Sunday, August 26, 2012

What I've Been Enjoying Lately

Books:
I've been getting back to the library again!  Click on each cover to learn more.

Creative and captivating


An unbelievable true story told without self-pity


I didn't realize until I was almost finished
that this book is based on a true story,
involving one of the most famous artists
in Japanese history.


Fun:

video


I'm not sure what this is, growing up from a submerged branch...



...but it's really cool-looking...

(some kind of chestnut?)


...and it attracted some iridescently psychedelic insects.

It's really too bad I couldn't capture the iridescence on these--I've never seen anything like 'em.


Sunday, Miss Chef joined me for a second trip up and down the Catawba.  She's been wanting to try those paddleboards out!



I got a kayak, but we stopped to swim in the river for a little bit, and I tried the paddleboard too.  It's harder than it looks!  I managed to stand up and get down a couple of times without falling, and paddled in circles for a few minutes.  But I think I'll stick to my kayaks.  Miss Chef, on the other hand, may be a paddleboard convert.


and finally...Food:



Miss Chef declared this omelette better...not perfect by a long shot, but better.  Notice she made me eat vegetables for breakfast?  I may be regretting all these weekends together, if this keeps up!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

That Time Approaches

Anyone remember what this is?




Edit: Ok, Natalie was right--it's almost time to harvest the persimmons!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Humans Are Weird

I was watching this video the other day about the setup of a beautiful light show at Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia.  It’s done in a stop-action time lapse style, with teams of people zooming around, disappearing and reappearing, their hands flying about as they stacked and wired lights as if by the power of their minds.

Something about the rapid, sustained movement allowed me to detach myself and draw back from the human-ness of the scene.  I started looking at this herd as a biologist might watch a pack of wolves or an ant colony.  What drive was causing this extraordinarily high level of cooperation?  What benefit did the individuals or the group derive from this activity?

Most animal behavior can be attributed to a fairly short list of drives: food, sex, territory and occasionally social connection.  I suppose you could assume there was at least one guy in there helping out because he thought it would give him a better chance with a girl.  Certainly a few people in there earned some kind of money (eg food) from the design and construction of the display.  But I doubt that an artist specializing in this kind of elaboration would see money as the primary goal.  And it still wouldn’t explain the many volunteers helping to make one man’s vision a reality.

Then there was the beautiful orchestral music overlaid on the video.  Spare a second of thought for the development and construction of all those instruments, the creation of the score, the training and practice…all to combine vibrations in a pleasing way, and all as a small detail of a larger project.

Every day, we spend our time manipulating objects.  How many of our activities are several steps removed from our biological necessities: sex, food, protection, social connection?  Or should I say, seemingly removed?  Why do we plant flowers?  Spend years honing the ability to pole vault?  Learn how to embroider?  Fix up old cars and have car shows with other people who have done the same thing?  Or even spend hours taking photos and writing words for strangers on the internet whom we will probably never meet in real life?

Because, as my dog might say, we’re weird.  And as we might add, in complex, confusing and often beautiful ways.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Miss Chef’s First Weekend

It is only Saturday night, so we still have a good portion of weekend left.  But Sunday night doesn’t seem like a good time for me to sit down and blog.  Besides, I’ve already got plenty to talk about, and loads of pictures to share.  So settle in and enjoy a little mini-tour of Charlotte.  (And by “mini,” I mean two places.  The length of this post would qualify as mega, though.)

Her weekend started Friday—she only teaches Monday through Thursday.  (Though starting this week, she’ll be in class from 7:30 am until 6 pm for three of those days.)  Anyway, I can’t tell you a lot about her Friday, since I myself had to work a regular day.  From what I hear, there was a lot of screen time.  And it wasn’t all work, by any stretch of the imagination.

 

Terra 08

 

To be fair, she started some laundry, cleaned up her car, etc.  After I got home, we swung into action as a team, and by the time we went to bed we had cleaned the whole house.  That’s a nice way to start your weekend, isn’t it?  (Don’t worry, we’ll be running around Sunday night cleaning it all over again.)

Saturday morning started with a  5:45 am alarm, so we could get to the farmers’ market in time for Miss Chef’s demo at 7:30.  Since she had so much time Friday to prepare, it was a relatively easy out-the-door.  She had even prepared a yogurt parfait for each of us to take along for breakfast.

We parked behind the restaurant, and I helped carry the equipment into the market, then left Miss Chef to set herself up while I went shopping.  I had two lists—one for us, and one for the school restaurant.  Yup, she gets up early on her day off to get supplies for the school, because she wants the students to see all the local food they have available to them.  Last weekend she even brought some students with her—and one of them showed up again this week, with his wife and child in tow!

Back to my shopping, here are a few of the vendors I bought from…

Market 08 (3)

This is Aaron from Bosky Acres.  (Yeah, he blinked…and he’s not the only one, as you’ll see!)  From him I bought 8 oz. of feta cheese for the restaurant and 4 oz. plain for us. 

Aaron is only 15, but he’s a big help to his mom Michele.  Miss Chef used to work at this farm, making cheese, soap and especially the seasonal goat-cheese chocolate truffles Michele’s customers buy up like…um, candy in the winter.  Today Michele had to stay at the farm to host a cooking class, so his dad Matt dropped him off to man the booth on his own, while Matt went to the big regional farmer’s market in Charlotte.

 

Market 08 (14)

Mindy of Tega Hill Farm sells all kinds of lettuces, as well as squash blossoms and hothouse tomatoes in the late spring.  I bought a couple heads of French crisp and one of red oak lettuce.  (Betcha didn’t know there were so many varieties of lettuce!)  Miss Chef loves to use her micro greens as garnishes.  These are bigger than sprouts, but only have a couple of leaves each.  Mindy grows all kinds of micros—celery, basil, beets, amaranth—but my favorite is micro popcorn greens!  They really taste like corn.

 

Market 08 (15)

Carl blinked too, dangit.  I’ve shown you him before, though.  He and his wife Lea run Carlea Farm, where he raises our Thanksgiving turkey.  Today I picked up 5 lbs of fingerling potatoes and 1 lb green beans for the restaurant, and a dozen eggs for the house.  I think it would be fun to make another batch of pasta with his eggs and bring him a sample.

 

Market 08 (17)

Pat Sain of Pat’s Pickin’s is a favorite of Miss Chef’s.  Just look at the character in that face.  He’s a sweet guy, and occasionally comes into the restaurant with his wife for special dinners.  Miss Chef likes to buy from him because he has arugula all through the summer, which is quite a feat in the North Carolina heat.  He also grows potatoes, figs, blackberries, all kinds of beans, beets, corn…andabunchofotherstuff.  Today I got a pound of arugula for the restaurant and a bag of lima beans for the house.

I didn’t get pictures of Kim and Doug Hinson, where I picked up tomatoes and cucumbers for the house.  Or of Sammy’s gaggle of kids from New Town Farms, who sold me peppers and cherry tomatoes.  Or of Milt of Baucom’s Best beef, where I picked up some chicken leg quarters.

I did get a picture of some of their kids, though…

Market 08 (2)

That’s Mindy’s daughter, Milt’s son Hayden, and Jeremy (another blinker, dangit!), whose moms own the biggest pastured-pork farm in the area—as well as a food cart and a restaurant in the heart of Uptown Charlotte.  Here the other two are keeping Hayden company while he mans the complimentary pepper-roasting station.  (Those of you in New Mexico, no, not that kind of pepper roasting; much more tame!)  Early in the market, Hayden was begging for business, so Miss Chef took advantage of his eagerness and had him roast some eggplants for her demo.

Oh, yes, I almost forgot, she was doing her demo while I wandered around taking pictures and shopping.

Market 08 (23)

If I point out the jar of tahini next to the food processor, can anyone guess what she made?  Well, the second thing she made was baba ganoush—thus the roasted eggplants.  What she’s taste-testing in the photo is hummus.  Now, if you’ve never heard of these dishes, they certainly don’t sound promising from their descriptions—mashed eggplant or chickpeas?  But of course, if you’ve ever tasted them, you know the sum equals more than its parts!  Miss Chef went the baba ganoush one better by adding goat cheese.  Totally unorthodox, but definitely a winner.  A Turkish vendor who grew up with baba ganoush came over to ask if she could get a recipe because it was so good!

After Miss Chef’s demo, it was time for the demo in the main chef’s tent.  Oh, and who is our surprise guest today?

Market 08 (24)

Why look, it’s Chef Adam!  Notice he’s got the same flashy red chef jacket as Miss Chef?  That’s because he bought hers, too.  It was a “five-years-too-late” going-away gift.  It’s got the restaurant’s name embroidered under her name, so he was happy to see her representin’, even though she was officially there for the Art Institute.

There was a bit more marketing after this—we ended up going to the big Regional Farmer’s Market to get blackberries and some other things not available at the smaller Matthews market.  Then we had to go down over the border into SC to pick up some very special mushrooms at Chef Luca’s restaurant.  No, not those kinds of mushrooms…these:

shrooms 08 (3b)

 

These were brought to Charlotte by a forager Chef Luca knows, who gets his mushrooms from the foothills in the border area of South and North Carolina.  There are about five different varieties here, most of which I’ve never seen before.  Some of them are wood ear, lobster, borrata and chanterelles (which I have heard of).  Their colors are wonderful, but I forgot to take a picture while we still had daylight.  I adjusted lighting and tint in the photo above, but the one I took with a flash, while harsh, gives a more true idea of the colors.

 

shrooms 08 (4)

Wowza!

So, are you all foodied out yet?   We were, because once we got home and unloaded all our marketing into the fridge, we had to take a break.  Miss Chef took a nap and I puttered around a bit.  Around two o’clock she woke up, and we decide on our next adventure for the day.  Don’t worry, though, it’s not food-oriented!

Nope, this time we turned to beer.

OMB 08 (13)

 

Anyone remember our Microbrews Cruise at the Whitewater Center several months ago?  That’s when Miss Chef and I decided we wanted to visit the tap room and tour the brewery at Olde Mecklenburg Brewery.  Now that Miss Chef’s got her whole Saturday to play with, it seemed like an appropriate time to follow up.

The tasting room is a very open, pleasant space with a very high ceiling and lots of wood and warm colors.

OMB 08 (1)

As you can see, they were fairly busy on a Saturday afternoon.  There’s an outside seating area too, complete with cornhole games.  Miss Chef and I liked the flags from various German cities hanging from the rafters inside.  You’ll notice the demographic here is pretty narrow—generally between, oh, 23 to 50-something years old, white, college-educated, slightly affluent.  Limited, but as Miss Chef pointed out, a good demographic to target.

Behind the bar at the end of the room, you can look into the brewing floor.

OMB 08 (23)

 

As I mentioned, we were there also for one of their free tours (they do about three each on Saturday and Sunday).  Here are a few shots from inside the brewing area.

First, here are the brewing tanks, where barley, hops and water are combined in separate steps to create wort.  (Remember our friend Wort from Miss Chef’s own brewing?)

 

OMB 08 (3)

 

The guide told us the copper housing is strictly for aesthetics, which is okay by me.  What a rich, glowing color!

OMB 08 (9)

 

Olde Meck uses authentic German brewing traditions, observing the 500-year old law of Reinheitsgebot.  This was a German beer purity law established to assure the quality of beer that up to that point had often been adulterated or cut by other liquids for profit’s sake.  The Reinheitsgebot states that only four ingredients can be used in beer: water, barley, hops and yeast.

It doesn’t say anything about robots, though.

 

OMB 08 (14)

 

Nor about the use of spaceships.

 

OMB 08 (15b)

 

Actually, this is a filtering unit, the last step before bottling.  (Or is it a secret government project for a manned mission to Mars?)

Behind the bottling area, you can see some of the massive fermenting tanks.  The tour guide was telling us how many barrels and pints each could hold, but when he got up to the thousands, all the numbers fell out of my head.  Besides, I’m more comfortable drinking half-pints, and I don’t care to count that high on a weekend.  :D

OMB 08 (16)

 

If you’re a big beer fan, you can buy your own growler—the standard is 64 ounces, but they have different sizes—and bring it in for refills. We saw a lot of empty growlers come in while we were there…and there are plenty more looking for new homes.

 

OMB 08 (11)

 

After the tour, we returned to the tap room and decided we needed some grub to help us finish our second glass of beer.  What else would a German-inspired brewery serve but brats and kraut?

 

OMB 08 (22)

 

The brats were pretty good, I enjoyed the beans, and the German potato salad would have been good if it had had any salt in it.  We also had a big soft pretzel, which was good for being pulled cold out of a plastic bag.  Miss Chef is tempted to contact the owners and tell them she can cook a heckuva lot better food for them.

Phew!  That’s a lot of excitement for one day.  Now can you see why I decided to just go ahead and write this post now?  Tomorrow morning we’re planning on going paddling at the Whitewater Center, and then it’ll be boring homework, lesson planning and ironing.  So at least you got the interesting half of the weekend.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sunday Recap: Rosie, and Miss Chef's Last Night

I've had a few vague ideas for posts this week, but none that settled in my brain long enough to grow into something solid.  Or to inspire me to open this blank screen and fill it with words.

The reaction to my last post was far more than I expected.  Three people shared it on Facebook, which I found very kind of them.  As a result, that post received 165 page views--compared to a high of 37 for the next most-viewed page.  Wow.  I expect traffic to be back to normal now, but I am grateful that so many people--strangers, most of them--found my experience worthy of a look.

But life has moved on.  Two "big" events this week--Rosie went to the doctor, and Miss Chef left the restaurant.

As any frequent (or even occasional) visitor knows, Rosie is a nearly perfect dog.  Besides being beautiful and loving to have her silky-soft coat stroked, she's easily trained, follows me with adoring eyes, and gets my butt off the couch more often than not.  Well, okay, she does spend half the year blowing her coat like a fur tornado.  And she has developed counter-surfing to a high art while we're at work.  And maybe she did kill a duck once, and try to eat a helpless kitten.  But she makes me laugh every single day, and everyone who knows her loves her.  Even the kitten didn't hold attempted murder against her.

Can you hear the purring?


However, over the past year or so, Rosie's developed some toileting issues.  At first, it was diarrhea caused by the backfiring of her counter-surfing adventures.  She always went in the same spot, and I eventually knew if she got into something, to prepare a towel-covered garbage bag the next day--which she graciously used like the good dog she is.  Those events were infrequent, and predictable.

But recently, she's been wetting in the house.  It started after our week-long staycation in June, and my subsequent return to a two-night a week teaching schedule.  I assumed her own schedule had been thrown out of whack, but after three weeks--and her beginning to avoid the towel, dammit!--I became a bit concerned.  On top of that, she seemed thin, though her recently-begun shedding may have had something to do with that.  On the other hand, her energy level has been great, and in every other way she's been perfectly normal.

I pondered whether I should take her in to the vet, and after a conversation with a friend who'd lost a dog early to cancer, I decided better safe than sorry.  So I dropped Rosie off Wednesday morning at the vet's, which is conveniently just down the street from work.

The only conclusive diagnosis they could make is that she's definitely got a urinary tract infection.  So now she's on a two-week course of doggie antibiotics.  I will bring her back in after that's done, so they can re-check her and see if that clears up the chemical imbalances in her urine.  Fortunately, Rosie has no qualms about visiting the vet, and three different people there--including the vet--told me "Oh, we love having her!  She's so cute."  Apparently she sits at the front of her cage, watching all the action--and undoubtedly wagging her tail whenever someone comes near.  (That's how she caught me, after all!)

In the meantime, we're upping her meal portions, so as far as Rosie's concerned, that's a happy ending.

On to Miss Chef's happy ending.  Long-time readers will be astounded to realize that as of today, she is officially down to a single job.  That's fewer than I have!  She was struggling the last couple of days, recognizing in herself the symptoms of Short-Timer's Disease.  I myself was a bit disappointed that her last nights at the restaurant would occur while Chef Adam was out of town, meaning no small celebration, pranks, whatever, to mark the end of an era.  Our other favorite restaurant is coincidentally losing their own sous-chef, and they took the opportunity to have a special farewell dinner (at $75 a pop--Miss Chef said, "I like Josh just fine, but not that much.")  On the other hand, Miss Chef got to preside over a slow 20-cover night, and wasn't even given the authority to send any of the four servers home.

I could tell from home that her last night seemed to be crawling by for her.  Soon after she arrived at work, she texted me, "8 and 1/2 hours to go."  She texted me again right before service started, and again at 7:45: "Only 3 to go."  I had already planned on going over for a late-ish dinner, but thought I'd better warn her, in case she was starting to wrap up.  She hates when late tables come in and she has to unwrap food and re-warm sauces.

I didn't arrive until after 9:00, so it's a good thing I let her know I was coming!  When I walked in, there was one table on the patio, but the dining room lights were up, and the servers were walking around with their shirts untucked.  There were 45 minutes to go, but it had been a slow night and everyone was ready to leave as soon as possible.  I hadn't seen them for a while, so there were hugs all around before I sat at a table near the back and waited for my dinner to come through the pass.

When I'd texted Miss Chef that I was coming to dinner, she offered to do a series of special appetizers, but I had my taste buds set on the standard roast chicken dish that hasn't changed in her five years in the kitchen.  And I'm glad I did, because it was more delicious than ever.  It came with baby roasted potatoes and French-style haricots verts, but the sauce is what makes it special--just stock with lots and lots of butter, simmered and reduced.  Wholly satisfying.

One of Miss Chef's earlier texts had been to tell me she was planning on going out for drinks with some of the servers after service.  As it turned out one of them hadn't even known Miss Chef was leaving, much less that it was her last night!  So after my wonderful meal, there were just four of us who walked two doors down the street to the Ale House.  After an amaretto sour, and a round of buttery nipples (butterscotch schnapps & Bailey's), I quickly realized that there was a good chance Miss Chef might not be in a state to drive herself home.  So I switched to water, and watched as Tony bought Miss Chef dirty martini after dirty martini.  There was music, conversation, a chat with the bar owner--a drunk hippie celebrating his 62nd birthday--and a cheerful fortuneteller in the corner.  It was after midnight when we left, and we ended up leaving Miss Chef's car parked behind the restaurant, while I was requested to make a stop at Taco Bell on the way home.

Not very glamorous, but I didn't pay for dinner or a single drink, and neither did Miss Chef. And she didn't even get a headache today.  So, not so bad, even if nobody paid $75 for the pleasure of her company.  She's worth more than that, anyway. :)

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Right Thing

When I first started working for Corporate Banking USA, I was delighted that I could add Miss Chef to my health insurance benefits.  Only the large, corporate restaurants offer benefits to all their employees, and paying for one's own insurance is well beyond the reach of most hourly-wage workers.  So you can imagine how relieved I was to find a corporate culture that could extend protection to my sweetie in her job working with fire and knives!

It wasn't until after we'd gone through all the selection and registration processes that I started noticing some odd deductions on my paycheck.  Lo and behold, it was one of those hidden costs of our inability to be legally married.  The cost of her benefits--both the amount the company contributes and my contributions--are considered taxable income.  So the company has to re-gross my income by that amount and take taxes out.

It has been nearly 7 years (between two different companies) that I have been carrying this little burden in my paycheck.  After my initial resentment and irritation, I eventually just had to accept the situation, and finally pretty much forgot about it.  I still appreciated knowing that I had some protection within the company from being treated unfairly because I fell in love with the wrong kind of person.

Last week at home I received in the mail a rather plain envelope from my employer.  Inside was a simple, one-page letter regarding the health benefits I was able to extend to my domestic partner.  (I love the fact that they don't distinguish between same-sex and opposite-sex partners.)  The letter re-iterated the Company's commitment to diversity and inclusion, blah blah blah, and re-stated the situation with the tax penalties I am subjected to.

Then there was this part:  "The payment described below will help offset the additional federal and state taxes you incur as a result of these regulations."

Yes--the big, faceless Corporation is paying extra money to ensure I am treated with equality.  Not only are they granting me extra payments to offset the taxes I already pay, but they are bumping them up by enough to cover the taxes on the extra money itself!  In addition, my July month-end paycheck would include a lump-sum payment to cover those extra costs through the first half of 2012.

I have to tell you, I grew emotional when I read that letter.  Even in explaining it here, I'm getting a little choked up.  They didn't have to do this.  There was no general outcry within the company or among its customers, clients or shareholders.  One short paragraph indicates this was a result of feedback on an annual PRIDE Global survey and various diversity and HR organizations within the company.  I know the Company's not going to do anything that impinges on their bottom line; I know there's got to be something in it for the Company...but the fact that they were open to the idea, and went through all the calculations and paperwork to make it happen, is a little flabbergasting.

Still, when I went online at work today to check my month-end paycheck, I was not prepared for what was in there.  The monthly addition to my pay is not chump change.  But the retroactive amount for the past six months was over $1400.

Yeah, that's a nice little stocking stuffer, isn't it?  But I'm not sharing the amount with you because I'm excited about it.  I want you to think about what it represents.  That's $2800 a year of financial penalty because my co-citizens refuse to recognize my and Miss Chef's relationship as legally valid (not morally or religiously, just legally).  Over the past 7 years, I have lost over $19,000 by extending to Miss Chef the same benefits that my coworkers extend to their spouses without that price tag.  The same that you might use to cover your own husband or wife.  The loss would be even greater if we had children.  Imagine if I'd been able to divert that much into my 401(k)?  How much more secure would my retirement be with those extra funds?

And that's just one hidden cost that we bear.  One hidden cost that we weren't really aware of.  How many more are we carrying?  I am fortunate that my employer is extending protections to me that my government is not willing to.  My government, that I'm supporting.

You know what's even more shocking?  My employer is one of the big-name, international Wall Street banks that we all love to hate.  Yeah, even Big Banking recognizes the right thing.  When will the rest of our population?