Tuesday, June 28, 2016

London Historical Sites

            The famed English writer Samuel Johnson wrote of London that “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” Between its museums, palaces, restaurants, pubs, markets, theaters, and tourist traps, it’s possible to spend a lifetime in London and never see everything that makes it such a remarkable and wonderful place. This week let’s look at some of London’s greatest and most interesting historical sites.

The Rosetta Stone 

 British Museum: The British Museum has the humble goal of setting out to catalogue the whole of human history, art, and culture. The museum houses some eight million artifacts within its 990,000 square feet of exhibition space. At any one time only approximately 50,000 artifacts are on display. The Museum contains some of the archeological treasures of the Ancient World including the Rosetta Stone—the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics—a large collection of Egyptian mummies, and parts of Greece’s famed Parthenon. These artifacts are not without controversy, however, as many of them came to London as part of England’s imperial conquests. In the 18th and 19th centuries, English lords, archeologists, and other men of means travelled to Egypt, Greece, Africa, and elsewhere where they acquired ancient relics and shipped them back to London for safe keeping. As much as the Museum chronicles world history, it also reflects the history of Imperial Great Britain and its domination and subjugation of other peoples.  

The White Tower 

Tower of London: The White Tower, the oldest part of the Tower of London, was constructed by William the Conqueror in 1078. Over the centuries, the monarchs of England added additional buildings, two rings of defensive walls, and a moat. Since the 11th century, the Tower has served as a royal palace, a royal prison, an armory, the home of the Royal Mint, and housed the exotic animals of the royal family’s menagerie. The Tower housed the animals, including elephants, giraffes, lions, and even a polar bear until the 1830s when the Duke of Wellington ordered the animals removed to the newly constructed London Zoo. Wellington had grown weary of the long history of the animals killing visitors who strayed too close to their habitats. Presently, the Tower is a historic site and also houses the crown jewels of the English royal family (if you’re interested in seeing the ungodly wealth of people who won the genetic lottery). Situated along the riverbank of the Thames, the Tower has lovely views of Tower Bridge and South London.

Tower Bridge from the Tower of London

View from the Walkway 

Tower Bridge: Constructed between 1886 and 1894, Tower Bridge sought to solve London’s perpetual need for easy commercial access across the Thames River. The bridge consists of two towers connected by two horizontal walkways. Within the base of each tower lies the machinery necessary to raise the middle part of the bridge to allow boat traffic to pass through. Today, the Bridge is a functioning motorway and waterway and is also a tourist attraction. For a small entrance fee guests can take an elevator up to the North Tower where they walk across the walkway between the two towers. Along the way they can look at both sides of the river and a section of glass floor looking down upon the traffic and river below. The Tower exhibition also includes the old Victorian engine rooms and their massive steam engines that once raised and lowered the bridge.

The Red Ball falls every day at 1 to synchronize clocks across London 

Royal Observatory: The Royal Observatory in Greenwich sits upon a hill overlooking the Thames. Opened in 1675, the Observatory has played a central role in the history of navigation, astronomy, and is home to the Prime Meridian that divides the earth into eastern and western hemispheres. An accurate measurement of longitude (your location east-west on the Earth’s surface) was key to the development of global oceanic travel. Sailors had long been able to track their latitude (their location north-south), but had no such way to measure their distance east or west. Being off by even a few miles longitudinally could mean the difference between shipwrecking on dangerous shoals or relative safety. With the passage of the Longitude Act of 1714, the British parliament offered a series of rewards to anyone who could develop a practical way of determining longitude at sea. John Harrison, an English clockmaker, invented the maritime chronometer which allowed for accurate measurements of time at sea. To calculate longitude, sailors need to be able to compare the local time to that at a fixed location (the Royal Observatory). Since the Earth rotates at a regular rate, navigators could determine their longitude by comparing the differences between the time where they were and the fixed location in Greenwich. This development made travel by sea much, much safer as navigators could now easily plot their way around dangerous waters and obstacles. And in the 19th century, when European nation-states decided to regulate measurements of longitude, they selected Greenwich because of its role in developing safe measurements of longitude. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

London Eats

            London, along with Paris, New York, and Tokyo, is one of the culinary capitals of the world. It boasts 65 restaurants with at least one Michelin star. Following the rationing of food during the Second World War and its aftermath, Great Britain and London in particular had a reputation as an epicurean wasteland. Its cuisine highlighted by unpleasant sounding dishes like jellied eels, clotted cream, and steak and kidney pie.  This reputation was never wholly deserved, accurate, or fair and in recent decades London has done much to establish itself as a leader in the increasingly global realm of high end dining. Famous chefs like Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, and the ever profane Gordon Ramsay made names for themselves first in England before becoming international sensations.  

            London itself contains restaurants and cuisines from across the globe. Everything from Ecuadorian tapas to Nepalese street food has found a home in some corner of London. While the signs for authentic fish and chips dot nearly every street, there seem to be an equal number advertising chicken tikka masala. In a sort of reverse imperialism, it is the cuisine of India that has conquered England. As a result of a recent trip to London, we had the chance to sample some of that city’s restaurants. Below are descriptions of some of the most memorable. 

Udon noodles
Koya Bar: At Koya, you can get one thing—Udon noodles. You can get them hot or cold. You can get them with hot or cold broth. You can get them with chicken, shrimp, duck, or a poached egg. There are some rice bowls and small plates, like the melt in your mouth braised pork belly, but the Udon noodle is the star here. Udon are a thick noodle made of wheat flour. The restaurant specializes in delicious bowls of gently cooked noodles served in a deep flavorful broth. In the mold of Tokyo, there isn’t much seating, a few tables along the wall and seats at the bar, but the food is what I imagine an authentic noodle bar would be. 

St. John: In 1994 chef Fergus Henderson opened London’s first nose to tail restaurant. Nose to tail cooking entails using the oft discarded parts of animals: the organs, glands, tails, and bone marrow among others. In using these neglected cuts, Henderson revived long dormant English recipes. This focus brought him attention from the gastronomic community as well as a Michelin star in 2009. As an appetizer, the roasted bone marrow with toast and parsley salad is a gloriously indulgent (pictured above). Henderson’s bone marrow has a rich earthy taste with a smooth texture unlike anything you can get in a conventional restaurant. The sautéed lamb sweetbreads (glands) with bacon and beans are sweet, tender, and rich in flavor. For dessert, the madeleines (a small shell-shaped sponge cake) were fluffy and crunchy at the same time (below).  

Bar Boulud: French born chef Daniel Boulud has made a name for himself in America blending French and American cuisine. While based primarily in New York, Boulud expanded to London in 2010 where his love of hamburgers and classically French dishes dominates the menu. Boulud’s signature charcuterie is, as restaurant critic Jay Rayner explained, “the kind of French food you would dream of getting in France, but rarely do.” The roasted lamb with pea puree, confit tomatoes, and mint lamb jus is a heavenly concoction of rich vegetables and expertly cooked lamb. The service at Bar Boulud was effortless and impeccable, reminiscent of something like Commander’s Palace. Wine glasses were never half empty. No plate remained on the table for longer than 30 seconds after it was finished. Silverware appeared and disappeared in a flash. Even the water glasses were never left unattended.  

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Book Really Was Better: In the Heart of the Sea

In the Heart of the Sea, or as it should have been titled: Scenes from the Class Struggle on Nantucket, Mutiny on the Essex, Portrait of Herman Melville as a Young Man, The Nantucket Syndrome, or the White Whale: The Revenge. Do those titles sound disparate? Lacking in unity or theme? Well in In the Heart of the Sea the accents are as wildly inconsistent as the storytelling.

            The story of the sinking of the Nantucket whaling ship Essex is, on one hand, relatively straightforward and, on the other hand, wholly remarkable. While on a whaling voyage in the Pacific Ocean, the Essex was rammed by a whale and sank. The crew abandoned ship and set across the sea in three whaling boats armed with only two months worth of provisions. As their supplies dwindled, the surviving crew members resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. On one whaling boat, the four remaining sailors, including Captain George Pollard, drew lots to determine who would die in order to save the others. Seventeen year old Owen Coffin, Pollard’s cousin and the ship’s cabin boy, drew the short straw. Only eight of twenty crew members survived long enough to be rescued. When the first mate, Owen Chase, returned to Nantucket, he published a narrative of the events that had led to the ship’s demise and the crew’s unlikely survival. This narrative became the basis for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

He's supposed to be 45? Really? 

            The film version of Nathaniel Philbrick’s bestselling book eschews this story in favor of a hodgepodge of wildly shifting tones and themes. The beginning of the film sees Herman Melville arrive on Nantucket in search of Thomas Nickerson, the last surviving member of the Essex to hear the true story of what had happened to the ship. Thirty years before, the 16 year old Nickerson had set sail as a greenhorn aboard the ship—why he’s being played by 60 year old Brendan Gleeson, when the character should be 45 or so, goes unanswered. Nickerson eventually agrees to unburden his soul—see he’s ashamed that he resorted cannibalism during the voyage and has compensated by (SHOCKER!) becoming a moody alcoholic—to Melville in exchange for a wad of cash. The film routinely cuts back to their interview, consistently ruining any forward plot momentum.

Thomas Nickerson’s great unburdening, however, is only one of the many films hidden somewhere inside In the Heart of the Sea. Ron Howard’s movie also clumsily plays on the class distinctions on whaling vessels by making Owen Chase, the first mate, Horatio Alger incarnate. Captain George Pollard, meanwhile, is a scion of Nantucket wealth and privilege and disdainful of Chase and his attempts at upward mobility. The two men clash in an unintentionally hilarious argument over stunsails. It’s a wonder either actor could say the word without bursting out into laughter. The film also presents Herman Melville as a man haunted by the story of the Essex, yet not so traumatized that he can’t fictionalize large parts of it for profit. The owners of the Essex engage in a conspiracy to cover up the sinking of the ship, lest people realize that engaging in years long whaling voyages thousands out miles out at sea might be dangerous. And finally with a determination not seen out of marine life since Jaws: The Revenge the great whale that rams the Essex stalks the crew for months at sea. He never, however, manages to finish to the job of killing the emaciated crew. What he’s waiting for? The film’s atrocious CGI to do it for him?

He's such a handsome social climber 

            In the Heart of the Sea is especially disappointing because Ron Howard has successfully directed movies like this in the past. Howard’s Apollo 13 is a story of survival based on remarkable true story about men stranded thousands of miles from home. That film vividly displayed the dangers of space travel and the dire circumstances of being adrift without hope of rescue. In the Heart of the Sea shied away from depicting the lengths that the sailors on the Essex went to in order to survive. Their cannibalism is implied and alluded to, but never directly shown in order to make it palatable to the audience.  When the movie tries to have its cathartic moment of Nickerson revealing the horror of his ordeal, the scene feels unearned. The film fails to make his torment relatable to the audience.

             In the Heart of the Sea is terrible, it’s just bad. So bad that it makes you root for the killer whale to put everyone--including the audience--out of their misery. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Meadow Restoration Project: The Planting

            Last week we started discussing Doug’s meadow restoration project and how it came about. This week we’ll pick up with the commencement of the project itself and how it has turned out so far. 

            Beginning in September 2013, Doug began preparing for the planting of the meadow that would occur sometime in the winter of 2013 or early spring of 2014. He ran a disc harrow (pictured below) over the area set to become the meadow. A disc harrow is a farm tool that tills soil to prepare it for planting. The harrow accomplished its goal of killing the top layer of grass and exposing the soil. Killing the existing grass made it easier for the meadow to take root. 

The disc harrow 

Beginning to till the soil 
By November preparing the soil was in full swing. To get a scope of how the project looked compared to Marc Pastorek’s design, take a look at Marc’s plan and a Google Earth view of the property. 

             They’re nearly identical. During this process, Doug purchased a tiller to help with churning up the soil and destroying the grass. The disc hallow had trouble chopping up the deeply rooted grass and turning into soil. The biggest hiccup in the project occurred when Doug tore up the drive shaft on the tiller. The shaft pulled off the tiller and kept spinning because it was still attached to the tractor. The clutch flopped around until it separated from and tore the drive shaft. With the tiller out of commission, Doug switched back to the disc. The photo below shows the state of the meadow at the end of November 2013. 

            In early January 2014 with the aid of Marc Pastorek, the planting of the meadow began. Marc brought his special spreader (designed to deal with the thicker seeds found in wild meadow projects) and got to work. 

Marc and his spreader 

In the weeks that followed the meadow began to grow. A May 2014 visit from Marc led to lots of “oh wow,” “this is great” and “we planted that” comments. The following March, Marc returned for the last step in ensuring the growth and viability of the meadow—the burn.  Marc is a prescribed burn specialist and oversaw the entire process. With the Folsom fire department looking on, mostly out of curiosity as they had not seen a burn like this before, the whole three acres burned in about two hours. With the dead grass gone, the ecosystem had the opportunity to bloom again.

The burn 

  Since that burn in March 2015, the meadow has continued to grow and prosper. It has seen the blossoming of native and local plant species rarely found elsewhere. These species were once commonplace in Louisiana, but human habitation and the American obsession with a well kept green lawn have driven them nearly to extinction. This project helps to fuse the environmental preservation of Louisiana’s natural landscape with modern landscaping. It seeks to prove the viability and necessity of shifting away from destructive landscaping strategies in favor of ones that seek to restore the natural environment that flourished in the southern Coastal Plain for thousands of years. For information about these topics see the Meadow Project’s blog, Marc Pastornek’s work, and the Nature Conversancy