Cultureguru's Weblog

Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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Experiencing pop culture in a time of grief

When someone you love dies, blogging about pop culture, news, travel, and food drops off the priority list.

Doesn’t mean that these trivialities drop our of your life, though. Just that your relationship to them changes, at least for a time.

Music

You know, if you break my heart I’ll go
But I’ll be back again
‘Cause I told you once before good-bye
And I came back again

Music is an emotional mindfield, isn’t it? I don’t think The Beatles “I’ll Be Back” would make anyone’s list of saddest songs ever, but on a day of bad news, I couldn’t handle it. I frantically searched through my playlists for safer havens. I finally settled on “High Energy”, a gathering of uptempo rock and dance numbers, generally with pleasingly dumb lyrics. I stayed locked on that for about a week and a half, ‘til it finally seemed just too incongruous. (Then I switched to Classical.)

Adam Lambert’s excellent album Trespassing was just the sort of uptempo music I needed for a time

Food

I was interested to discover that I still got hungry, still wanted to cook, was still able to eat. Because certain forms of stress and worry make that difficult for me. But not this one, this situation with a known but sad outcome. While  I didn’t eat more, or drink more—I didn’t find comfort in that—I still enjoyed the routine of preparing and eating meals.

I certainly became a distracted cook, though. Leaving the milk out on the counter, putting the vinegar in the wrong pantry, forgetting to start the timer. Like the energy of pushing the sadness away enough to follow a recipe was not leaving enough mental space to remember anything that wasn’t written down.

Things are now improving on that front.

Movies and TV

While actually going out to a movie seemed like too much effort, watching stuff on TV was an appealing distraction. Since I don’t watch much medical stuff anyway, there wasn’t much I felt I had to avoid. Howard’s mother died on Big Bang Theory (as the actress had in real life), but it was handled with a light touch and didn’t set me off. In picking HBO movies, I decided to skip Tom Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow for now, given its premise of the lead character dying over and over. I instead watched and quite appreciated the comedic In a World, one of the more overtly feminist movies I’ve seen in a long time. Recommended.

In a World trailer

News

The human interest stories—little boys lost in the snow, Oliver Sack’s terminal cancer diagnosis—were best avoided for a while, but I still found the theatre of politics a surprisingly useful distraction. Especially in Twitter form (about the length of my attention span, at times). I couldn’t truly dig up my own personal outrage at some of what was going on, but I could still appreciate and retweet other people’s. #StopC51 and all that.

Books

Cover of Being MortalSo just a few days before all this my book club had selected Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal as our next book. It’s about getting older and end of life care, and how the medical profession has been dealing with it, and how it should.

Of course, there were days I wasn’t up to reading much of anything at all, but when I did feel up to it, I did read this, I seriously doubt I would have selected this particular book if left to my own druthers, but I feel it was in some ways helpful. It’s an excellent book, anyway, and much of it was more abstract and factual, which appealed to my logical side. Stories did become more personal and touching later in the book, but that was later in this whole saga for me too and—I don’t think it made anything worse. It certainly presented a number of scenarios I’m so glad my loved one never went through.


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Easter is all about… fine dining?

That’s not right, is it? The foods of Easter are homey ham and scalloped potatoes and cheap chocolate. Good Friday is fish. Restaurants are not full to bursting for Easter; in fact, some close for the holiday.

So I’m not sure how we came to mark the start of Easter weekend by going out to not one but two of the area’s finest restaurants. It was as spur of the moment as can be for places that require reservations.

First up, Thursday night before the long weekend, was Verses. We just… Hadn’t been there in a while. We’d hoped to have one final crack at their fine fall / winter menu, but we were just too late for that. Upside was: First crack at their fine spring / summer menu.

The place was fairly quiet this Thursday night, and being there just felt nice. As restorative as a visit to the spa.

A celebration of food!

A lovely place to be after a busy work week

We were hungry, and it was a bit difficult deciding what to choose on the new menu, most of which sounded delicious. Jean made it easy on himself appetizer-wise by going for his standby foie gras, this time served with “saffron, vanilla waffle, slow poached orange supremes, and Vin Cotto”.

Foie Gras, The most sinful food!

Le foie gras

And I suppose I also went for the somewhat habitual: They usually have some kind of seafood trio as an appetizer, which I usually can’t resist. This time it was scallops:

Sake Kombu cured on arame salad in toasted sesame rice wine vinaigrette
Ceviche, layered with pico de gallo and avocado croutons
Fennel wrapped pan seared on champagne vinegar dressed fennel fronds

Scallop Tasting

Why have scallops one way when you can have them three ways?

Jean favored the tart ceviche style; I thought it was hard to beat the traditional pan seared, but we both agreed the avocado croutons were just the coolest!

We had a heck of a time selecting our wine, partly because I somehow wanted white despite have selected duck as my main course. But we finally settled on a very lovely French Gewurtz. It arrived just after our appetizers, which may be a first (for this restaurant)! (And by after I mean, like, 30 seconds after.)

Lovely Gewürztraminer and Andrew

Andrew suggested this wine

It certainly suited Jean’s main course of three kinds of seafood: tempura shrimp with aioli, grilled octopus salad, and crab and lobster cannelloni with mushrooms and broccoli.

Seafood

Why have one kind of seafood when you can have four?

The octopus salad had a pleasant smoky taste and very nice texture. The cannelloni were rich and delicious. But perhaps the best were the crispy shrimp, which did not suffer the fate that large shrimp often seem to, of ending up kind of tasteless.

My main was seared duck breast served with a mole sauce. The duck was perfectly prepared, and I loved the chocolate  spiciness of the mole, served in its own mound. The dish was called Duck Duck Goose, and the goose was in the form of a quesadilla, which was crispy and rich. The sides were “dirty” rice—wild rice with black beans—and a Brussels sprout slaw.

We resolved to share a dessert, a plan that was complicated a bit when we didn’t agree on which one. Finally Jean just agreed to go with my choice, the maple mousse.

Maple Desert

Maple mousse

Of course, this wasn’t just maple mousse in a little dish. It was served in delicious dark chocolate, and accented with a fleur de sel tuile and caramel “dust” that tasted rather like the inside of those Crunchie bars. Everything was quite exquisite.

The Friday outing came about because Langdon Hall somehow put me back on their email list, though I haven’t been there in years. And the email mentioned they were doing an oyster and wine tasting on Good Friday, in Wilk’s Bar. Wilk’s Bar is the somewhat less formal, and somewhat less expensive, dining area at this luxury hotel. We didn’t have any particular plans for the holiday Friday, and most things were closed, so trying that out seemed like a nice afternoon outing.

We didn’t want to have another full three-course meal, but we figured that three oysters likely wouldn’t be enough to sustain us til dinner, either. So we each went with another appetizer. I ordered the squash soup with morels, duck confit, and foie gras. Jean ordered the terrine. We received the 2 oz servings of the white wines that were to suit the three oysters to come: a very dry Chablis, a good sparkling Reisling from Tawse winery, and a delicious oaky Chardonnay.

A flight of wine: Chablis, Oaked Chardonay, Tawse Sparkling -> Perfect for Oysters

Why have just one kind of wine when you can have three?

And then we waited. The warm bread basket served with butter made in-house topped with sea salt helped, but it still seemed a long wait for just soup and paté.

When the food did arrive, it came with apologies for the delay; clearly something had gone awry. And they were forgiven when we tasted everything. Hmm. Some of the best examples of squash soup and terrine ever.

Terrine doe Foie Gras - excellent!

Yay! The food is here!

The rest of the meal proceeded at the expected pace. The three kinds of oysters—raw, crispy, and baked—were each just amazingly delicious, and it was fun to have a matching wine for each.

Oyster Trio: Raw, Baked, Fried.  Best Oysters I've had in decades!

Oyster trio. (It’s high time I drop the “why have one” “joke”)

And we again indulged in dessert: One each this time! Jean had the so-called “ice cream sandwich” while I went with cranberry fritters and “hot chocolate”, which turned out to be warm chocolate mousse. And yes, I dipped the fritters.

Icecream Sandwich like no other!

Walnut ice cream and daquoise

The least pleasant part of these types of meals—paying the bill—wasn’t quite as bad this day. They gave us the desserts on the house to compensate for the delay in serving our appetizers.

On Saturday, we gathered with extended family. Interestingly, that was also more of gourmet Easter dinner than one might expect: baked lamb, two kinds of potatoes (neither scalloped, exactly), French green beans, asparagus and mushrooms. And fancy chocolate mousse pastries for dessert, along with fruit salad.

The food was delicious. And the company was even better.


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Movie reviews: Philomena and Beginners

***½ Philomena (November 2013) – Theatre

PHilomena posterJudi Dench, Steve Coogan. A cynical reporter agrees to help the elderly Philomena locate her son, who was taken from her by the church when she was a teenager.

She says: A rather delightful movie about a pretty appalling subject. The interaction between the cynical, worldly, atheist reporter Martin and the sentimental, parochial, and still-Christian Philomena is wonderful. Especially those moments when you—along with Martin—realize that Philomena is not as naive as you might think.

Their journey together to discover what happened to Philomena’s son after he was taken from her from the convent she was sent to as pregnant teenager is full of twists that I didn’t see coming. It’s all based on a true story, and it doesn’t cast the Irish Catholic church in a particularly good light.

He says: It was terrible what happened to her! It all made me so angry!

But it was nice that I wasn’t bored by the movie.

**½ Beginners (November 2011) – Rental

Beginners posterEwan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurent. After meeting a woman he connects with, artist Oliver thinks back on his Dad’s last few years of life as an out gay man.

She says: This movie plays with time a lot, flashing back to Oliver’s last few months with his Dad, who was dying of cancer but determined to live to the full to the end; to the period before when his Dad first came out as a gay man, after the death of Oliver’s mother; and to key moments of his childhood. In present time, Oliver is trying to negotiate a new relationship with the unpredictable but insightful Anna. Both Oliver and Anna have a history of failed relationships, of not being able to see them through. Oliver uses the memories of his Dad’s life as a lesson in how to change.

So, it’s a pretty arty. But the performances are great, the actors have good chemistry, and I enjoyed the journey.

He says: I didn’t understand that movie. Not my thing.


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We’ll weather the weather, whatever the weather

Compared with people spending Christmas in unheated, unlit homes or stuck in airports, I can’t really complain about our Christmas travel.

We had more time this year, and therefore decided to drive north, figuring we could then adjust our own itinerary as weather demanded rather than be dependent on the airline’s.

We left the weekend of the ice storm, after the smaller Friday night one ended, before the bigger Saturday one started. The roads weren’t fantastic at the start of that trip, and some bits were quite foggy. So it was slow, but we didn’t really have any problems. Eventually we drove out of the storm zone and were driving on bare pavement. We even got a bit of sun.

We decided to lay over in North Bay despite their predicted 25 cm of snow the next day. The usual 4.5 hour drive took us 6 hours, so it was nice to have a break. We also quite enjoyed our first dinner at Churchill’s, a restaurant listed in Where to Eat in Canada. It’s an older place with a warm atmosphere and an impressive wine list. We enjoyed a bottle of Malbec with appetizers of gnochi and asparagus, and calamari and tomato, both excellent. For mains I had the roast duck with potatoes and salad, while Jean had wagu (a type of beef) ribs. I found the duck a little overdone, but everything else was good. For dessert, I had three tastings of creme brulee (coconut, chocolate and sambuca, and maple), while Jean had a Greek-style dessert.

Dessert at Churchill's

Dessert at Churchill’s

The next day it was back on the road, indeed in snow. It was fairly blowy not long after taking off, but it gradually lessened as we moved north, and finally ended completely. Back to driving on pavement.

Timmins was cold this year. Highs of -20C, maybe -18C most of the time we were there. Dropping to -30 something overnight. Nevertheless, we did get out to do stuff. We went snow shoeing one day; by far the worst part was putting on the snowshoes in the windy parking lot. Once on the trails, it was actually fine. (Of course, we were well bundled up.) We went for a decent length walk the next day, and survived.

It finally warmed up some on Christmas day, to -11 or so—balmy! But with the hustle and bustle of visitors that day, I barely got outside.

Mostly anyway, we were spending time with family indoors, at somebody’s house or another’s. Always nice to celebrate together.

Me at Christmas

Not sure my family wants their photos posted here, so won’t, but here’s me…

Part of the indoor entertainment at my parents’ is watching the activity at the outdoor bird feeder. Northern birds have such nice colors! Jean spent one morning gathering pictures of them. I wish I could remember all of their names, as Dad reported them to me. (Even when it comes to birds, I’m bad with names.)

Woodpecker preparing to eat

This large woodpecker is too big to just perch on the edge of the feeder

Woodpecker at feeder

So he (or she) has to hang on from underneath, balance with the tail, and reach in for the peanuts

Blue jay at feeder

This smaller bird (blue jay?) has it easier

Bird flying to feeder

Action shot! Love this one

(Our drive back was largely unremarkable, weather-wise. One brief bit of blowing snow, and that’s all.)

 

 


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One wedding and a funeral

“Welcome to your day of mixed emotions,” said my uncle. As happens occasionally in life, I was attending both a funeral, and a wedding, in one day.

The two events weren’t as different as one might have thought.

* Both began with a ceremony that took place place in a Catholic church.
* Perhaps unexpectedly, really both ceremonies featured a mix of laughter, tears, solemnity, and smiles.
* Attendees to both wore their Sunday best (though it was a Saturday).
* A meal followed both. (Though only the wedding featured an open bar and DJ dancing.)

And both ended up being at least partly on the theme of the importance of a good marriage (pray, eat, love, I guess). My cousins gave a loving and eloquent eulogy to their father, that included these words:

“My father had a message to men that he wanted to pass along. Don’t be too proud to tell your wife how much her love and care means to you. Don’t wait to express yourself.”

And my niece, whose wedding party included two stepsisters along with her biological sister, included this tribute to her new in-laws:

“And thank you for serving as a great example of a successful marriage. Because while my parents passed along a lot of values to me, the value of marriage wasn’t one of them.”

In the famous words of Kelso, “Ooh, burn.”


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Movie reviews: Blue Jasmine and Adore

*** Blue Jasmine ((July 2013) – Theatre

Blue Jasmine posterCate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin. Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine has to go live with her working-class sister Ginger after her wealthy husband is arrested for fraud.

She says: At first I thought Jasmine would be this annoying character to spend two hours with, but she develops layers as we witness her current plight and flash back to what brought her here. That the two sisters are so different is explained by each of them having been adopted, which works. It’s interesting to see past secrets revealed as Jasmine desperately tries to adjust to no longer being ultra-rich. By the end, we still didn’t know quite what will become of her. But we care…

What did you think of the movie?

He says: It wasn’t bad.

Adore movie poster** Adore (September 2013) – Theatre

Naomi Watts, Robin Wright. Two 40ish women, best friends, become lovers with each other’s sons, which gets complicated.

She says: This was billed as “porn with good acting”, but I dunno. I think porn would have a lot more sex and fewer scenes after characters looking angsty as dramatic music plays.

The acting was indeed fine, and everyone involved was quite attractive and thus appealing to look at, and the ocean-side setting was pretty. I don’t have a problem with the age difference, and the fact that there was a “son swap” was merely weird, not disturbing, but the movie made it clear that the women had known these boys since they were little babies. That made their later relationship kind of ookey, and you had to ignore that part to enjoy the storyline at all.

He says: I had too much trouble ignoring that part. The movie wasn’t boring. That’s the best I can say about it.


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Movie reviews: The Sapphires and My Idiot Brother

Both these movies are comedic, and built around family dynamics.

The Sapphires poster***½ The Saphhires (March 2013) – Theatre

Chris O’Dowd, Deborah Mailmen, Jessica Mauboy. A group of singing Australian aboriginal sisters are discovered by British talent scout who encourages them to sing R&B, and gets them a gig in Vietnam.

She says: The setting of this movie in the 60s give it a certain cool factor (oh, the fashion!) and the location of Vietnam gives it real thrills at times (oh, the bombs!). But the core is three sisters and their once-estranged cousin dealing with the legacy of racism that has left them scarred, but also able to access and convey the pain and fight in R&B music, just as their new British manager insists.

Loosely based on a true story, the movie features love stories, great musical interludes, and a lot of comedy with a good dash of drama. It’s an independent film that’s well worth seeking out.

He says: OK, now I’m glad you brought me to the movies! That was really enjoyable. I’m not sure which sister was my favorite character, but that Julie sure had quite the voice.

Our Idiot Brother movie poster*** Our Idiot Brother (August 2011) – Rental

Paul Rudd, Zoe Deschanel, Emily Mortimer. Ned is a good guy, but his innate trust of others sometimes lands him in trouble, even jail. His sisters take turns housing him in his time of need, and find him disrupting their lives.

She says: Ned is not really an idiot, but the fact he insists on trusting other people despite getting burned does put him in contrast with his three sisters’ approach to life. This is a strong cast, and it’s fun watching them interact as Ned’s natural openness tears open information they would prefer be kept secret. It’s not a wildly inventive movie, but there are worse ways to spend your time.

He says: Entertaining enough, though some of the situations got kind of uncomfortable. (And sometimes he was a bit of an idiot.)

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