Monday, April 19, 2021

Exploring Food

Let's go on a little adventure through Old Town Scottsdale, shall we? Changing seasons usually makes me hungrier, so what might be some of the food we can find? 

A late morning can begin with a visit to Berdena's for perhaps a Honey Lavender or Cardamom Rose Latte and their Smashed Avocado Toast. You know, I had never ordered avocado toast from anywhere until I went here. It seemed like something you can just put together at home, right? But what with the bread and salt and lemon they use, they certainly make it worth ordering. And as far as the coffee, I do love finding rose on menus. 

If you catch a festival day (like this past weekend's Arizona Indian Festival for Western Week), you might run into The REZ an Urban Eatery. They make vegan fry bread, so though you can still get meat options for toppings, you can also choose the vegan option that will include the three sisters (corn, beans, and squash). I probably get about as excited for zucchini as I do for rose. Fry bread was essentially created as survival food; people on reservations made it out of the food supply boxes they were given. And now it's basically become a fair food. This fry bread, though, interacts with the history of fry bread and with traditional foods on a deeper level, as far as how they prepare and top it. And it's a much lighter option than the standard kind. They also have blue corn mush and sweet tamales if you so favor. 

Or for another kind of sweet, you might run over to Super Chunks Sweets and Treats. I've mentioned their desserts before; the one I have here today is their Signature Brownie, which is pretty flawless. Though I don't have a picture of it, since we're on the topic of food, their Schmaltz Chicken Salad Sandwich genuinely is as good as they say and is easily the best I've ever had. 

Old Town has pretty much an endless array of breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert from locally-owned businesses, many of whom are using top ingredients. I've been especially feeling the love for them these last couple of years as I slowly branch out to trying more places. 

Friday, April 16, 2021

Me to We: Milk Chocolate + Coffee Nibs

This week's Milk Chocolate + Coffee Nibs from Me to We allows a comparison with last week's Espresso Dark Chocolate Baton from Trader Joe's. While the two chocolates are quite different, there is one trait they share fairly more in common than most coffee chocolates; but I'll get to that by and by. 

The now familiar Me to We packaging here has a red-based, tropical pattern reminiscent of a pattern you might seen on fabric. Happy and classy and informative all at once. There is a lot of info in that square label and yet even with the pattern, the look isn't weighed down or chaotic. Inside the card box are the usual two, separately-wrapped squares, each with their own divisions into four more squares. The seal tears open to a strong coffee aroma because lo and behold, those are certainly coffee nibs bedecking the back of the chocolate. There is a thick layer of large pieces of coffee beans that are indeed similar in size and look to cocoa nibs. I admit that I find the sight of them most intimidating.

If I thought the Trader Joe's pieces were too larger, I'll mention again that Me to We's squares are also too big for my tastes. So I just took small bites into the squares; I started with coffee side up. The bite is soft because this is milk chocolate, after all, even if it's a higher cocoa content at 42%. Despite my fear over the thicker layer of coffee nibs, there wasn't too much coffee to crunch on; maybe this was partly due to my expectation of more. The fact that the milk chocolate melts more quickly than dark chocolate is also a factor: you begin to crunch on the coffee once the chocolate is mostly melted. This creates less of a feeling of intrusive coffee grains within the chocolate's smooth texture. And the coffee also isn't at all grainy; because these are large pieces, they're simply crunchy. The texture is more like cocoa nibs or shards of almond than it is like the grainy coffee grounds chocolate sometimes includes. 

The aftertaste is of rich milk chocolate; you also get some of this in the second half of a bite, when it's partly through melting. The coffee taste isn't as strong as I would have expected, so you can still taste the richness and creaminess of the milk chocolate. It stands in like fresh cream in a cup of coffee. Somehow, when you go coffee side down, the chocolate tastes sweeter versus creamier. It's also, of course, the crunchier way to go and gives more of an initial espresso flavor from having the coffee directly on the tongue. Certainly it wasn't as intimidating of a way to approach this chocolate as I'd expected, though I do prefer coffee side up. 

While I overall enjoyed the Trader Joe's coffee chocolate, I also critiqued the overly crunchy quality of the coffee within the chocolate. And yet I find myself praising that same quality in this chocolate. So does that mean I'm inconsistent? Not really. I still had some of the other chocolate left when I was digging into this one, so I was able to do a side by side. And the effect of texture in each chocolate is quite different. I would say that Me to We accomplished what the Trader Joe's bar was trying to do but didn't quite manage. By using slightly bigger coffee bean pieces and even by physically separating them from the chocolate (by only putting them on the outside), Me to We made the coffee into a pleasant and crunchy addition to the chocolate instead of an intrusion on the chocolate's texture. 

A rich milk chocolate is certainly one of the faces of chocolate that I enjoy, though I realize that some people might prefer the Trader Joe's approach simply because it uses a light dark chocolate instead of a milk chocolate. But if you're open to either/or, Me to We has a more successful approach to texture. I've never had a coffee chocolate like this, so I'm pretty thrilled. Coffee is a standard flavor, and it isn't common to experience something so new or unique with a standard flavor. Me to We in general is becoming one of my favorite chocolate brands to look at lately. I hope I continue to come across more of their products.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Clara, Mr. Tiffany, and the Meaning of Art

I don't tend to read a large amount of historical fiction, do I? I'm very much into the nineteenth century, but generally I gravitate towards primary sources rather than historical fiction. And sometimes historical fiction, strange as it sounds to say, is too modern for me in its content and focus--so I'd just rather read a contemporary setting than a historical setting if I'm going to read a "new" book (that is, something published fairly recently versus at least a hundred years ago). Which isn't to say that I don't read any historical fiction; but I think I read more when I was in fifth grade through middle school than I do now.

Susan Vreeland's Clara and Mr. Tiffany, however, has been sitting on my shelves waiting to be read for a few years now. And since I mentioned that I'm trying to work my way through more of my unread books, well, it was time to break this one open. It certainly made a welcome foray back into historical fiction.

The focus is on Clara Driscoll, who headed the women's department at Tiffany studios, most particularly during the time when the company began making the now famous leaded-glass lamps. Although of course aspects of the book are fictionalized, there is a good deal of material based on Clara's letters. At the time the novel was published (2011), facts about Clara and the women's department had only recently been coming to light. So that gives us the story of a woman creating iconic designs and desperately wanting recognition for them--while we as readers know that during her lifetime and for years after she never really did receive that. 

There is a deep sense of longing in this book. Clara longs for recognition. But as the years go by, she realizes that she doesn't just long for career recognition; she longs for human recognition. The book begins after the death of her husband, and she has various friends and potential lovers along the way, but it's a difficult journey for her to find the close connection for which she yearns. That's a pretty universal feeling. So while it's the sappier aspect of this book, it's also one that many readers, in particular women, will find some connection with.

Besides that, though, what is kind of fascinating about this book is the way that it discusses the theory behind art. There is all of this talk about whether Tiffany should focus on fine art or mass-produced products. Elaborate, ground-breaking beauty or cheaper-to-produce items that more people will be able to afford? Are the artisans simply skilled laborers or are they artists whose creative desires most be fulfilled lest they go stagnant? And as far as the lives of those artisans, what is most important to them? Is their work the most important? Tiffany employees women unlike any of its competitors, but only unmarried women. Clara sees her girls struggle with the pull between the two calls: they enjoy their work, but eventually many leave to get married. And in Clara's own life, what matters most? 

Clara lives in the heart of the artsy, modern, Art Nouveau community. People live their lives as they wish and prize beauty above all else. We touch on exploration of the values of the aesthetes (like Oscar Wilde) who desire desire highest of all. We see the turn of the century, the time when the highly moral Victorian era gives way to pleasure pursuits that the Roaring Twenties will bring. Clara hovers, you might say, between art for art's sake or beauty for beauty's sake and the desire for beauty to bring meaning into one's life. That's what she learns during her time in this job. She began with a love for the craft and the art, and she ends with appreciation for how these jobs have changed the lives of the girls she has hired. Many of them are immigrants who have neither much material beauty in their lives nor much financial security. Clara gives them a place in the world, and finds that that contribution is possibly even more valuable than her artistic contribution to society. 

I wouldn't necessarily say that I agree with all of the conclusions the characters draw in their discussions about life and art. But seeing a discussion of all of these concepts is interesting, especially given that how much was changing during that turn of the century time. So while I'm not putting this book on my list of favorites, it's a good read if you enjoy reading about art or the late Victorian/early 20th century era. 

Monday, April 12, 2021

Eowyn's Healing Story

One of the things I don't like about the movie adaptations for The Lord of the Rings is their portrayal of Arwen. They moved too far from the distant, courtly love Tolkien portrays. In fact, the books include more about Sam and Rosie Cotton's love story than they do Aragorn and Arwen's. Arwen is always there in the background of everything Aragorn does--but she's not physically there much or even spoken of much. Thank goodness the filmmakers at least didn't go with their original idea to have Arwen join the battle at Helm's Deep. I always felt like, if they want a warrior woman, they have Eowyn--and yet they cut her story short.

Now I've realized why they may have truncated Eowyn's story. Of course I've always considered the practical reasons. The Return of the King already has multiple endings. So if you take the time to go on a tangent about Eowyn in the Houses of Healing and talking with Faramir and the two of them falling in love, it definitely shifts the focus from the march on the gates of Mordor and the final destruction of the Ring. I get why that's problematic to do in a movie. But I hadn't realized there may have been another reason.

Modern audiences love Eowyn's heroic stand. It's said that no man can kill the leader of the Nazgul, to which Eowyn replies, "I am no man," as she thrusts her sword into his formless skull. And everyone cheers for girl power. But that isn't really how Tolkien wrote the scene. Technically, yes, Eowyn points out that she's a woman and therefore she can do what no man can do. But you see, Eowyn went into battle not simply to "fight for those she loves." She went seeking death. When the Ringwraith tells her that he will kill her if she gets between him and Theoden's body, she isn't hindered not just because of her courage (which is notably great) but also because she wants death. That's why she laughs when she answers him; she's in what you might call a fey mood. She's motivated to protect the dignity of her dead uncle and king, yes, but she's also motivated to put everything on the line because she has no hope for her life and doesn't want to live anymore. That is what drives Eowyn into battle.

Breathing the "black breath" from the Ringwraiths puts both Eowyn and Merry into the Houses of Healing. But while Merry heals pretty quickly with typical hobbit resilience, Eowyn falters. Her physical wounds heal, but she can't find complete healing because her spirit was already broken before she even entered that battle field. Through her conversations with Faramir, Eowyn is able to see hope again. Agreeing to become his wife, she declares that she will be a shield maiden no more and instead love healing and all things that grow. Eowyn figuratively lays down her sword for classically feminine pursuits of nourishment and growth. It's a beautiful healing story. I haven't always liked Eowyn's character that much (Galadriel's my favorite), but I always come to like her more and more when I look at her healing story.

But how would that have looked in the film? (I'm not even addressing the deleted, extended edition scene because it just shows a brief look at Eowyn and Faramir falling in love. It's pretty, but it doesn't actually cover any real ground.) How could the audience have cheered at warrior Eowyn and then accepted her healing story of laying down her sword? Eowyn picks up her sword out of depression and hopelessness, not girl power. That's why she no longer desires battle once she finds healing in her spirit and moves out of that depression and desire for death. 

The Eowyn that Tolkien wrote isn't really a twist on classic femininity. Quite the opposite. Throughout the course of her emotional journey, we see Eowyn lose touch with her femininity in part due to Aragorn's lack of interest in her, and then we see her return to fully take on her femininity in the Houses of Healing. If you like classic femininity as I do, it's beautiful. If you don't, well, you can see why the movie would choose to focus on Eowyn's triumph in battle rather than on her healing story. 

Friday, April 9, 2021

Trader Joe's: Espresso Dark Chocolate Baton

Last week I mentioned that you can't always tell what company made a Trader Joe's chocolate. This Espresso Dark Chocolate Baton, for instance, does not list any other name. The only clue is that the label says it's a product of Canada. Not having had much Canadian chocolate, I certainly can't even hazard a guess as to who might have made this one. 

The style of the packaging is pretty classic Trader Joe's (that is, they have a couple of styles, one of which is quirky, which is not the case here). Various shades of brown and some light pattern on the edges create a simple look that is neither rustic nor overly elegant. 

The wrapper opens up to the smell of walking into a coffee shop; that's enticing and encouraging. While I was neutral to the baton shape while the chocolate was wrapped, unwrapped it has quite an appealing pyramidal design. Chocolate bars generally all look pretty similar, so the variation here is welcome. While a shape like this might be easier associated with a candy bar than a chocolate bar, the context here makes it sleek rather than casual. It reminds me more of a high-end dessert than of a candy bar.

That being said, however, the six pieces in the pyramid do have more of a candy bar than chocolate bar volume. I mean that even though they are bite-size chunks, they're thick. A big bite of chocolate candy makes sense, but for something like this I prefer something smaller; so I prefer to take just half of each piece at a time. Size is a personal preference, though, and dividing the pieces into this particular size does visually look balanced.

Since the size and shape of the pieces did seem to encourage munching instead of melting, I went ahead with chewing the chocolate. And given that the coffee is present in grains, it's definitely better to take this approach. Coffee grains seems to be the most common way to include coffee in a chocolate bar, but it does seem to come across a little differently in each particular chocolate. This one seems even crunchier than usual, so much so that the texture at times feels like it's eclipsing the taste. I would then call this one of the less successful uses of coffee grounds in chocolate. They may have been trying to create a sense of coffee beans pieces versus grains, but to me it's a bit much.

The coffee taste is fine, though. Not the most extraordinary coffee flavor I've come across in chocolate, but perfectly sufficient. What I find I'm most admiring, strangely, is the chocolate itself. This isn't because it has amazing flavor notes or anything like that. Rather, it's because this is an excellent example of 60% chocolate, a cocoa percentage that I normally don't favor. Usually it's too light to have interesting flavor and yet also light enough that it has too much sweetness for dark chocolate. In this case, though, (and this may be due to the coffee taking the primary lead on flavor) the chocolate isn't overly sweet. It isn't exactly dark, either, and it does almost have a creaminess to it (there is no milk here). Yet it hits the perfect note for coffee. A touch of richness and a touch of sweetness bring to mind a cup of coffee with just a dash of cream and sugar. 

As far as the pairing of the coffee with a particular type of chocolate, then, I do score this chocolate bar highly. Overall it isn't the best coffee chocolate I've come across, but it still does a nice job. 

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Reactions to DBG's Earth Installation

We have come to the third and final piece in Waterlily Pond Studios's art installation at the Desert Botanical Garden. We began with Wind, continued with Water, and now finish with Earth. While the other two were outdoors, this is the first one to be inside (in Dorrance Hall). 

The structure is larger than Wind and also more filled in. The many layers of flowers represent the layers in geological formations, which is an interesting touch. Each layer of flowers holds slightly different color, with the darkest at the bottom and the lightest at the top. The shape, though, reminds me more of Utah than Arizona; even though there are rock formations here, too, this particular one doesn't feel as Arizona Grand Canyon than for window rocks like Utah's Arches. That's minor, though; we're still talking Southwestern imagery.

It's a pretty piece, being made of so many flowers (over 10,000). You can certainly take your time walking 360 around it and looking at each layer. You'll find something a little different on each side, too. It's certainly made for the day of the selfie--which is what the window especially lends itself toward. I could see this on display for group photos at a big wedding or a conference or corporate event. It's like an updated balloon arch, no? 

That being said, I will mention that the lighting did not seem the best in Dorrance Hall. Spotlights get in the way of particular camera angles. And the lights lend a dim and murky tone to what is in fact a bright and lively piece. Was I the only one to think so, or does anyone else agree? 

So again, it's a pretty piece. But I'm left to wonder what peonies and orchids really have to do with the desert. I don't mind melding disparate things. But if an art piece is made as an expression of a certain region, then doesn't it make more sense to make it using elements of that region? I guess not necessarily. The paint in a southwest painting doesn't come from the southwest. Still, though, for all the work that went into this one, I feel like you have to be told what it represents rather than the piece speaking for itself. I don't necessarily see "earth" when I look at it. I see pink flowers until I deliberately imagine that they represent layers of earth. 

For that, I would still say that Wind was my favorite. Water was my least favorite, though it did do the best job of interacting with the space in the garden. Earth feels most separated from the garden, and not just because of its literal separation in the event hall. Yet it's still a nice place to take pictures and a conversation piece, and that's all well and good. 

Monday, April 5, 2021

Raya, the Last Dragon, and Trust

I stand corrected, ever so much more than expected. Last November, I gave a brief complaint if you will about what I thought the plot of Raya and the Last Dragon would be based on the trailer. I was entirely incorrect, making my complaint unfair for this particular film. In my defense, though, they did give a certain impression in the trailer that was extremely different from how the film turned out to be. And that was probably on purpose: while a trailer should give viewers a sense of what a movie is about, they can also intentionally hide the true details so as to still surprise and delight when they actually see the film itself. You don't want to give everything away in just the trailer, after all.

So what I'm referring to is the plot of one hero going out on a quest to perform a task that will set everything right in the world. Like I mentioned before, I don't mind the existence of such a plot; I just don't want to see it all the time. Small deeds, not great ones, are what we as individuals have to contribute to the world--and it is these small contributions that make the world go round and turn dark to light. So imagine my surprise when I found that this conversation is exactly what Raya and the Last Dragon addresses. 

Raya is on a quest of sorts. But mostly she's just someone reeling from a mistake she made in the past. She's someone with no friends or family or support. She's someone with no plan, just an aching wish to somehow find the way to make things right. And she doesn't even believe that she can do that; she's hoping the last dragon, Sisu, will do that. All her hopes pend on help from Sisu. So Raya has tasks. First to find Sisu, then to find the rest of the gem pieces. But they're just tasks. She isn't special for having done them. And doing them doesn't "fix the world." 

Notice as Raya goes along that she picks up companions from each of the tribes. They're all different, and they don't necessarily even become friends over the course of the movie. But they choose to work together all the same. This is also what Sisu admits when she tells Raya about when she and her siblings made the gem: they all put their magic together and trusted her with the use of the gem. It was a team effort, not something any of them could have done alone.

And so it is with Raya and her companions. In the end, they don't drive out the Druun with power or might but by their willingness to trust one another. It's kind of like a team-building game you might play in elementary school, where you learn that you have to put all your pieces together to make them fit. So exactly as I said, it's the little actions within our own little spheres of influence that make the world go round and drive out the dark. Raya doesn't rally the troops or fight a battle or give a grand speech to the world. She just chooses to trust Namaari and in so doing encourage the others to do the same. 

It's a simple but effective theme. 

Friday, April 2, 2021

Casaluker for Trader Joe's: El Campano with Cocoa Nibs & Sweet Plantain

While I don't find myself at Trader Joe's very often anymore, when I'm there I do like to at least peak at their chocolate. There can be some interesting finds. It's all in Trader Joe's packaging, but it's made by different companies. I remember the time when I was convinced that they were selling a set of Pralus chocolate bars. Today's chocolate, the El Campano 78.5% Dark Colombian Chocolate Bar with Cocoa Nibs and Sweet Plantain, I chose because it's rare and exciting to find banana in a chocolate bar. 

I was a little uncertain how to label the post, though. What is the company of origin? Sometimes for something sold at Trader Joe's, there won't be anymore info, so I'll just list Trader Joe's (even if it's behind-the-scenes made by another company for them). But there are a couple of names on this packaging. The Chocolate Dream is on both the front and back, and the fine print says that the chocolate is manufactured by Casaluker in Colombia. From what I understand, The Chocolate Dream and Casaluker (sometimes called Luker Chocolates) seem to be if not the same company then sister companies or something like that. The Chocolate Dream sets out to create positive impact in both the social and environmental effects of cocoa production. Creating good jobs related to the cocoa industry and bringing the land back to a sustainable place for both plants and animals, all of that sort of thing. And Casaluker makes chocolate--often for other companies. Perfect for a partnership with Trader Joe's, who mainly sells products dressed up in their own packaging.

About the packaging, though, this one leaves something to be desired. Looks like they were trying to go for that quirky Trader Joe's tone, but the result looks like the wrong part of the design ended up on the front, like the folds and edges don't match up the way they were supposed to. There are cute cocoa pods and a little plantation house, but they're not visible on the front. Granted, the idea appears to be that you have the door on the front with the "All access, fully traceable" keyhole so that you can open up the door and the packaging and find the cocoa plantation/all the transparent facts about the production. It's a fun concept; it just doesn't come together in effect as well as it could.

Inside its silver wrapper, the bar is composed of 20 plain and smooth rectangles. Their perfect level of shine reminds me of Theo, who also emphasizes smooth surfaces in their designs. On the back, you'll find a texture similar to that of crisped rice chocolate; the little lumps of plantains are small and round lumps beneath the surface. 

The aroma is semisweet, but the initial taste is more on the bittersweet side. In fact, it leaned more towards bitterness than I'd been expecting. This would be because in my excitement about the plantains, I had all but ignored the cocoa nibs. And cocoa nibs do have more of a bitter flavor. They're a definite presence here, adding that blueberry taste along with their pleasant crunch. All good and well, but what of the plantains I'd been looking forward to?

Technically, you can tell they're there all along because the crunch is different from how it would be if there were only cocoa nibs. The bananas are softer, almost crisp at times. Sometimes some will linger in my teeth after the chocolate melts. But is that all, after all my excitement? True, smaller bites make it a little easier to discern some banana flavor. So you have the sweetness of the plantains paired with the bitterness of the nibs and a medium bittersweet chocolate base; it's a unique combination. 

I am a little disappointed that the plantains don't have a more central role. Perhaps if they were bigger? Either way, though, the chocolate is still good and a dash of banana is nicer than none at all. And it's certainly been interesting to learn about The Chocolate Dream and Casaluker. The El Campano farm where the cocoa for this bar was grown used to be a cattle farm; the transition to cocoa has allowed many birds and animals to return to the area and "formal jobs increased from 5 to 267" (as the packaging explains). I'd say that's a good chocolate dream. 

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Easter Then & Now

Remember how last Easter we had to go to church online? I'm glad that that's no longer the case. And I find that I'm also glad that I have this whole past year to look back on.

Like most of us, I haven't always made going to church a priority. In fact, I had only started going back again in November of 2019 after I left a job that included weekends. So it was funny to suddenly have something taken from me that I had previously been willingly staying away from (that is, when there was only online church I wanted to go in person, whereas in previous years when churches were always open I hadn't always gone). 

Looking back now, I rather like the fact that I've stood by during this crazy year. Online church, then in person church with "guidelines" in place, all of those unprecedented situations. Because you know what? Through it all, the Church itself remains the same. It's something we forget especially in this country where we are so used to seeing church buildings everywhere. But the Church (that is, the body of Christ) can meet anywhere, in any building or in any setting. There are the big megachurches and the little neighborhood churches--and in other countries there are the shack churches and the underground churches. Whatever our circumstances, God remains the same and we remain his people worshipping him. 

So that's a lovely concept to consider this Easter. This is the time when we celebrate the life of Jesus and how he died in order to rise up again from the dead and in so doing offer us salvation and reconciliation with God. And because of the past year, I am more able to appreciate being able to go to church and to celebrate with fellow believers. He is risen and we are alive and together we bring our praises. 

(Onyx cross purchased from the Pioneer Living History Museum)

Monday, March 29, 2021

Spring Is for Rambling

I take days off from posting regularly. Sometimes I'll take a whole week off. (And I mean for when I publish posts, because of course I often have them written ahead of time so that they're read to go on schedule. Or at least I write them not necessarily on the days I post them.) But two weeks? How did that happen? 

I haven't been on vacation or sick or anything too exciting. I mean, I did work extra this past week, but I've certainly had busier work weeks in the past. The short of it, I suppose, is that it is spring. When I'm not working, I don't want to be home and I don't want to be indoors. So if I'm trying to get out, then that means that when I'm in I have too many things that need doing that I'm not getting to. Things like vacuuming and cleaning the bathtub. Washing my dishes takes priority over writing blog posts. 

And maybe I just needed a break. Sometimes I need a break even when I have lots of plays or festivals to write about. Nowadays it can be hard to have topics. Still no live events or festivals. I don't watch a lot of movies or shows. (I guess I could write about how I've been watching an episode of Get Smart at the end of a lot of my workdays, but do I really have much to say about that?) And I don't want to write about every movie I see, or every book I read. Now that I've been reading more, I find I want to write about what I read less. I don't like writing "reviews," so I write when I have a topic, something I want to extrapolate on in a post. 

Or maybe it's because I've been doing all my deep internal thinking that is very personal and I don't usually write very personal things publicly. Yeah, that could be part of it: I have things to extrapolate on, but they're not always things to share on a blog (that is, for me--I know other people are perfectly fine with regularly sharing very personal subject matter). 

I could just ramble about what I did this evening instead of at long last writing a new post. I was looking at Chia Pets on Walmart.com and almost ordered one until I remembered to check if they had the complete series of Little House on the Prairie DVDs back in stock that I wanted recently, and since they didn't I did a wider Internet search and found them on Christianbook.com and ordered them there, and then I remembered the Chia Pet and felt guilty making two Internet purchases in one evening, so I decided to save the Chia Pet for another day. And then I wandered into the kitchen wondering why I wasn't hungry for second dinner like I usually am after work, and since I wasn't I went back to my laptop to open up the blank blog post again. And here I am. That is how you waste an hour.

But you know, I did order something that I'd been planning to get. And I did write a blog post. So there is some accomplishment. A poor post it is, but perhaps this poor post will ease me back in, eh?

Friday, March 12, 2021

Alter Eco: Silk Velvet Truffles (Easter Edition)

I realize that I say Easter in the title even though this box does not in fact say Easter on it (though Alter Eco's website does call this the Easter edition). In fact, it doesn't say anything seasonal at all. Not spring, not holiday, not limited edition, nothing. But there are colorful eggs and a bunny head, and those are undeniably Easter images. I don't know how much Easter chocolate I'll be looking at this year. This might end up being the only one, or I might go crazy at Black Butterfly or maybe pick up a couple things from Zak's Chocolate--we'll see. So that's why I'm getting an early start here just in case there ends up being more.

My first instinct was that there was no need for a review. This isn't a special flavor. But I was curious. The packaging isn't really a box; it's some sort of fold-out design. From the outside, you can see a grassy inside, but what else? Would it unfold to create a pop-up booklet or springy scene? My curiosity led to the purchase, thinking perhaps it would be something worthwhile to talk about. As I picked up the first box, though, I did find one of the truffles falling out. So the design could use some reworking for next year: no one wants to risk buying a set of chocolate only to get home and find that some of it has fallen out.

Being that I'm not much interested in all the pink, cutesy bunnies and such of Easter decorations, I appreciate that the color scheme here is based on green and cream and that the design is kept simple. The box opens like a greeting card, just one simple lift to open it up. There you will find the grassy scene and six truffles sitting in little nooks. It's certainly more straightforward than I'd been expecting. The idea is that you're picking up the chocolates from the grass like you would eggs during an Easter egg hunt. 

I get the idea and it's a nice idea. But visually I'm not sure. It seems like there is too much effort not to pay attention to visuals. And yet the visuals don't offer much. It isn't a "set out on display" look. It's more of a "open up by yourself and take delight in pulling out each chocolate and eating it" look. Maybe it was designed for someone stuck at home this year and unable to see family for Easter? Or maybe it's simply meant to appeal to adults' nostalgia for Easter egg hunts. (Which reminds me, maybe I'm less than enthused because I don't really have a lot of nostalgia around Easter or egg hunts.)

The six chocolates are Alter Eco's Silk Velvet Truffles, which are made with a 39% cocoa milk chocolate. They come wrapped in light blue wrappers proclaiming that they (the wrappers) are compostable. I'm seeing this more and more often now, but the nice thing is that these are supposed to be suitable for both home and commercial composting. So there is actually a chance that more people will be able to compost them if they don't need to be taken to a very specific facility for it. 

As I've mentioned before, Alter Eco makes their truffles in a style like Lindor--except that they use better ingredients than Lindor. And of course Alter Eco also uses fair trade chocolate, which I consider especially important for Easter. You'll notice, too, that the box mentions the use of milk from grass fed cows. That's great, too: we want healthy animals for any of the animal products we're using. And of course Alter Eco was one of the earlier companies I can remember using (actually the first I think I came across) to use coconut oil in their chocolate. In the case of their truffles, it takes the place of cream so that they can have a long shelf life so that we can buy truffles in a grocery store instead of just from a chocolate shop. (And as an alternative to partially hydrogenated oils and palm oils and all of that.) 

The result is a creamy, smooth truffle. These are light and sweet in the best traditions of mild milk chocolate. There is a richness here, even though the milk chocolate is light and not at all dark. There is also zero coconut flavor; the creaminess remains a dairy creaminess, which is a positive for those of us who don't care for the flavor of coconut. Again, the purpose of using it here is not in order to make vegan chocolate, so there is still milk involved. 

Well, I satisfied my curiosity to learn more about the packaging. And I got six indulgently sweet chocolates to enjoy. So while I wouldn't say that the seasonal/holiday theme was very strong, the chocolate is nice. And I don't believe I've seen Alter Eco do much with holidays in the past, so it makes sense that they would stick to something simple to start with. 

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

The Comitatus in The Hobbit vs. TLOTR

While The Fellowship of the Ring contains a classic portrayal of the comitatus (in which a king/lord/ring giver has a group of warriors who swear fealty to him and to whom he gives gifts of treasure and such in return for their service and the feats they perform), I recently rewatched both the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies and found something surprising.

I'll emphasize that I'm talking about the movies specifically, not the books. And it is beyond easy to say that The Lord of the Rings is a far superior movie trilogy to The Hobbit. But let's move on to our topic. I found while watching An Unexpected Journey that I seemed to be seeing a better representation of the comitatus than in The Fellowship of the Ring. Why would that be? 

I would be remiss not to give brief mention to the fact that I've watched TLOTR much more than The Hobbit, so sometimes there is the simple fact of familiarity: you can "get the feels" less when you've watched something many, many times versus only a couple of times. Practically, also, the audience gets to spend more time with Thorin's company than with the fellowship of the Ring. Thorin's company comes together at the beginning of the movie. They also stay together through the second movie and most of the third (though I'm primarily concerned here with the first movie). The fellowship, by contrast, doesn't form until midway through the movie. And then they break apart at the end. So you do literally have more time to observe Thorin's company. (For the sake of clarity, I'll say company to refer to The Hobbit and fellowship to refer to TLOTR.)

Then there is the question of quest. While we understand that the fellowship is setting out to destroy the Ring together and that Frodo is the ring bearer, as far as the fellowship is concerned Gandalf is more their leader than Frodo is. Aragorn and Boromir sort of vie for second in command, if you will. They have all sworn to protect Frodo on his quest, but Frodo has nothing to promise them in return and has only the hope that they will indeed lead and protect him as they promise. 

By contrast, Thorin is undoubtedly the leader of his company. By blood, he is the king of his people and his quest is to reclaim his throne and his city for his people. In return for the loyalty of his company, he promises them each a share of the treasure. This sounds, in its simplest form, more like the ring giver of the comitatus than Frodo the ring bearer does. 

And we see that loyalty at play, most particularly in the way that Balin describes his admiration of Thorin in battle and in Bilbo's personal journey towards becoming part of the company. Bilbo is afraid of this adventure in a more real world way than any of the fear that we see in The Lord of the Rings. The characters there are afraid of what is happening and afraid of failure and evil and hurt and loss and death. But Bilbo is afraid like we would be to suddenly be in a place where such things are commonplace--and that specific type of fear is emphasized very much in the movie. We see his speechless, shocked fear when he almost falls off the mountain's edge. But then at the end, we see Bilbo as the only one of the company who steps out against an unbeatable foe to protect Thorin. His loyalty overcomes his fear. He has found a leader he wants to follow. 

Both groups have a great musical score or theme. But as a viewer, I feel like the company's theme goes through more of a journey than does the fellowship's. We hear the fellowship's theme as we see the group coming up through a rocky mountain path after departing from Rivendell. It's a great moment, and I'm not denying that--but the theme is already fully formed and powerful. We're excited just because we see the fellowship. Compare Thorin's company. First we hear theme sing a somber song in Bag End; they sing of distant lands, gold, and death. We hear the theme repeated throughout, but most significantly and most strongly at that final moment when the dwarves are inspired by Bilbo's bold, brave loyalty and rush out to protect Thorin in an impossible situation. The theme comes to mean not just the group but also the personal choices they make to serve their leader even at the expense of their own safety. 

So as far as the feels go, Thorin's company gives me more of the feeling of the comitatus than does the fellowship. Like I said, The Lord of the Rings is undoubtedly the better trilogy, but the portrayal of the comitatus is one of the things that The Hobbit does quite excellently. 

Friday, March 5, 2021

Jelina Chocolatier: Honey Nougat Milk Chocolate

Last year I had generally favorable comments about Jelina Chocolatier's Crunchy Pecan Caramel Milk Chocolate. I was unsure, however, how much I would seek this brand out in the future given that they don't make their own chocolate--though I did enjoy how they added flavor. I'm back again now with a fairly similar bar, the Honey Nougat Milk Chocolate. 

The simple, natural look of the cardboard box is offset this time with an almost white bee hive and a touch of yellow surrounding it. The style of the chocolate bar is the same, as well. The thick rectangles that look like they would be hiding pouches of soft nougat do not: this is simply solid chocolate with specks of crunchy nougat, which you can see peeking out through the chocolate's surface. The aroma is sweet and mild.

If you also like soft nougat, you have to take a brief moment of grief that there is none here and then move on. The crunchy nougat bits, while not soft, are not bad, nor are they as hard as toffee. They have some stickiness to their texture, too, and their taste (thanks to egg whites) also is distinct from toffee. 

While the bee hive on the front does make me wish for a stronger honey taste, there is honey flavor here. This is still regular milk chocolate sweetened with sugar, so honey is an added flavor rather than the sweetener. And it has the sugar, nougat, and vanilla to compete with. So you could eat a piece casually and not necessarily have honey come to mind. But if you're looking for it, it's very present with its unique, rich flavor. 

The milk chocolate seems to be the same as what was in the other bar. It has plenty of milk and sugar to satisfy the sweet tooth. Yet it is cooler and less buttery than candy bar milk chocolate--and certainly much nicer. It's nice enough that I wouldn't mind a little more cocoa flavor, but I also can't complain about a milk chocolate simply being a milk chocolate. 

All in all, this is a pretty straightforward bar of chocolate. It satisfies cravings for confections, but with better ingredients than one often finds in confections. 

Monday, March 1, 2021

Reactions to DBG's Water Installation

Last month, I tried out an "honest opinions" post about the Desert Botanical Garden's art installation by Waterlily Pond Studios. The trio started with Wind, and continues currently with Water; Earth will begin next month. Water is set up in the Berlin Agave Yucca Forest, which is a little offshoot of a path/lookout from the main trail. 

Being that Wind was one isolated piece, and Water was set up in this little mini path area, I was expecting, well, something more expansive this time. And sure it "spans nearly 100 feet" and uses 2,000 plants and 8,000 wooden rods. But the effect is visually simple rather than complicated. The woods are a bright yet still earthy yellow that stands out on a sunny day but doesn't look like caution tape, either. They remind me more of spaghetti than water, though. If the wooden rods represent the seasonal paths of water, why yellow and not blue or green? Yellow stand out more, I suppose, against the surrounding plants.

The 8,000 wooden rods I see. But the 2,000 plants I'm not sure. I see all of the red flowers of various types, but I wouldn't have guessed they were so many and I'm not sure how they connect to the concept of the water. Certainly, flowing water creates the opportunity for plants to grow. And good winter rain leads to an abundance of wildflowers. I am the first to admit that I don't know much about specific plant varieties, but just looking casually at these red flowers reminds me more of cultivated gardens than of Arizona wildflowers. Is that just me? 

They do offset the yellow "water" well, though, color-wise. They provide contrast and definition and also soften the edges. Otherwise the yellow rods would blend in too well with the shaggy yuccas. I do appreciate that this installation doesn't detract from the garden itself. It fits in fine. I don't find the 8,000 yellow wooden rods particularly interesting, though. They provided some opportunity to observe and reflect, but overall I preferred the Wind installation (which, by the way, has been extended for another month so you have the chance to see both at the same time). 

I am looking forward to Earth, though. It sounds more elaborate than either of the first two installations. 

Friday, February 26, 2021

Me to We: Milk Chocolate + Confetti Candy

I'm just all about the fun chocolate these days, am I not? Instead of bringing in a chocolate bar sourced from etc. with etc. flavor notes, here I am with Me to We's Milk Chocolate + Confetti Candy. Confetti Candy? Maybe the truth is, I like candy more than I thought (no, no, this isn't true--I know I like candy; I love going to candy stories; I just know I tend to prefer to talk about or look at candy than to eat it). But Me to We is a respectable, fair trade brand, and I enjoyed my first look at them a couple years ago. 

Me to We especially emphasizes children and education. So it's fitting that bars like this have appeal to kids, too, or the child in all of us that still gets excited about sprinkles (if I'm choosing a donut, I will probably choose the one with sprinkles, yes). The bright sky blue card box is sprinkled with confetti, leaves, and two llamas. It's colorful and bright but not too wild. Just fun.

While last time, the bar I tried was smaller; this one is double the size, so it has two of the smaller bars, individually-wrapped, inside the card box. This can also increase the child target. A half bar is something you could put in a child's lunchbox. Two siblings could each take one of the bars. Or you could give your child one and keep the other for yourself. Or eat both and tell me to stop expounding on all the ways to eat a bar of chocolate. 

Unwrapping that patterned wrapper, each square bar is divided into the same four squares from last time with the same design as before, as well. Flip it over, though, and you'll see the promised confetti candy. And yes, it is different from sprinkles. These are little, round, hard bits of sugar in white, purple, yellow, and various other colors. As you can see, they're sprinkled with restraint; you'll find no solid coating of confetti here. That would not have a good effect on texture.

What's unusual is that there is a strong cocoa nib aroma to the chocolate, which is unusual for milk chocolate. Now, this is a 42% milk chocolate, so it is stronger than average. But I've never come across that specific aroma with even a dark milk chocolate before. 

Trying the chocolate confetti down first, you can feel those smooth lumps of candy against your tongue. Then you begin to taste the chocolate. It tastes of cocoa and sugar, but more on that later. Trying confetti side up, the candy is much less present because you don't feel it on your tongue. So I'd recommend confetti down. Even with a small amount of confetti, there is still enough sugary crunch. Again, these are different from sprinkles; they're much harder lumps of sugar. What I don't know is what they're colored with: there are no colorings listed in the ingredients. This is an interesting way to put texture in chocolate, though. The obvious alternative would be to almonds or other nuts.

I spent a while trying to decode the chocolate's specific flavor. It's unusual, I'll tell you that. I want to describe it as being slightly watery, but that sounds unappetizing, which is not the case. The way that the flavor of the cocoa and sugar split into separate flavors naturally reminds me of Mexican hot chocolate a bit. But then there seems to be a flavor to the cocoa that is reminiscent perhaps of Ovaltine. I do see both dried milk and nonfat milk in the ingredients. So pure speculation, perhaps there is a flavor that I'm getting from the dried milk that gives the cocoa a unique edge? 

This chocolate does taste milkier than usual for a 42%. But it sweetness comes almost more from the candy than from the chocolate itself. So it's a good thing that they went for a stronger milk chocolate so as not to be too overcome by sugar like they might have been with a sweeter chocolate. However you put it, I've enjoyed this chocolate. I appreciate a satisfying milk chocolate about as much as a good dark chocolate, and I like the fun element of the confetti candy, as well. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Gila Monster Crossing

As I was meandering along, suddenly I noticed that there was a Gila monster a couple or few feet from me. It cared not for my presence; it was simply walking across the path. So I walked on, on the opposite side of the path from the (adorable) venomous lizard. 

What a delight to see such critters. Lizards are a favorite of mine because of my bearded dragon at home (or perhaps I have a bearded dragon at home because lizards are a favorite of mine). So though a Gila monster is much larger than a bearded dragon, I delighted in the shape of its limbs as it stepped slowly forward. It seemed bigger and chunkier than the ones in captivity that are usually curled up asleep in their enclosures. And that's the gist of it, isn't it?

Have I been the Gila monster curled up in captivity? So now as I am struck by the lizard out in its true home, I think of myself stretching out, reaching out, stepping out. 

The breeze feels nice on a sunny day. Gentle inclines seem to matter little after you've passed the steepest ones. Ocotillo fill up with leaves after rain and lift their limbs up to the sun.

And maybe, just maybe you might catch some early ocotillo blossoms, the bright red tips on the green octopus limbs. So go on, walk across the metaphorical path, just like the Gila monster did. 

Gateway Loop Trail - McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Minari, Love, and Family

You know what was refreshing about Lee Isaac Chung's Minari? It included elements like race and culture  (most of the movie is subtitled, after all) and faith, but it wasn't really about any of these--instead, the focus was kept tight around the theme of family. (And of course I'm not saying that it's bad to make movies that do focus on these elements; just that a movie also can include them without being primarily about them.) That's what made this movie feel more like a glimpse at life: we are not always having crises of faith or remarking on our culture, but we are often going through serious things in our close relationships. Because relationships, especially those of the close inner family, take work.

When the family moves from California to rural Arkansas, at first it seems like Jacob is the optimistic one, while his wife seems more hesitant, you could almost say the more negative one of the two. As the film goes on, however you realize that she has this type of reaction to their new home because she knows her husband. She knows that he is so excited about this new place because he's trying to prove something to himself, not because he wants to set up a new and better life for his children. Which still isn't to say that he doesn't love his family; he's not a villain, just a fallible man, as Monica is a fallible woman. Jacob talks to his children and tells them about the work he's doing. When he notices his wife is lonely, he brings her mother to live with them and later suggests going to church so that she can have community.

While the children seem to respond well to the chance for community that church offers, the parents don't really seem to connect with anyone there. But Monica does talk with her fellow Korean coworker and she gets more Paul, deciding to see him simply as a man who has been kind to her family rather than a nutcase. So Monica who didn't want to move to this place does begin to settle--even as Jacob grows more distant, prompting her to want to leave rather than continue to build roots here with him.

Notice what the most intimate scene is between the husband and wife. When Jacob has been overworking outside to keep the plants watered and can barely move his arms, Monica helps him take his shirt off and wash his hair in the bathtub. This is love, no? Love is not just passionate, emotional, and physical feelings. Love is service. Love is humility. Love is valuing another person. It's when they realize together that they want to go back to this love for each other and their family above all other worries that the family unit seems to be mending.

All of this is without even talking about the grandma, whose relationship with the children and in particular David is central to the story. What does she point out fairly early on when she is planting the minari? Jacob is about to throw a rock at a snake, and she tells him, no, don't, then it'll run and hide--it's better if things are out in the open than hidden. Practically yes, it's less dangerous if you know where the snake is; this way you won't accidentally put your hand or foot near it and startle it and get bitten. Symbolically, though, you could carry this concept over to the family. They seem like a pretty good family. But there is something hidden in them that you discover over the course of the film. Soon-ja weeps at the prayer Monica tells to David; she sees that it brings him only fear, not strength. She pleads with Jacob not to strike David in punishment for a prank that she was the victim of. Soon-ja sees what goes in in their relationships. 

And so, symbolically once again, it is Soon-ja's gift that father and son are harvesting at the end. The minari is the provision of the grandmother. It is a bit of culture she brought with her from Korea. While Jacob and Monica were busy worrying about work and health, Soon-ja was planting seeds. She brought the focus back onto the family in cultivating a relationship with her grandson, even when he seemed oft reluctant. And so in the end, after Soon-ja inadvertently starts the fire that burns Jacob's harvest, the family is left with nothing but the legacy of the grandmother. Jacob sees that it is good. And so by seeing him harvesting the minari with David at the end, we are to understand that now it is more important to him to cultivate a relationship with his son (and the rest of his family) and to plant seeds in him than to build up grand dreams. 

Friday, February 19, 2021

Valerie Confections: Toffee Assortment

So you know how it's become my big splurge to dare an online order and get Valerie Confections for Valentine's Day? Well, this year I decided it would be good to also order a second box besides the Valentine's one. Said box ended up being the eight-piece Toffee Assortment. 

A plain cream-colored ribbon adorns the box. No holiday colors of pink and red for this one because toffee is for always and for everyone. Inside, the chocolate comes in big squares of dark chocolate with little decorative flourishes. Though the squares are big, they're fairly thin, so they appear smaller once you pul them out of their wrapper nests. And yes, each one is a different flavor, so let's just go down the list, shall we?

Almond - This one's easy to spot with that single almond on its top. The toffee is nice and light, not of the variety that feels so hard it might break your teeth. While I might have preferred some of Valerie's milk chocolate with the toffee, the dark chocolate pairs fine with the almond (and with most of these flavors). Almonds have a similar texture to toffee, and also aren't so strong as to win out too much in a competition for flavor dominance. So they fade into quietness when paired with the almond and seamlessly add a dash of flavor and texture. 

Almond Fleur de Sel - The salt that sits on here is good salt that works with the others flavors. Salt is, after all, often a companion to nuts, as well as to chocolate. You can see bit of almonds within the toffee, but the almond flavor isn't strong. So the effect is more of a salted toffee chocolate with just a hint of almond. 

Ginger - As you can see, there's quite a big piece of candied ginger here. Not being one for candied ginger, I tried to keep it mixed in with the toffee and chocolate as much as I could while I chewed so as not to get it too much by itself. The toffee is paler in color than it was with the almond toffees and continues to be so for the rest. Certainly I personally would have preferred a smaller ginger topper. Yet it was still nice to try out; I've never had ginger toffee before. The bite that I had without the ginger topper had almost a sweet lemon flavor to the ginger that was at a more comfortable level of strength. That was rather nice. 

Orange - The candied orange topper, in contrast, is a tiny square. Even when you don't get the orange topper, you can still taste the orange oil. The effect is more light and floral than fruity and citrusy; given my liking of rose, I prefer the floral tone, as well as the more subtle flavor in comparison with the strong ginger. Maybe it was just this batch, but this toffee definitely seemed harder/more apt to stick in my teeth than the others. 

Mint - Instead of a candied mint leaf like you'll find on the Mint Mendiants, this toffee is decorated with gentle chocolate waves. Perhaps a mint leaf would be too much in this context. Though you can still taste the toffee, mint is definitely the prevalent flavor. Generally mint has to be paired with dark chocolate rather than milk, but with the toffee here you still get a sweet element. So this is a nice way to set up a sweet mint chocolate that also doesn't have that awkward flavor that mint milk chocolate generally has. Quite nice. 

Classic - I probably should have started here, except that I followed the order of the box and this one is right in the middle. The plain toffee allows you to take in its flavor and texture; it's thin and soft (for hard toffee) and classic in flavor. The dark chocolate is a thin layer that adds just a dash of taste. 

Pumpkin - The orange sprinkles on top I believe must be the smoked paprika I see listed in the ingredients. Pumpkin seeds are visible when you bite into the toffee. So you will find neither canned pumpkin nor pumpkin spices here; it's a completely different take. While pumpkin seeds are definitely a very recognizable taste and texture, like with the almond, they have a lot of competition from the toffee. Whether it is because there are more of them proportionally than there were almonds or simply because they have stronger flavor, the pumpkin seeds do have more influence than the almonds did. And you get a little bit of tang from the paprika. It's all very different from any toffee I've ever had before, and yet it doesn't feel "experimental" in a bad way. It's just unique. And while you can have it for autumn, this toffee doesn't need to be solely for fall, either. 

Black Sesame Seed - The helping of black sesame seeds on the surface are just the beginning: there are lots more on the inside of the toffee, as well. So you instantly get a strong sesame taste and a bit of their crunch. I hate to end on a bad note, but this was easily my least favorite toffee from the set. That's a flavor preference, though; I don't like strong sesame. 

I'm not used to so many flavors in toffee. Usually toffee is milk or dark, almonds or plain, right? I just thought I was getting another indulgence with this box, but it turns out that I got to go on interesting flavor journeys, as well. The Pumpkin and Mint were intriguing. The Orange and maybe also the Ginger were a good break from the plain toffees I've been used to. And the plainer, more classic flavors were also just nice toffee chocolates. Sometimes you can buy a box of just one flavor, but I'd definitely recommend getting the sampler first to see what you like best. It might not be the flavor you expect. And when else do you get the opportunity to try so many flavors of toffee?