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)