Friday, May 27, 2022

Stone Grindz: Bourbon Pecan & Dark Cherry

I last looked at the Almond Butter and Black Lava Salt bar from Stone Grindz; the one we have here today is their Bourbon Pecan and Dark Cherry. It comes in the usual 70% dark chocolate. Do forgive if you catch some of the melting on the edge in the pictures. That was probably my fault; warm weather and chocolate don't mix well and I don't always stay as strict about protecting my chocolate as I once did. 

You can see, however, that the chocolate bar remains beautiful. The alpacas make their rows on the back, while four fat cherries sit in the front (or flip front and back, it's up to you). Those cherries look sumptuous, and the chocolate smells rich with their essence. I even imagine I can smell the pecans.

I began first at the cherry corner so as to get the full hit. That brought in the tart cherry flavor first, then woodsy and nutty pecan. The cherry is pleasingly soft for being dried--which is in fact quite remarkable. A good dried cherry in a chocolate bar is enough on its own to celebrate. In comparison to the cherry's tartness, the chocolate ends up being the sweet element here. It's something of a flip to view this dark chocolate that way since it's a reasonable semisweet dark chocolate and not what I would otherwise call a sweet dark chocolate. 

As for the bourbon pecans, I can't say that I taste anything bourbon about them. The overall effect of the chocolate is rich, so perhaps the bourbon has a hand in that. But I can get a little more of a sense (almost) for the cinnamon sugar more than for the bourbon. What is quite nice about the pecans is their texture. It may vary from bar to bar, but mine only has small pieces and their texture is soft. So they have rather a crumbly presence that crunches softly. Add this pleasant texture to that of the cherries and this bar takes something familiar (fruit and nut chocolate) and makes it feel new.

Even without a bourbon flavor (which I honestly don't miss), the effect here is decadent. Once more, this chocolate bar hits a certain note that I would describe as classy casual. You can munch or you can savor--or a little bit of both. 

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Robinson Crusoe & Finding Contentment

I find myself reading more contemporary books these days. So when I return to reading from the dead authors, often it feels like going home again after a long time away and I remember why I was so steeped in books of the past when I was in middle school. There is such a comfort to me in the long sentences. 

Even as I have been reading more newish releases, I'm also trying to make my way through books that have been unread on my shelves for much too long. One of these is Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. I expected it simply to be an adventure story and pleasantly found that it contains much more. I've read his Moll Flanders a couple of times; in college it was presented as being considered the first novel, which I now find strange on realizing that he wrote Robinson Crusoe before Moll Flanders. Maybe it has a thinner plot, but I also found it easier to read. It's philosophical, yes, but in a readable way (to me at least).

Published in 1719, the language is closer to that of the King James Bible than to that of Victorian novels. But it's also much more familiar than reading, say, The Pilgrim's Progress. As our narrator finds himself stuck on his island and as he begins to think of himself as a kind of prodigal son, the philosophical and religious reflections he has put me interestingly in mind of C.S. Lewis. Despite this book being written at a specific period in time by a person with specific religious views, it gets very much to the core of Christianity apart from specific time period views (which, granted, is probably the case given the rise of Protestantism that most of Christianity today is based on). The very point is that, being apart from all of society, Crusoe can read the Bible that he has himself and understand it and focus simply on growing his relationship with God. 

And that's quite a wonderful message. I got more out of reading this book than I've gotten out of many of the contemporary Christian non-fictions books I've read lately. As Crusoe reflects on his sorry state in the island, he also reminds himself of God's providence in delivering him from the storm and seeing to it that his needs are taken care of. The emphasis then becomes on thankfulness as a means to contentment and what we might call joy in any circumstances. He focuses on his daily tasks of seeing to his food and housing and includes in his daily activities prayer and Bible reading. He doesn't ask, God what am I supposed to be doing? Why am I here? When will this or that happen? He simply does what is before him each day and keeps in communion with God. 

This book gives perhaps the best discussion I've seen about contentment--also about doing God's will. If we aren't saved by works, then our focus doesn't need to be on asking, what should I do? Like Crusoe stuck on his island, cultivating the relationship with God is what we should be doing and that's all (bear with me). As Christians, we are not required to do more. God doesn't need us because he can achieve his purposes through anyone. However, it's as we spend time simply focusing on him that, in the right timing, we will be led to do specific things and then we will be able to be responsive to them. 

Christians talk a lot about being metaphorically in the desert or the wilderness as going through a time of trial. I like the idea of adding to being on an island. Sometimes there are periods in which we are asked simply to do the day's tasks. And that's okay. (And yes, there is much more that could be said about this book, but I've only touched on one sub-topic because this is simply a blog post after all, remember?)

Friday, May 20, 2022

Adrift on the Water

From whence comes fear, and does the where matter? In terms of how we react to the fear, yes, it matters quite a bit. After watching 2018's Adrift recently, the concept of fear was what stayed with me. In the based-on-a-true-story film, Shailene Woodley plays a woman named Tami who is adrift in the ocean for 41 days. What was so striking to me was her lack of fear of the water.

The cinematography and music did an excellent job in supporting her perspective towards water. Before the disaster, we see Tami so comfortable around boats and the ocean and other water. At one point, she dives straight in to a river and sits underwater holding her breath while waiting for Richard to join her. The camera lovingly hovers around the surface of the water, blurring under and above water to show that it's all the same to her. She is just as comfortable under as above. Usually when cameras do this, it shows vulnerability and often danger; here, it just shows that comfort. 

Yet Tami, of course, can recognize when there is real danger. When they are caught in the storm and an impossibly high wave towers towards the yacht, she knows that their lives are at stake. That is the moment when the ocean is a vast, formidable foe--in the presence of which Tami is simply a tiny, near powerless human. In the aftermath, she likewise knows that her chances of making it safely to land are slim. And yet still she does not fear the water. She jumps into the ocean at different points for various necessities with the same gumption as she had before. Amazing, no? 

Fear exists to keep us from danger. But fear also has a tendency to be irrational. It is good to fear jumping off of the roof of a skyscraper because that fear keeps us from dying. But it is unnecessary to be afraid of being on a rooftop because there is no more danger there than there is anywhere else--and yet so many people with a fear of heights would be greatly afraid. 

What I saw in Tami's interaction with water was the ability to separate out the rational and irrational fears. Also, she separates what she is able to control and unable to control. All of that is much easier said than done. She knows she can swim, so she doesn't fear jumping into calm waters. She knows a fierce storm in the ocean is a great danger, so she fears being caught in a strong storm in a small craft. She knows she can make ship repairs and navigate, so she doesn't fear doing so. She knows her target is small and her resources are limited, so she fears missing the window for survival. 

And yet she still does not fear the water. For the water is no more threat than the land. Danger can exist anywhere. But to live always in fear robs us. If we could allow fear to simply be a warning of danger rather than a rampant emotion, wouldn't that be so much simpler?

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Goldfield: Between Fiction and Reality

Almost right across the highway from Lost Dutchman State Park, you will find Goldfield Ghost Town. It is a partly real and partly fabricated ghost town in the sense of a once booming town now empty. In fact, unlike ghost towns like Jerome and Bisbee, Goldfield isn't even a town at all anymore. The address of Goldfield Ghost Town is in Apache Junction because Goldfield is no longer an official town. The shrinking from booming gold mining town to nothing was that extreme. 

Today what you will find is this Old West town. The lines between history and tourism, between real and fabricated, are blurred. There are elements of the historic in the town, as compared to Old West towns that are completely modern constructions. What you get out of a visit will depend on you. There are the touristy, family-oriented activities like the shooting gallery and gold panning. There is a mini museum and a mine tour. 

There is also shopping. Among the different shops, there is a thick vein of Arizona merch, a happy find for tourists and even sometimes for us locals who may sometimes want some of it, too. While old time photography abounds in the Southwest, it's worth noting that the one at Goldfield gives a chance for more than just the bordello-styled photos (really, when did we start dressing up as prostitutes with our families for fun?). You'll also find Southwest jewelry and local photography.

My favorite shop by far is Siphon Draw Apothecary. There you'll find bath and body products made with natural ingredients, many of which are harvested locally. No artificial colorings in the soaps or bath bombs here. Besides the soap, there are also essential oils, salves, lip balms, mosquito repellant, and various other products for health and beauty. The popular creosote soap was out of stock when I was there, but I did pick up a small creosote salve. It comes with that distinctive, Arizona rain aroma (which, if you're unfamiliar, is from the water on the creosote trees). I picked up a couple of chocolate-related products, as well, so I might possibly do a review of those at some point.

Lunch at the Mammoth Steakhouse and Saloon had welcome live music. So even just visiting to have a casual lunch with live music and buy soap would be a nice venture. After all, if it's a museum you want (or a large selection of books for sale), that's the Superstition Mountain Museum. (You could always go to both, though, of course.) Goldfield Ghost Town is more of a recreation place--one still with excellent views of the Superstitions across the way. Oh, and their Church on the Mount functions as a real church with actual Sunday services--perhaps we ought to go visit some Sunday morn? 

Friday, May 13, 2022

Afternoon Tea at the Phoenician

I have over the years had the pleasure of afternoon tea at the Crown and Crumpet in San Francisco, the English Rose in Carefree, and Los Poblanos in Albuquerque. While the other two were fun, the La Quinta Afternoon Tea at Los Poblanos was the stellar standout not only in terms of afternoon tea but also for dining in general. It's a true culinary experience. How, then, would the infamous Afternoon Tea at the Phoenician compare to these past three teas? 

The Phoenician is one of those resorts well known to locals but not necessarily because everyone has been there. Their Afternoon Tea makes for a big draw to bring us in--even then, though, because it's a special occasion indulgence, not everyone has done it. It is a nice excuse to go admire the Phoenician, which is a lovely resort. Simply getting the chance to dress up and go listen to the live piano music is welcome.

Though this is first and foremost a classy, high end tea, the set-up leans towards the lounging style. After all, taking a moment to rest and relax and enjoy one's self is the very essence of what afternoon tea is about. So the chairs at your table might be more what you would tend to find in a sitting room than a restaurant. And the wide view out the glass windows is a familiar sight, for locals, from a less familiar angle.

While they bring out a menu in the beginning so that you can choose your tea (I just stayed with Darjeeling, since I miss it now that I'm not drinking black tea anymore), they do take these away before serving you. It would be nice to have them to refer back to while eating so as to know what's what: it's hard to remember everything when there are six sandwiches and eight desserts in addition to the two scones. They had the Mother's Day menu going while I was there. This is a similar, slight adjustment to the regular menu; they also do this for Christmas. But along with the higher price, the Mother's Day tea also included a printed photo for each person that they took when we came in. That was a nice touch.

The aesthetic of the Phoenician is more modern. Yet the flower arrangement on the table had that perfectly imperfect and feminine vibe. As compared to receiving a tier of plates with all the courses, they brought each one individually. This does help to avoid unwieldy tiers and cramped table spaces. They brought out the sandwiches first, all arranged on one plate per person. While they're cut up nice and cute, I can't say that any of them particularly stood out to me. Most of them all tasted pretty much the same, maybe because the bread was so similar. 

We received the scones next, one buttermilk and one cranberry. The cream and lemon curd are what bring life to scones. I didn't care for the cranberries. 

The desserts came last. They're cute and fun looking, right? I enjoyed looking at them before beginning to eat. But there is a definite contrast between the posh, classy look of the Phoenician and the cutesy, colorful look of the desserts. Granted, the Mother's Day desserts are slightly different from the usual ones. But it's just an observation. 

That being said, I did enjoy them. I also plucked the little ladybug off of the chocolate strawberry and put it into the "flower garden" dessert. Just for fun. The flower garden was the caramel milk chocolate tart, and I did enjoy that one because I'm a fan of caramel. Otherwise I'd say the best desserts were the lemon meringue profiterole (maybe because I never have those), the cherry hibiscus shortbread (because fresh shortbread is a pleasure), and the fruit tartlet (because berries and cream are classic). The pink velvet cheesecake was pleasant, too, like a soft cake with the cheesecake element acting like a cream cheese frosting. The chocolate cake was dry and not of much interest.

It's impossible for me to not be a harsh critic after that tea at Los Poblanos; nothing will ever compare to that. And given that the Mother's Day tea at the Phoenician was double the price of the one at Los Poblanos (normally it's only a 50% increase, but even that is significant), I do wish the foods matched the price. They give you quite a few, yes, but they're small, so it isn't much more than average for an afternoon tea. If you're looking for a culinary experience, this tea might not quite do it. But that isn't to say that the experience isn't worth it.

It's the whole package deal of going and enjoying one's self and sitting with comfortable company in a beautiful setting with excellent service that makes Afternoon Tea at the Phoenician special and a wonderful way to celebrate an occasion. 

Monday, May 9, 2022

Ritual Chocolate: Juniper Lavender Chocolate

The first time I came across Ritual Chocolate, I regretted that I probably wouldn't be getting anymore of their products. Fast forward almost three years and a new shop, Regency Modern, in Old Town Scottsdale has a full supply of Ritual Chocolate bars. Enter much jubilation: normally I don't have access to a lot of artisan chocolate companies, so I end up being limited to the stray one found here or there, not to a full line within arm's reach whenever I want more.

The design is beautiful and comes in the same style as before except with the addition of simple geometric shapes and illustrations. This is the Juniper Lavender Chocolate, so we see mini butterflies hovering around the lavender. The monochromatic, purple design keeps it classy versus chaotic. 

While the card box is in the same style as before, this time there is more info on the inside leaves about the chocolate process and the flavor notes. There is even a space to write down tasting notes. The light gloss to the paper probably isn't well-suited for writing: a pencil won't make enough of an imprint and most pens will smear. But I guess even if you don't use the space, it's meant to get you thinking.

Darker in color than it looks in the picture, the surface of the chocolate has no visible inclusions on either the front or back. Aroma-wise, it could be that I'm so immune to lavender after using so many lavender products and consuming it in so many forms, but I only pick up a semisweet dark chocolate scent. Breaking the chocolate reveals a good snap and consistency. 

Initially, I get an earthy sort of flavor, then the lavender comes in, and then more of the dark chocolate. Past the halfway point, the chocolate gets sweeter somehow--but not in the sense of sugar sweetness. It's more of a floral sweetness. The lavender becomes the flavor of lavender candy rather than the strong, peppery sort of lavender taste that you might come across elsewhere. It's still a fresh sort of lavender, though. 

Again, having had a lot of lavender products, I would describe this one as not being super strong on the lavender. (And I don't mind it being very strong.) The inclusion of the juniper berries is what makes it quite unique. The juniper does indeed call to mind the mountains; it isn't like a breath of pine, but rather something softer. The poetic description that the chocolate's finish "lingers on the tongue and conjures up the scent of a high mountain meadow" is not an exaggeration. It's quite literal. The flavor inclusions here do take you on a journey, for which the chocolate provides a worthy base and vehicle. My high expectations are not disappointed.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Further Up & Further In

Last fall, I had my first two introductions to The Fellowship for Performing Arts, first with their live play of The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis and then with the film version of C.S. Lewis: The Most Reluctant Convert. While I did enjoy both, the film had two main critiques from me. I find both of those addressed in their newest play, C.S. Lewis on Stage: Further Up and Further In, which had its first live performance in Phoenix this past weekend (and will probably be back in town once they have the finalized version ready). 

I wished, going in, that I knew more what to expect. C.S. Lewis has so many books, and yet here was a play that wasn't based on a specific of his writings. All I knew was that it was a kind of sequel to The Most Reluctant Convert. Whereas that story centered around Lewis's journey toward belief in God, this one was meant to show how he became such a prominent voice in Christian writing and speaking. It turned out that this was less biographical than the first part of the story; this time around we heard certain beats of what was happening in Lewis's life simply in terms of what he was writing or thinking or working on at the time. Like, for instance, hearing about the war in order to know the context in which he was giving his radio talks. 

I in fact found this a benefit. Instead of being distracted by whether we're supposed to be watching action unfold or hearing narration go on, the audience knew that we were simply watching a monologue about philosophical, spiritual, and religious concepts. When watching the film, I'd mentioned that the monologue style probably worked better in a live play, and yes that was indeed the case. While we are still seeing Lewis the scholar approaching various deep discussions, Max McLean in person is able to take you through these intellectual journeys in an engaging way. He keeps to the scholarly tone of voice that Lewis has in the surviving radio dialogue, while also somehow subtly giving his dialogue more dramatic beats. 

And the digital screen that they used at the back of the stage was wonderful in aiding those beats. I had thought that they made good use of a screen with The Great Divorce, but this took it a step further (in a different way, of course, for a very different type of production). The set was a sparse portrayal of Lewis's office; it more gives the actor a place to move around in. So it was the screen that matched the content of each sub-topic he brings up. We got to see either context (like the war) or a visual portrayal of emotion, if you will. The galaxies, or the tree growing beside living water. There are no words to express to you what I felt when I saw that tree. While there are plenty of trees in Lewis's writing and in the Bible, that specific tree isn't described in that specific way anywhere that I know of. And yet I've seen that tree before in my mind, and so when I saw it on the screen it was perfect visual for the concepts that the monologue was approaching.

Besides the live play versus film format, the other comment I'd had after watching The Most Reluctant Convert was that they hadn't emphasized Lewis's focus on the concept of joy as much as I'd expected. They did in this play, though. I vastly appreciate that because, though I've used different words perhaps to describe it, I know exactly what Lewis means when he talks about joy. I love engaging with that concept. While the film was largely based on Surprised by Joy, which focuses on joy so much that it's part of its title, the truth is that FPA in these two pieces combines various of Lewis's writings. So there will be something from this book here, from that talk there, from this letter over there, from this fictional book next. If The Most Reluctant Convert was meant to be Lewis's introduction into accepting the existence of God, Further Up and Further In gets into the meat of Lewis's contributions to Christian dialogue. Besides joy, another notable topic that came up was his assessment that Jesus had to be either lying, mad, or telling the truth. I do wish we could, as a society, get back into more dialogue like this. Lewis convinced a lot of people that Christianity was true because he answered the questions he himself had had.

This brings me me to one of my lingering questions about FPA. I'm really enjoying the way in which they provide me with engaging, intellectual Christian content. Contemporary Christian content doesn't always have enough meat on its bones to interest me; I like to go deep. But FPA also states that they way to reach a wide audience, and isn't deep intellectual content more niche? C.S. Lewis talked about presenting ideas for the person who would like to believe in Christianity but "finds his intellect getting in the way" (which might not be the exact quote), and yet he was also someone who could speak to the masses and present deep concepts in a stripped down, simple, easy-to-understand way. So is FPA striving for a similar balance? It's a high goal. And I suppose all three shows I've gone to see (the two plays and the film) have all been about sold out, so the audience is responding. 

I almost skipped this one, and I'm so glad I didn't. I had one of those artistic response moments in which I was elevated out of myself. I came back into my skin refreshed. Just like with The Great Divorce, I felt my perspective renewed, and boy do I need that constantly renewed. 

Medea in LA

I have been neglectful of late of blogging. Trust some good plays, however, to bring me back in. I saw two last week--each was quite different, yet both were stunning in their own way. The first was Southwest Shakespeare's Mojada: a Medea in Los Angeles, directed by Micah Espinosa and performed once again at the wonderfully small venue at Taliesin West. 

As you can tell from the title, the play is based on the Greek play Medea but it is set instead in LA. The transition is about as flawless as can be, which highlights the universality of the themes in the original play. Just because the story was set in a specific time and place with specific politics and social structures does not mean that all of those don't have similar reflections at any point in history. People are still people no matter the year. And perhaps Greek plays are especially good for adapting to new settings. Translations are already so different from the original language that translators often already modernize the language. (I remember, for instance, reading Lysistrata and seeing the explanation that a certain group of characters had been given Southern accents in the translation in order to portray to modern readers the effect of their different accents within the play.) So why not take things a step further?

Structurally, they did also move some of the action onto the stage and change a little of the timing. Greek plays are all about things taking place off stage. Medea is largely composed of characters talking about what has happened or what will happen. So with this play, they kept the monologue or long dialogue style but also spread the action around more. And they kept the ending secret so that it comes more as a shock to views who might not know the Greek play's plot. 

That difference in how they approached "the big thing that happens at the end" is reflective of what is perhaps the biggest change in this adaptation. Greek Medea is a woman who has been wronged and expresses great emotion over how she has been treated; she's a woman who finds ultimate vengeance against her wrongdoers. Modern Medea likewise has been wronged, but she is portrayed a little differently. She starts off more passive and then becomes enraged, like she has finally passed her breaking point and has lost her mind to pain so that all she can do is lash out. So what we end up seeing is Medea's trauma. Her vengeance takes on a greater emphasis on pain and tragedy. What has happened to Medea is tragedy--and what she does as a result of this tragedy is likewise tragedy. 

I can't mention this production without also taking a moment to appreciate Greta Skelly's moving performance as Tita, the nurse/maid. Her character combines various roles from the Greek play including the Chorus. So while Medea is the title character, Tita is the audience's guide both to the facts of what is happening and to the emotions we are meant to feel. She weeps for the tragedy that happens--but in her desire to not see injustice, she cannot support Medea's final actions. So when we see what trauma can cause a person to do, we don't dwell on our delight to see wrongdoers get their just deserts. Rather, we simply weep that tragedy exists.