Food, Family and Fun Times around the Christmas Table

This year for Christmas, I made a photo book for each of my brothers titled:  “Food, Family and Fun Times.”  I was prompted to do so when my younger brother, Brad, asked if I had any of the recipes from my mom and my aunts.  He was looking for one in particular, the red-hot salad that was on our table at nearly every Christmas dinner.   Maybe you know the one I mean:  cherry or strawberry jello combined with applesauce and those pill-sized red-hot candies that are melted before you stir them into the mixture.  You chill it to congeal.  It’s tasty but full of sugar. That’s probably one reason I too liked it so much as a kid.

One of the photos I found while assembling my photo gift book was this one of my Dad slicing green tomatoes for his pie.

Everyone has their own traditions when it comes to Christmas dinners, if your family is fortunate enough to be together for the holiday and can afford this one big feast.  As I assembled the photo book, I searched through my parents’ old photo albums, many of which I have, as well as my own to find photos that I could include in the book.  Originally, I was looking for snapshots taken of my parents and my aunts in their kitchens, preparing some of the foods for which I had the recipe cards.  But I discovered that I had very few of these photos and the ones I had were mostly of my Dad taken just a few years before he died making his favorite picalilli relish or green tomato pie.

One of my Dad’s favorite recipes was this one for the piccalilli relish.

Instead, what I  had were several snapshots taken at the family dinner tables before the meal commenced.  Many were taken on holidays or special occasions, such as birthdays. As I sorted through the years of photos, I studied the dishes placed on the table. Some I could easily recognize, like the fluffy lime green jello salad with pineapple and whipped cream (usually the artificial Cool Whip product) folded in.  Sometimes there was turkey, often ham as the main course.   Mashed potatoes, especially for the Thanksgiving dinner, but at Christmas it often was scalloped potatoes that I recall my Aunt Marie prepared.

There were dinners at the table in the make-shift dining room at my parents’ house at the motel my parents co-owned with my aunt and uncle and where grew up.

The dining room wasn’t large at my parents’ home at the motel where I grew up but the Christmas dinners always took place.

It was a pretty tight squeeze to get everyone seated around my mother’s Duncan Phyfe table, even with the leaves put in.  My mother’s nice china was set out with the centerpiece a little  handcrafted tiered Christmas tree made from red netting material.  Some years my Aunt Oleta and Uncle Joe who had moved from my hometown to another small town 45 minutes away joined us; sometimes it was just my Aunt Marie and Uncle Dale.

Two of my favorite Christmas dinner photos were taken years apart of the family together in the basement of my Aunt Marie and Uncle Dale’s home where we gathered for big celebrations.  The first was made when I was eight-years-old (I can tell by the dress I’m wearing). This photo special because one of my aunt and uncles from California, along with my cousin, is there as well as my aunt and cousin who lived in Hutchinson, Kansas,three hours away in Kansas. My cousins, Kevin, Leland and Debbie–just a baby–are there too with their parents, my Uncle Jiggs and Aunt Bernice.  It’s quite a photo because so seldom was this many of the Crooks clan together at Christmas.  Even though we’re not sitting at the table, I know that the table is set just on the other side of the camera with dinner no doubt waiting for us all.

The family gathers for a Christmas dinner.

The other recalls the another big Christmas gathering the first year I was in college.  (Know that from my hairstyle.) We’re all there again, minus the California and Hutchinson families and plus my youngest brother who is standing beside my uncle and just peeking over the back of one of the heavy, tall, carved oak chairs at the table’s end.  And again, the cousins who lived in town, are there, with my aunt and uncle.  This time, however, the photo is in color, the color film technology having long since become readily available.

Taken years later from the first gathering, the family comes together for another Christmas dinner in my aunt and uncle’s basement.

I carry on the Christmas dinner tradition with my own family. My parents, aunts and uncles with whom we ate have passed on but there’s a new generation who gather round the table that includes my sons and when possible the grown children and now grandchildren of those aunts and uncles.  I still insist on taking a photo of everyone once we’ve all sat down for the holiday dinner so we can relive these priceless moments in the future through the photographic memory.  The foods, the fun and the family time together are the real recipes for what makes the season bright.

An Illustrating Lunch in a Little Museum

“Can meet for quick lunch at 1:30.  You need to pick place.”  The text from my son, Tim, came in at 11:30 a.m.  I had just enough time to change clothes, walk to the subway and travel from where I was staying in Brooklyn to 63rd and Park in Manhattan where my son was working for the day.

Fortunately I had a little extra time because I accidentally round myself on the wrong train. Luckily, I soon discovered my mistake and was able to get off and switch to another train that delivered me within blocks of my destination.

I walked from the station up Lexington Avenue looking for a restaurant where my son and I might meet to eat.  At 62nd I turned to head over to Park Avenue and then up towards 63rd Avenue.  I saw the building where my son was working but no restaurants or cafes.  So I started back towards Lexington.  I hadn’t quite gotten to Lexington when a sign on a wall caught my eye.  “Maurice Sendak Exhibition and Sale,” it read. The poster featured an illustration I recognized from the Sendak’s classic children’s book, “In the Night Kitchen.”

The main gallery for the Museum of Illustrators is open to the public and free of charge.

Curious, I opened the red door, stepped inside 128 E. 63rd and found myself at the Museum of Illustration.  The museum, founded in 1981, is the home of the Society of Illustrators, established in 1901 to promote the art of illustration.  Its membership has included such illustrious artists as N.C. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell, among others.  The five-story townhouse was purchased in 1939 by the society for its headquarters and over several years was renovated to create offices for the society, two galleries and a bookstore on its lower floors for special exhibitions and programs and on the third floor a lounge and library for its membership. In the 1960s, that space was converted into a handsome bar and a cozy but airy dining room that, I discovered, is open to the public from noon to 3 p.m. for lunch.

Among the works on display at the museum were illustrations from Sendak’s “The Night Kitchen.”

It was an ideal spot for my lunch with my son and sent him a message to join me there. In the meantime, I walked into the main gallery where the works of illustrator Maurice Sendak were on display.  Sendak is regarded by many as “the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century,” according to the New York Times. “Where the Wild Things Are” and “The Night  Kitchen” were two of the best read books on my sons shelf when they were growing up so it was a treat to see Sendak’s original sketches, watercolors and ink drawings in this special exhibition. More than one hundred pieces hung on the walls representing some of Sendaks’ rarest work from his books, theatre designs and commercial assignments.  Incredibly, all of them were for sale but at prices beyond my pocketbook.

I hadn’t quite finished viewing the entire exhibit when my son came in. Given his limited 30-minute time for lunch, we went directly upstairs to the bistro, took a table and quickly ordered.  I chose the Cobb salad which was fresh and delicious and reasonable.  Halfway through my meal, Tim received an alert on his phone from a friend.

The bistro serves food for lunchers with illustrators’ works on the walls.

“Where’s your meeting?” he asked referring to my appointment that afternoon.  I told him. “You’re not going there,” he said firmly.  The area, he explained, had been placed on ‘lock down’ when pipe bombs, delivered to various locations throughout the city, had been discovered.

Some of Sendak’s rarest works, such as this sketch, were displayed in the museum’s special exhibit.

With my meeting postponed, I suddenly had two free hours. I decided since I was already there, and somewhere safe, to spend the afternoon at the museum and its relaxing bistro. I went back to the Sendak exhibit and finished looking at the Sendak exhibit.  Then I worked my way up the artwork hanging on the stairway wall to the narrow halls of the second floor where illustrations by the members and now in the society’s permanent collection of 2,500 were

The bold, black and white art from comics such as The Vault of Horror was displayed on the museum’s bistro walls. There’s a bit of humor, along with horror in this illustration of a detached arm hanging onto a subway holder.

displayed.   Magazine illustrations, comic books drawings and cartoons was included.

I returned to the third floor bistro so I could have a closer look at the Norman Rockwell mural that permanently hangs over the bar in the lounge and the illustrations from Mad Magazine and E.C. Comics in the Tales from the Crypt special exhibit. A number of the bold, strongly stylized black and white comic book illustrations came from horror titles, appropriate since Halloween was just around the corner.  Weird Fantasy, Weird Science, Vault of Horror, Tales from the Crypt were among the comic book titles represented.  The illustrations were detailed, gory and violent in some.  Their graphic-ness disturbed some when they first appeared but their creators were also pointing out hypocrisy, prejudice and inhumanity.  More than 70 pen and ink drawings from the 1950s by some of the genres most celebrated comic artists were on view. I took my time examining each and reading the extensive commentary written by the curator Rob Pistella.

The red canopy of the museum welcomes visitors to the home of the Society of Illustrators.

The afternoon went by quickly.  Before I knew it, it was time for me to leave for my appointment rescheduled from earlier that day.  My plans had taken a sudden turn and given me the unexpected time to spend in this little unassuming New York museum.  In future trips, I’ll check the museum’s calendar and gladly return to the bistro for another lunch.

 

Popping In on Pink at FIT

One of the things I love about travel is the surprises it often brings, even when the trip is tightly scheduled, as it was for me on a recent visit to New York City.  In town for both business and personal reasons, I managed to work in some unexpected stops at a couple of places in the city I’d not been previously.

The first came on Tuesday. My day was full of meetings with me running back and forth from Greenwich Village to  the lower West Side on the subway. It started with a lovely lunch meeting at Mary’s Fish Camp in the Village; then I hopped the Number 1 train to my next appointment on 29th and 7th Ave after which I returned to the Village to drop in on a filmmaker at her office in the West Village.

The sign at the top of the stairs leading to the exhibition clearly says it all.

With my day over, I had a couple of hours free before I was to have dinner with my son.  I had learned about an exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Technology called quite simply: “Pink.” In all the years that I’ve been to New York, I had never gone to this little museum, located  on 7th Avenue and at 27th street on the college’s block long campus. FIT is part of the State University of New York‘s system and focuses on those disciplines related to the fashion industry.

The Ralph Lauren gown worn by actress Gwyneth Paltrow to the 1999 Academy Awards was intended to recall Grace Kelly. It is one of the items displayed in the Pink exhibit at FIT.

The special exhibit, “Pink: The History of a Pretty, Punk, Powerful Color,” explores the changing significance of the color pink in fashion over the past three centuries.  It’s eye-popping displays of mannequins dressed in clothing from the 18th to the mid-20th century are elegant, colorful, curious and brilliant.  Represented in the 80 ensembles is everything from glamorous gowns to hip-hop influenced threads.  Children’s clothing from the past are presented as are contemporary men’s and women’s suits, dresses, pants and lingerie.  From high fashion to the everyday, it’s all included in this special exhibit.

You’ll see designs by such contemporary fashion industry giants as Valentino, Gucci, Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. And there are styles by the more avant-garde such as the Japanese designer,  Rei Kawakubo.  It’s quite a treat to see some of these styles up close and so beautifully shown.

Pink was a fashionable color for men in the 18th century as well as for women.

Hot pink, pastel pink, pale pink, bright pink. Every imaginable shade of the color can be found in the exhibit.  “Pink” curator Valerie Steele also places into perspective the color culturally and explores how it came to be so strongly gender associated with women. That was not always the case. In fact, you learn in the exhibit that pink had neither a feminine nor masculine connotation in the 18th century but rather was associated with “elegance, novelty and aristocratic splendor.”  Perhaps one explanation for this is because the dye used to produce the brighter shades of the color popular at the time was newly discovered and came from Brazil, undoubtedly making it an expensive and limited to only those who could afford it.

The idea that pink was for girls didn’t taken hold until the early 1900s and was further reinforced with the highly publicized purchase in the 1920s by railroad tycoon Henry Huntington of artist Thomas Gainsborough‘s renowned paintings, “The Blue Boy” and “Pinkie” by Thomas Lawrence.  In the 1950s, according to the curator’s commentary, that the stereotype solidified.  But the exhibit also explores how other non-Western cultures have embraced and continue to use the color in dressing both sexes.

Not only is outerwear on display but historic pink undergarments, such as this corset, is included.

I spent nearly two hours browsing through and photographing the exhibit. Pink is, after all, one of my favorite colors (as long as it’s a warmer toned pink).  I have had and still have a lot of pink in my wardrobe. When I was a teenager, my bedroom walls were painted a hot pink.  So the FIT show was  an appropriate stop for me to make.

The clothing in FIT’s exhibit is handsomely and tastefully lit against black backgrounds that make the clothing and the color stand out.  If you find yourself headed to New York between now and Jan. 5,  plan to visit the FIT exhibit and museum.  Admission is free, it’s fairly easy to get to by public transit and it’s certainly not an exhibit that you’re likely to find elsewhere.

As for my other ‘surprises’ from this trip, you’ll need to wait for an upcoming blog.

A luxurious pink bodice from one of the gowns displayed embellished with a bouquet of silk flowers.

Crab Fishing Outing Ends Summer Season

With the arrival of autumn, I’m taking this opportunity to look back at the summer which seems to have gone by all too quickly.

One of the summer pleasures of living in the coastal region of the Pacific Northwest in the U.S. is crab season.  The waters of the Salish Sea are typically abundant with delectable Dungeness crab, yours for the taking with a crab pot, some bait, and a valid crab license from Washington Fish and Wildlife Department. It also helps to have friends with a boat to carry you out to the deeper waters where these shellfish tend to congregate.

When looking for a good spot for your crab pots it helps to have a map with the water depths.

I am lucky to have such friends and was invited (okay I ‘fished’ for the invitation). to go along with them one summer Sunday ‘crabbing’ in the bay.  The thought of coming home with a bucket of Dungeness for dinner set me in action. I hopped out of bed early to meet them at the boat launch by 7 a.m. I grabbed my plastic bucket, my camera, a thermal bag with packed snacks and a bottle of water and headed out the door. Low tide had just passed; the water was flat and smooth.  It would have perfect for kayaking if the skies hadn’t been so smoke-filled from the fires burning in British Columbia to the north. The sun was a ball of red, as seen through the smokey cover.

We had the bay to ourselves as we headed out towards nearby Portage Island where my friend Roger’s brother reported catching his limit of crab the day before.  Each license holder in Washington is entitled to five crabs. They must be males and measure more than six and three-quarters inches across the back of their shell from point to point. Roger pointed the bow of the boat towards the West and we sped off.

With chicken used as bait and placed in a red plastic bag, friends Tina and Roger lower the crab pot over the side of the boat.

Portage Island is a small, uninhabited island located just off the Lummi Peninsula, north of Bellingham, WA.  and is part of the Lummi Nation‘s Tribal Lands. During very low tides, it is possible to walk from the island to the peninsula, which is how. it is said, the cattle that roam free on the island arrived.  People too are welcome on the island for day trips to explore its 1,400 square miles and observe the bird and wildlife that live there.

As we approached the southeastern point of Portage, Roger slowed the boat and switched on the radar. We were looking for a spot that was ideally 65 feet for the crab pots.  We bobbed around for a while until we found a spot closer to Hale’s Passage that was deep enough. Roger cut the engine and lifted one of the two rectangular metal cage pots onto the side of the boat. Tina, his wife and my friend, opened the bag of chicken parts that had been soaked in sardine liquid to make the bait more attractive to the crabs.

After a couple of hours, Roger pulls up a crab pot to check the take.

The pot was tossed overboard, along with the buoys attached to them so that we could find then later.  Roger steered the boat out further looking for another possible location. After cruising around a bit, we settled on a spot that was about 70 feet deep and threw the second crab pot, loaded with the chicken bait into the water.  Now we had only to relax and wait an hour before we would haul up the pots and pull out our fresh shellfish.

Tina turned on some rock music on the player as we kicked back, munched on our snacks and enjoyed the cooler temperatures brought by the smoke-covered skies. Part of the ritual of crabbing is this waiting time filled with talking, laughing and eating. Before we knew it, an hour had passed.  Roger started the boat and we motored back to our first crab pot.

Only crabs that measure to the legal size and are male may be kept. All others must be returned to the sea.

Roger attached the handle to the pulley and began to crank in the metal wire pot. All three of us were anxious to see just how many of the shelled creatures we’d caught.  Water streamed from the pot as it lifted out of the water. About half a dozen crabs sat in the bottom. With the pot balanced on the side of the boat, Roger lifted them out of the pot one by one, their large claws pinching as he did. Carefully, he rotated each one so that Tina could measure each one.  Disappointed, we tossed one after another back as they weren’t large enough to keep. By the end, we had one keeper.

But we weren’t discouraged, we still had another pot to check. We moved the boat over to that buoy and repeated the process. Unfortunately, none of the crabs in that pot measured up.

When the water is boiling, it’s time to lower the day’s catch into the pot.

Not dissuaded, Tina loaded the pots with more chicken and we pitched them overboard once again to give it a second chance.  And again we waited patiently another hour with our hopes still high that we’d haul in a mess of the tasty crustaceans. When the hour had passed, we pulled up the pots once again.

Our luck was slightly better this second time but not overwhelmingly so.  Although there were several crabs in each of the two pots, only three were large enough for us to take home.  By now, we had invested nearly four hours of the day to this adventure and though we had started out early, it was already nearly noon.  We still had to get back to shore, hose off and clean the boat, take the crab back to Tina and Roger’s house where we’d cook them in a pot of boiling water (the worst part of the process for me) so that they’d be ready to eat later that day.

That evening, we sat down to our separate dinners to savor our catch of the day. To say that there’s nothing like a mouthful of that sweet, white and flaky crab meat taken fresh from the water that very day is an understatement. I’ve now lived in the Pacific Northwest for a little more than 20 years and I still am grateful and excited whenever I have a meal made of food caught, grown and cooked right from the waters and farm fields of my surrounding area. There truly is nothing that compares to the taste.

For me, catching and eating fresh crab is now part of my summer. I can not imagine a summer without it.  Crab season lingers into the fall as the leaves begin to turn color but the activity is mostly something I  now associate with summer. And although autumn is clearly here,  and gives me something to look forward to for next summer.

 

Solomon’s Story Pole Is Towering Artistic Achievement

“We are all one. No matter whether the color of our skin is brown, black, white, red, yellow; no matter whether we are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist; no matter where we come from. We are all one,” said artist and former timber businessman David Syre welcoming guests to the dedication of  the 38-foot story pole he commissioned to stand on his Whatcom County farm.

Lummi carver Felix Solomon speaks to those gathered at the dedication ceremony of his most recent commissioned piece.

I was fortunate to have been among the 100 who attended that recent rainy day having been invited by a friend who was the guest of the artist, Lummi carver Felix Solomon.  I had met Solomon just the week prior at his home where he graciously took me out to his workshop where the totem lay awaiting transport to its new home.  The 35-foot cedar log had been transformed by Solomon over the past several months from a rough piece of timber into a majestic and colorful totem.  Solomon had been given little guidance by the commissioning Syre, leaving it up to the master carver to come up with the figures and design for the pole.

The various tools of carver Felix Solomon used when working on one of his projects await their master’s hand.

Solomon drew on his familiarity with the work of carver Joseph Hillaire,  in carving this pole, to carve both sides of the pole instead of just one. Hillaire (1894-1967) is regarded as one of the greatest Coast Salish artists and carvers of the 21st century.  His work was extensive but may be best remembered for his two friendship poles carved for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, one of which went to Kobe, Japan where it was placed. Hillaire and a generation of Lummi carvers ahead of him instituted what is known as ‘story poles,’ according to Seattle Art Museum curator Barbara Bretherton. The poles are tall like totem poles but they tell a story.

Topping the story pole is an eagle with its wings outstretched.

Solomon’s story pole represents “The Creation of Life Story.” At the top of the pole is the eagle, the being that flies closest to the spirit world but is still connected to the earth, according to Solomon.  The moon in its talons represent feminine energy and the reproductive cycles.

Directly below are placed the faces of five animals found on Mount Baker, the Nooksack River and in the Salish Sea–the wolf, the mountain goat, the bear, the cougar and the sea wolf or Orca.

Next comes the design which Solomon received special permission to use in this pole, the Sun Dog, which was on the door of the Lummi Nation chief when they signed the Treaty of 1855 with the United States. In that treaty, the Lummi relinquished much of their native homeland but they retained the rights to the natural resources found there, specifically the salmon, and have seen themselves as protectors of these resources ever since.  It is one reason the Lummi Nation has been a key activist in local, state and regional environmental issues.

The River Woman holds a basket of life in her hands.

Below the Sun Dog design is a concave oval that Solomon says represents the Lummi elders and ancestors.  The crescents on the side are the voices that pass down the tribe’s stories from one generation to

another.

On the back side of the pole are rain clouds that pour into the Nooksack River with the River Woman holding a basket of life in her hands.  At the bottom can be seen spirit dancers, two-legged humans who were the last to be created.

Solomon has received considerable recognition for his carvings and creations.  One of his ‘story poles’ is located in Bellingham’s International Airport; another can be found in the Silver Reef casino in Ferndale,  Wa.  The National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. honored him for his canoe carvings.  But the Creation of Life Story pole is the largest piece he’s done to date.

Carver Felix Solomon with his completed story pole in his workshop only a week before the pole was dedicated.

In order to accommodate the 39-foot cedar log from which the totem was carved, Solomon had to expand his workshop by building on an addition.  The massive totem took Solomon months to hand carve once he worked out the design.  It had to be specially engineering with hidden reinforcements from the bottom so that it would stand securely once positioned into place.  Just sliding the pole from Solomon’s workshop and hoisting it carefully onto a flat-bed truck for transport to the Syre farm was in itself an engineering feat. Solomon gratefully recognized those responsible for that part of the project during the dedication ceremony.

Originally, the ceremony had been planned to take place around the totem. But  rain forced organizers to move it to under the tent that had been erected for the grilled salmon luncheon that followed. Before the ceremonies began, Beverly Cagey brushed the pole with branches of cedar, blessing it while her husband, Jack and their grandson, Hank, accompanied with singing a chant and drumming.

Beverly Cagey brushes branches of cedar over the story pole prior to the dedication ceremony.

Guests gathered beneath the big tent, just steps away from the log cabin that stood close by the Nooksack River.  Nooksack tribal drummers led the small procession that included both the artist and the patron down the short path from the cabin to the tent where Darrell Hillaire, Lummi Nation elder, stood at the microphone waiting to introduce  the speakers and witnesses and welcome the day’s guests.

Lummi Nation member Darrell Hillaire welcome the Nooksack drummers, the host and artist in the opening processional.

Syre spoke and told how he viewed this story pole as one of unification.  Solomon thanked him for the opportunity, gave a brief description of his work on the pole and recognized those on his team who had assisted during the process. Then, as is tradition, Solomon presented the four ‘witnesses’ he had designated for that day with ceremonial blankets which each of them draped over one shoulder for their turn to speak about what they had ‘witnessed’ that day.  Among them was a childhood friend of the host, a Nooksack tribal member, who remembered the times the two had together playing along the river and in the woods on the farms where they grew up.  They had not seen each other in nearly 50 years and had, as

Jack Cagey, foreground, awaits his turn to speak as a witness as host David Syre welcomes the guests.

the friend put it, “a lot of catching up to do.”

Jack Cagey, a Lummi Nation elder, stood from his place at the table where I was sitting and spoke of the need for greater communication between generations, for the need to talk face-to-face and not just through electronic devices.  Another of the witnesses, Candy Wilson, read a poem that I found particularly moving, the name of which I unfortunately missed in her introduction. Their words were eloquent, appropriate and heartfelt. Clearly they were speaking about more than just the pole; they were making a case of for humanity and the practice of it towards one another.

The dedication ceremony program with a description of the story pole, an art piece by Syre along with cedar and feather were set at each place.

Ninety-minutes later, the ceremony drew to a close and everyone was invited, elders first, to share in the grilled salmon luncheon that had been prepared especially for the day. The meal is as much a part of these ceremonies as the ceremony itself because it gives time for those who gathered that day to share not only food with one another with stories across the table.

Solomon’s story pole towers over those who came to the dedication ceremony on a rainy Pacific Northwest Day.

By the end, the rain that had steadily fallen had stopped so that people could walk across the field to where the story pole towered and admire Solomon’s finished work.  Indeed, it is a commanding and colorful piece. It is one of Solomon’s finest accomplishments to date. The public isn’t likely to see this fine story pole unless they catch a glimpse of the eagle’s upward extended wings from the country road that passes close by the pole’s location., ut it’s sure to stand for a very long time on this private property as a powerful reminder that, in the words of Syre: “We are all one.”

 

 

 

Tour de Whatcom is Tour de Force

Bellingham is a town that loves its bicycles but even more of them than usual could be found all over the surrounding streets and roads this last Saturday when hundreds of cyclists pedaled between 22 to 100 miles in the Tour de Whatcom.  The popular charity biking event is in its 13th year and this year benefited the Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition.

The back of a cyclists racing jersey says it all.

It’s a colorful display of bicycles and cyclists as they whip across county roads, past lakes, through farm country, by rivers and along beaches with views of snow-capped Mount Baker rising in the distance all the way. The tour started and ended at the award-winning Boundary Bay Brewery in downtown Bellingham located directly across from the Bellingham Farmers’ Market which was also in full swing yesterday.  In fact, that’s why I was there. I spent two hours yesterday distributing postcards to people to promote the upcoming July 26th outdoor adventure film evening–Sports Shorts–being presented by CASCADIA International Women’s Film Festival at Fairhaven’s Village Green.

The aluminum arch of the Tour de Whatcom’s finish line spanned across the street from the Farmers’ Market Railroad Depot buildings.

Afterwards, I wandered over the market and Boundary Bay for a closer look at the activity.  Boundary Bay’s beer garden was filling up with cyclists who had just come in and were thirsty and hungry.  Outside, a long line of cyclists strung down the street as they checked in their bikes into the secured bike parking lot set up in the street. Other muscle-weary cyclists were receiving  rubdowns under the purple canopy of the Massage Envy tent.  And some, as did my friend Audrey who rode the 22-mile route in the tour, mingled with the marketgoers to have a bite of lunch there.

Following a long ride, the massage tent was a popular place.

The entire place was bubbling with bikers, beer and booths full of farm fresh food and crafts.  It brought back memories for me of the summer my family and I spent a month in Bellingham prior to deciding to move here permanently.

We had rented a house from friends (long before VRBO or Air BnB existed) for the month of August. It gave us a chance to explore the area and experience it as if we lived here.  One Saturday, we strolled down to the historic Fairhaven area where we discovered a road bike race was about to get underway.  At that time, the race–the Old Fairhaven Bicycle Race–began on Fairhaven’s main street and the course tracked up and down the hilly Fairhaven area to eventually finish a little further down the street from where it started.

Cyclists line up in the Fairhaven Bicycle Race.

We nabbed a ringside seat with two of our sons at an outdoor table in front of the Colophon Cafe. The Colophon was favorite spot with my sons because of its ice cream counter where big scoops of the cold dairy delight were heaped on top of waffle cones for a dollar or so. The boys ordered peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, my husband and I had bowls of clam chowder.  We ate and watched as the nearly 20 riders whizzed around the corners.  Other race watchers stood behind or sat upon the hay bales that had been places along the street for the purpose of blocking off the streets and marking the course.  It was truly a fun afternoon and one that I’ve long remembered.  The photos I took that day preserve the day not only for me but for my sons who have long since grown up.

Racers round the corner while competing in the Old Fairhaven Bicycle Race.
Sporting his new helmet, my son readies to take off on his own bike ride. Notice the training wheels on the rear.

That was the same summer too, that my oldest son, Matthew, learned to ride a bike.  Neither I nor my husband recall now where we got the bike, but unlike in Los Angeles where we lived, the sidewalks of Bellingham’s South Hill proved a great place for him to hop on and take off.  He wasn’t a particularly coordinated kid when it came to physical activities but once he figured out how the chain drive of the bike worked, riding it was no problem.  He returned to L.A. ready to ride with his friends and we returned to L.A. convinced, in part by community events like the bike race, that we wanted to make Bellingham our new home.

The Sounds of Silver

Summer is a reason in itself to celebrate in the Pacific Northwest but this summer, there’s one more thing to celebrate and that’s the silver anniversary of the Bellingham Festival of Music.

I’ve written before here about the festival which happens every July since I moved from Los Angeles to Bellingham.  In fact, the festival is one of the reasons that brought me and my family to Bellingham.  Although I didn’t realize, the festival at the time we first began to consider and explore this area was only three years old.  As the three visits we made before deciding to relocate here were all in August, we missed the festival but became aware of it.

Maestro Michael Palmer greets orchestra concertmaster Richard Roberts at the opening concert of the festival’s 25th season.

Soon after settling in, we began to buy tickets to attend some of the concerts and we’ve been faithful festivalgoers ever since.  Through the years, we’ve heard some amazing music performed by an orchestra with top-notch players from major orchestras around the country, including the N.Y. Philharmonic, the L.A. Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the Atlanta Symphony, the Cincinnati Symphony and the Montreal Symphony.  And the guest artists who have soloed with them are world-class.  Sometimes it’s hard to believe that I’m sitting here in my small community listening to the kind of classical concerts that you usually only find in large, metropolitan cities.

A map marking all the cities from where come the musicians that make-up the festival orchestra.

For any music festival to have survived 25 years is an accomplishment, let alone one that thrives in a community of 100,000 (and less when it first began) and now runs on all volunteer help.  Much credit must be given to the festival’s hard-working boards who  put in hours and hours of time all year to bring the festival together.

A salute must also be given to the man who’s been the artistic director and conductor since the beginning, Michael Palmer.  Palmer, who I’ve come to know in recent years, has a gift for pulling together musicians, most of whom only play together once a year, to present tight, strong performances of classical favorites as well as contemporary new pieces.  It’s a strenuous and demanding job in the three short weeks of the festival’s duration.

Artistic director Michael Palmer, left, confers with composer Aaron Jay Kernis whose “Symphony No. 4, ‘Chromelodeon'” was given it’s West Coast premiere at this year’s festival.

Of course without such talented and professional musicians, the festival would not nearly be the quality it is.  Sitting among the ranks of players are the first oboist for the Boston Symphony, the first violist of the Cincinnati Symphony, the first clarinet and flutist from Atlanta’s Symphony and the first bassist from Seattle’s Symphony, to mention but a few.

This year, much to my delight, also joining the violin section is a young woman named Rachel Frankenfeld Charbel who grew up in Bellingham, played in the Sehome High School orchestra before going off to college at the University of Texas in Austin to study music.  She was among one of my sons’ closest friends as a kid and now plays with the Cincinnati Symphony.  It makes the festival’s 25th anniversary particularly special to those of who have watched her mature into the fine musician she now is.

Violinist Rachel Frankenfeld Charbel grew up playing in Bellingham and is now a member of the festival orchestra.

Also special to Bellinghamsters is the Calidore String Quartet that has become recurring guest artists at the festival.  This young, gifted ensemble has emerged as a major chamber group winning awards, prizes and recognition throughout the world.  To have them return every year for the festival is a special treat for all of us.  The violist also happens to also be a Bellingham native and coincidentally, a classmate of Charbel’s.

Music Festival chair Karen Berry, right, with two members of the Calidore String Quartet, cellist Estelle Choi and violinist Jeffrey Myers.

Only three concerts remain in this year’s 25th anniversary season; one this evening with guest violinist Simone Porter playing Prokofiev’s “Violin Concert No. 1 in D Major;” a free chamber concert on July 18 at the Whatcom Museum of History and Art and the final closing concert on July 20 featuring the festival chorus singing Poulenc’s “Gloria” with the orchestra.  If you’re in close range, I encourage you to attend one of these and if not this year, plan to go next year and celebrate yet another season with the Bellingham Festival of Music.

 

 

Lummi Nation’s Stommish Celebrates Veterans and Traditions

Americans think of Veteran’s Day as occurring on November 11 but tribal members of Lummi Nation honored the service, bravery and commitment of their veterans this past weekend during the tribe’s 72nd annual Stommish celebration.  It’s a three-day event that takes place on Lummi Nation’s Stommish Grounds located just a 30-minute drive north of Bellingham.  The waterfront festival is open to everyone and draws people from throughout the region.

Stommish means ‘warrior’ in the Halkomelem language, the language of the Lummi and Cowichan tribal people. It began in 1946 when tribal members Edith and Victor Jones planned a community celebration to honor and welcome home their two sons, Bill and Stanley Solomon, from World War II. Of the 720 Lummi members in 1946, 104 served in the armed forces and 101 of them returned safely home to return to their Lummi way of life.  Today, the event has become an annual festival that not only recognizes those veterans, but also one that traditional dancing, games, food and canoe races.   Stommish starts, however, with an opening ceremony during which the veterans who are introduced to the assembled crowd.

Afterwards, celebrants line the beach along the stretch of Hale’s Passage to watch as teams of canoers compete.  The sleek, cedar canoes are paddled by teams of twos and sixes, with some racers as young a 10-years-old, down one length of the course and back again while those onshore cheer them on.  The boats are beautiful on the blue water and bright summer sun.  The paddlers are strong and at the race’s end dripping with sweat from the effort.

Teams compete in the cedar canoe race in the waters where tribal ancestors have paddled for generations.

In another section of the grounds people participate and watch the traditional Sal Hal Bone Game. Sal Hal is an old Native American Pacific Coast guessing and gambling game.  It involves teams of players who face each and must correctly guess which hand holds the unmarked bone.  Correct guesses or losses are tallied with a set of sticks.  The team or person with the most sticks at the end of the game wins and collects the money that has been wagered.  The game is accompanied by traditional song and instruments performed by the team hiding the bones in their hands. It all makes for good-spirited fun and, for the winning teams, a pocketful of cash.

A set of sticks is used to keep track of the wins and losses of the team guessing during the traditional Sla Hal Bone Game.
A tribal dancer performs.

No celebration is complete without dancing. Lummi tribal members wearing traditional costumes performed a number of dances for those who gathered around an artificial grass carpet.  Dancers of all ages entertained while those of us on the sidelines watched or,  during one number, joined in as participants.

Throughout the day, people feast on a variety of food sold by the different vendors set up on the Stommish Grounds. The most popular of all, however, was the delicious $10 salmon filet plate served with side dishes and the large, fresh cooked crab so tasty, juicy and caught right from the bay beyond the festival grounds.  People, like me, enjoyed the seafood while viewing the canoe races taking place.

Fresh cooked crab caught right from the waters beyond the Stommish Grounds was a treat for hungry attendees.

Under the canopies of booths set up around the grounds, people demonstrated and sold Native American arts, handicrafts and souvenirs. Handcrafted woven reed hats, made in the traditional way and skirted style, was one of the many items for sale. Bold, geometric Native designs decorated the t-shirts  and hooded sweatshirts that could also be purchased.  Cruising through the various tents provided an opportunity for a little holiday or birthday gift shopping.  I did both!

The day’s activities also included an old-fashioned Princess and Warrior crowning, a cute baby contest, oldest Veteran recognition and a small carnival with rides for kids.  It’s a festival full of family oriented fun that, judging by those attending this past weekend, was enjoyed by everyone.

Stommish starts at noon and lasts well late into the long summer day.  Campers, both in tents and recreational vehicles, are packed tightly into the designated overnight area on the grounds. Parking can be challenging so car-pooling is a good idea.  The event was a great way to spend a summer weekend day with the friends and families of this Native Nation, to become familiar with this proud tribe’s traditions and to join tribal members in saluting and thanking those who served in the United States military and returned. Hy’ shqe! (Thank you!)

A child checks out the curious but probably significant arrangement of found items placed on the floor of the beach shelter.

You can view more of my Stommish day images in my blog portfolio.

 

 

Culinary Matriarch Commanded Legendary NOLA Restaurant

Ella Brennan was a  giant among restaurateurs in New Orleans as was her reputation for establishing and running one of this country’s most renowned culinary institutions, Commander’s PalaceShe died this past week at age 92 leaving her daughter, Ti, and niece, Lally, to carry on the reputation of operating  the prestigious restaurant located on the corner of Washington and Coliseum in the  Garden District of New Orleans.

Whether you arrive by carriage or car, Commander’s Palace is ready to serve you.

Indeed, Commander’s has become part of my own tradition since my husband and I  started going to New Orleans 17 years ago.  We originally went to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary.  We’ve returned year after year for a winter-break.  Usually, we only stay a week, but it’s been enough time for us to become very familiar with the city and its outlying area, to make some very good friends and to sample lots of good food all over the city in its too many to mention restaurants.

The mosaic seal in the lobby at Commander’s Palace notes the year it was established.

Every year, however, Commander’s is at the top of our list as the way we start our visit.  It has become our personal tradition to make the Garden District restaurant our first stop for Sunday jazz brunch.  Without brunch at Commander’s I honestly don’t know how to begin our trip.  There have been a couple of years when I failed to phone early enough (a month in advance is advised) to book our table and no reservation was available.  Fortunately, Jimmy, the reservation agent who I’ve come to know over the years, told me to call back a few days before our given Sunday because often there will be an opening.  When I did, as I had to do this year, we’ve managed to get in.  I have been so thankful for this accommodation on these times that I now take a little box of chocolates for Jimmy in gratitude.

Ti Martin, one of the restaurant owners, right, in a photo with me during one of my visits.

What makes Commander’s so special is not only the delicious Creole-style food served on its menu (recently updated by current executive chef Tory McPhail who hails from nearby Ferndale, WA.), but its impeccable service, lovely surroundings, fun, relaxing atmosphere, the jazz music played while you eat and Southern hospitality shown by its owners, Ella, her sister Dottie, and the aforementioned Ti and Lally.  Whenever Ti and Lally are in-house, they tend to alternate shifts, they make it a point to walk through their dining rooms to greet and check on their customers, whether or not they know them.

Birthdays celebrants at Commander’s are presented with a chef’s hat along with your dessert, like this bread pudding soufflé.

I’ve had wonderful conversations with them both over the years, had the chance to introduce them to friends who’ve joined us for the meal and to tell them time and again how much I love their restaurant.  I have celebrated anniversaries, birthdays and Carnival with friends and family there, just as many New Orleanians do.  I’ve seen parties of grandmothers, mothers and daughters who’ve come in after church, all wearing a single strand of pearls, to celebrate a special occasion.  I’ve enjoyed overhearing excited chats by tables of tourists experiencing Commanders for the first time.  And I’ve had the immense pleasure of taking my own friends and family their for their first meal.

Ella Brennan’s restaurant is more than just a place to eat fine food, it’s a place where these sort of traditions are established and carried on by generations of patrons, for whom, like myself, life or a visit in New Orleans is unheard of without Commander’s.

Reopening after Hurricane Katrina, Commander’s hung out its ‘Now Hiring’ sign. My friend, Mary Lou and I were among the first diners that year.

After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, leaving considerable damage to Commander’s as well as the rest of the Garden District, largely due to the high force winds, people wondered if Commander’s would re-open.  For the Brennan ladies in charge, there apparently was no question.  They took the disaster as an opportunity to rebuild and renovate. It took them more than a year.

I walked by the winter after the storm to find it all boarded up.  But then I returned the following year when it was back in business, listened to Lally as she described to me the full extent of the restoration and relished in the fact that it, like New Orleans, was resilient and determined to get back on its feet, despite a lack of support from some in government.  That was the year that I talked with the group of women sitting at the table next to me, heard their ‘storm stories’ and learned that their Episcopal church had been the recipient of recovery funds from the Episcopalian diocese in Washington state.  Their gratitude was touching.

Typically, I ask for a table in the dining area overlooking Commander’s tree-covered courtyard because I feel more like a ‘local’ there and enjoy sitting at eye-level with the big, gnarly branches of the Southern oak that stretches over it.  The chairs are cushioned and tables are arranged with plenty of room between for the jazz trios that play during brunch (one usually cruises downstairs while a second plays upstairs) to maneuver their instruments, including a stand-up bass, between to play requests. Every now and then, diners are coaxed into a joining a ‘second line’to wave their napkins as they wind through the dining room.

Brunch guests join the restaurant’s jazz trio in an impromptu second line parade through the dining room.

The menu is extensive and all of it tasty.  I tend to order the breakfast entrees, rather than the luncheon selections, whenever we go but had the pecan-crusted gulf fish this year instead of my favorite Cochon de Lait Eggs Benedict.  Of course you must order a ‘starter’ to begin–the turtle soup is always popular as is the gumbo but I usually opt for a seasonal salad, quite often topped with fresh, local strawberries.  I always save room for dessert because Commander’s creole bread pudding soufflé with whiskey cream sauce is not to be missed!  It’s a once a year splurge that I’m not willing to pass up.  And to drink, a Bloody Mary or Mimosa followed by chicory coffee for those, unlike me, who consume coffee.

Commander’s courtyard and the trumpet on break during a Sunday brunch.

While the food is wonderful, it’s the little touches that make the meal even more memorable–fresh, crusty French bread laid on the table in a wrapped white linen napkin nearly as soon as you sit down; bus boys and girls who refill your water the instant the level drops much below two-thirds of a glass; the simultaneous serving of each course by the black and white attired wait staff; the cheery, welcome by the maitre d’ the minute you step in the door and of course the personal table visits by the owners.

After eating, I enjoy strolling through the rest of the restaurant, including a stop in the spacious and sparkling clean kitchen (the swinging doors leading into it are labeled “Yes” and “No”) where you can watch the amazing cook staff in action.  There is even a table in the kitchen where diners can sit and watch the show if you reserve it.

Diners are welcome and can even eat in the kitchen where you can watch the cook staff in action.

If it’s Carnival season, as it was this year when I was in town, you’re invited to go watch the parades moving along St. Charles Street just a few blocks away and welcome to return to Commander’s for the toilet should the need arise.  Or, if not, we wander through the historic neighborhood, admiring the elegant, old homes there, which include Miss Brennan’s herself located right next door to the restaurant.  If someone is with us who has never visited the city before, we walk through the Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, across the street, the oldest city-operated cemetery where the tombs are above-ground and the statuary and inscriptions represent New Orleans’ rich history.

The elegant dining room on the main floor of Commander’s Palace as viewed through the glass window in the restaurant’s lobby.

For me, Commander’s is the consummate culinary experience with outstanding food, unsurpassed service and Southern hospitality at its finest. These are the qualities that Ella Brennan insisted be carried out in her beloved restaurant. They are standards to which other eating establishments throughout the U.S. have aspired to achieve as a result. Whether or not you’ve ever been to Commander’s it’s possible that you’ve eaten somewhere that has been influenced by her example.

If you’ve not yet been to the New Orleans restaurant, I hope you’ll consider making it part of your visit when you go.  But be forewarned, it still maintains a dress code that is enforced although it’s been relaxed some in recent years.  I guarantee it will be a culinary experience you’ll not forget and it might become, as it has for us, a new tradition.

 

 

Totem Memorializes Local Tragedy

On this weekend in the U.S., people are honoring the memories of the country’s military  who died in action. But another memorial is on my mind today prompted by an article that appeared the other day in the local newspaper.  That is the beautiful totem pole memorial that stood along the trail of Whatcom Creek on the edgeof Whatcom Falls Park in our city.

The healing totem was especially beautiful in the spring when the trees surrounding it flowered.

Sadly, the totem was recently removed, I read in the Bellingham Herald after someone vandalized and ‘tagged’ the pole with graffiti.  Not long ago, a friend of mine had told me that the box that sat atop the pole, was missing and wondered why.  Now the entire pole and the two carved wooden benches that sat beside it are gone after city workers removed them and placed them in protective storage until they can be restored.

While the city’s action is commendable, that of the vandals was disrespectful and, frankly, inexcusable.  I am giving those individuals the benefit of the doubt that they apparently are unaware of that they not only did they deface a significant Native artwork, but in so doing they insulted the artist, the Lummi Nation and the families of those killed in the 1999 Bellingham pipeline explosion for whom the pole was intended to memorialize.

The vibrant, bold colors of the totem can be seen in this detail of a salmon.

The 15-foot cedar log pole was created by the Lummi House of Tears carvers under the direction of Lummi Nation’s master carver Jewell James. Its bright, bold and beautiful paint was applied under the supervision of head painter Ramona James.  The pole took months to carve and paint before finally being erected and dedicated during an Earth Day ceremony in 2007.   “The pole is to restore the stream and its habitat and to remember the three boys who lost their lives,” carver James told American Profile reporter Heather Larson.

James referred to the three boys–Liam Wood, 18, Wade King and Stephen Tsiovras, both 10, who were killed when the Olympic pipeline (now owned by British Petroleum) carrying gasoline exploded dumping an estimated 277,000 gallons into the creek that runs through Whatcom Falls Park, located in the middle of Bellingham.  Liam was fishing after having just graduated from high school; Wade and Stephen were playing, as they often did together, further down creek.  It was a day that darkened the sky over Bellingham as the black cloud billowed above the park.  The explosion literally stopped life in town as everyone, myself included, wondered what had happened and emergency first responders rushed to the site.

Lummi Nation master carver Jewell James speaks at the dedication ceremony.

The explosion made national news, changed national pipeline regulation (although the families of those who died will tell you not enough) and some believe awoke Bellingham to the dangers that unregulated and aging pipelines pose for not only our city, but others like it throughout the country.

Lummi Nation tribal members as well as family and Bellingham community members gathered on April 20, 2007 to dedicate the healing totem.

I was present, along with a few others, on the day of Lummi Nation gave and dedicated the totem and benches to the city. The ceremony was emotional and moving with other Pacific Northwest Native Nations witnessing the event in order to pass the story along to the next generation. Those gathered listened solemnly as carver James spoke eloquently about the need to promote healing for all those impacted by the explosions, wildlife as well as human life, and about the importance of being good stewards of the environment.  Members of the Lummi Nation, also delivered a heartfelt messages for the family members attending. Lummi drummers and flutists played.  Blankets were draped around the shoulders of the deceased boys’ young friends, now high school students, participating in the unveiling during the ceremony.

The parents of Wade King, Frank and Mary, watch as their son’s personal belongings are placed into the memorial box on the totem.

Then, James asked the family members of the victims to bring forward the items that they had brought to be placed into the memorial box positioned atop the totem.  One by one the personal belongings of Stephen and Wade were handed up the tall ladder to the tribal member who carefully laid them inside.  A teddy bear, a baseball card and cap were among the things. The lid was fitted tightly and sealed.  Tears streamed down the faces of not only the family members but others who were that day.

And, as the ceremony was ending, two solitary eagles soared and glided over head, just as James had told Wade’s mother, Mary, earlier that day that they would.

As if on cue, two majestic eagles appeared, silhouetted in the sky, as the totem’s dedication ceremony concluded.

It was a day I’ll never forget.  When I read about the vandalism of the totem and its removal, my heart ached.  The city is apparently intent on repairing and restoring the totems and benches but in the meantime, there is a huge emptiness where they stood in the opening by the creek. The runners, walkers and visitors who pass by it will miss it.  The totem served as a somber, dignified reminder, as well as a memorial, to those who tragically died on that early June day in Bellingham.  That’s what’s on my mind this Memorial Day.