. To eat Italian food as as we do is akin to walking away from the Thanksgiving table after a plate of stuffing, leaving your friends, family and the steaming turkey behind.

La Boucherie's invitation was a chance to pay Italian cuisine the respect it deserves. But....timpano? This imposing edifice consists of layers of pasta, hard-boiled eggs, meat sauce, more pasta, more eggs, and more meat sauce, heaped into a culinary cupola more suited to the nutritional needs of a World Cup soccer team than a middle-aged office worker. Maybe I'd just focus on the other courses.

The guests started trickling in to La Boucherie as sunset turned a foggy sky to gold. Most of us had no more than the nodding aquaintance that comes from the occasional exchange of glances over newspapers and smartphones on the commuter ferry to Seattle. We shouldered off our coats by the charcuterie case and peered over each other's shoulders into the dining room, where a long communal table had been set.

We seated ourselves made tentative introductions, then began filling plates with assorted antipasti. Tangy tomme cheese and soft, salty ribbons of house-made prosciutto:

Fava beans with curls of sharp Parmiggiano Reggiano:

Pasta and marinated vegetables, with slices of Vashon's famous "Bill's Bread," the kind that for years only friends of friends could get:

More cheese, with pear slices:

Servers refilled glasses of 2010 Chateau Ducasse Sauvignon Blanc from Bordeaux. Conversations began to sprout branches from the sturdy old trunks of island topics like wells, power outages and ferries: "This prosciutto is as good as what we had in Milan last year!" "I tried raising carrots like these once, but the deer had other ideas." "You really have a singing telegram business?"

More wine. Now came big bowls of Zuppa di Minestrone, a fragrant rich vegetable stew. The conversation ebbed a bit as the guests twisted off pieces of bread to soak up every drop.

By the time the Italian Flag Risotto appeared the first doubts began to surface. Perhaps I'd failed to pace myself properly?

But who could say no to such a beautiful dish? Perfectly tender rice, rich with Parmiggiano and colored with vegetables. A sip of 2009 Fattoria di Felsina, Castello di Farnetella Chianti, Castelnuovo Beradegna, Italy (the same wine served in the movie) and all was well. Now, what was my new acquaintance across the table saying about the picnic at KVI Beach?

In the movie, Primo and Secondo had also begun to have doubts. Their restaurant was filled with their neighbors: The shy florist and the expansive Cadillac salesman. The wizened old lady and the bombshell girlfriend. Wine flowed, music poured from the hi-fi, and the conversation had grown as animated as the hand gestures. But where was Louis Prima? He's coming, he's coming, assures the rival restauranteur, helping himself to more risotto. Primo pokes his head out of the kitchen door and says, "Let's eat!"

And on Vashon, eat we did. Pork Rib Ragu with Rigatoni was an unexpected combination, with dissolvingly-tender meat. My husband poked it thoughtfully with a fork. "I'm trying to reverse-engineer it," he whispered, "but I don't think I can ever make anything this good at home." "Mmmpf," I replied.

Then the moment arrived.

The timpano appeared, cradled in the arms of its creator for a formal presentation before going under the knife back in the kitchen.

This was it. The culinary equivalent of New Year's Eve in Times Square or running with the bulls in Pamplona. Something you do once in your life for bragging rights in perpetuity. When you define yourself as serious or Olive Garden. I turned to Steve. "I'll take a slice."

And as Hemingway might say, it was good. Very very good. Bright with tomatoes, soft with pasta, rich with eggs and meatballs. Bite after melting bite, the timpano disappeared by forkfuls until nothing was left but plate.

At this point in the movie Isabella Rossellini is lying on top of the table while the other guests are dancing in a rapturous swirl of contentment and fellowship. La Boucherie's customers, being from the Pacific Northwest rather than New Jersey, remained seated but no less enchanted. We laughed, we talked, we snapped pictures, acutely aware of sharing a remarkable experience here on our own tiny speck of rock in Puget Sound while the rest of the world raced heedlessly by.

A glass of 2011 Cooper Mountain Pinot Noir from Oregon and it somehow there was room for just a smidgen of beef tenderloin....

....and a dab of Roasted Pork with Winter Vegetables, with a sip of 2009 Otanon, Rioja Crianza, Aldanueva de Ebro from Spain:

Finally it was time for traditional Italian cakes, tarts & tiramisu...

...and crackling homemade biscotti with fiery Clear Creek grappa.

If you want to know whether Louis Prima ever made it to Primo and Secondo's restaurant you'll have to rent the movie. In the end, it didn't matter to their customers any more than it would have mattered to us at La Boucherie. The Big Night wasn't about money or celebrity or even timpano. It was about love: For artistry, for friends old and new, and for your community, whether it's a little island in the Pacific Northwest or the Jersey Shore or anywhere else in the world.

We stepped out of the restaurant's embrace in a warm bubble of laughter and Louis Prima music. Our goodbyes and thank yous condensed into clouds that floated up into the crisp air above Vashon into a night thick with stars.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Modernist Cuisine at Home

Seattleites are not noted for exuberance. We sit quietly in dark pubs, bright laboratories and dull cubicles. Our preferred "personal space" is vast, with the other person located, ideally, no nearer than Bellingham. Our fashion sense could best be described as "camouflage." We drive Subarus.

But beneath the Patagonia-and-pocket-protector facade lurks an inventive "why the hell not" streak. For example, after World War II we noticed we had a lot of extra aircraft engines lying around. So we bolted them to small plywood boats and invented hydroplane racing. The manufacturer of the Solo cup remains grateful to this day. In the 1960s one of our our own decided to string his left-handed guitar upside-down, play it behind his back and set it on fire at the Monterey Pop festival. Karaoke stylists belting out "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy" remain grateful to this day. In the 1990s a software engineer invented "Clippy," and well, not everything's a hit. But you get the idea.

So when former Microsoft engineer (not the one responsible for Clippy) Nathan Myhrvold got interested in cooking, he took a distinctively Northwest approach: Locking himself in a vast private laboratory (the "Fortress of Salsa-tude") he applied Science to food. "Science" in this case involved blowtorches, centrifuges and syringes, as well as bandsaws to dissect the appliances. I confess having a frequent desire to take a chainsaw to our balky coffeemaker, but Myrhvold is clearly more a person of action than I.

By all accounts the results were delicious. The "accounters" however, included no members of the general public, as Myhrvold's work required difficult-to-register-for-at-Macy's items like the $4,000 Pacojet instant ice-cream freezer ("handy tools for grinding tough ingredients such as fatty tissues and nuts into fine pastes.")

There was a book, "Modernist Cuisine." But at six volumes, 2,438 pages, 52 pounds and $600, it would never have fit between "Basic Deer Fencing, Illustrated" and my 50-year-old copy of "The Joy of Cooking" on our kitchen shelf even if we could have afforded it.

Thankfully these impediments to culinary adventure were removed last year with the publication of an affordable two-volume version called "Modernist Cuisine at Home." My husband being the kind of experimental cook who once described melting Brie as "a cheese pyroclastic flow" and calls testing a roast for doneness "taking a core sample," I snapped up a copy for Christmas.

The results have indeed been delicious. Steve has immersed himself, so to speak, the the art of "sous vide," following the book's direction to seal cuts of salmon in plastic bags and suspend them in a stockpot full of hot tap water for several hours until they develop a dissolve-in-your-mouth texture like meringue. Heavenly.

But as I devoured the last morsel and resisted the urge to lick the plate, I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd had something similar when I was a child. Then I remembered: Forty years ago my grandmother used to wrap fish in SaranWrap and poach it in the dishwasher. Her Salmon a la Kenmore was just as tender, though it occasionally bore a minute aftertaste of Jet-Dri if it hadn't been sealed tightly enough.

Don't tell Myhrvold or my husband, but sometimes there is nothing new under what passes here for the sun.