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A Weekend of State Fairs

Over the weekend, I went to the Maryland and D.C. state fairs, and I realize I've been spoiled by Kentucky and Texas. 

Maryland’s state fair takes place in Timonium, about an hour and half from D.C. It covers the essentials. You can eat corn dogs, something called a pork sundae, deep fried cream cheese, cinnamon rolls, Oreos, or my favorite fair food, the giant turkey leg. Their Home Arts building includes quilt, crochet, photography, cross-stitch, and various baked goods contests. There’s a Horse Center, which my allergies and I avoided, a Cow Palace, and other livestock barns full of goats, alpacas, sheep, pigs, and newly hatched chicks. We visited the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ exhibit, where we pet a rat snake and learned you can eat the invasive snakehead fish at a Baltimore restaurant called Alewife. In the Agricultural Center, I sampled alfalfa honey and admired prize-winning but normal-sized pumpkins and eggplants.

The fair program advertised a Negro League Baseball exhibit in the Exhibition Hall. In the back of the room, next to a balloon display and the entrance to a bulk candy shop, we found a gentleman with a what seemed to be a personal collection of Negro League Baseball articles, plaques, and posters. The rest of the hall was retail and political booths. Thankfully this section was small compared to Kentucky’s — no t-shirts of mascots brutalizing each other. But there was also no Raptor Rehab booth, and not an oversized pumpkin or watermelon in sight. This was the most ornate cake we saw: 

Pig in a blanket cake

Pig in a blanket cake

Maryland’s fair has most of the things I love. D.C’s state fair is a one-day affair in a parking lot. We’re not a state, so it’s unfair to ask too much of our fair (do you like how much I’m using the word “fair”?). In the line of food trucks, one offered deep-fried desserts. They had various contests, and we endured the heat long enough to see the winners of the longest, heaviest, and funkiest vegetables. At 27 pounds, the D.C. pumpkin beat out all the ones we saw at the Maryland State Fair.

They also had a new-to-me fair feature: a towering marijuana plant, discounts on medical cards, and a booth on growing your own plants at home. 

But I miss the 1000-pound pumpkins, the weird and fabulous poultry, the duck-herding border collies, and of course, the duckling slide. Virginia's state fair starts in late September, and I see they have poultry, giant pumpkins and watermelons, AND "always-popular sliding ducks." That sounds promising.  

The Burro Lady is Real

I was looking for an old rough draft on one thing and found this instead. I wrote it about a year ago. As I haven't posted anything in months, now seems as good a time as any. Happy Friday. 

There are a few moments I think I’ve dreamed. 

The caged tiger at the Louisiana gas station off I-10, where we stopped to refuel in the middle of the night on a family road trip. 

Getting lost in the Basel alleys early in the morning during carnaval and repeatedly running into groups of masked, drum-and-pipe-toting revelers. 

These memories, like most, need verification after a while. I pull out a journal, contact a friend, or in the case of the tiger, confirm with Google. 

Of all my uncertain, dream-like memories, none is more surreal than the woman on the burro. 

In 2002, three high school friends and I convinced our parents to lend us a truck and their trust to drive around Texas on spring break. We left Houston for Dallas on a loop that took us north to Amarillo, west to the Davis Mountains and Marfa, then south to Big Bend. As we drove from Marfa to Terlingua, through scrubby desert and the starts of mountains, the woman on the burro appeared, heading towards us on the road shoulder, gone almost as swiftly as we registered her, probably because we were speeding. Had three other people not seen her, I would swear I dreamed her; even though three other people saw her, I still recalled that memory with a twinge of doubt. The woman on the burro felt like a ghost. 

A few weeks ago, a friend from that trip shared this article on Facebook with me, confirming the burro lady is real, not a shared hallucination. 

"You were in the middle of telling your mom, your friend, your lover—whomever—the kind of story you tell on a road trip. Your eyes light on an unexpected shape on the roadside ahead, and as you get closer, spinning along at 70 mph, you stop talking, your mom or your friend or whoever is looking now, too, at the elephantine hump that’s moving steadily down the bar ditch, and you realize, “Hey, that’s a woman on a burro."

It was exactly like that. 

My first reaction to this post, “OMG, you found her! SHE’S REAL.” Before I could finish that thought, I opened the link, and all my excitement faded. The article that brought the burro lady back to me immediately took her away. Burro lady died. In 2007. 

But y’all. The burro lady is real. I kept this to myself for at least an hour or two after finding out, because saying, “The burro lady is real,” sounds idiotic, a point that was emphasized when I finally told my husband, who said, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” I’ve tried for weeks to put into words how much this news, despite its age, meant to me. I think about Terlingua often. It’s a lonely place, but knowing I know someone in that cemetery, even if I don’t actually know her, makes me want to go back. 

What memories do you think you've dreamed? 

You Should Read "Lafayette in the Somewhat United States"

If you’re obsessed with the musical Hamilton and want to learn more about “America’s favorite fighting Frenchman,” now is as good a time as any to take a break from spreading the Hamilton gospel to your co-workers to read Sarah Vowell’s Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. 

I am well aware how embarrassingly little I know about history. Vowell, in a conversation with Quakers, helped me realize a potential reason for my disinterest in the history I learned in school. She visits the Birmingham Friends Meetinghouse near the Brandywine Battlefield in Pennsylvania, where Lafayette got shot in the leg. After telling her new acquaintances that she’s researching Lafayette, one of them says, “We understand our history as war.” 

“Yes,” I thought, remembering my history education as notebooks filled with battles and dates, the only one of which I can clearly recall being 1066, William the Conqueror. No wonder I thought history was boring for so long. I don’t care about battles.

Reductive as that may be, I do care about people, and Vowell, with huge doses of snark, presents all these historical figures as imperfect humans. Yes, George Washington led the Continental Army to victory, but he had a lot of help (and slaves). Yes, a very young Lafayette crossed the Atlantic a few times to help the United States in their fight against Britain, but to do so, he deceived his in-laws and pregnant wife. Yes, the Continental Army triumphed against its colonial oppressor, but man, were they a hot, underfunded, unshod and barely-clothed mess.

Lafayette and some friends at Lafayette Square. Photo by Gabe Bullard. 

Lafayette and some friends at Lafayette Square. Photo by Gabe Bullard. 

Now for some highlights of the many, sarcastic gems from the book.

-On Lafayette’s seasickness during the boat ride to the United States: “He spent the miserable voyage learning English, presumably mastering how to conjugate the verb ‘to puke.’” 

-Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben’s assessment of the American soldiers’ bayonet skills before he taught them Bayonet 101: “'the American soldier, never having used this arm, had no faith in it, and never used it but to roast his beefsteak.'” 

-On Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the first draft of Notes on the State of Virginia while the Continental Army struggled to defend his state: “Basically, the governor of Virginia had thoughts on everything but how to arm and feed and reinforce the soldiers risking their lives to save his state.” 

-The horror expressed by a French officer dining in Washington’s tent when the general failed to serve the meal “in a succession of courses like in civilization. Apparently Washington ‘gave, on the same plate, meat, vegetables, and salad.’ On the same plate? Were these Americans people or animals?” I think the French are still wondering this now that the doggy bag has found its way to their country

If I included all the parts that made me laugh, there would be little left for you to read. Overall, I was left feeling admiration and some warmth toward our Revolutionary War heroes, plus a desire to read more of Washington’s correspondence. I also added several more places to visit to the Travel List, like Lafayette’s birthplace and the cemetery in Paris where he’s buried. 

I’m working on improving my loose grasp on history. Hamilton and books like Vowell’s help immensely. And actually, it’s really easy to read this book and also annoy your coworkers about Hamilton.  

Just Exploring Pie Baking

I started making pie last fall because of Whole Foods, specifically because of a chocolate pecan pie Houston-area Whole Foods stores carried in the early 2000s around the holiday season. The choir director at my family's church used to buy these pies for the choir, to which my mother belonged. Because pecan pie was not part of my Swiss mother’s baking repertoire, this was my first pecan pie experience. I loved it. 

From then on, every time I ate regular pecan pie, I thought about the chocolate chips and striping on that store-bought pie. 

“I should learn to make that,” I thought. Every year, the motivation disappeared almost as quickly as my dessert, only to return at the sight of the next chocolate-free pecan pie. 

Last year, away on our fairytale fellowship year in snow-buried Boston, I warmed the kitchen with lots of baked goods. Three-layer chocolate cakes, king cake, coconut cake, carrot cake, pear crostata, chocolate-chip cookies, hazelnut-Nutella cookies, plum tortes, profiteroles, and lots of chocolate mousse (not baked, but awesome)… it was a lot. But no pie. 

One afternoon, two three-layer, frosted chocolate cakes. I will not do this again. 

One afternoon, two three-layer, frosted chocolate cakes. I will not do this again. 

Then we moved to D.C., where I got a job in a library, where one day, I spotted The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie waiting to be re-shelved. I flipped through it and found a recipe for a chocolate maple pecan pie. Its name was "Jeffersonville Pie.” Jeffersonville, Indiana is across the Ohio River from Louisville. I took this as a sign that I needed to not only make this pie, but also master pie-making.

I borrowed the book from the library, read and reread the steps to flaky pie crust, then made my first chocolate maple pecan pie. It was a mess — the chocolate striping was more splat than stripe, and holes in the crust led to filling leakage. It was still delicious, because the leaked filling caramelized, and more chocolate is rarely a bad thing.  

I used the leftover pie dough to make a quiche. Then I tried the pecan pie again. It looked nice enough to take it to Thanksgiving dinner.

Chocolate maple pecan pie, attempt number two -- Thanksgiving dinner-worthy. 

Chocolate maple pecan pie, attempt number two -- Thanksgiving dinner-worthy. 

Between borrowing the first pie book and Thanksgiving, my baking books somehow quadrupled. After accomplishing a decent-looking pie, I returned my books to the library and took a break from pie. In retrospect, I spent that break baking Christmas cookies and profiteroles and thinking about how I wanted to make the salty honey pie recipe from the Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book

It took me almost a month to get to that recipe. The lovely thing about pie is you can make one in steps and spread it out over several days. I divided butter at the end of December, made the actual pie dough a week later, and a week after that, finally made the pie. I interpret the instruction to put something in the freezer for 30 minutes but preferably overnight to mean “put it in the freezer for as long as you need.” It's worked so far.

Yesterday, I made another Blackbirds recipe — the Black Bottom Oatmeal Pie, which comes recommended as a substitute for a chocolate pecan pie. It’s oats and pecan pie ingredients on top of chocolate ganache. After a mishap with the ganache (added a cup too much heavy cream and made drinking chocolate instead of ganache), it turned out well. I won't be invited onto the Great British Baking Show anytime soon, but I'm no longer threatening to toss the pie crust before it makes it to the pan. 

I’ve been using the “basic flaky pie crust” recipe from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Pie and Pastry Bible. If you decide you too need to master pie, I recommend first reading the Hoosier Mama’s prep instructions. They go step-by-step, and the book includes pictures of everything from rolling out the dough to crimping, where Beranbaum jumps around in a way I find confusing. That said, I prefer Beranbaum's crust recipe. 

I’m slowly getting better at pie crust and look forward to one day rolling out a circle of dough instead of a weird blob. I’m going to try Beranbaum’s Honeycomb Chiffon Pie next, complete with the honeybee decoration. I anticipate another mess, but the messes are still tasty. 

Do you have a favorite pie recipe or book? Tips on rolling out circular pie crusts?  

Books I Read in 2015

Happy New Year! 

At 48 books, 2015 was a good reading year. Then again, seven of those were Harry Potter books, three were the His Dark Materials series, and one was a comic book. Thanks to the Nieman Fellowship in the first half of the year, I had time to read and take a class on Autobiography and Memoir, which meant more reading, roughly a book a week (still haven’t finished The Education of Henry Adams, though. There’s always next year).  

Here’s the list with stars for recommendations.  

1. The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois** 
2. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling
3. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
4. Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America & the Fight for Cumberland Island, Will Harlan** 
5. Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father, Alysia Abbott** - Abbott was a Nieman affiliate (the people the Fellows bring with them) and spoke to us at the beginning of the fellowship. Fairyland is her story of growing up in 70s and 80s San Francisco with a gay father. It is a beautiful book.  
6. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
7. Yes Please, Amy Poehler
8. Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire
9. The Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson
10. Narrative of a Life of Frederick Douglass
11. Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, Clarence King** - early mountaineers were madmen. Also, Clarence King led a double life, which you wouldn't know from reading this book, because he wrote it before the double life began. He married Ada Copeland, an African American woman, who knew him as a James Todd. He told her he was a Pullman porter (and of African descent). He was actually white, a geologist, and the first director of the U.S. Geological Survey. It’s interesting reading this book with this knowledge and looking for clues about his future.  
12. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman** - this was my first Neil Gaiman book, and it won’t be my last.  
13. Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, Elizabeth Keckley** - Fascinating. Read this.  
14. Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix
15. Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, Mary Seacole
16. Tiger, Tiger, Margaux Fragoso
17. Aké, Wole Soyinka
18. How I Became Hettie Jones, Hettie Jones
19. Family, Ian Frazier
20. The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon
21. Against Football - One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, Steve Almond**  
22. Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I'd Known, Chantal Panozzo
23. The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman
24. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
25. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
26. Rock Creek Park, Gail Spilsbury
27. Tenth of December, George Saunders
28. Forest Hills (Images of America), Margery L. Elfin
29. Micrographica, Renee French  
30. On the Map, Simon Garfield
31. The Might Have Been, Joe Schuster
32. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated by Edward FitzGerald
33. A Trail Through Leaves: The Journal As A Path to Place, Hannah Hinchman
34. Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past, William Zinsser
35. Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury** - I wrote a separate post about how great this book is and why you should read it. 
36. Loitering, Charles D’Ambrosia
37. Women Don’t Ask, Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever** - This was suggested reading at the end of a negotiation workshop. While it isn’t a page-turner, I recognized lots of truth in it and have been recommending it to all my lady friends, co-workers, and my boss.  
38. Cosmicomics, Italo Calvino
39. Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehesi Coates**  
40. Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez
41. Une Si Longue Lettre, Mariama Ba
42. At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O’Brien  - This was certainly the strangest book I read all year.  
43. The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent, Robert Caro** - I gave the first book in this series to both my brother and my dad this year. I wish I could have a Caro biography or a Lin-Manuel Miranda musical about every part of history. Caro's description of former Texas governor Coke Stevenson’s work ethic and reading so inspired me that I woke up early to read for at least five of the ten days it took me to finish this book.  
44. The Taste of Country Cooking, Edna Lewis 45.    Northern Lights, Philip Pullman** - I plowed through all three of these books in less than a week and loved them, but wow, the third book is way too long.  
46. The Subtle Knife, Philip Pullman
47. The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman
48. Beautiful Swimmers, William Warner - If you are at all interested in the blue crab, this book is required reading. I am very interested in the blue crab and hope to inspect some closely this summer.  

What was the best book you read in 2015? What’s on your list for this year? I’d like to get through at least the next two LBJ books and have been instructed to read Toni Morrison’s Sula. I keep an ever-growing and generally ignored To-Read list on Goodreads. What do you recommend?  

Wishing you all a year full of excellent reading.  

A Monumental Bike Ride

Drive from Arlington into D.C. on 66 and you cross the Potomac with a grand view of the river, the Kennedy Center, the Washington Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial off to the right. I’m prone to neck-craning anytime I’m near water, and with the added distraction of monuments, I become a danger to myself and others. After making this drive a few times, I realized I needed to get myself, sans car, to the bank of the river so I could do all the looking I wanted before I drove off the bridge. On Monday, I finally rode my bike down the Rock Creek Park Trail to the river. Apart from a few steep inclines and some bike-shaking cracks on the trail, it's an easy, pretty ride past the zoo, a par course, a cemetery, and the beginning of the C&O Towpath Trail. 

(L-R): Kennedy Center & trash, Theodore Roosevelt Island, Key Bridge & Georgetown.

(L-R): Kennedy Center & trash, Theodore Roosevelt Island, Key Bridge & Georgetown.

Once I got a good look at the Key Bridge and the river bend between the Georgetown Waterfront Park and the Kennedy Center (and all the trash that collects there), I kept biking. Since I haven’t been to the mall at all since moving here, I continued my bike ride past the Lincoln Memorial, then decided to find the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, which I’ve never seen. It’s on the Tidal Basin, and since I’d also never been there, I decided I should bike around it and get up close to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. From there, I closed my Tidal Basin loop, pausing to check the paddle boathouse schedule (Wednesday-Saturday this time of year) and stare at these tiny, iridescent fish flashing just below the water’s surface.  From there, I headed home, stopping at the par course pull-up bars to test my upper body strength. 

 
Fish not pictured.

Fish not pictured.

 

This bike ride made me realize that while my neighborhood has started to feel like home, I haven't yet grasped that these monuments are also part of home. I have to remind myself that it usually takes at least six months for me to get really comfortable with a place. In the meantime, the ride inspired a few more exploration goals:   

Visit Theodore Roosevelt Island.

Explore Lady Bird Johnson Park.

Follow the Rock Creek Park Trail all the way down to Hains Point, where the Potomac meets the Anacostia. 

You should read "Dandelion Wine"

“I mustn’t forget, I’m alive, I know I’m alive, I mustn’t forget it tonight or tomorrow or the day after that."

Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine is the perfect book to read at summer’s end. It’s perfect at the beginning of summer, as well. Really, it’s a perfect book.

Not dandelions.

Not dandelions.

Dandelion Wine is Bradbury’s semi-autobiographical story of the summer of 1928 in Green Town, Illinois (Waukegan). We see the town through the eyes of twelve-year-old Douglas Spaulding and his younger brother Tom as they crash through the summer, tallying traditions and new discoveries.

If that description makes you think, “I don’t care about a story about two little boys,” stop thinking that. It doesn’t matter what Douglas Spaulding looks like or how old he is, because he is you, and Dandelion Wine is about childhood and summer and boogeymen and death and goodbyes. It’s beautiful and sad, and it’s maddening because I can only dream of achieving such excellent writing. Each sentence is alive and sensual. You see, feel, smell, or taste what Bradbury describes. Every sentence hums, electric and alive with verbs and clear language. It’s sentimental, but so am I. I cried three or four times throughout the book. Once during the introduction, probably because of this: 

“I see my grandfather there looking up at that strange drifting light, thinking his own still thoughts. I see me, my eyes filled with tears, because it was all over, the night was done, I knew there would never be another night like this.” 

I’ve seen brown leaves on D.C. sidewalks in the last few days. Maybe the leaves are already turning wherever you are. Prolong your summer a little longer with Dandelion Wine. Save it for winter to remind brighten those cold, short days. Just read it.  

Just Exploring the National Library of Medicine

In June, I spent two days at the National Institute of Health's Library of Medicine, where a librarian friend who’s encouraging me to look into librarianship introduced me to her co-workers in various departments. Here are some things I learned about the library.

There’s a daily tour at 1:30. I was the only one it. On the lower level, a set of dioramas shows the collection’s movement from downtown D.C. to Maryland. The collection lived in Ford’s Theater between 1866 and 1887. Today, it’s on the NIH main campus in Bethesda, where it moved in 1962. The building’s Cold War design includes a collapsible ceiling that would allow the roof to come down and seal the collection. This is terrifying. Let’s not dwell on it. 

The library offers extensive online resources, including Turning the Pages, an online look at 13 rare items from the collection. I’ve flipped through all of Elizabeth Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal at least twice, and Hanaoka Seishu’s Surgical Casebook is a gruesome diversion. 

In the library’s History of Medicine division, they have a Nobel Prize on display. This department also organizes exhibits of their archives. They’re currently showing a selection of pictures of nurses, part of a collection of 2,588 postcards assembled by an RN and donated to the library. You can see it here

During my behind-the-scenes wandering, I got to visit the library’s conservation lab, where I met a woman preparing to restitch the binding on a book whose pages she had finished washing. Various librarians talked about Rare Book School, which offers classes mainly in Charlottesville. Who else wants to go to Rare Book School? 

My NLM visit succeeded in getting me to think more about pursuing librarianship (while introducing me to the term “librarianship”), and I’m grateful to my friend and her colleagues who took the time to speak with me. You don’t have to be a maybe-librarian to visit the National Library of Medicine. It’s open to the public, and anyone can get a library card. Or you can skip the Metro ride and security checks and explore the resources from home.