Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Turner Prize nominations: art at the BALTIC, Gateshead

It is only the second time that the exhibition of works for the Turner Prize artist nominations has been held outside London: this year in Gateshead – across the Tyne River from Newcastle in northeastern England. The venue is the BALTIC, a converted flour mill silo (which deserves another blog on its own). A friend and I went to view the work of the four nominated artists; the exhibition runs from 21 October 2011 to 8 January 2012, but the Prize will be announced next Monday, December 5th, so we were glad to be able to form our own opinions before being told what is best!

Each artist had one exhibit room for their installation. We wrote off two after puzzling over the work:  Hilary Lloyd's non-sensical video presentations which made me feel seasick, and Karen Black's crumpled paper and plastic bag creations in pastel colours (though I must admit that walking behind the crumpled paper "waterfall", as I interpreted it, was kind of neat).

We disagreed on who should win the Prize. My friend went for Martin Boyce's sculpture installation which included a ceiling of vertical plastic fins representing tree leaves, with oiled paper leaf cutouts scattered across the floor; a wall-mounted panel of seemingly poured concrete with the wood-grain mould pattern overlaid by scattered alphabet-like letters; half a library table top carved with similar letters and mounted on a metal frame of odd angles that was twice as big as the wood table top; wall heating vents that used patterns resembling the letters in their grills; and an obliquely tilted red rubbish bin with torn flannel liner. All these things were interesting in themselves, but a BALTIC Crew member had to explain how they hung together: representing a park with indoor items (the table) placed outside. Fine, but when I have to have a work explained to me, I feel that the artist hasn't got his message across very successfully.

I chose the paintings of George Shaw, all small (ca. 30x40cm) and mounted in traditional form around the room walls. These were done with enamel paints, more often used on model cars, and many were somber bordering on dark. His topics were the mundane aspects of his childhood neighbourhood, both remembered, recreated, and in transition to their current state. None included people, but the manner of painting – flat, fairly solid colours – reminded me of Edward Hopper's work and some were equally "bleak", a word Shaw himself used in his interview video. What struck me was the differential effort put into the detail of the pictures: in the painting "New Houses", a row of orangey coloured tract houses on the horizon were backed by indistinct trees, but the entire foreground was a field fenced off for further development. While the houses were painted without architectural detail, great attention was paid to the field's mudpuddles and drying clay, diverting our focus to things we would probably overlook and discount in our daily life.

So, we await the announcement of the Turner Prize on December 5th with hope and trepidation! Go see, to make your own choices...

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Corn, Beans & Squash: a vegetarian Thanksgiving

Yesterday (Saturday) saw us celebrating Thanksgiving; since Thursday is not a holiday here in England, the dinner usually happens on the weekend. And since we invited vegetarian friends, we had to think up a menu that didn't include turkey. What's Thanksgiving without a turkey, you might ask? Well, how about the original pilgrim menu...

As I heard it in my youth, after many years and months trying to get to the Americas, the pilgrims finally landed on our eastern shores just in time for winter. Not having been able to farm and hunt beforehand to build up winter stocks, they were starving! Native Americans came to the rescue with their staples of corn, beans & squash, and a couple of wild turkeys thrown in for good measure. Ever since, the turkey has overshadowed the triumvirate of good complementary vegetable proteins.

Corn, of course, is the native English word for grain and includes wheat, barley, rye, oats – cereals that can be ground for flour. This is why many English towns have a Corn Exchange building where grains were once brought to market. So when the pilgrims saw Zea mays (named after the Taino Indian word, mahiz or maisí), they must have thought, Oh, this is American corn. While in England, if one wants to be perfectly clear you are talking about Zea mays, you should use the word "maize" rather than "corn", although the Brits do refer to corn-on-the-cob as "sweet corn".
Sorry, I'd eaten most of my cornbread when I decided to
take this picture!

In any case, our menu included both corn-on-the-cob (boiled in water for 20 minutes, eaten with butter and salt), and cornbread. Now the latter was a problem because coarse-ground cornmeal is not normally sold in England. They have "corn flour", which is our "corn starch", and they also unaccountably stock masa harina – fine-ground maize for making corn tortillas. I say unaccountably because the El Paso brand of ready prepared Mexican foodstuffs is very popular here, so why is anyone making corn tortillas from scratch? The American cornbread has definitely not caught on here – I wonder why not since it's soooo good served warm, lathered with butter.
To complement the corn, I made vegetarian Boston Baked Beans (what could be more tasty with its infusions of maple syrup, spiced rum and molasses?). Navy beans not being sold here, I used cannellini beans, which are way bigger than navy beans though they are both Phaseolus vulgaris L.; next time I will try haricot beans, another P. vulgaris variety. For dessert, pumpkin pie, classified as a "sweet pie" and served a la mode of course. The latter also caused problems because, not being a pastry chef, I prefer to buy frozen pie shells, but there were none to be had in the supermarkets. So I thought, graham cracker crust is a good substitute, but graham crackers aren't sold here either. Finally I found a recipe that substituted ginger snaps! These they do have here but are called "ginger nuts" or "ginger crinkles". To compensate, I left out the ginger from the pie filling recipe, and the combination of pumpkin and ginger snaps was really good!

Our English dinner guests very much liked the offerings to the extent that the cornbread recipe was shared and taken home. I hope they can find coarse-ground cornmeal somewhere down the line as it makes a lighter, more crumbly bread than the dense masa harina product.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Pie: meat or sweet?

The menu said "pie and salad", which didn't strike a chord with me. If it had said "salad and pie", then I would have thought lunch and dessert. But in fact, the word "pie" in England refers mainly to meat pie, like pork pies, steak & kidney pies, while fruit pies are usually called "tarts" and are rarely as big as American pies.

So I was very surprised to see, in my local coffee shop this afternoon, both kinds of pies being offered:  corned beef pie and steak pie next to apple pie and cherry pie – all so labeled. The "sweet pies", as the lady behind the counter called them, were as large and luscious looking as real American double-crust pies (but no ice cream was offered).
Pies were an East/Southeast London staple the last two centuries. We were first introduced to them at Goddards in Greenwich, the oldest pie & mash business in England. Jellied eel was one of the first dishes created (eat at your own risk), with other meats added as the population became better off. Individual pies were the order of the day, with one or two on a plate accompanied by mashed potatoes (mash) and parsley sauce (liquor). So few of these shops remain that they are being documented (for example, in the blog on Spitalfields Life).

These days, there is even a chain called Square Pie that serves decent meat pies (at least to my tastebuds); but the chain's upmarket furnishings are a far cry from the tiled walls, stone floors, and utilitarian chairs and tables of traditional pie & mash shops. Lastly, both individual and large meat pies can be bought at the supermarket deli, the latter sold by slice as well. We like the turkey and cranberry pie – Ach! Should have had one yesterday for Thanksgiving but never thought of it...At least they're available all year 'round.

Brits are so unacquainted with fruit pies ("sweet pies" rather than tarts) that I had to insist that a group I was on tour with in Arizona made a special stop at a quaint log-built roadside restaurant that advertised thirteen kinds of pie (with ice cream). The group's choices were interesting: tending more to berry fillings (like the fruit tarts they are acquainted with here), and few actually ordered pie a la mode (i.e. with ice cream). But us two Americans in the group knew how to do it and filled up on our favourites with loads of you-know-what on the side!

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Observations on English Houses

One thing about the English landscape that is so distinctive is its rows of terraced houses snaking up and over hills, through valleys, in wiggly patterns so unlike gridded streets and house lots of America. There are three kinds of houses in England: the vast majority are terraced houses (row houses), a substantial number are semi-detached houses or "semis" (what we would call duplexes back home except these are usually two-storied), and a minor number of fully detached houses (what we consider a normal house in America) on its own lot. These last do not include "bungalows" which are indeed detached but much smaller in dimension and therefore don't rank with the wealthy detached houses. So in fact, there are four main kinds of houses, in addition to which, many people refer to flats (apartments) as "houses": friends who say "We're in the process of buying a house" often mean they are buying a flat.
Typical semis (this word always reminds me of semi-articulated trucks [lorries], not houses) 
Terraced houses are quite a diverse lot. I tend to dislike them because they often open up directly onto the street, with no front garden at all, and many front doors open directly into the living room with no hall/entry-way. These aspects gives you a sense that terraced houses are quite (very) small and rather dumpy inside. However, do not be misled! Terraced houses can be immense: four or five floors, with the lower below street-line and accessed by an outside staircase (many of these have been turned into hotels/B&Bs in London). These are the older Victorian buildings constructed with basements – a feature that few if any modern houses have.

Old or modern, one defining feature of English houses is that they usually have their plumbing on the outside walls of the house rather than running internally. This is unsightly but functional: in the days before central heating and combination boilers (pre-1980), despite winters not getting very cold here, pipes and holding tanks would often freeze up in the few cold snaps. One could get into the loft (attic) to unthaw the pipes and tank with a hair dryer (personal experience speaking here). Same with the outside pipes: they are accessible without having to rip the walls apart.

Outside drainage pipes normally do not lead directly into under-ground sewers but discharge into open drains, much like eaves-pipes in America. The fact that there is a space between pipe and drain causes two problems: a minor inconvenience is that the drains are always filling up with leaves and need periodic cleaning out;  but worse is that spiders can climb up the drain pipes into sinks and baths, and they do regularly! A normal feature of English houses in wintertime is large (2–2.5" diameter) house spiders appearing overnight into one's bathtub...

The final thing about houses is that their relative economic values are not confined to certain neighborhoods (neighbourhoods). When house-buying, it is necessary to check out each individual street rather than rely on quality of neighbourhoods. Large detatched houses can sit next to or across from a row of terraces. And modern housing estates are often created from a mixture of the two to appeal to both income levels.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Unintentional Street Art in London

Several roads around London are being repaved at the height of the leaf-drop season. What you get, then, is unintended street art where autumn leaves have been pressed into the new tarmac/asphalt/macadam (but not pavement – which is a sidewalk) by traffic or even by the street paving roller. These are unexpected and beautiful additions to the capital's streets, but how long will they last?
   In the above photo, you can see three leaves in the lower lefthand corner which have fallen since re-paving. They will be crushed and dispersed soon by the traffic, wind and rain. But let's see how long the impressed patterns last. This photo was taken on Marchmont Street, Bloomsbury – near the North Sea Fish Restaurant. I have seen other leaf impressions on the Strand near Aldwich, with the impressed patterns standing in stark contrast to older grey tarmac. Where else, anybody?

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Bill Frisell at the South Bank

Tonight we caught the last installment of the London Jazz Festival this year: Bill Frisell with his string quartet playing to a packed audience at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank. It was quite (very)* stupendous though off on a rocky start: with troubles in the sound system, it was difficult to recognize when various pluckings became the first piece rather than noise.

I am not a jazz aficionado and know little about the genre, but I do know what I like and that is not noisy, disjointed jazz. Frisell plays more melodic tunes on the electric guitar, tonight tending towards minimalism with much repetition and 'variations on a theme'. His compositions are very playful and exploit the unusual sound-making aspects of classical stringed instruments. I particularly liked the plucking and strumming of the violin, viola and cello – so unexpected to a classically oriented ear. His pieces aren't as lyrical as, for example Chet Atkins in his "Sails" album, but they are interesting listening and keep you on your toes. At least one of Frisell's pieces drew on a folk song, while an encore piece was an arrangement of "Strawberry Fields Forever", supposedly a tribute to us here in London from Denverite Bill.

If I had two gripes, one is that Bill's electric guitar, which had the potential to overshadow the other strings, almost acted as a underlying support for the tunes. It didn't soar (like 70s rock, my favourite), and the virtuosity attributed to his playing (as done with Béla Fleck) was not really apparent tonight. The second gripe is the structure of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, with the sound desk right in the middle of the seating (photo). So next time, I'll not choose seats in rows AA to about JJ in the middle of the Rear Stalls: even top price tickets give a bad view here.

Still, it was a great night out and the first of the London Jazz Festival I have been able to attend over many years. And the honey nut tarts sold at the Hall kiosk were amazingly close to the taste of pecan pie!

NeWt, the band fronting Bill Frisell, barely visible over the sound desk in the middle of Queen Elizabeth Hall.

* It was only after a year of marking student papers "quite good" that I discovered that meant "not good enough" in British English. Here I use it in the American sense of "very good".

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Deplaning Etiquette

I've been travelling (traveling) recently and have pondered the etiquette of how to empty a plane of passengers. In the United States, it seems that there is a self-imposed etiquette of deplaning by rows: everyone in the aisles waits for a row to empty before the next row empties, and so on down the plane. However, in Europe (including Britain, including England), it seems there is an unstated process of deplaning by columns: first everyone in the aisle seats stands up and gets their luggage out, and as soon as the plane doors open, the aisle empties, allowing people in the middle seats to stand up and get their luggage out, and finally the window seat occupants.

To me, the European option seems to be much more efficient because those ready to deplane can depart while others not yet ready prepare themselves. The American option wastes a lot of time because all those in the aisle ready to deplane must wait for all those unprepared people ahead of them.

I ran this scenario by one of my English informants, and he disagreed. He thought it was a free-for-all with no patterning. So I throw these thoughts out to you all to see if you have noticed any pattern, and if so, which do you think best?

Awaiting your comments,
Yours (truly), gleeb

Monday, 14 November 2011

Make a Pumpkin Pie!

What to do with that old Halloween pumpkin? Make pumpkin pie, of course! It’s one of the seasonal, sentimental foods that Americans really miss in England. And since they don’t routinely sell tinned (canned) pumpkin pie filling in the supermarkets, that means you have to make your own filling.

This was a cooking pumpkin: walls 3" thick!
Hardest part is actually cutting up the pumpkin. I used a whole pumpkin (not with a funny face) that is particularly bred for pie – like Bramley apples are specifically cooking apples that are great in apple pie. It was really a tough pumpkin, three inches thick in places. I had to use a hatchet to break it open. And you can see from the picture that I made two half-hearted attempts with the hatchet that only sliced off conchoidal disks from the surface. The third try went straight in.

After cutting up the pumpkin and scooping out the seeds, separate the seeds as much as possible from the fibers. Spread the seeds for roasting on a flat baking tray and coat with salad oil. Bake the pumpkin pieces in the oven at 350° for 1.5 hours. The seeds can be started with the pumpkin, but they must be stirred occasionally and not allowed to burn, taking much less time to roast than the pumpkin.

Once baked, the pulp can easily be scooped from the skin (peeling a pumpkin beforehand with a vegetable peeler is a thankless and usually unsuccessful task). Use at least an 8-inch diameter pumpkin for 1.5 to 2 8-oz cups of pulp. The following recipe is in American measures:

Take 2 cups baked pumpkin pulp and mash with a potato masher; if it's stringy, then puree it in a blender or food processor. Put the puree in a strainer and squeeze out most of the moisture or stir it in saucepan at medium heat to evaporate as much liquid as possible.

Combine and blend dry ingredients:
½ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger powder

Add to the dry ingredients:
3 eggs, well beaten
The reduced pumpkin pulp
1 cup milk

Pour mixture into an unbaked pie shell and
Bake at 350°F for about 40–50 minutes

Top with whipped cream before serving, or serve with vanilla ice cream!

Friday, 11 November 2011

Making music at the Elm Tree

I wrote earlier about the Durham University Folk Society getting together on Wednesday nights at the Market Tavern to play music out of their tunebooks. An equally fun group to play with is the Tuesday night group at the Elm Tree pub, which I introduced earlier.

The Elm Tree Tuesday group is small and jams without sheet music, unlike the Folk Society playing at the Market Tavern. Anyone who brings an instrument can join in if they know the tunes. The regulars include a bodhrán and spoons player, a flutist, a fiddler, a mandolinist/guitarist, a penny-whistler, a melodeon and whistle player, a piper, and a strummer of a real Greek bouzouki. 

The bouzouki has been taken into Irish music as has the guitar, but it is rare to see the real thing rather than the flat-backed adaptation. The bouzouki has a rounded back, much like the traditional mandolin. But our mandolin player, quoting a famous phrase, said his mandolin was shaped like a boat, but his stomach was not shaped like a harbour, so he recently traded his punkin’seed mandolin in for a flat-backed. (More about pumpkins and seeds to come....)

If you’re a beginner, like me, the trick to playing with a group is to start the piece yourself, setting the pace. This is a hard and scary thing to do, but at least the rest of the players join in at a speed you can play at. Believe me, if the fiddler in our group sets the pace, I can hardly keep up, and the worse thing you can do is lose the rhythm. They always say that you shouldn’t play a tune unless you know it. But even if you know it in your head, your fingers might not follow, so practice is essential both with and without the group.

There are many great slow tunes (think of the Titanic soundtrack) that are wonderfully lyrical. For some reason, these are not often played in sessions, with everyone concentrating on the fast jigs and hornpipes, reels and polkas. On Tuesdays at the Elm Tree, we can get the group to play slow tunes and stick generally to a repertoire we know. This is more fun than when we attended an Irish session in London and only recognized 4 out of maybe 20 tunes, with that group focussing on the little known and obscure tunes.

So find yourself a session you like, with good people, knowable tunes, and the right mix of instruments. The website thesession.org lists over 2000 sessions around the world, one of which may be on your doorstep. Treat yourself to a fun evening of listening and even participation in live music while knocking back a few pints.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Hot Springs not in England

No sooner have the leaves fallen from the trees that it began to snow. Big fluffy flakes, wet and heavy. What better time to go sit in one of Colorado’s several hot springs. This is great family time: soaking and talking for the adults, kids playing quietly in the shallows. One even rolled big snowballs at the side of the pool in her bathing suit to make a snowman.

Trimble Hot Springs, Durango, Colorado on Guy Fawkes Day
No, this blog is not about how to have fun in England. It is about the fun in the States or several other places that we miss in England. They don’t even have the words “hot springs” there – only “spa’ or “sauna”. Yes, there are plenty of places to go sit in indoor facilities: a jacuzzi or a dry/wet sauna, but there is none of the enticement of lazing away a couple of hours with friends or family. The spas in London are generally unisex and clothesless, with Ladies’ Days and Men’s Days. Health clubs around the country have the same, but at least they are duosex and everyone everywhere must wear swimsuits. It seems most English spas make their money from add-on massages, etc., rather than providing interesting bathing experiences in and of themselves. 

Harrogate is one place that has a duosex Victorian spa (Harrogate Turkish Baths and Health Spa), renovated in the last few years to rid it of the musty smell and peeling paint it had been afflicted by. People going there have very mixed reactions; if they don't know what to expect, they tend to like the three hot rooms with showers inbetween, plus steam room and cold plunge pool. But if they are experienced, or if the place is crowded, the visit can be really frustrating. Despite its name, it is not really like a Turkish bath where all soaps and oils are provided, as well as a skin-removing rub down with a rough loofah. And compared to other facilities, the offerings are slim. 

But the places we really like to go are The Netherlands, with their wonderful duosex, clothesless, 30-station saunas that take at least two hours to make the rounds of each station with a comfortable bar and lounge area to take a break and have a drink among cattle-hide upholstered furniture and thick towels. And Japan, which has a few remaining duosex, clothesless spas tucked into the countryside. Unfortunately, the American Occupation Forces in Japan decreed men and women should no longer bathe together, so since the late 40s, all public bath houses and most hot springs are segregated; and in those segregated places, bathing is without clothes. The best hot springs in Japan have outdoor pools or even river rock pools to soak in.

The mix and match in these countries between morals (signified by clothes or no clothes), segregated or all together, indoors or outdoors is quite interesting but not always the best of fun. We just wish England could take a page from some other countries and get a nice hot springs economy up and running. We’d be the first to jump in.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Tea: Food or Drink?

A confusing aspect of English culture for Americans is how to interpret the meaning of “tea”. A drink, yes? But no, tea can also be a meal. And then there are teatimes with food as well.

Biscuit tin advertisement: "Morning Tea with no biscuit is not satisfactory"
Let’s start with teatimes with food. There are tea and biscuits, which can happen even as a wake-up call in the morning (photo), or more normally in the afternoon. Then there is cream tea, which is not tea with cream in it (no, never!). Cream tea is tea with at least scones, butter and jam; but if you’re really lucky, it’s together with scones, clotted cream and jam (clotted cream is like frothy butter and just as rich). Or if you are in southwestern England, it is tea with scones, clotted cream, jam and cake (preferably a large piece of death-by-chocolate-cake).

Finally there is High Tea, which is tea with scones, clotted cream, jam, cake AND cucumber sandwiches (with the crusts cut off, of course). High Tea is usually around 4 or 5 pm, to hold you over until dinner at 7 or 8. So what if you are invited to tea at 5 pm. Will it be High Tea or a meal? Tea at 5.00 is children’s supper. No tea drink is served. So you will often hear parents say that they have to get the kid’s tea ready, or have them eat their tea early so the parents can go out for the evening. But we were invited to tea once at 5 pm and got supper with no children present, no tea drink, and most disappointingly, no scones, clotted cream, jam, cake or cucumber sandwiches. Just a nice supper. Very confusing indeed.

I think one solution to the problem of whether tea means a meal or teatime with food is to follow the English custom of elevenses. Coffee time in England is 11 am (to last you until lunch at 1.00 pm [note that the British do not use a colon for time designations]). So coffee and a snack are called ‘elevenses’. Now, why can’t we have ‘fourses’ for the 4.00 pm tea and snack? If four o’clock teatime was called fourses, then ‘tea’ could be reserved for ‘supper’. Perfectly logical, eh?

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Opening Doors

This blog is not about networking or creating opportunities. It is about opening doors! One of the inscrutable things about living in England for Americans is that almost all doors open inwards. In the States, doors on public and commercial buildings open outwards by law, so that in case of fire, people don’t pile up behind those trying to get the door open.

If you see Americans struggling to get a door open in England, one of two things might be wrong. After years of training to pull open a door, one has to remember to push instead. But second, not all doors are unlocked. This is extremely confusing, especially since often only one door of two is unlocked but you can never tell which one. Why can’t there be some system to either have the left door open (drive on the left?) or the right door open (walk against traffic?). But these analogies are useless, actually; when you try to walk down a crowded street, there is no consensus whether to walk on the left or on the right. Anyway, going in a double door, if the left one is open, coming out it will be the right one. Why not just open both doors? Is it really that hard to unlock two doors rather than just one?

Of course, houses are different, and most front doors to houses open inwards even in the States. But what about interior doors? In every house/flat we have lived in in England, we have had to either take the doors off or rehang them on the other side – because frustratingly, the doors open into the centre (center) of the room (or even worse, directly across a hallway) rather than against the wall, where they would not be in the way. So we end up having rehung doors opening against the lightswitch. If anyone knows a good reason why English doors open into the centre of a room, I would be really interested in hearing it.

The outward-opening door of an American public building. The solution to the problem is on the left side: double-opening sliding doors that open neither inwards nor outwards.