Monday, April 27, 2020

The Great Divorce of Heaven and Hell

Literature students will remember Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell." I also remember hearing C.S. Lewis's reaction to such a concept as is presented in the title: he affirmed that no, we should not be combining heaven and hell, but rather separating them. He wrote The Great Divorce based on that idea. Being in the mind to read some more Lewis, I chose to (curbside) pick up this title. The notion of not taking anything from hell with you into heaven felt quite appealing to me right now. I got the idea of something cleansing, I suppose.

Not exactly so, though that isn't a bad thing; it's just slightly different from what I'd expected. I'd also had the impression until I actually looked at the book's page online that this was simply non-fiction like The Problem of Pain or Mere Christianity. Not quite. It's fiction, but more of a direct allegory and less of a novel than Till We Have Faces. It is the story of a man who gets on a bus from hell into heaven--everyone acts like they're just visiting, though whoever chooses to stay can stay.

So this narrator walks around observing the others who came with him on the bus and what he sees in this sort of threshold territory of heaven. So what you are seeing along the way are all the things that are holding these people back from accepting the gift of heaven. The things they won't let go of, the things that they refuse to put in second place, even if it's to put a loving God in first place.

You also see how these things do not practically fit inside of heaven. The book expires the concept of how it is exactly that you literally cannot put hell inside of heaven, nor does hell have any power over heaven. This concept is somewhat reminiscent of Till We Have Faces and certain moments in Narnia, too: it's that sense of not being able to understand or partake until you have given up your old eyes and taken on your new ones.

Probably everyone will find a character in this book that they most identify with (that is, from the people who go up to visit heaven). We all have different weaknesses (I mean, the one that is strongest varies from person to person). What's nice in this book is seeing a physical illustration of how we need only accept the offered gift, we need only place the highest thing in the highest place, in order to be released from our old selves and enjoy ultimate hope.

It's a short book. And honestly, it probably works better if you're coming from a perspective where you believe in Purgatory and/or the whole Hell-as-annihilation-theory-or-whatever-it's-called that Lewis addressed in The Problem of Pain (maybe elsewhere, too, that's just where I know I've seen it). But if you just take it for what it is, a fictional story that is the setting for exploring the concept of the separation of heaven and hell, it's definitely a thought-provoking piece.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Raaka: Bourbon Cask Aged 82% Dark

This Bourbon Cask Aged chocolate bar has been aging in my home for about four months. Now is the time to break into it, eh?

That name is an attention-grabber, certainly, as is the little line calling this "unroasted" chocolate and the mention of maple sugar in the ingredients. These are all new things for me. (Well, maybe not so much the maple sugar: I'm sure I must have had some other chocolate with maple sugar. There is still regular cane sugar in here; it isn't sweetened entirely with maple sugar. That would be new.) Cocoa beans are always roasted before all of the grinding and conching steps begin. Except that Raaka Chocolate chooses to skip the roasting in favor of the "brighter, bolder, fruitier side of cacao." Okay.

And the bourbon casks? Yeah, they're real. They age the cocoa in empty bourbon casks to soak up some flavor. It sounds cool and I don't have anything against it--but I also wonder. If the cocoa is good quality processed with expertise, why do you want to cover up its natural flavor with anything else? Especially if you're trying to get a more raw flavor by skipping the roasting. And if the casks don't add enough flavor that they would be covering up anything, is it really worth going through that step? Maybe I'm just not enough of a foodie. And again, I don't mind; it's a fun concept; I just wonder.

The layered land/mountainous look of the outer wrapping reflects back onto the bar. I've never seen a chocolate mold design quite like these soft ripples. The color is good, and the chocolate gives off a semisweet aroma.

The snap is great, too. Then almost immediately after putting a piece in my mouth, I noticed a difference in texture. It's only slight, but it's almost like the difference between regular chocolate and so-called "raw" chocolate. A little softer and rougher in feel. It's definitely noticeable if you're paying close attention, but necessarily immediately apparent otherwise.

The flavor has that rich, blue taste of cocoa nibs. There is strong and dark cocoa flavor with some tang but no bitterness. The tang increases at about three quarters of the way in but is quickly followed by a touch of sweetness. The finish is the closest this chocolate gets to being bitter, maybe because it's accompanied by a slightly dustier feel than usual. Raaka's notes call this bar "oaky and smooth, with a hint of cherry cordial." That sounds about right: I said strong and dark where they said oaky, no bitterness for smoothness, and sweetness for cherry cordial.

There does appear to be a difference in the flavor based on the decision to skip the roasting step--but without an exact comparison (that is, all steps and ingredients being identical except for the roasting) it's hard to tell what is a result of that or not. The same goes for the bourbon cask aging process.

What I can say is that this is a good bar of chocolate. It's organic and fairly traded (they have a great chart on the inside of the wrapper showing the difference between what they pay for the cocoa and what fair trade requirements are--a quick way of showing that "Fair Trade" doesn't mean there are no issues). The chocolate is beautiful and has great flavor and texture. At 82% cocoa, it delivers a full chocolate hit but has enough of a sense of sweetness to it to be welcoming rather than intimidating. A perfect example of why I've often said that chocolate in the 80% range is my favorite: it can taste more than chocolate in the 70% range and yet not have all of the weightiness of 90% chocolate.

This is a plainer, sleeker style dark chocolate bar. But Raaka also makes some interesting flavors, like Oat Milk and Bananas Foster that have more of a frilly sound. I would be quite curious to see how they approach those.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Disney Family Singalong

Do you remember when YouTube was new? I was in high school and I would watch these videos that young people were making using mediocre cameras to imitate cool cinematography or even try out things like green screens. None of the video quality holds up to today's standards in which everyone is expected to have a good camera and professional lighting, but the creativity was great. It was exciting and so much fun.

That's kind of what the Disney Family Singalong on ABC tonight reminded me of. On the one hand, it's absolutely nothing like the quality that Disney/ABC would put out on TV. A bunch of people filming themselves in their kitchens or bedrooms with their phones. Everything all spliced together with the song lyrics stuck onto the bottom of the screen. Absolutely nothing, right? Nothing compared with a big production on a stage with a live audience and then added digital effects, right?

Except that it was so much fun.

I thought I would turn it on just to see what it was and then either keep it on in the background or turn off the TV. But I was hooked. Obviously, of course, the opening song was great. Derek Hough and all put together a creative piece that still had costumes and choreography and cinematography even if it was just filmed in their kitchens. That was a YouTube video there, such fun.

While the other songs didn't keep up that same quality level because of course you can't really do that on all of them, they were still creative and just positive and encouraging. Whether it was the multiple screens of one performer like with Darren Criss or Ariana Grande, or the use of the green screens like with Amber Riley, the editing kept the screen moving even if there wasn't much to actually film. Or sticking Luke Evans and Josh Gad on a frame on Alan Menken's piano--stuff like that is cool.

Then as you do get into the group stuff, the possibilities are all there. The High School Musical cast brought in the feels, Jordan Fisher brought in lighthearted fun and all the choreography, and the Donny Osmond bit put all the family emotions out there. And of course I'm sure we all loved the pets that made their appearances. I think Christina Aguilera's dog just sleeping on the bed next to her was my favorite.

The things we can do when everything that we're used to relying on is gone. No, you can't all practice this scene together and perform it live on a stage. But yes, you can all film yourselves dancing with your phone and we'll edit it together so that it looks like you're all dancing together. Isn't that great? This is nothing profound of me to say and this one hour show was nothing profound, either. But it was fun, despite being nothing like what Disney would normally put out--and I just can't get over how wonderful that is.

It's a reminder of what makes things enjoyable. Yes, we love Disney because of their superb quality level, and I'm sure we'll all be happy to have big productions back. But they could do something like this because these are songs that we all know and love. They came up with a creative way to do something, and it worked. That's the way so many things are right now: we're kind of just reinventing our way of approaching it all. That's why many of the ideas that have come up or new ways of doing things are going to stick around even after the world normalizes again.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Clove & Hive Honey Sticks

I did have a chance to visit the Renaissance Festival on I think the first weekend of March before it had to close up early. This was the first year in which I was actually considering going a second time, how about that? So I thought I'd take a moment in which we can all reminisce about novelties by sharing my thoughts on the honey sticks that I got there from The Clove and Hive.

Usually honey sticks are either plain or flavored--so when we see honey sticks set out with different labels, we expect those labels to say things like Strawberry, Raspberry, Cherry, etc. So at first glance some people might be a little taken aback to see labels like Avocado and Eucalyptus. But these aren't that type of honey stick, remember: those aren't what the honey has been flavored with, those are the plants that the bees were hanging around when making their honey.

Isn't that fun? Usually our honey choices are limited to spring blooms, fall blooms, clover, citrus, or desert blooms here in the Southwest. Things like that. So getting this range of origins to explore in honey is like taking it into chocolate or wine tasting boundaries--or just making a fun game out of honey sticks.

There were twelve flavors, visible in either light or dark color.

Star Thistle is sweet and light and golden. Buckwheat is rich and dark, reminding me of farmland and open air and plants. Meadowfoam was light and sweet in a floral way; I felt like a hummingbird drinking its nectar. Wildflower is rich and syrupy, while Orange is light and golden.

Coffee is richer, almost bitter if honey could be bitter; its sweetness is deeper and paler. Eucalyptus is light and sweet with a spring in its step and some richness to it. Avocado is one of the darker-colored honeys and it tastes thicker and more syrupy, almost like agave nectar or molasses but lighter and sweeter than molasses.

The Dark Buckwheat is very rich, like leather and liquor but with a sweet core because once again, it's still honey. Blackberry is mild in flavor with a floral tone. Mojave Buckwheat somehow has both richness and lightness, so rich yet also mild; it would make a great standard honey. And Organic Clover is light with an earthy undertone that makes it almost slightly bitter; the floral tone of its sweetness reminds me somewhat of the Blackberry.

Ah, I love when foods offer so much variation. Whatever you do, don't buy the generic honey bears. Whether you find some cool flavors or just get the spring blooms or just buy whatever local honey you see without even reading all the details, treat yourself to some good honey on a daily basis. And when you do get a chance to try out some cool honey sticks from Clove & Hive or someone else, go for it. The simple pleasures make life sweet.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Zak's Chocolate: Easter Selection

For those in either the Phoenix area or up near Prescott, there are still some great Easter chocolate options available. Both Zak's Chocolate in Scottsdale and Black Butterfly in Prescott are offering online ordering with at-store pick-up (Zak's will also ship). I do need to try some of Black Butterflies Easter chocolates someday; they're gorgeous. But not this year. This year I'll stick with Zak's since they're closer to me (and you can also buy a gift card from either shop online if you want to support them but can't get to the store). And yes, I will make a comment like that about Black Butterfly in a Zak's Chocolate review because I love that we have a few good chocolate companies in Arizona now, so there doesn't need to be any harsh competition among them. They each have their own style and their own, unique qualities. (And yes, I do believe we're past the pre-order deadline for Black Butterfly's Easter offerings, anyways, so I'm not sure if there is additional availability now, anyways.)

For Easter at Zak's Chocolate, you can order Easter egg truffles in four flavors and various types of chocolate bunnies, some filled, some hollow, some small, some large, and one filled with marshmallow. The bunnies come in either milk chocolate or dark chocolate, your choice. If you are wondering about how the pick-up process works, they have all the info on their site to make it nice and simple: you order online and then call when you arrive and they set it out on a table for you and you can say hi from a distance and then get your bag once they go in. Nice and simple.

While they do have larger bunnies, I stuck with the small ones. So I got one small dark chocolate bunny, one milk chocolate bunny with marshmallow inside, and all four of the egg flavors. They came each sealed in their own bag, with stickers easily marking which is which. It's hard to beat a dark chocolate bunny from Zak's: you won't get this quality from the grocery store.

The marshmallow bunny is filled with such a tender, melt-in-your-mouth, genuinely marshmallow-flavored marshmallow that I'm ever so pleased with it. Marshmallow has more of a candy feeling if you're used to more casual Easter offerings, but marshmallow like this is so excellent as to still have that gourmet effect. And again, even with this being milk chocolate, it is quality milk chocolate with much more flavor than you will find in the average Easter chocolate (and it's without all that oil, too).

The eggs are all in half shapes, with one side being rounded and one flat. They're about truffle size with colored speckles on them. The style works for both adults and children, for both the casual or the formal setting.

The Marshmallow Caramel has a layer of the marshmallow I've already admired along with a layer of liquid caramel above that. The vanilla-tasting caramel only adds to experience. This is gourmet reimagining of candy, a piece that will be welcome to a variety of tastes. (Which is probably why they're sold out of this one for the season already--sorry.)

The Peanut Butter egg uses peanut butter from local company PB Americano (click here for my review of their Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter). It isn't so much a peanut butter filling as a peanut-butter-flavored-and-colored truffle-like filling. Very light and almost liquid-like. Peanut butter doesn't excite me much (does that mean I'm not American enough?), but if you're going to do a peanut butter truffle egg, this is the way to do it. It's very nice.

Even though the Chocolate Mint is next in the picture, I'll bring the Malted Milk in before that one. I don't know what I was expecting, but I wasn't expecting a reimagining of Whoppers. I didn't think I had any special affection for Whoppers, but biting into this was like biting into nostalgia. I should have taken pictures of the inside of these eggs. This egg is like a Whopper--but also nothing like a Whopper. It's what the adult mind who might remember Whoppers fondly wishes Whoppers were actually like when biting into them at Halloween or something like that and promptly becoming disappointed. The chocolate is sweet and rich and the malt is solid but also soft and full of creamy, malty flavor. Wow.

Okay, now for that Chocolate Mint. This is the most colorful one with faintly blue speckles. The inside is a mint-flavored chocolate ganache. Pretty straightforward. This type of thing usually tastes pretty much the same wherever it comes from: if everyone is using the same mint oil, the mint oil just overpowers the chocolate and so that's the flavor you will taste every time. But this one tastes a little different. The mint is edgier. Still, though, this is a classic flavor, so it is mainly what you would expect from a mint truffle.

I'm quite thrilled. Chocolate bunnies are the classic Easter chocolate. And I like my little dark chocolate bunny, but the marshmallow bunny and the Marshmallow Caramel and Malted Milk eggs stole the show for me. Once again, I love when someone can do a gourmet spin on candy. That's something that's easy to talk about and plenty of places pretend that that's what they're doing, but I rarely come across true examples of that concept--even when I was back on Chocablog looking at more of a variety of confections from across the country. To bring in the skill and the quality with the sweetness and the nostalgia is quite thrilling and perfect for Easter chocolates.

Oh, yes, and since it's Zak's Chocolate, this is all fair trade chocolate--which as I've mentioned really seems like it ought to be the norm for Easter chocolate especially.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Reflections on Watching TLOTR Again

The Lord of the Rings was my escape in middle school. The light/dark theme and the extremely detailed fantasy made it the perfect story to contemplate during that time. I could simultaneously escape into it and also gain hope. I would read over those books again and again and I'd watch the movies again and again and there was always so much to hold my mind.

I just finished rewatching the movies for the first time in at least three years. What used to take three nights took me about a month, splitting each movie into two separate nights and scattering the six nights. And wow, I can see why I loved that story so much.

"I wish none of this had happened. I wish the Ring had never even come to me." "So do I. And so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us." Possibly misquoting Frodo and Gandalf talking there in The Fellowship of the Ring. I always liked that quote, and it stood out to me again. When something happens to you that you really do not like, when you must face something that you really do not want to face, there is no preventing it except by actively causing something much worse. So you must simply do the best at what is before you. It's simple and yet heartbreaking.

I always felt Frodo's struggles with the Ring--Gollum's, too. (Which makes more sense than you might first think when you consider that, in a literary sense, Frodo and Gollum are almost the same character--but that's another topic.) Life can be hard, eh?

And the Shire is beautiful and so is Rivendell and even Mount Doom is in a certain sense. And Galadriel is the best; I want to be Galadriel. But in college, I also came to really love Eowyn's healing story (which of course is only barely touched on in the films, and then only in the Extended Edition, but still). Her healing story is especially comforting to me right now.

New things I observed on watching again after years? The battle scenes are really hard to watch. I'm reminded why The Fellowship of the Ring is my favorite movie of the three: it has the least fighting. Granted, they're good battle scenes, but battles in books just take a few pages, whereas in movies they tend to take up the majority of the minutes. And it's growing more and more difficult for me to watch violent images. I can't really take it anymore.

So that's why I prefer Gandalf and Frodo sitting in the dark in Moria talking about the metaphorical battle between good and evil versus literally watching the good soldiers fight the bad soldiers. Good versus evil. Light and dark. My head continues to swirl with it.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Some Things Delayed; Some Things New

What's happened is that the whole world started building fear and anxiety at the same time that I was facing my own fears and anxieties completely apart from the issue the world is facing. So the general fear sometimes added to mine and sometimes distracted from mine. It's kind of been a reminder that whatever is or isn't happening and whatever fears are shared and whichever are just individual, there are always terrible and/or difficult things going on in this world. It's a fallen world, remember?

But Light persists through it all.

So anyways, I just wanted to ease back into blogging by reflecting on the things that I would have blogged about if everything hadn't been shut down. The things that I have missed. But also the things that have been coming up that wouldn't have otherwise.

This past weekend would have been Arizona Opera's last production of the season, Ariadne auf Naxos. No opera. Last month, I was considering going to Phoenix Symphony's Disney in Concert. No Disney. (I was also thinking of going to Disneyland again in April; no Disneyland.) I've been skipping more of Southwest Shakespeare's plays, anyway, I guess, but I had thought at least to go to Hudson in April. No plays. No movies, either. I was really looking forward to Mulan. Now the release date has been officially moved to late July, but whether or not that'll even hold remains to be seen.

I'd also thought to watch the Jeremy Camp movie, I Still Believe. It did have about a week in theaters before the theaters shut down, but I don't think we were all rushing out to see it first thing so I'm sure I'm not the only one who missed it. They did recently release it to rent online, though, which is nice. I haven't rented a movie online in years (I'm one of the few people who still gets Netflix DVDs). It's a good story for this moment in time, too: it's a story about knowing that life will bring terrible/difficult things and yet also knowing that there is hope beyond all of that. Jeremiah 31:17 -- "There is hope in thine end," that's what I've been thinking about lately.

And there is much more streaming going on, too, not just movie rentals. Plays and operas and concerts are going online. Pretty much everyone is trying to at least offer something (museums are showcasing pictures online or even doing virtual tours). This weekend I got the exciting news that Emma Shapplin is doing a live concert at the end of May. It can be difficult to even track down her music (from the U.S. at least), and I hadn't heard anything new of her in quite a while. Given that and the fact that I'll probably never see her live, that news kind of made my day.

Some some things have been delayed or canceled. Some expectations have been burst. Some new things have come up. Some new enjoyment has been created. This is life: you never know exactly what will happen but you do know that some of it won't be nice and some of it will be (and that of course applies to more than just shows and movies).