Please Pass the Garbanzo Beans

November 24, 2010

Tomorrow we here in the United States will be celebrating a traditional Thanksgiving with a meal that most likely includes turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and other side dishes each family considers necessary for the feast. A far cry from the first Thanksgiving, which featured cocido, a stew made with salt pork, garbanzo beans seasoned with garlic.

Say what?!

According to current historical research, 56 years before the “first Thanksgiving” in Plymouth, Spanish Admiral Pedro Menendez de Aviles and a company of 500 soldiers, 200 sailors, 100 farmers and craftsmen (and some wives and children) landed at what is now St. Augustine, FL on September 8, 1565. To celebrate the expedition’s safe arrival, the Spanish and natives of the area took part in a Mass of thanksgiving followed by a meal. In addition to the stew, hard sea biscuits and red wine from the ships’ stores probably rounded out the meal. If the natives contributed food, it may have been deer, gopher tortoise, fish, maize, beans, squash, nuts or fruits, food items common to their diet. According to historian Michael Gannon, “These stand as the first documented thanksgiving events in a permanent settlement anywhere in North America north of Mexico.” (To read more about the real first Thanksgiving meal, click here.)

Site of the first Thanksgiving?

Happy Thanksgiving!

Everyday adventures

So Much More

November 20, 2010

I returned early last week from a long weekend in New Orleans, LA with Laure Ferlita (of Imaginary Trips and the Painted Thoughts blog) and I’m wondering where to begin to write about the trip. Do I start with the food? The architecture? The history? The music? NOLA was so much more than I expected it to be.

As The Rough Guide to New Orleans aptly describes it, NOLA is a town of melancholy beauty and ebullient spirit. Founded by the French in 1718, it became part of the United States in 1803 when the Louisiana Purchase was signed at the Cabildo). After that, New Orleans grew rapidly and became the second largest port and the fourth wealthiest city in the United States.

The city’s beauty is mingled with great poverty and a level of crime that has guidebooks warning visitors to be mindful of their surroundings and avoid wandering alone, especially at night. Still, every block holds surprises, gorgeous or quirky. Laure’s description of the city nailed it: genteel, with a good dose of grit and moxie.

This was a working trip for us both, and each day began early, after a cup of coffee and a look through our maps and guidebooks. We grouped things we wanted to see geographically as best we could, since we had no car and depended on public transportation to get us where we wanted to go. We rode the streetcar every day, both St. Charles and Canal Street lines—not the speediest method of travel, but we got to see more of New Orleans than if we’d been contending with traffic in an unfamiliar city. We spent the rest of the time on foot, in order to see more and, perhaps, to make up for the praline taste-testing we did all over town. And the etoufee, and the po'boys, and the gelato and the beignets.... This is not a town for the calorie-conscious.

The French Quarter, or Vieux Carre (“old square”), fascinated me. Graceful wrought-iron balconies awash in plants stand next to dilapidated and rundown buildings. Narrow alleyways lead to leafy courtyards, men walk down the street with cats (or snakes) draped over their shoulders. Interesting and unique shops selling everything from Mardi Gras masks to voodoo dolls to perfume line the narrow streets. I fed my obsession with books when I stumbled across a used bookstore in the Quarter (the Librairie) and deliberately sought out the Faulkner House bookstore, so named because William Faulkner lived and wrote there for a time.

Any discussion of New Orleans must include reference to Katrina. I had never been to NOLA before, so had no way to compare pre- and post-hurricane conditions. Though I looked for it, I did not see the “Katrina tattoo”—the line on many buildings that marked the high point of Katrina’s floodwaters, and we didn’t stray into the Ninth Ward or the other areas that were hardest hit by the storm. (There are hurricane tours you can take, but for several reasons we chose not to do this.) The few residents we spoke with gave me the impression that they had been emotionally scarred by Katrina, but were so deeply rooted in the area they would find it nearly impossible to leave. After visiting, I believe it would be a tragedy to lose New Orleans and I applaud those who have worked so diligently to bring it back.

The French Quarter is so much more than Bourbon Street, and New Orleans is so much more than the French Quarter. Even spending 10-12 hours a day exploring, we simply didn’t have time to see everything we wanted to see—we’ve barely scratched the surface of this mysterious, multi-faceted town.

Care for a beignet?
My feet still hurt.



November 11, 2010

Today is a special day for me…know why? Today is the one-year anniversary of Catching Happiness, and coincidentally, this is my 100th post. I’ve had a blast getting this thing up and running, and I’ve also learned a few things in the past 12 months. Things like:
  • Take your camera everywhere. It’s much easier to take tons of pictures and doctor them up in Picasa than to search high and low on free stock photo sites for an appropriate photo for a blog post. It’s also more fun.
  • Don’t simultaneously make grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch and attempt to take photos for the blog. Your first clue that you’ve forgotten the sandwiches will be the smell of burning bread.
  • Slow down and pay attention to what’s around you. The butterfly sipping from the red penta in the front yard is beautiful just for itself, but it may also make you think of something to write for the blog.
No butterfly, but if you look closely, there's a bee here.
  • Don’t expect every little thing you observe to be of interest to blog readers. I have half a dozen infant blog posts on my computer that I began in my enthusiasm, and soon realized no one but my mother would care about this particular observation—and maybe not even her.
  • Sometimes the best posts just “come to you.” The ones you labor over to get just right don’t always resonate with the readers the way the ones that appear nearly finished in your brain do.
  • When in doubt, post a picture of a cute animal.
You're welcome.
  • Residents of the blogosphere are, in general, friendly and funny folks. It’s a rare day that I don’t read a blog post or a comment that teaches me something, entertains me or just simply makes me happy.
Thank you for a great year!


A Classic Dilemma

November 08, 2010

Last weekend, my husband, mother-in-law and I had a, shall we say, spirited discussion about what “classic” novels are, and whether or not we should read them. We discussed who decides what a “classic” is, why a book would be considered a classic, what modern literature will someday be considered classic and so on.

The three of us are all avid readers, with very different tastes. My husband argued that we should read modern books that deal with modern social issues and situations, instead of reading traditional classics that perhaps deal with issues of days gone by. I argued that as a writer, I feel I should at least attempt to read books that have been deemed classics in order to educate myself about literature.  (My mother-in-law diplomatically could see both our points of view.)

This discussion got me thinking about classics—I couldn’t easily define what makes a book a classic, so I decided to research and think about it a bit more. From my research, it seems there is considerable difference of opinion and shades of grey on this subject, but there are a few common points. A “classic” should have an element of timelessness—the work has connected with readers over many decades, and the theme—love, death, guilt, loyalty, innocence, etc.—is relevant now as well as when it was written. Classics often greatly influence modern writers. In addition, as Liz Foley, Vintage Classics Editorial Director, wrote, “There usually has to be more to these books than simply a rollicking good story—either in terms of the depth of the issues they discuss, the innovative nature of their stylistic form or the impact they have on contemporary culture.”

With limited reading time, I try to balance reading classics with reading current literature and with "comfort reads." If the classic I choose proves to be unreadable for me for some reason—I dislike the characters, the story doesn’t interest or engage me, or something simply doesn’t click—I put it aside, perhaps to try again later, perhaps not. There are far too many “classics” for me ever to read in my lifetime, and I figure if I don’t like one, I will just as easily find one I do like. For example, I don’t care for Hemingway and Henry James, but I love Jane Austen and would like to read more Dickens, rather to my surprise.

What do you think? What makes a book “classic”? What classics have you enjoyed (or not) and why? What modern books do you think will be classics 100 years from now? If you’re interested in reading classics, there are any number of lists to consult, from Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels, to Great Books of the Western World, the Penguin Classics, Everyman’s Library, the Harvard Classics and many more. (For an excellent discussion of what makes a classic, see Foley’s entire article here.)


A Typical Sunday Morning

November 01, 2010

Ah, Sunday mornings... A cup of coffee and The New York Times...

Why are there never any articles about dogs?

Heaven. (Happy Monday!)