Thursday, August 31, 2006

from New Haven: time travel

I look out the window of first daughter’s new home…

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…then second daughter’s new home and I think what every parent must think when the stars are looking bright: man, they are doing okay! Soon, they can take care of me!

I asked one of them if she would, indeed look after me were I penniless and destitute in my old age. She smiled benevolently and said -- yes, even if you are penniless and destitute because you travel so much…

In the afternoon I clean the apartment that one daughter is vacating so that nothing is taken away from her security deposit. It is an old and creaky place and there is a lot of cleaning to do. I am reminded how awful it was to clean the house that I was vacating exactly a year ago. A house that overwhelmed me. A house that had dust in corners I never knew existed.

That was one of the worst moments of my days – that godawful first half of last September, as I packed to leave a house which had overwhelmed me in all ways. (Again, thank you to all those who helped me get through that move. Thank you especially Susanne and Sarah and Sep.)

I remember last year so well. On September 1st I bottomed out. I was passing through New Haven on my way back from Boston and I crashed. I sat in a bar, just under the apartment my daughter is now moving into and I flirted outrageously with some local attorney and I wont even say how outrageous I was, but it was definitely the low point of all low points.

But time passes and new things happen. And here I am, in New Haven again, looking around the spaces inhabited by my daughters and thinking – man, you two are doing alright…

And ahead of me, just a few weeks ahead, I have some returns – to places that gave me such a beautiful fresh perspective on everything – to Languedoc, to the vineyards that allowed me to let go of so much tension, to the little wineries that I grew to love, to all those places, now beginning their fall harvest, a harvest I want to see with my own eyes.

Sorry for being so wordy. I just was remembering September 1st last year and thinking how quickly a bad string of days can flip their noodle and become a good string of days.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

from New Haven: faces

If I could draw a cartoon of myself today it would be of a person drooping under the weight of a heavy load. Yes, I collected a few bloggable moments while flinging loads of trash into the dumpster by the curb, but now my arms are too tired to pound out the words.

I do think that New Haven has character. Too often, its many faces are overshadowed by the massive numbers of students that show up right around now. Still, they are there: the goths, the lovers, the moms with babes, the older people, eating their ice cream, smoking their cigarettes, or, just watching the world go by.

This post is for them.

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with smoke

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with book

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with love

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with child

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with gelato

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with flag

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

travel notes

I am on the short flight from Madison to Detroit.

Nina? A familiar voice from the seat behind me. I slam my seat back hard in friendly greeting. Hey, it's Jeremy, the blogger friend who ditched Madison in favor of a few years in Cambridge.

Disembarking, we catch up on all relevant events of the past month.

I have a rich social life in Cambridge in the next four days – he tells me.
I just quit being CEO of a yet to be formed corporation – I say to him.

On my next flight, Detroit to Hartford, I sit down in my window seat and take out work papers.
Nina? Are you Nina? The flight attendant is hurrying toward me.
(Did I do something wrong? Did I leave behind valuable possessions? Did someone find chapstick in my bag? Chapstick is permissible on board, no?)
Welcome! We want you to sit up front! We have a seat for you!
(Is it because of Ocean? It’s my blog, isn’t it? No… it’s my Air France (now merged with KLM and therefore NW) frequent flyer status.)

For those curious about first row flying, let me just share this view from up front: (Write your own story for this photo)

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So begins my trip out east to help daughters move to their respective residences in New Haven. The moving-in ritual has been a fixture of my Labor Day week-end for the past eight years. Heavy duty labor: lifting, carrying, building. I did it first at age forty-five, thinking – man, I’m too old for this. That was then. Now I’m thinking – bring it on, kids! I am so ready for you! (It could be that I understand that I am nearing the last stretch. College years will be over and done with. Moving-in rituals will change. Two Men and a Truck will replace Mommy with her Bare Hands.)

So what will I do in future years, when on Labor Day I will not have anything laboriously difficult to handle? Do people really just get out the grill, pop a can of Miller Light and do nothing?

In New Haven, the puddles are huge, reflecting what it has been like here for the past few days, centuries…

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Monday, August 28, 2006

drip drip drip…

Exactly. A drippy kind of day. It had a window of light, but otherwise – the rain came down and the skies remained gray. So that even the construction workers outside my window could do nothing but hide under the shelter of the overhang.

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Tomorrow I head out to the east coast. Maybe the skies will clear there?

Sunday, August 27, 2006

hail to the chiefs

No real post tonight. Just a photo that joins two prominent chef-proprietors together – Odessa of the first twenty-eight l’Etoile years and Tory of the last two.

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Two stars at l'Etoile...

Me, I just lurk in the background and take photos and notes.

Are you a photographer? A food writer? -- I get asked, often enough, especially in places where I am a stranger. No, I just post, on Ocean. It's not a huge deal, Just Ocean -- my eyes out onto the world.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

happy birthday to you

I am a law student. Pregnant with a second child, married to an academic, holding the hand of a little girl. The three of us walk up the steps of l’Etoile. We haven’t the money to eat there really, but we are celebrating, big time. My then-husband has just just been voted tenure.

Creaky steps, warm space within. Our two-year-old orders something without sauce. The waiters smile.

Seventeen years later I am in the l’Etoile kitchen, plating appetizers and desserts, popping Vesuvius molten cakes into the oven, tossing wild mushrooms over mixed greens.

Two years more and I am rolling croissants and mixing up gougers for their Saturday market.

And a year after, I am the market buyer -- picking out produce and lugging it up the steps, to the small kitchen of l’Etoile.

Tomorrow l’Etoile celebrates its thirtieth year on the Square. There will be a party is for the farmers who supply the kitchens of this wonderful little place.

Last night I went back to eat there. And so you could see this entire week-end as being sort of a l’Etoile moment: from dinner on Friday, to making the Saturday rounds with farmers whom I know from my buyer days, to the official celebration tomorrow.

A colleague posted a question on the law faculty list this past week: what restaurant would you recommend to someone coming in from New York – someone who is used to the best of the best and doesn’t mind paying for it?

We are an opinionated lot and so suggestions appeared instantly. Fresco, Sardine, Nadia’s, Magnus, Harvest. Fine, fine, I’m sure good meals are to be had at all of them. But l’Etoile is special. It isn’t just a restaurant. It is the last link in that chain of events that begins out there with creating good soil. From field to table.

I can get quite emotional about the place. People don’t typically get emotional about restaurants. Do they?

Congrats, Chef Tory.

Melon soup with stravecchio cheese stick and prosciutto:
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Jim’s muskmelons

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Black Earth Valley Red Bell Peppers

Jim’s Muskmelon Carpaccio with Dungeness Crab Salas, Shooting Star Farm Torpedo Onions, Black Earth Valley Red Bell Peppers, Fried Capers and Garlic Toast:
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Snug Haven tomatoes

Roasted Wild Alaskan King Salmon with smoky Shooting Star Farm Cranberry Bean Puree, Stenruds Haricorts Verts, marinated Snug Haven Sungold Tomatoes and Riesling-Bacon Broth:
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Ruth Lefeber’s blueberries and kids

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Bee Charmer Corn

Ruth Lefeber Blueberry Crisp with Cornmeal-Oat Struesek Topping and Bee Charmer Sweet Corn Ice Cream:
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L'Etoile, inside and out

Friday, August 25, 2006


It was a stormy day. Anyone living in this town would tell you that the flashes and rumblings the past two days have been out of control. I, too, felt that much of my warm feelings toward a mellowy Madison August had to be put by the wayside for now.

If you can imagine, most every time I looked out the window while at the computer I would see some variation of this:

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In the evening, however, I had a change of attitude. What caused the shift? Come back tomorrow. I’m wiped for now.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

the ride

They gather every Wednesday, after work hours. One hundred, maybe two, parking their cars, each week in a different place, a short drive out of Madison.

Go on the Wednesday Night Bike Ride with me this week! Ed says.
I knew it. Get a fast bike and the pressure is on to push yourself. Today a Wednesday Ride, tomorrow le Tour de France.
But I’m not ready for it! Twenty miles of hills and vales – these people are fit! They wear spandex pants and biking jerseys.
Don’t forget, I’m one of the regulars.
You have a point… Still, you like these killing challenges. I would want to take photos along the way, I’d slow you down…
Come anyway. There is a potluck at a vineyard afterwards.

Ed knows how to twist that wrist.

Dave Mitchell is one of the riders. Dave, owner of Wine and Hop – the store that sells equipment for wine and beer making enthusiasts – grows grapes just south of Madison. You want to make your own wine? Help with the Mitchell harvest this fall, press your own grapes, get the right stuff to ferment the juice and voila! You’re in business.

Dave tells me -- what I like about the Wednesday Night Ride is that it draws people from all jobs, backgrounds, ages. They have only two things in common – they’re into keeping fit and they like to bike.

This week, the ride starts in the town of Oregon. Ed and I arrive late. He has a flat tire to deal with. I'm feeling jittery.

It’s going to storm. What if it storms when we are riding?
Ed shrugs his shoulders. You get wet.

I made a map for you. Clip it to the bike. I picked a short cut if you don’t want to do the full ride. You can go at your speed and I’ll zip ahead and we’ll meet at the end.

What if I have a flat tire? I don’t know how to change a flat tire.
Someone will help you.

I watch the last of the riders set out. Me, among these?

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Oh! This one’s reassuring. He can't be in it for the speed.

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We set out. Ed is patient initially, but within minutes my shoelace gets tangled with the chain. I pause to fix things, he circles around, waiting.

I pause again, this time to take a photo.

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Again he circles, backpedals.

Please go on. You are making me so nervous! Send for me if I fail to reach the finish line.
Are you sure?
I barely catch this. He’s already pushing ahead over the next hill.

On my own, I lose myself in my surroundings. The sun is low, the colors are warm. All the bikers have long passed me. I am alone with the sunflowers and the red barns.

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I am so taken with the light, with the quiet, that I neglect to pay attention to my clipped map.This is the way it looked when it was clipped on.

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Sometime during a particularly brushy side trip into the tall grasses (for a photo) I managed to lose the damn thing.

Still, a loop is a loop. If you turn left a lot, you’re either going to wind up in a dead end circle or back where you started from.

I relax. I pause again to watch men work in a tobacco field.

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I am not paying attention to time. My pedaling alternates between devilishly fast and carelessly mellow.

The sun is a low, red beach ball. Wait, I feel my cargo pants vibrating against my thigh. The phone! I have my cell with me.

Nina, this is Mark, a friend of Ed’s. Where the hell are you??
I’m watching guys hacking away at tobacco leaves...

My pokiness means that we reach the vineyards for the potluck just as the sun touches the horizon. The light is beautiful, though quickly fading. I manage a few photos, then give it up for the night.

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Dave tells me something I already know from my spring ramblings.
There is nothing as spiritual as looking over a vineyard. To watch the vines reach into the air, stretching, as if they knew there is something up there waiting for them -- it's humbling. You can throw down a blanket in an apple orchard or a peach orchard, sit down and look around you and it will be lovely, bucolic even, but sitting at the foot of a vineyard – that’s altogether different. Nothing compares.

I study the tall rows. The soil isn’t the rocky orange of the Languedoc. The grape varieties aren’t the same either. The stubs are young, the winemakers are children, playing with grape juice. I am a child too, taken in by the magic of the vines.

I’ll be back for the September harvest. I'll probably bike over.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2006


A full day, a late night. I'll explain tomorrow.

In the meantime, a teaser, yet again. Last time I did this on Ocean, it was too easy. This time I'll give a clue: it's not the south of France. That's not until four weeks from now. So, this evening, where am I and what am I doing? You can't guess, I don't think. Tomorrow -- I'll tell you tomorrow.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

the tail end

We need to talk business – I say this in my most serious voice. I am working on a project with Ed – machine stuff, if you can believe it, and it is time that we had a discussion about forging ahead or scaling back.

Okay, let me pick you up in the late afternoon. Bring your helmet.

'Bring your helmet' means that Ed intends to reach great heights in our discussion – preferably while speeding forward on his motorcycle.

I have 90 minutes. That’s it. I have to get back by 6.
That will be tough…

There are a dozen cafés within a stone’s throw of here! We need to talk for an hour at most!
Café? On a day like this?

Ed guns the engine and we are off. Past Campus Drive, past Borders, past Middleton…

Ed, we are currently surrounded by pastures and farmland! We have left the land of cafés far behind!
Yeah… I want to show you part of the Ice Age trail just beyond Cross Plains (to the geographically stumped reader: Cross Plains is a satellite village far west of Madison; total travel time between the loft and “beyond Cross Plains:” 40 minutes).

We turn into a dirt road, get off the bike, I toss off the tight helmet. The sun is less strong now, in the last days of August. Before me, a path leads up a hill, past old oaks and tall grasses.

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I have always thought of this part of the country as having oak groves and prairie fields, possibly because of my readings (to daughters) of Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Oaks and prairie grasses figured prominently in the series.

It’s quiet there, on top of the hill. Butterflies and snakes move around me – the former almost touches me in a hasty flight toward a liatris stalk, the latter moves too quickly for my camera.

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The end of summer in Wisconsin is perhaps the kindest of seasons. While other states are still sweltering and steaming ahead until Labor Day and beyond, we start easing into Fall.

Ed and I did not talk business. The climb up, then down, the ride there and back took time. Everyone should have the luxury of taking time like this – to stroll through grasses among old oak groves before they give up their hold on summer and move on.

Back at the loft, I sit at my computer table and look out only to see yet another ritual sign that Madison is nearing the end of a summer season.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

summer gold

I have lived in Madison for twenty-seven years now – more than half my life – and I have never, until this year, experienced a corn festival.

Hey, Sun Prairie (a satellite village to the east of Madison) is hosting the Annual Corn Fest this week-end!
You want me to travel all that distance to eat corn? I can eat corn freshly yanked from the fields every Saturday market day – mere minutes from the loft.

Still, I’m tempted. All that corn.

I’m not the only one. Thousands, nay millions, no, maybe not millions, but lots show up on this most pleasant Sunday afternoon.

And you gotta know Sun Prairie to understand how smoothly it all functions.

There are the rides, of the traveling amusement park type (when did these fascinating roaming fairs come into being? Were they around when I was a kid? Maybe they just never made it to Manhattan where I hung out in my grade school years). Ferris wheels and tilt-a-whirls…

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But really, it’s mostly about corn. Many, many people come here for the corn eating thing. The steaming husks are loaded onto a conveyor belt...

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…for $5 you load up all the ears you can fit into a cardboard box, you shuck the damn hot ears, deft hands and awkward hands…

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…you hand over the whole batch to women whose practiced hands rub in the butter…

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…then, shake on the salt…

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…and find a spot to eat.

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Afterwards, you take your little kids to the booths and show off how good you are with the darts. You win ‘em a couple of prizes…

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thanks, Mom

… and you go home, full of kernels and butter, with a feeling of having lived a real Wisconsin kind of summer afternoon.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

I can't believe I ate the whole thing...

If you let me off until tomorrow, I promise to post pictures and stories on butter, husks, salt, liberally covering many ears of corn at the all-American summer fest celebrating this, well, vegetable.

I know you’re willing to wait another day. I know it. Here, I have a teaser:

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where am I and what am I doing??

Saturday, August 19, 2006

neighborhood notes

So what’s it like living downtown?

Take the last twenty-four hours in this place. What did they bring me? Sure, a good dinner, just a short walk up from the loft. A bit over-priced, but very good nonetheless (see post below). Preceded by a drink called la Vie en Rosé.

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What else?

A loud train passing just outside my windows. A very loud train, tooting with the full force of a heavy hand sitting on the claxon.

A walk on nearby State Street, where construction has been ongoing. For years.

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…and where all sorts of musicians find a warm spot on the sidewalk.

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A market with the colors of late summer.

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A deranged human being standing outside my apartment building at 4 am, shouting expletives for twenty minutes straight… before moving on to another building further down.

A musician playing all instruments all at the same time

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Flowers at my local flowershop, going for 50 cents a stem. I’m known there by now. If they put out a street sign announcing a sale on stems, they know I’ll come in on the way home from work. Here, I took these off their hands. They’re resting at a café table. I’m known at the café as well. It's Jo's. Yes, the same: medium skim latte, extra hot.

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