At least I didn’t speak ill of Marjoram….

So yesterday I saw this cartoon on The New Yorker‘s Facebook page:

And it reminded me of a funny quote I read years ago in a cookbook called Make the Bread, Buy the Butter:

If bay leaf didn’t exist, would anyone miss it? I’ve never tasted anything and thought, This stew is just crying out for bay leaf. But I keep buying and using it nonetheless.

So I shared the quote.

A few laughed, but I should have checked the comments to the post before commenting, because wow, are there ever a lot of people out there who are huge fans of bay leaf. I mean, there are people in the comments insisting that they put bay leaf in everything and that it’s the most wonderful spice and nobody who writes cookbooks should be allowed to speak the least bit ill of bay leaf.

…I am a long-time chef and love bay leaves, especially in long-simmered winter-type dishes, and honestly, I have never run into a bay leaf that was flavorless and non-performing. I think this humor was written for people who are aware of kitchen spice cabinets only superficially. Maybe they run into this problem bc they never use their spices!

…I use bay leaves every time I boil potatoes. Everytime I make stock, I add it every where I put herbs.

…I use bay leaf in almost all savory soups, stews and stocks. And I pick them from my bay trees….

…It’s not about the taste. It is a known anxiety and stress revealer. The essence of it in a dish, adds love to it and a feeling of well being.
Cultures all over the world have been using bay leaves for thousands of years so there’s got to be something to it.


I think it must be a “refined foodie” thing, because I like to think I have decent taste and I love good, well-prepared food, but in all honesty, I agree completely with the quote above. Never, not once, have I made a dish and thought later, “This would have been very much improved by the addition of a bay leaf or two while cooking.” People tell me I’m wrong, but I’ve reached the tender age of 51 without being able to tell the difference from a stew with bay leaf and one without, so I’m going to continue not using it. If that means I have an inferior palate, well, I suppose I’ll have to live with my other strengths. To me, being able to taste bay leaf is like being able to claim, when sipping wine, that one tastes the hint of elderberry on the nose, delicate chocolate notes, and the lingering scent of the August honeysuckle on the finish.

The comments do amuse me, though. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me, since it is the Internet and all, but it honestly didn’t occur to me to think that there are people who really think that bay leaf is a kitchen necessity. I’m not even sure if I have any bay leaf on hand right now, but I sure did discover a community that apparently thinks that Samin Nosrat’s brilliant cookbook from a couple years ago should be amended and retitled: Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, Bay Leaf.


Posted in On Food and Cooking | Tagged | 1 Comment

Tone Poem Tuesday

Prospero and Miranda from Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST.


As I gear up for All Rachmaninoff All The Time in April, I’ve been listening to a lot of Russian music that pre-dates Rachmaninoff, particularly by composers who rank amongst his prime influences. Tchaikovsky was certainly one of those; Rachmaninoff actually had a number of encounters with the great older composer during his student years, and Tchaikovsky’s rather sudden death from cholera was a heavy blow for young Sergei. It certainly isn’t hard to listen to Rachmaninoff, even in his mature and later work, and not hear the Tchaikovskian influence.

This tone poem, like the earlier Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, is styled after Shakespeare: the subject this time is The Tempest. The structure here is similar to the more famous work, with its tumultuous depictions of the play’s stormier sections (literally, in this case, as the play begins with a shipwreck caused by a magical storm) and its lyrical love music in the central section. I actually find The Tempest preferable to the Romeo and Juliet overture, but that may be a reaction against the other work’s ubiquity over the years. I can also certainly hear the musical connections between this and the music that Rachmaninoff would produce.

Here is Tchaikovsky’s Symphonic Fantasia, The Tempest.

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Functionality…or not….

I, and at least two readers, have noticed some weird things happening with the functionality of this site the last few days. I’m keeping an eye on things and may have to escalate to a service ticket with my web host if things don’t settle down. I have updated the site’s PHP version and have flushed the cache a few times, so hopefully that will bring peace and calm. If not, persons responsible may be sacked.

Carrying on!


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“Sungmanitutonka ob waci”: Thoughts on DANCES WITH WOLVES (a repost)

It’s Oscar Night, which barely registers on my radar anymore…but I still notice that every year around this time the “Worst Movies To Win Best Picture!” listicles start making the rounds again, so once again I present my thoughts on one of the “poster child” movies for the “rightful” Best Picture getting robbed by a lesser movie, Dances With Wolves, which is always cited as having won over the real Best Picture, Goodfellas. I’m never going to win this argument, but I will speak for Dances every year.

By the way, I thought I had written this relatively recently. It turns out that this post is nearly 20 years old. Where does that time go, I wonder?

I was looking on my shelves for a movie to watch the other night, and on the bottom shelf I found a movie I hadn’t watched in at least five years, this despite the fact that this same movie completely floored me when I saw it in its initial release. The movie was Dances With Wolves, and it’s been so long that my pan-and-scan VHS copy of it is now showing the telltale signs of decay — bad tracking in spots, sound that muffles in places, et cetera. After watching it almost anew, having forgotten a large number of the smaller plot details, the film has shot to very near the top of my “Get the DVD” list (along with that two-disc Casablanca set and The Adventures of Robin Hood).

When you get a discussion of the Oscars going with people who see a lot of movies, one of the most common examples of a year in which the wrong film was purportedly given Best Picture is 1991. That was the year that first-time director Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves took the big prize over Martin Scorcese’s GoodFellas, in an eerie repeat of ten years earlier when first-time director Robert Redford’s Ordinary People beat out Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull. (Now there is an example of the Academy getting it staggeringly wrong. Does anybody watch, or read, Ordinary People any more?) I can sort-of see the complaint: I remember GoodFellas being a very good film. Although I haven’t seen it in at least ten years, I remember it being pretty absorbing, and I’m one who has very little interest in stories about the Mafia or organized crime. I have yet to see any of the Godfather movies all the way through, for example.

UPDATE: I have, in fact, seen The Godfather since I wrote this piece.

I know that Dances With Wolves has fallen pretty seriously out of favor, much like Titanic and Forrest Gump have, but so help me, to this day I think it’s still a better movie than GoodFellas. (Keeping in mind, of course, my constant belief that there is no such thing, really, as “best”.) This does pose an interesting question: should I rank a film that engages me despite my complete lack of interest in its genre higher than a film that engages me much more, but in a genre to which I’m more sympathetic? I’ll leave that for another time — for now, suffice it to say that while I admired GoodFellas, I really don’t have much desire to ever see it again.

So, about Dances With Wolves. There is a lot to praise in the film on a technical basis, of course. The cinematography is amazing: I don’t recall any movie, except this one, ever making me think, “Damn, I gotta go see South Dakota one of these days!” (If you get off I-90, there are some very beautiful spots in South Dakota. It’s not all flatlands punctuated by billboards for Wall Drug.) John Barry’s score is just gorgeous. (An expanded edition of the CD is apparently in the works.) The build-up to the buffalo hunt is still a great sequence, accelerating the tempo until we’re in the midst of a full-fledged stampede.

The film is, to my way of thinking, a clinic on pacing: even in the four-hour director’s cut, I was never conscious of the passage of time. And while I wasn’t moved to tears quite so often this time as I was when I first saw the movie (when I started blubbering when Cisco, the horse, was shot and never really stopped), I did still weep at the end when, as Dances With Wolves and Stands With A Fist are leaving the camp, Wind In His Hair goes to a high clifftop and shouts his hard-won friendship with Dances With Wolves for all to hear.

What impressed me most about the film this time was the fact that none of the characters are wasted; the film is full of small moments of character development and many of the minor players who only appear in a handful of scenes have arcs of their own — a young Sioux named Smiles A Lot, for instance, comes of age over the course of the film, although it’s easy to miss: the first time we see him, he is too young to be taken with war parties, but at the film’s end he accompanies his first war party to rescue Dances With Wolves from the American soldiers. And even those soldiers’ commanding officer is shown to be somewhat honorable, and after he is killed in the fight at the river, Dances With Wolves stops Wind In His Hair from scalping him.

The film’s director’s cut plays down the “noble savage” aspects of the story (which I never found all that overt in the first place). People who have only seen the theatrical version will remember a shot in which the tribe comes upon a field littered with skinned buffalo carcasses, and wagon-wheel tracks leading away from the scene; but in the director’s cut, after that scene the tribe sends a band of warriors out to kill those white hunters, and Lt. Dunbar, appalled at the joy with which the tribe celebrates these deaths, refuses to sleep amongst them. And much later, Dances With Wolves — John Dunbar, no more — feels the same desire to kill some whites who have intruded upon the tribe’s sacred grounds. This change is depicted, but left unremarked.

I also found a certain subtext to the film of how much might have been different if one thing, along the way, had been different. What if the Union General hadn’t been there to see John Dunbar’s suicide attempt? What if the commanding officer of Fort Hayes had not been insane? Perhaps, then, he would not have allowed Fort Sedgwick to go unsupplied for so long, and thus perhaps Captain Cargill and his men would still have been there when Dunbar arrived. What if Stands With A Fist’s husband had not been killed? Would Dunbar have become so deeply entwined with the tribe had there not been the added factor of his falling in love with her? What if that honorable officer at the end — the one whose body Dances With Wolves insists be allowed to lay unmolested — had recognized Dances With Wolves as the Army officer who had passed him in the hall at Fort Hayes a year before? I admire the way a lot of the story developments in Dances With Wolves hinge upon circumstances of which the characters are often completely unaware, in the way that our lives are often affected or even shaped by the actions of people we never meet and whose existence we never know.

Is Dances With Wolves sentimental? Yes, probably, but I never found it too thick — in fact, it is understated, in many places — and in any case, I rather enjoy sentiment now and then. I like raw emotion in my stories.

(The title of this post is, of course, the name “Dances With Wolves” in Lakota. I found it here. Some linguistic speculation can be found in this PDF document.)

The image above is from this more recent article about the film.

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Parrots being trained to say naughty words is an underused comedy bit, I think.

From NYPD Blue: the squad is now under the command of Sergeant Gibson, who is a pretty annoying dude who think he’ll keep his parrot at work. Detective Andy Sipowicz has other plans.


From Shoresy: Shoresy has brought in new talent for the hockey team he plays for, but it’s a sudden thing so he’s housing them himself, in his apartment. In showing them the place he introduces them to his pet parrot, who has picked up one of Shoresy’s favorite profane insults.

Now back to trying to dispel my DST-induced brain fog with enough coffee to drown an ox….


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Spring forward

Lord, I hate this crap. That is all.

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The deer out back

We got a few inches of fresh snow today, which made the deer who like to graze out back at work a lot more visible. Here they are, with an art filter applied via the Prisma app.


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Something for Thursday

Because the movie has been on my brain since we saw it on Sunday, here is a suite of Max Steiner’s amazing music from Casablanca. The score’s greatness is all the more amazing when you consider yet another bits of this movie’s production lore: Steiner disliked “As Time Goes By” and wanted to do a song of his own, and the only reason he didn’t get his way is because Ingrid Bergman had moved on to her next role and had already had her hair cut for the new picture, rendering any reshoots impossible.

I can not get over all the ways that Casablanca really should not be anywhere near as good as it is.

Anyway, you’re here for some music, so:


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From the Books, for International Women’s Day

This is a repost from a couple of years ago. I chose to repost this, about a book by astronomer Sara Seager, because it has lodged in my brain since I read it.

I generally try to avoid reading grief memoirs, for various reasons that mainly boil down to…well, I’ve had enough grief in my life already and I know that more is on the way someday*, and it’s a subject I don’t much enjoy plumbing any more than I have to. But sometimes I find a grief memoir that piques my interest and I read it anyway. Smallest Lights is such a book, and I am very glad that I read it. It’s so much more than a grief memoir, really. It’s about science and love and life and death and love again and parenthood and dealing with autism.

The Smallest Lights in the Universe, Sara Seager
It’s also beautifully written.

Not every planet has a star. Some aren’t part of a solar system. They are alone. We call them rogue planets.

Because rogue planets aren’t the subjects of stars, they aren’t anchored in space. They don’t orbit. Rogue planets waner, drifting in the current of an endless ocean. They have neither the light nor the heat that stars provide. We know of one rogue planet, PSO J318.5-22–right now, it’s up there, it’s out there–lurching across the galaxy like a rudderless ship, wrapped in perpetual darkness. Its surface is swept by constant storms. It likely rains on PSO J318.5-22, but it wouldn’t rain water there. Its black skies would more likely unleash bands of molten iron.

It can be hard to picture, a planet where it rains liquid metal in the dark, but rogue planets aren’t science fiction. We haven’t imagined them or dreamed them. Astrophysicists like me have found them. They are real places on our celestial maps. There might be thousands of billions of more conventional exoplanets–planets that orbit stars other than the sun–in the Milky Way alone, circling our galaxy’s hundreds of billions of stars. But amid that nearly infinite, perfect order, in the emptiness between countless pushes and pulls, there are also the lost ones: rogue planets. PSO J318.5-22 is as real as Earth.

There were days when I woke up and couldn’t see much difference between there and here.

Sara Seager is an astrophysicist at MIT whose main body of work involves exoplanets, their discovery around other stars, and analyzing them for signs of life. Among other things, if you wonder how on Earth (literally!) we can look for life on planets lightyears away that nobody in our lifetime (or, likely, in our great-grandchildrens’ lifetimes) will ever see directly, this book will give you some hints as to how that search is currently going. (It involves ingenious analysis of light coming from those planets. It really is amazing, when you think about it, the degree to which light energy is the main carrier of information in this universe of ours.)

In her book, Seager discusses her own work and the degree to which her work has shaped her personal life, and how her personal life has shaped her work in return. Her first husband was a man of considerable energy, whom she met on a canoeing trip; their courtship progressed on more canoeing trips all over the place. But he developed cancer, which eventually killed him at a terribly and unfairly young age. Thus this brilliant astrophysicist, whose work is an important part of the current growth of human knowledge of our universe, finds herself a single parent attending meetings of the local widow’s club, figuring out the nature of this new world she’s been thrust into. It’s the cruelest of ironies, I suppose, that this woman whose life’s work is understanding the universe and seeking other worlds suddenly finds herself in a new world, one that’s familiar to people who have known deep grief, where everything is the same and yet everything is deeply different.

Throughout Seager’s book, I found myself frequently hit in the heart by some of her observations:

:: Everybody dies instantly. It’s the dying that happens either quickly or over a long period of time. Mike spent a long time dying: eighteen months separated his diagnosis and his death.

:: There have been lessons I have chosen not to teach. Not all knowledge is power; not all things are worth knowing. Max and Alex [her sons] never saw Mike’s body. They did not see him leave the house.

:: [On the Widow’s club] All of our children had become friends. They didn’t gather because their fathers had died; they gathered because it was fun. There is a reason every children’s book is written from the perspective of the child. Children don’t care about adult concerns. We think of children as helpless when they are the embodiment of resilience, more impervious to outside forces than we could ever be again. Despite their suffering, our kids still knew pure joy.

:: Sometimes you need darkness to see. Sometimes you need light.

:: I don’t think it’s an accident that there’s a mirror at the heart of every telescope. If we want to find another Earth, that means we want to find another us. We think we’re worth knowing. We want to be a light in somebody else’s sky. And so long as we keep looking for each other, we will never be alone.

I love that last one (which actually closes the book, so apologies for the ‘spoiler’). Seager casts loneliness not in terms of presence but in terms of action: we’re only truly lonely when we accept that we are alone and stop seeking others to enrich our lives. True loneliness, really being alone, comes of a permanent turning inward, of looking down and not up. And really, how else would someone who loves the stars see things?

The Smallest Lights in the Universe is a wonderful book that stands in stark contrast, it seems to me, to the view of science as cold and mechanical and mathematical, an enterprise that somehow forgets about emotion and wonder. No less a genius than Walt Whitman expressed this view, in “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”. But the numbers and the proofs surely don’t have to get in the way of the wonder; rather they inform it and give it focus. Science is not an impediment to love and life. Science is a part of those things. Sara Seager’s book shows us how.

Posted in On Books, On Science and the Cosmos | Tagged | 2 Comments

Tone Poem Tuesday

An offering for Roger! Here is “Adagio and Allegro for Piano and Horn”, by Robert Schumann.

What’s the relevance to Roger? Look at the opus number. Happy birthday to one of the finer folks I’ve met online!

(BTW, I actually did a Google search for “List of Opus 71s”, and Wikipedia actually does this! Here’s a handy list of Opuses 70. I thought about the Prokofiev, but it’s late in the day as I’m getting around to this, that piece is 35 minutes, and I don’t like to post stuff without hearing it at least once, so the Schumann will have to do.)

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