Home for the Holidays

Governor William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony, in what would later become part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, proclaimed a day of thanksgiving in the fall of 1621 after a winter of starvation and privation. Reportedly, all of the colonists and the neighboring Native Americans shared a feast that happened to include four wild turkeys. Almost one hundred and seventy years later, George Washington proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving Day on November 26, 1789. It was not until the middle of the civil war that Abraham Lincoln—upon the urging of feminist, editor, and writer, Sarah J. Hale—created the national holiday of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November beginning in 1863. In 1939, Franklin Roosevelt pushed to make the third Thursday in November the official holiday, but it was in 1941 that Congress passed a joint resolution to make the fourth Thursday in November the law.

Not to be outdone by the Americans, Canadians can trace their first Thanksgiving to Martin Frobisher holding a formal Thanksgiving ceremony in Newfoundland in 1578 to celebrate surviving his voyage searching for the Northwest Passage. However, it wasn’t until almost four hundred years later in 1957 that Canadian Thanksgiving was officially declared to be the second Monday in October—coincidently, the same year that Fernand Lachance came up with the idea of poutine: "Ca va te faire une maudite poutine."

Many decades before there were parades and football games and, in fact, before there was a Macy’s or a football, there were families traveling home for the holidays. Historically, families lived closer geographically, so perhaps it was an easier trek in distance, if not in convenience of transportation.

On the first official Thanksgiving Day, ninety percent of the United States population were farmers and during the Lincoln administration, fifty-eight percent were. At the end of World War I, twenty-seven percent of Americans were still farming, and the end of World War II, that number had decreased to fifteen percent. Today, farmers represent less than 2.5% of the American population; however, there are more acres under till than ever before producing more agricultural products per acre. What began in this country as a family-based agrarian culture is now predominately a large, industrial complex.

Going to grandmother’s house by sleigh in Louisa May Alcott's time was not just a romantic plot idea for the March family of Little Women fame. In the mid-nineteenth century, it was reality. The March’s were not a farming family but they were one generation removed and lived in a town that was more rural than urban. Other realities in New England at this time also meant close philosophical ties to a community of Transcendentalists, people like Emerson and Thoreau. Mr. March, like the real life Bronson Alcott on whom he is based, was one of these enlightened, forward-thinking people. It was later in the nineteenth century that these transcendentalist ideals strongly influenced designers in the Midwest, such as Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, the latter also being one generation away from working the farm. In Little Women, the March sisters travel the globe—Jo goes to New York, while her sister Amy embarks on a European tour—but they always come back to the family home where their pride in the democratic ideals of independence and advancement through hard work is obvious.

Over the years, this agrarian heritage also gave families a sense of practical know-how. In learning how to construct and make things, repair and maintain them, they developed an ability to recognize quality, craftsmanship and lasting value, and established a criterion for evaluating aesthetic achievement. The further we get away from knowing how things work, and indeed, working with our hands, it seems the further we remove ourselves from appreciating craftsmanship and thoughtful endeavors in our built environment.

This year, though, I am thankful that someone still knows how to make good bourbon and author a good book.

BL

Chinese Take Out - Part 3

Another day, another city. In Beijing, I told Li, our dutiful project manager in China, that I wanted to go to the city’s third best restaurant. We ended up at Bianyifang, established in 1416 during the Ming Dynasty and famous for Peking Duck which is presented whole and sliced at the table. I’ll say it was third best, or better…what do I know? Lunch began with lots of Tsingtao Beer, a roasted prong with an apricot glaze on purple sweet potato, and chopped green vegetables in a soy-like sauce which was compressed into a cylindrical form and topped with spicy peanuts and sweet red onions. The duck was plated in a feather-like pattern after cutting and we were supplied with julienned leek and cucumber as well as steamed, paper-thin rice pancakes. These were used to roll the duck and vegetables in before dipping in a Beijing sweet sauce (similar to hoisin). Once the duck had been cut and plated they took the carcass to the kitchen and placed it in a boiling cauldron to make and serve duck soup with leeks.

The next day was to the government planning bureau in Tianjin where we ate in the workers’ lunchroom. Even that was better than anything I have had of the Chinese vernacular in Chicago. Lunch consisted of fried perch, eggplant, spicy cabbage, noodles and fried pork. But wait, just outside the train station I was told Tianjin was famous for its pork buns; I had to run to a nearby stand—HOLY MOMOFUKU!!

My last stop on this trip was Shanghai and I favored the Xintiandi district. I first needed a couple of martinis, which I got at the American owned DR Bar, to prepare me for my final and most wonderful taste treat of the trip. In fact, this was worth the entire visit. I am, of course, talking about the made-to-order xiao-long-bao (dumplings) at Din Tai Fung. The dough is of the most delicate nature and handled masterfully to take a filling of choice (minced pork for me). Lightly pinched and twisted with a small spoonful of broth having been added, the xiao-long-bao are then steamed in a bamboo basket and served with a small bowl of Chinkiang vinegar and ginger slivers to dip them into. As you bite into the soft wrapper, the broth inside explodes in your mouth as you begin to realize the flavor of the filling falling onto your tongue. Heaven. Six more please.

Now I was ready for the fourteen-hour flight back to Chicago. I have since learned Din Tai Fung has a restaurant in LA. That would only be four hours.

BL

Chinese Take Out - Part 2

Late that night I traveled to Hangzhou and dined in the old, famed restaurant of Lou Wai Lou that overlooks West Lake. I had beggar’s chicken in beef, which is a chicken bathed in a beef broth, wrapped in multiple layers of lotus leaves, tied together in a bundle with twine and slow baked on hot stones. Best chicken ever. I ordered it with sides of glazed pork, pineapple and Chinese broccoli.

The next day, lunch in Hangzhou was at a simpler, smaller restaurant also near West Lake. The building’s interior was clad with old wood of various shapes and sizes and composed of very small dining areas on different levels around a central, open courtyard filled with old wooden birdcages. The restaurant was furnished with simple wood tables and benches, while tea and food were served in wooden cups and mismatched bowls and plates. First came the roasted shrimp in spicy orange and crushed peanut sauce cooked in a pot of hot stones. Then came the chicken soup with a whole chicken in the pot, swimming in leeks and peppers. Next, some type of white river fish that looked like Mr. Limpet peeking his head out of the water, which had just come fresh out of a tank before being steamed. This was served alongside roasted pumpkin slices, fried pork in orange sauce and an abundance of melon and beer.

The next day’s stop was the government offices in Zhengzhou. At the Zhengzhou Planning Bureau, lunch was served in a luxurious private dining room just past the workers’ lunchroom and a statue of Chairman Mao. Yet again, I was presented with a grand feast of white river fish, beef ribs, braised pork and noodles, assorted squash and vegetables, duck soup – and always plenty of melon.

BL

Chinese Take Out - Part 1

It has been a year since I worked in China, and I cannot say that there is anything I am missing, except perhaps the food, and some of the people. It is a country where, apparently, the officials visited ours, found the grave of Robert Moses and brought him back to life a la Frankenstein and for the last twenty years have been perpetuating the worst of 1950’s American expansionist building at a mind-numbing rate. It is a culture, or perhaps lack of one, that is in crisis, fueled by a robber baron capitalist zeal and backed by the conforming organizational abilities of communists that abided by, or grew up in, the Cultural Revolution. Why people are clamoring to emulate this phenomenon, or work there, is beyond my grasp.

To be fair, my time in China was spent primarily in six cities in the east. There are forty-four fast developing cities with a population over ten million that I have not visited. It is my understanding that there are scores of historic cities and hundreds of square miles of countryside of unique and rare beauty that I have never seen in the north, west, and south. No doubt there are wonderful things to see away from the new development in cities like Suzhou, Hangzhou and even Shanghai, and even the new is not all bad. There are, of course, a few notable exceptions—places like the Jinhua Architecture Park, the architecture of Wang Shu and his wife Lu Wenyu, and when he is not under arrest by the Chinese government, the work of artist Ai Weiwei along with many other performance and visual artists. However, you don’t want to get too close to the famed work of western starchitects you see in the architectural press—it looks much better from a distance or, for that matter, in the magazines.

Needless to say, I have been jaded by the new building development in China, but I love the food. As I wrote to my friend Doug last year, with few exceptions, lunch was pretty much the big meal for me, and I mean big. My first lunch in Jinhua was in a large private dining room at the hotel our client owned. I was given a chair at a table for ten, with only four of us having lunch. The meal took almost two hours and I would estimate that it consisted of twenty courses of beef, fish, fruit, pork, soup, tofu, vegetables, and more. The only downside was the television blaring a Chinese game show that our hosts would often be distracted by.

It turns out Jinhua is famous for their pork—a dark red, cured ham—and renowned for their pork bun sandwiches (“I’ll have two please”). Better than Momofuku? Absolutely. This is the real deal. A fatty layer of pork belly skin cut in the shape of yellowfin tuna sushi, deep orange in color from sauce and braising, is presented over fragments of meaty pork belly finished in a broth reduction. This is laced with paper thin cucumber, frayed leek and a touch of hoisin that makes it beautiful to the eye as well as succulent to the tongue. The rice bun it is served on is perfect in texture and size and I would describe biting into it, but we would be getting into the realm of food porn.

BL

Studio Playlist: Fat Tuesday

Mardi Gras in New Orleans

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band

Pie Pt. 2

Rebirth Brass Band

Mardi Gras Mambo

The Hawkettes

Pungee

The Meters

Bugle Call Rag

Jim Cullum Jazz Band

Down By the Riverside

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band

Bayou Betty

Bonerama
Royal Flush

New Orleans Nightcrawlers

Crack House

New Birth Brass Band

Carnival Time

Al Johnson

Drop Me Off in New Orleans

Kermit Ruffins

I Been Hoodood

Wild Magnolias

Pie-Eyed Manc

Stanton Moore

Second Line

Stop, Inc.

You Can't Fly If You're Too High

Rebirth Brass Band

Whoopin' Blues

Leroy Jones

Hey Pocky A-Way

The Meters

(My Big Chief Has A) Golden Crown

Wild Magnolias

I'll Fly Away

Stanton Moore

When the Saints Go Marching In

Olympia Brass Band

 

DW