Friday, May 29, 2020

Bob's Red Mill: Peanut Butter Chocolate & Oats

Something a little different today. From time to time, I'll review chocolate soap or chocolate candles or other atypical chocolate products. Cereal occasionally has come in. But this is probably the first snack bar. There are, I suppose, enough chocolate snack or energy bars that I haven't the inclination to go about reviewing them. But I was curious about this one because I do generally like Bob's Red Mill products (though I'm used to them selling ingredients like flour or oats or cornmeal rather than things that are already put together), so I wanted to see how they would go about this. And the design reminds me more of a candy bar than of a snack or energy bar.

Or maybe it just appealed to me because it comes in this light, neutral, pale brown, slightly yellow color. (Shiny packaging scares me, this is true.)

Once I opened it up, though, it felt rather too much more like a Clif Bar than I suppose what I'd been imagining. The look is similar with that smushed ingredients style and the smell of the peanuts was similar. So it wasn't particularly exciting. The taste, too, is much like a Clif Bar. There is more of a flavor of oats here, though, oats with that soft, semi-flavorless flavor. The chocolate has presence but the peanut butter doesn't come in much at all.

So yes, this is a snack bar rather than than a candy bar. Not an energy bar, either, more just a granola bar type thing. It does taste nicer than a Clif bar, probably not least because it is much softer in texture (other than the sugar in the chocolate, the only sweetener is honey, which probably helps with the texture, as well).

After tasting a bit of it, I put the rest in my bag to waltz around Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park this week (don't worry; I practically had the place to myself and would go almost an hour at a time without seeing another living soul besides the lizards, birds, and rabbits). And I did find this chocolate oat bar quite delicious when it was nice and warm. It took on more of a fudge feeling, becoming almost a tad too melty. The oats helped to give it that freshly baked feeling while also allowing the chocolate flavor to take over.

Not a bad choice, then, if you're looking for something to throw in a bag. Normally I'd recommend just eating some almonds when you need an on-the-go snack, but hey, maybe now is a time when people are wanting to rely less on finger food snacks? So while this product is a little different from the type of thing I normally review and while I probably won't usually be buying many of these, they are a nice option for the times when you do need a hands-off, pre-packaged, nice-tasting, okay ingredients snack.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Burning Across the Mountain

Last year I walked across the mountain of dried lava; I wore a green lace dress.

This year I walked across the same mountain while wearing the same dress.

I felt free and alive and happy.

My heart was stretched across the land.

I came home and thought of you and was sad.

I will never forget you. I burn with life.

(Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park)

Monday, May 25, 2020

Let It Stay

Normally I don't post anything about the Images of America books. Usually they're not well-suited towards the typical reaction-to-a-book post, though I do quite like them. You can find one on whatever city or town you're interested in--and probably on your favorite state park or historic bridge, too. In fact, the sub-topics are so many now that I wonder how many total Images of America books there are about the greater Phoenix area.

I did have something to say about the Downtown Phoenix book: it was rather depressing. Phoenix history is fascinating because it's in many ways the history of the effects of industrialization. People had been settling in Arizona for decades, but Phoenix didn't really take off as this massive, constantly growing thing until it had a good water supply and a connection to the railroad. So the start of the boom for Phoenix was the turn of the century, when electricity and motor cars and refrigeration were on the rise.

It was quite a "cultural" place. You turn the pages of this book and find all sorts of beautiful or fascinating buildings. But then you get to the end of the caption and read "no longer standing" or "demolished in ___" and it's really quite sad. Like a lot of cities, Phoenix became quite awkward as people started settling more in the suburbs and focusing their attention into those places.

Think about even today. You'll go downtown if you're going to see a game or a show or if you work in one of the office buildings. But for a cute old town district, you go into the surrounding cities. For restaurants, probably the same, unless you're catching something right before the show or game starts--even if you are going to Phoenix, it's probably higher up than the downtown area.

Granted, the entertainment area is there in Phoenix (I miss you, Symphony Hall). Even some of the historical has been saved (looking at you, Heritage Square). And there is art, too, with First Fridays and the art galleries. But when you look at the pictures of great brick buildings that were smothered and then torn down, it's regretful that things didn't happen differently.

The hope is that when we build things, we build things for permanence. And when we look at a place, we also look at it with permanence. Instead of saying, what can we demolish, to say what is already here that we can continue to use? I don't like the idea of a place where buildings are torn down and rebuilt every few decades. How wasteful is that? Instead I hope that we can more often build things to stay and maintain the things that we have.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Little Secrets: Milk Chocolate Caramel Cookie Bars

Little Secrets has been steadily making their way into the candy bar alternative market. Their Chocolate Pieces are generally pretty good, but their Crispy Wafers are lacking. How go the Caramel Cookie Bars? They already had M&M's covered and KitKats and there are already a million Reese's Cup alternatives, so Twix seems like a great next step. I'd vote for Milky Way or 3 Muskteers next, but Little Secrets has so far been sticking to the crunchy textures, so maybe they'd be quicker to go for a Snickers alternative?

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The bird in hand is the Milk Chocolate Caramel Cookie Bars, so called in plural because there are two sticks inside of the wrapper. Two sticks of milk chocolate with the vanilla cookie and some weird colored caramel that's strangely sticking together. As I was taking the pictures, I was truly curious as to why I would want to put such a strange-looking item as that caramel into my mouth. I would have expected the caramel in a candy bar alternative to be better than typical candy bar caramel--not weird looking.

But everything else seemed fine. The milk chocolate smells like creamy, confection milk chocolate. Biting in, I tasted the vanilla of the cookie and it's nice to be able to get some flavor to the cookie instead of just texture. Speaking of texture, the cookie's texture is a tad on the crisp side, which is only a slight negative if you are hoping to exactly replicate the Twix experience; otherwise, it's neutral.

The caramel, though, unless you're eating this on a hot afternoon, is a little too stiff. It takes the attention too much and lingers stuck in your teeth after you've chewed everything else. Also not a huge deal, but improving it would make a big difference. This simply isn't very good caramel. While I know that this is still just a candy bar, I'd still like to see better quality caramel than what's in Rolos.

It is basically the same experience as eating a Twix bar, though, which is the idea. This is a much more successful alternative than the wafers were. This could be a genuine replacement. Granted, once you started looking at the ingredients in more detail, you'll find that they're not necessarily the best in the world, either--but like I said, it is still just a candy bar. The chocolate and sugar are supposed to be fair trade and the palm oil is sustainably sourced even if it does have palm oil and it does skip the artificial colors and flavors. So yes, it's a step up.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

A Non-History History of the Corset

On first picking up The Corset and the Crinoline: An Illustrated History by W. B. Lord, one might assume to be picking up a well-researched, perhaps rather dry non-fiction text that describes all of the contexts in which the corset has been used as well as the various cultures, fabrics, patterns, fashions, and attitudes towards said garment. The title, though, is slightly misleading.

The book begins that way. It begins talking about different historical cultures who used some type of corset (although the title also mentioned crinolines, the main content matter is corsets) and how the style of that garment developed (or rather stayed much the same) over the centuries. All quite interesting, if more brief than I'd expected. Once you pass the book's halfway point, though, you arrive at the middle of the nineteenth century and the text becomes a commentary on the philosophies behind the corset instead of simply a history of the corset.

Because there you have it: this book was originally published in 1868, when the corset was in use in full force. So it becomes quite a biased look and in fact contains a rather draining "conversation" about whether or not corsets are beneficial. There are pages of letters written to a lady's magazine from various people all responding to one another's comments. While I do love reading firsthand accounts and that sort of thing, these were like looking at social media comments. Tedious, biased, and of questionable truth. That is in itself interesting to study but like I said, tedious, especially coming from a modern perspective on corsets.

And no, my perspective isn't that they were simply a horrendous contraption. You have to look at them as a whole. They were horrendous; I can't stand any modern fashion accessory that remotely resembles a corset in terms of tightness. But most women were not wealthy and from what I understand, women who had to work either at jobs or maintaining their households did not wear corsets tightly. And a corset that is simply form-fitting (made specifically for the individual) rather than tightened up isn't entirely unlike the heavy-lifting girdles you still see people using today when doing manual labor. It can in fact be good back support if made and used in a certain way. Part of this includes not tightening over the chest--which even this book makes sure to mention is a bad practice.

So tangent aside, this book is more of a historical text centered around corsets than a history of corsets. You'll learn a little about fashion and materials but not too much. And in fact, you'll learn even less if you're not already familiar with some basic terms. Given that this book was written in 1868, it assumes an 1868 knowledge of clothing. Even crinoline is a word that not all modern readers will be aware of (you would probably know it as a hoop skirt, though it was not always in the shape of a hoop and so was not always called a hoop skirt). I suppose all this means that it's quite a niche title. Still a good read, though, if you are interested in this niche--and there are indeed plenty of illustrations, which is wonderful.

Monday, May 18, 2020

When Did You Read?

Back when the Internet was young and online shopping even younger, I was enchanted by the idea of C.S. Lewis's Poems because of talk that the volume contained some Narnia poetry. Then being obsessed with Narnia, Poems then seemed like the unattainable portal to more Narnia content. Now that some fifteen or more years later I find Poems in my hands, I'm rather glad that I didn't get a copy of it back then.

There isn't much Narnia content in here. Despite the unicorn on the cover, that angle is covered quite thinly. So if that is your sole reason for coming to this book, well, you'll probably be disappointed in that regard. And I would say you're best off if you're already familiar with several of Lewis's writings, maybe a touch of Narnia but more so with his non-fiction or even at times with The Space Trilogy.

The book was put together posthumously and first published in 1964. It loosely goes by topic rather than year since many of these poems are written at unidentified times. And yet from the content and style, you can begin to guess at what point in his life he wrote them.

You see the young man enraptured by his college studies and writing poems about it all. The imaginative mind dreaming up unicorns and gnomes. Quite frankly, though, reading all this as who I am today, these were the pages I found least interesting. They felt more shallow and uninteresting to my mind at this moment. Better I found the reflections on nature versus industry and the pain of life and love.

Poetry is a very honest art form--perhaps even more so if, like many of these, it is not written specifically with publication in mind. So the titles that show with stark honesty all the pain that we cannot shut away or escape in living are the most thought-provoking. You can see the thoughts that were part of certain concepts Lewis explores in both his fiction and non-fiction writings. While a few of these poems are quite nice on their own, overall I'd say this book's best value is as a kind of companion piece to his other works.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Charm School Chocolate: Vanilla Bean White with Caramelized Rice Crisps

I can say it straight out now: I really like milk chocolate and I also very much enjoy white chocolate. That doesn't detract from my love for dark chocolate; they're all different and don't need to be compared to one another. White chocolate, however, is more like dark chocolate (compared with milk chocolate) in that it is less forgiving. Dark chocolate and white chocolate must be good quality for me to eat them. There is so much wonderful dark chocolate on the market these days, but high quality white chocolate is less common. So when I saw this Vanilla Bean White with Caramelized Rice Crisps from Charm School Chocolate at the Zak's Chocolate shop back in early March, I couldn't resist.

I didn't pay much attention to the vegan label. I usually avoid chocolates that use sweeteners other than sugar or honey, but vegan didn't seem like too big of a deal. That just means cutting out the milk and I stopped drinking milk in the 90's before there were thirty milk alternatives on the shelves, so nothing unusual about a milkless white chocolate, right?

But let's back up here. Funny I should mention the 90's as the colors on this bar's packaging remind me of the early 90's. The blue on orange is unappealing to me, as is the overall design. It reminds me somehow of standardized testing in schools. Too many words plus too many little triangles. So I didn't buy this chocolate based on the attraction of the packaging.

The chocolate, though, has a charming design. More geometric design here is balanced out by a smooth face on the left side of the bar. That smooth half also allows better appreciation of the Charm School label/logo. The back of the chocolate shows all the rice crisps peering from beneath the white surface.

At this point, however, I discovered the drawback to this vegan white chocolate: there is a strong coconut aroma. This isn't the first time I've come across coconut in chocolate; Stone Grindz makes a wonderful Coffee & Coconut Milk bar. But that one isn't overwhelmed by coconut flavor--and that one also lists coconut in the name as a "warning" to those of us not overly fond of coconut. (Charm School's milk chocolate bars, by the way, do list the coconut in the name; I'm not sure why the white bars don't. Yes, you can always check the ingredients list, but I usually figure that if something is in the ingredients but not in the name it isn't meant to be part of the flavor.)

This chocolate tastes overwhelmingly of coconut. It almost drowns out all the other flavors. I do taste some vanilla and sugar, as well, but mainly it's coconut. The caramelized rice crisps are thicker and more flavorful than your typical rice crisps. They're an interesting new flavor and texture, quite nice. I do wonder, though, if they would be better suited towards milk chocolate than white chocolate. They're a little too hefty perhaps for white chocolate.

This chocolate isn't bad. It's just a coconut-flavored white chocolate. So if you're into coconut, great. If not, not so much. For me, I am okay with some coconut but this, paired with the rice crisps, is too much for me. As such, I don't find this a successful vegan white chocolate alternative. The coconut is too distracting.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

The Two Sides of Emma

When Emma Shapplin announced about a month and a half ago that she would be live-streaming a show (not in her living room--in a venue) at the end of May, I was excited about that but I also discovered something else. I hadn't visited her website in years probably so I wasn't aware that you can now buy her two latest albums from her site. I didn't in use fact even know of the existence of the latest one, Venere. But I'd been trying to get my hands on Dust of a Dandy for years.

It's a strange concept in today's world to not be able to get hold of something that you want. I was willing to pay; that wasn't the issue. I just couldn't find anywhere to buy her music. Emma Shapplin is French and she is very popular in Argentina, yet she can be difficult to track down in the U.S. I have the Argentinian release of Carmine Meo: it translates all the songs into Spanish. I paid a pretty penny for the EP Discovering Yourself even though it only has four songs. So yes, I was quite excited to be able to get the two new albums. It didn't seem like great timing to be ordering something from France, so I basically made my order and let myself forget about it, anticipating a long shipping time. The two CDs came yesterday, though, to my great delight.

Now I was aware that most Emma Shapplin fans were disappointed by Dust of a Dandy. Even Macadam Flower had a departure from her previous classical crossover, highly operatic style. But even with more of a quiet pop style, I think that Macadam Flower is great. Sure, it doesn't show off her voice as much as some of her other work, but not all of her albums need to do the same thing, right? So I wanted to at least have the chance to listen to Dust of a Dandy--and I could only do so by buying the album (there are short snippets available online and of course the single is out but that's all).

Dust of a Dandy is like some strange, artsy experiment. If this isn't classical crossover, what genre is it? It has kind of a quiet rock sound sometimes but also it's like a semi-acoustic den cafe somewhere. Maybe someone who knows music can describe the genre to me. Emma did sing for a rock band when she was young and you can see that in this album even more than in Macadam Flower. But it still has that quieter, emotional, explorative quality that Macadam Flower had.

I feel like I shouldn't like this album much. And yet I do; it's strangely addictive. It's raw and earthy. It explores the questions of love and value, beauty and connection, loss and discovery. I may be reading the lyrics wrong, but I get the sense over the course of the album of realizing that what you had was not as good as you thought it was--that you are beginning to see how much more you can value your own interactions with the world and the people in it. So yes, a raw and sensual look at emotion.

Venere is a complete opposite to Dust of a Dandy. It is a return to straight classical, operatic style--almost. Etterna was a distinctly Emma crossover album, but Carmine Meo was more classical and a little less crossover--and Venere is even more classical, well mainly. Orchestral background and the chorus sometimes accompanying. I think there's only one dog barking at the end of one song and I think just one lightning sound; Etterna had I think more random, artsy sounds than that.

Despite being a complete opposite to Dust of a Dandy, the latter album leads quite well into Venere, especially with the final track of "Pie Jesu" (a different song from the usual) to lead in with more of a classical-type sound. Venere takes the lesson learned (in my interpretation of) the raw album and translates it into this atmospheric, operatic, soaring up above the thunderstorm sound. It's kind of like the carnal and then the ethereal. The two albums don't have anything to do with one another and don't even seem like they're by the same artist--except that they're so deeply similar on an emotional level.

And this is why I love Emma Shapplin's style in general. I view art through emotion and so whether she is leaning more to one genre or another, her use of emotion remains the same. She explores the emotional quality of sound through both the music and the diction. Sometimes her ability to put words together in a way that simply sounds right reminds me of John Keats, my favorite poet of the Romantics.

So I am pleased with both of these two albums--looking at them as pieces within the larger framework of Emma's work as a whole. On its own, I probably wouldn't have much (if any) interest in Dust of a Dandy. But as a piece of the whole, I'll take it. And as the prequel to Venere, well, that works strangely wonderfully.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Inside or Outside of the Glass?

It's crazy watching the short film Bubble Wrapped from Keychain Productions/Andrew Lee Potts again. Was it really made ten years ago? It could have been made today.

The film shows a woman who has literally bubble wrapped herself into her house to quarantine herself from a virus; her significant other shows up at the door but she's afraid to let him in because of the risk of catching it from him. Sound familiar?

There's a great twist to it that I don't want to spoil completely (so just go ahead and watch the video now, eh?), but what is also reminiscent of current times is the constant questioning. On one side you hear this; on the other side you hear that. One person is inside the glass and one person is outside the glass, but who is actually safer?

There are obvious correlations to the current situation in the world. But can we take that a step further? What keeps you safe and what puts you in danger? Do you really always know? What keeps those you love safe and what harms them? Do our intentions really always play out the way we mean them to? As in situations like the following. You go on a quiet hike instead of risking a concert after hearing about shootings at big events--but you end up in the small percentage of people who are attacked by a mountain lion. You read a book before bed instead of watching a scary movie and have nightmares about something that happened in the book. You take your family out to dinner and you all get food poisoning. Etc. Add to the list.

We never know the results of our choices. Even the most certain things are uncertain. If I make a right turn, I will end up in that parking lot. No, that car is going to hit you and you'll never make it into the parking lot. I sound so pessimistic but it isn't all bad; these can go in the opposite direction, as well. Something that you think can only be bad can turn out to be good. The point is, we never really see the complete picture. There is an entire orchestration of events going on that we only have a small glimpse of as we make our daily choices.

Because we never do know how things might turn out, how events might flip around, it is best to simply try and make the best decisions we can and live as wholeheartedly as we may. Because you never know, when you try and be the one inside the glass, you might actually turn out to be the one on the outside.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Zak's Chocolate: Coffee Break Bar

One of the great things about Zak's Chocolate is that not only do they value using quality ingredients, they also look to other local companies when it comes to those ingredients. They're always doing colabs with other places in the area, whether it's for peanut butter or stout or in this case coffee. In so doing, they create a network hub of interrelated products in which the various small businesses can refer customers to one another. The coffee in this Coffee Break Bar comes from Bergies Coffee in Gilbert. I find myself wishing I lived closer to Gilbert because just a quick look into Bergies online shows that they, too, have some great company values.

Back to this chocolate bar. It comes with the same wonderful cocoa pod design I've come across before, this time with the aroma of strong and freshly ground coffee. The color is a little light for dark chocolate but also a little dark for milk chocolate--more like the shade of candy dark chocolate. Fittingly so: this is a 55% dark chocolate with the added milk and coffee. That's certainly a different and intriguing approach. There are so many definitions about how chocolate must be done. If it's under this percentage, it has to have milk; it it's over that percentage, it shouldn't have milk. Etc. But why shouldn't chocolate with a higher cocoa content have milk?

It tastes instantly of chocolate and coffee. The coffee is strong and bright and the chocolate does come with a milkiness to it. While not actually bitter, the coffee is what I would liken to the bitter element, and the chocolate while also not sweet per se gives that sense of sweetness and creaminess. Since it is in fact dark chocolate, there is nothing of greasiness to this chocolate and it has more depth of flavor than even a high quality and higher cocoa content milk chocolate. As such, it is able to hold its own against the coffee while also giving that creamier element reminiscent of a mixed coffee beverage.

The flavor is completely smooth. No coffee grounds or anything in here. Just smooth, rich, and creamy chocolate tasting of coffee. I would easily say that this is my favorite coffee chocolate bar ever. Both the chocolate and coffee are excellent and the composition is unique and perfect. Milky dark chocolate filled with coffee is quite the indulgence.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

American Victorian & Timeless Style

I was reading American Victorian for a bit of study in Victorian architecture and style, but the book brought up some observations about my theory on style in general. It reminded me that the reason I love Victorian style so much isn't just because I like the wood and the colors and the designs, etc.; it's because I like the theory of Victorian style.

This book was published in 1984 as a kind of guidebook during the Victorian revival of the 1980's; it gives quick outlines on certain traits of Victorian style through the years (the Victorian era covers a wide range of years with significant changes throughout), suggesting how readers might incorporate these elements into their homes in the present day. The message is repeated that only museums need to strive for 100% historical accuracy; homes have the freedom to take the spirit of the style and make it livable. (Using a present day sofa is one of the quickest examples of this.) And that works better with Victorian style than any other historical style because Victorian style was itself eclectic as far as the sources of inspiration and as far as its use of historical elements.

Renaissance, Gothic, Colonial elements all start to reappear during the Victorian era. They might not stand out so much to the casual observer because they're all "old" so they just blend in. But the fact that Victorian style used historical influences (and world influences) means that it's easier to blend in present day influences, as well. 

I have a gorgeous Eastlake etagere in my living room on whose shelves is a clay dinosaur bank from the mid-20th century or thereabouts and I also have a Mary Coulter Southwest side table for my TV and Disneyland silhouettes on another side table and R. Atkinson Fox prints on the walls and a whatnot shelf with cast iron pigeons on it. None of it really "goes together" in the sense of creating a historically Victorian space. It isn't Victorian at all in that sense; I'm not even trying in that sense. But that's the point: I'm the present day Victorian putting together my space. 

The TV and book titles are pretty much the only things in the living room that give away the year of this space. It doesn't look Victorian because there are obvious 20th century elements (even apart from the 21st century things like the TV). But it also doesn't look too much like any one time period in particular--except that it is most highly influenced by the Victorian. As such, even if I were to stay in this space for 50 more years, it would never need "redecorating." It would never need to be updated because it was its own style to begin with. Only those little elements, those little tokens from the present day, would change along the way so seamlessly while the core concept, the central idea of style, remained the same. 

Monday, May 4, 2020

May the Fourth Be With Us

The Fourth may only be here for a couple more hours and may already be over in, ah, most parts of the world. However, I could not let it pass without leaving here the message: May the Fourth Be With You, as it was when I went to visit the Millennium Falcon and when I went on a little ride on a speeder near Savi's Workshop. Ah, I love Black Spire Outpost. I walk its streets in my mind.

The Force will be with you, always.