September 21, 2014

Talking Transportation: No Blue Ribbons for Metro-North

The long awaited MTA “Blue Ribbon Panel” of experts has issued its report on Metro-North and its sister railroads, and it isn’t pretty.

Their 50 page report confirms much of what we already knew:  that the railroad placed too much emphasis on “on time performance” instead of safety … that there were serious repair issues unattended to for months … and that there has been an enormous “brain drain” of experienced railroad employees who have opted for retirement after 30 years.

All of those problems could have been prevented if MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast had been doing his job, which he wasn’t.  That is surprising, given his almost 40 years in the industry.  Remember, he was selected as Chairman by Governor Cuomo (just a month before the Bridgeport crash) after successfully turning around the NYC subway system.  And he had also spent years at the LIRR.

But the Blue Ribbon Panel was especially critical of Prendergast for running his three railroads (MNRR, LIRR, NY Subways) as silos, not communicating with each other on best practices.  If the NYC subways had a cool parts-inventory system, MNRR never knew about it.  The “safety culture” at the LIRR may have been great, but it was never shared with MNRR.

But the Panel says the problems were far deeper than just that:

TENSION:

The Panel said there is a “tension” between the railroad workers, who maintain the tracks and signals, and their colleagues, who run the trains over them.  The track workers aren’t given enough time to do their job.  To paraphrase Lincoln:  “A house (or railroad) divided cannot stand”.

TOOLS:

Compared to the LIRR and NYC subway, Metro-North is in the dark ages of technology.  Track inspection reports are still done on paper.  We don’t have state-of-the-art track inspection cars or autonomous bridge monitoring systems.  Much of the maintenance work is done manually instead of using machines.

TIDINESS:

The panel even suggests the railroad clean up all the scrap and debris along the tracks to prevent tripping hazards.

TOP-DOWN:

Did they have to suggest this: “Periodically have management walk with track inspectors to reinforce (the crucial nature of this work)”?

TIME:

The Panel suggests MTA re-open union contracts to do track and signal maintenance work overnight when there’s lots of time and fewer trains.  (Japan’s Shinkansen high speed rail has gone 50 years without a track fatality thanks to inspections of every mile of tracks every night).

TRANSPARENCY:

After years of denying there were any safety problems, the recent derailments and deaths have forced MNRR to face its neglect of safety.  The Panel also suggests increased “customer engagement” on this topic with town halls, media oppotunities and direct customer communications.

So, kudos to the Panel of industry experts and thank you for a year of hard work.  Now it’s up to the MTA and Metro-North to take the list of 29 recommendations to heart and make our trains on-time and safe.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 23 years. He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

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Simple, Real Food: The Flavors of Jamaica

I lived in Jamaica for a few months back in the early nineties having always had a fantasy about living Caribbean style.  I moved to Negril and opened a Jamaican restaurant at a yoga retreat in town.  It was a short-lived experiment due to Hurricane Gilbert, which wiped out the entire island and I returned to NYC to start over once again.

Lately the weather here has reminded me of the warm winters they have on the islands and memories of that delicious Jamaican food has had me cooking dishes such as jerk chicken, curried goat and coconut rice.  Great for entertaining, this satisfying spicy and soulful cuisine is perfect for outdoor living.

With several weeks left of wonderful weather hopefully, I hope you get to try some of these dishes.  In case you don’t have time for cooking, my favorite hole-in-the-wall spot for Jamaican food in the area is Patty Palace in Middletown.  It is a family-run business and has really good jerk chicken and curried goat.

Jerk Chicken

Serves 6

Ingredients

jerk-chicken
2 tsp. allspice
2 Tb. chopped thyme
1/2 tsp. cayenne
1 tsp. pepper
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1 ½ tsp. salt
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 one inch piece ginger, chopped
½ tsp. cinnamon
1/4 cup vegetable oil
Juice of 3 limes
2 scotch bonnet peppers, chopped
6 scallions, chopped
4 pounds chicken thighs


Procedure

1. Combine the marinade ingredients in a processor and blend to form a paste. Make a number of shallow slits on the chicken and rub all over. Marinate for at least two hours or overnight in the refrigerator.

3. Heat the oven to 450. Place the chicken on two baking sheets and roast for 30 to 35 minutes rotating the pan once.*

5. Increase the oven to broil and broil the chicken for 2 to 3 minutes until golden. Or light a grill and grill until browned and crispy. Serve on a large platter with steamed coconut rice.

  • If you grill the chicken – grill for 40 to 50 minutes over low heat covered, turning occasionally.
  • You also skewer the chicken and then grill as an appetizer

Jamaican Style Curried Goat

Serves 10

Ingredients

Marinade:

3 pounds goat meat, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, leg of lamb can be used instead
1/2 cup white vinegar
5 scallions, coarsely chopped
Juice of 2 limes
1 to 2 scotch bonnet peppers, seeded, minced
1 tsp. allspice
1 Tb. black pepper
4 Tb. Madras curry powder
1 Tb. kosher salt
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 Tb. Madras curry powder
3 large cloves garlic, minced

Procedure

1. Combine the meat, vinegar, scallions, lime juice, peppers, allspice, pepper, 4 Tb. curry, and salt in a large bowl and marinate at least two hours or overnight.

2. Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven and sauté the remaining 2 Tb. curry for 10 seconds. Add the garlic and cook another 20 seconds. Add the goat meat mixture and mix well. Cover and cook over medium low heat until the meat is tender about 2 hours. Add a little water or chicken broth if the pan is drying out. Taste and adjust seasoning and serve over rice.

Coconut Rice

Serves 8

Ingredients

2 Tb. vegetable oil
1 Tb. minced ginger
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups long grain white rice
1 can unsweetened coconut milk
1/2 tsp. salt
Fresh pepper
4 scallions, minced
1/3 cup sweetened coconut, toasted in a dry skillet until golden
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped

Procedure

1. Heat the oil in a medium saucepan. Add the ginger and onions and cook over medium heat 4 minutes. Add rice and cook 2 minutes, stirring. Add the coconut milk, and water to equal 3 cups, salt and pepper. Increase the heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook about 10 minutes. Allow rice to sit, covered for about 5 minutes.

2. Fluff rice and garnish with scallions, coconut and cilantro before serving.

Amanda Cushman

Amanda Cushman

Editor’s Note: Amanda Cushman of Simple Real Food Inc., is a culinary educator who has cooked professionally for over 30 years.  She has taught corporate team building classes for over 15 years for a variety of Fortune 500 companies including Yahoo, Nike and Google.  She began her food career in the eighties and worked with Martha Stewart and Glorious Foods before becoming a recipe developer for Food and Wine magazine as well as Ladies Home Journal.  Having lived all over the United States including Boston, NYC, Miami and Los Angeles, she has recently returned to her home state of Connecticut where she continues to teach in private homes as well as write for local publications. 

Amanda teaches weekly classes at White Gate Farm and Homeworks and is also available for private classes.  Her cookbook; Simple Real Food can be ordered at Amazon as well as through her website www.amandacooks.com 

For more information, click here to visit her website.

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Talking Transportation: Why a Another Fare Hike Seems Inevitable

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but chances are we will see another fare hike on Metro-North in the coming months.

Not that any elected official would endorse such a plan (at least not before the November elections), but once again Connecticut is not totally in control of its financial destiny when it comes to our trains.

True, fare increases in Connecticut must be initiated by the state regardless of what New York does to its riders, but the financial numbers speak for themselves.

We are tied to New York’s operations by an antiquated contract going back 30 years. The cost of running “our” trains is born by both Connecticut and New York, and those costs are soaring from $70 million a year to $110 million thanks to remedial track work and expected contract settlements (with four years of retroactive pay hikes).

How will Connecticut make up this $40 million deficit? There are only three choices: raise fares, cut service or find that money elsewhere. The latter two choices are either undesirable or impossible, leaving the prospect (necessity?) of fare increases.

After a year of slower, unreliable and often-disrupted service, it’s hard to explain to commuters they should be paying more… especially in an election year. So when the rumored necessity of a fare hike was floated last week, Governor Malloy expressed outrage and bewilderment.

But our governor and his Department of Transportation (DOT) knew darn well this was coming. They’re the ones who pushed Metro-North for badly needed track work after derailments and deaths. Who did they think would pay for that? And one wonders… does Connecticut’s DOT ever audit Metro-North’s ever-increasing budgets and bills to our state?

Fares in Connecticut are already the highest in the US because our subsidy of those fares is the lowest. Upstate lawmakers who dominate our legislature loathe the idea of subsidizing fat-cat investment bankers’ trips to their high-paying jobs in New York City. But they have no trouble taxing their incomes, do they?

Fairfield County residents represent 26 percent of our state’s population but pay 40 percent of its taxes. Legislators made us subsidize Adriaen’s Landing ($770 million) in Hartford and the UConn football stadium ($90+ million), neither of which we are ever likely to use. So why can’t they keep residing in Fairfield County affordable by keeping Metro-North safe, on-time and affordable.

Since 2012 we’ve already had 12 percent fare hikes, thanks in part to Governor Malloy using rail fares to balance his budget (a move I called that more of a tax on commuters than anything else.)

The good news is that a fare increase in Connecticut requires 90 days notice and public hearings. And with the November elections just weeks away, no right-minded politician will pull that trigger.

Mind you, it was now-GOP nominee Tom Foley who recently told reporters he thought we in Connecticut spend too much subsidizing mass transit, so who knows? It should be an interesting campaign season and my hope is that Metro-North will be a much debated topic.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 23 years. He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

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Dear Cammy: Making Up is Hard to Do

Dear Cammy,

My friends and I got into a fight then we made up.  But now all they do is ignore me and tell me that I’m wrong.  I really need help.  What should I do?

Lonely and Alone


Dear Lonely and Alone,

I’m sorry to here that you’re friends and you got into a fight.  One thing that I do know from experience is that getting over a fight is never easy.  Looking over your situation, it looks like you still have some unresolved things in your case.  Try sitting down with them and talking to them about how you feel and let them know that you are upset at what they are saying.  Let them speak and hear their feelings and thoughts over this fight.

If all is resolved go out and make memories.  I figure memories are the quickest way to bring people together.

If things are not resolved, I think that it is time to think about a new group of friends.  If people are not treating you right and making you feel bad or uncomfortable, then those people are not your friends.  I hope this helps and best of luck!

Cammy

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Talking Transportation: To Vermont, By Train

The Vermont landscape always draws visitors.

The beautiful Vermont landscape always draws visitors.

Like many, I love Vermont.  But I’m not crazy about getting there.

From my home to Burlington VT is about 300 miles.  By car, that’s at least five hours and about $50 in gas each way.  Flying may seem quicker, but with the airport drive, it’s not much better and about $150 each way.  But there’s another alternative: Amtrak.

There are actually three trains a day that will take you to (or close to) Vermont:

THE VERMONTER:

Your best choice, this train runs daily from Washington DC to St Albans VT, coming through Stamford at about noontime each day.  It also stops in Bridgeport and New Haven before heading up the Connecticut River Valley to Vermont stops in Brattleboro, Windsor, Montpelier, Waterbury (Stowe) and Essex Junction (Burlington), to name but a few.

It’s not the fastest run (Stamford to Essex Junction is 8 hours), but it’s certainly beautiful and relaxing.  A frustrating reverse move at Palmer, Mass., will be eliminated this fall with new tracks, shaving an hour off the run.

The Amfleet seats in coach are comfy.  There’s also business class seating (for a premium).  The AmFood is tasty.  The crew is great … and there’s even free wifi.  Despite the many stops, the train hits 80 mph in many stretches on smooth, welded rails.

Remember:  Amtrak runs in any kind of weather, so if you’re thinking of skiing this winter when there’s a blizzard and its 20 below zero, the train will get you there when airports and highways are closed.

THE ETHAN ALLEN EXPRESS:

If you’re heading to Rutland, Vt., this is your train.  Originating at NY’s Penn Station mid-afternoon, this train bypasses Connecticut and shoots up the Hudson Valley, arriving in Rutland just before 9 p.m. with stops in Saratoga Springs, Glens Falls and Castleton, Vt.  Best strategy here is to catch this train at Croton-Harmon (in Westchester County) where there’s plenty of paid parking available.  The hope is that the Ethan Allen may be extended from Rutland north to Burlington in the coming years.

Same kind of Amfleet cars, coach and business, AmCafé and free wifi.

THE ADIRONDACK:

This daily train from NY’s Penn Station to Montreal doesn’t go through Vermont, but it gets you close … if you don’t mind a ferry boat ride.  Leaving NYC at 8:15 a.m., you detrain at Port Kent, N.Y., on the western shore of Lake Champlain about 2:30 p.m., walk about 100 yards down to the dock and catch the ferry to downtown Burlington.

Same kind of seating, wifi, etc., but on this train you’re traveling with a much more international crowd of Quebecois.  Poutine anyone?

Thanks to state subsidies and increasing ridership, fares on all of these Amtrak are very affordable:  on The Vermonter, Stamford to Burlington (booked in advance) is just $55 one way ($47 for seniors and kids are half-price.)

So if you’re planning a vacation in The Green Mountain state, remember that getting there can be half the fun if you leave the driving to Amtrak … the “green” way to travel.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron


JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 23 years.  He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com  

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Simple, Real Food: Organic or Not, That is the Question

We all are aware of the issues about pesticide use, GMO’s and the whole idea of sustainable food production but with so much information, it’s overwhelming to figure out what is best for you and your family.

I for one, do organic produce, wild fish and organic poultry and here are the reasons why I think it is something to consider.

For one thing eating organic means you are ingesting fewer pesticides. A recent study out of the United Kingdom reported that organic produce boasted up to 40 percent higher levels of some nutrients (including vitamin C, zinc and iron) than its conventional counterparts. Additionally, a 2003 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that organically grown berries and corn contained 58 percent more polyphenols—antioxidants that help prevent cardiovascular disease—and up to 52 percent higher levels of vitamin C than those conventionally grown.

Recent research by that study’s lead author, Alyson Mitchell, Ph.D., an associate professor of food science and technology at the University of California, Davis, pinpoints a potential mechanism to explain why organic techniques may sometimes yield superior produce.

It’s a difference in soil fertility, says Mitchell: “With organic methods, the nitrogen present in composted soil is released slowly and therefore plants grow at a normal rate, with their nutrients in balance. Vegetables fertilized with conventional fertilizers grow very rapidly and allocate less energy to develop nutrients.” Buying conventional produce from local farmers also has benefits. Nutrient values in produce peak at prime ripeness, just after harvest. As a general rule, the less produce has to travel, the fresher and more nutrient-rich it remains.

We know that organic produce up to now at least is far more expensive and I hope there will come a time when there will be no other choice so the prices will come down but for now it may be unattainable for some to afford. If this is the case there is a list called the “dirty dozen”, these are fruits and vegetables that are heavily sprayed and most contaminated. If you can choose organic for these items you will be doing your health a favor;

Apples

Celery

Strawberries

Peaches

Spinach

Nectarines

Grapes

Sweet Bell Peppers

Potatoes

Blueberries

Lettuce

Kale

I also recommend eating wild fish especially salmon, which, in its farm-raised form, is high in contaminants, has double the saturated fat as wild and dyes added to make the flesh the orange color we are all used to. They are kept in tight quarters and fed soy to increase their weight and the nutritional value is far less. Wild salmon, although more expensive is worth the extra bucks, with more calcium, iron, potassium and half the calories.

Try these delicious recipes for your summer entertaining and remember to read labels and buy local.

Seared salmon with balsamic orange sauce

Seared salmon with balsamic orange sauce

Seared Salmon with Balsamic Orange Sauce

Serves 4

Ingredients

1/2 cup fresh orange juice

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

2 Tb. mirin

1 shallot, minced

1 Tb. orange zest

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 Tb. olive oil

4 wild salmon fillets, 5 oz. each, skin removed

1 Tb. chopped mint

1 Tb. chopped basil

1 Tb. chopped Italian parsley

Procedure

  1. Combine the juice, vinegar, mirin, shallot and zest in a small saucepan; bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook 5 minutes until reduced to about ½ a cup. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  2. Heat a large skillet over med-hi heat and add the olive oil. Sear the salmon for 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Turn and sear another 5 minutes. Transfer to a serving platter. Add the herbs to the sauce and pour the sauce over the fish. Serve warm with rice or mashed potatoes.

Kale Quinoa Patties

Serves 5

Ingredients

2 ½ cups cooked organic quinoa, cooled

3 large eggs. beaten

½ cup grated parmesan

½ cup scallions, minced

2 Tb. olive oil, plus more for sauteeing

4 cups organic kale, veins removed, chopped

1 tsp. sea salt

½ onion, finely diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

¾ cup bread crumbs

Procedure

  1. Combine the quinoa, eggs, cheese, scallions and salt in a medium bowl.
  2. Heat the 2 Tb. of the olive oil in a large skillet and sauté the onions and garlic for about 3 minutes. Add the kale and cook until soft and bight green. Transfer the kale mixture to the bowl with the quinoa and add the salt and breadcrumbs.
  3. Add enough oil to coat the bottom of the skillet and heat the pan. Form the patties and add to the oil. Sauté until browned on each side about 10 minutes. Drain on a paper towel and serve.
Amanda Cushman

Amanda Cushman

Editor’s Note: Amanda Cushman of Simple Real Food Inc., is a culinary educator who has cooked professionally for over 30 years.  She has taught corporate team building classes for over 15 years for a variety of Fortune 500 companies including Yahoo, Nike and Google.  She began her food career in the eighties and worked with Martha Stewart and Glorious Foods before becoming a recipe developer for Food and Wine magazine as well as Ladies Home Journal.  Having lived all over the United States including Boston, NYC, Miami and Los Angeles, she has recently returned to her home state of Connecticut where she continues to teach in private homes as well as write for local publications. 

Amanda teaches weekly classes at White Gate Farm and Homeworks and is also available for private classes.  Her cookbook; Simple Real Food can be ordered at Amazon as well as through her website www.amandacooks.com 

For more information, click here to visit her website.

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“Talking Transportation: Is It Safe To Ride Metro-North?

logoIt has been seven months since a drowsy engineer drove a speeding Metro-North train off the tracks at Spuyten Duyvil, killing four and injuring 59.

Months earlier a derailment and collision near Bridgeport sent 70 to the hospital. Ever since, the railroad has promised that improving safety is its top priority.  So does that mean the railroad is now “safe”?

Aside from taking the word of management, how are we to know?  Just because we haven’t had another accident doesn’t mean the railroad is safe.  Nobody suspected it was unsafe until those two accidents last year showed us just how dangerous our daily commute had become.

In April this year The Commuter Action Group surveyed 642 commuters and asked them, “Do you feel safe riding Metro-North?” and 56% said yes, 15% said no and 29% said they “weren’t sure”. Neither am I, but I ride those trains regularly, hoping for the best.  And so far, so good.

I take the railroad at its word when it says safety is its top priority, but I have no way of telling it that’s true.  As Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “We don’t know what we don’t know.” Waiting on a station platform, how can the average commuter look at the tracks, the overhead wires or signals and know that Metro-North is safe?  We can’t even see the engineers because they hide in their control booth behind jerry-rigged cardboard curtains ‘lest riders should watch them at work. Here’s what we do know.

The trains are running slower (on-time performance was only 79% in May).  And last week we also learned that an entire class of conductor trainees had been dismissed because they were caught cheating on a safety exam.  Good for the MTA for catching and disciplining them.  But the worry is whether this kind of cheating has been going on for years.

Reassuring?  The only way to be sure that Metro-North is safe is better federal oversight by the FRA, the Federal Railroad Administration.  That agency still hasn’t issued its final report on the May 2013 derailment… and only fined the railroad $5,000 following a Metro-North trainee’s mistake, which killed one of their own track foremen.

As US Senator Richard Blumenthal put it, “The watchdogs were asleep.  The FRA has been lax and sluggish.” That’s why commuters should be reassured that Senator Blumenthal will soon introduce a bill to give the FRA some real teeth:  increasing civil penalties for railroad mistakes, strengthening railroad oversight, mandating new safety gear, introduction of a fatigue management plan for personnel, requiring anonymous reporting systems for whistle-blowers, installation of cameras, alerters and redundant safety systems for track workers.

Further, the bill would also require stronger safety standards for crude oil rail-tankers, the “pipelines on wheels” carrying crude oil and petroleum products on US railroads. The only thing missing?  Mandatory transparency.  I’d hope that the FRA would be required to explain its oversight and reassure all railroad riders of their safety in a simple, understandable manner.

That would make me feel safe.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 23 years.  He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

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Nibbles: Chicken and Wine with Capers Perfect for Boules Bash

Inn-607x401When Linnea [Rufo - the owner of and executive chef at the Bee & Thistle in Old Lyme] and I talked about what she would make for her boules party, she thought about Lasagna Bolognese.  This can be made ahead of time and baked just before dinner time, usually around 7 pm.  A big salad (we usually have somewhere around 45 people for dinner), maybe Charlie van Over’s bread. I would do a bar dessert while Linnea would get ice cream and fruit.

A couple of weeks later, we talked again. I said I would make the Bolognese sauce and the salad, too, if she would like.  “No, I’m not doing lasagna. I’m going to do chicken in wine with capers.”  The Bee & Thistle doesn’t even have a walk-in freezer and here she is choosing chicken with wine and capers, and she wanted to play boules, too. I thought she was nuts.

It turns out she wasn’t crazy. She had done most of the work ahead of time and the final roasting would take place in a big, big oven (it is a restaurant, after all) along with roasted zucchini. Everything was delicious and I, who can’t find a word for how boring zucchini is to me, loved this zucchini. Here are her recipes:

Chicken and Wine with Capers

From Linnea Rufo, executive chef of Bee & Thistle inn

Yield: serves 6

6 very large skinless boneless chicken breasts

Flour, salt and pepper to taste, for dredging

2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup of a nice white wine

1 large chopped shallot

2 cups low-salt chicken stock

One-half cup fresh lemon juice

1 cup capers, rinsed

One-half cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Garnish:

3 large lemons, halved (optional)

Cut each chicken breast horizontally so each opens like a book.

Chicken with white wine and capers

Chicken and wine with capers

Heat oil in a large high-sided skillet or a small roasting pan. Dredge the chicken in the flour, salt and pepper mixture, shaking excess and sear chicken until brown on each side. Do this in batches so you don’t cook them to the point where they will steam. If you are serving later, cool chicken and wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until just before dinner.

Before ready to serve, in the same skillet with all the browned pieces, heat and deglaze with shallots and wine. Add stock and lemon juice. Place chicken pieces in the broth and roast until chicken is done. Add capers and cook another few minutes. Place chicken and sauce in a platter and sauce with the juice. Sprinkle with parsley.

Optional: If garnishing, place half lemons on a grill until brown and serve each on top of each chicken.

Roasted Zucchini

Also from Linnea Rufo

Here is a zucchini that is truly memorable. And easy to make. So if a neighbor rang your doorbell and ran away and you open the door and see 10 pounds of zucchini, call him and thank him.

Small zucchini

Fresh chives

Extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Wash and dry the zucchini. Cut the bottoms and tops off, cut them into thin strips and place in a large bowl. Mince the chives and add to the zucchini. Top with olive oil and salt and pepper, to taste. With your hands (or with a big spoon), toss together. Leave them to macerate on the counter for a few minutes or in an hour or so. Set the oven at 350 degrees. But the mixture in a baking sheet and roast for 15 to 20 minutes, tossing once or twice during the roasting. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.

headshot_LeeAbout the author: Lee White (left) has been writing about restaurants and cooking since 1976 and has been extensively published in the Worcester (Mass.) Magazine, The Day, Norwich Bulletin, and Hartford Courant.  She currently writes Nibbles and a cooking column called A La Carte for LymeLine.com and the Shore Publishing newspapers, and Elan, a quarterly magazine, all of which are now owned by The Day. 

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Dear Cammy: Advice for a Picky Eater

Dear Cammy,

I am a very picky eater.  Whenever I go to my friend’s house, there are times that I do not like the food that is being served.  I don’t want to eat the food, but I also don’t want to be rude to their parents.  What should I do?

Miss Picky

 

Dear Miss Picky,

That is always an awkward situation.  You’re not alone on this, many people are picky eaters also.  If you can try a little piece, do so.  If not, decline in the most polite way possible.  Try coming up with an excuse such as, “No thanks, I had a big lunch.”  You don’t have to eat what is served, but always remember your manners.

Good luck,

Cammy

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Nibbles: Lee on Life, Lemon Cake and Lids … Well, Canisters Actually

My kitchen is starting to look like as kitchen, but not like the kitchen I had before.

I am not complaining.  The kitchen in Old Lyme was created by me and my husband.  As always, it was the first room to be finished.  It was two rooms and a hall.  It was dark and applianced in harvest gold.  The counter was Formica or faux Formica (is that an oxymoron?)  The floor was linoleum.

In around two months, the two rooms began one, the hall was annihilated, and the door to what would become a patio became French doors.  The counter was granite on the island, butcher block on two other walls.  I had a six-burner gas cooktop, two electric ovens and a warming drawer.  Under the cooktop were two enormous shelves that held my two-foot salad bowl and my big stockpots.

My new kitchen is pretty, too.  But I have an electric range with one oven.  My dishwasher died after two turns with dishes.  I do have granite counters, but no island, no easy action to my special rack for muffin pans, warm cookies or half-sheet pans.  But I am making do and consider myself lucky that a mediocre cook learned how to be better with a great kitchen.  I am good enough, now, to cook anywhere.

Parties have begun and I am expected to bring food to the homes of terrific friends.  Last week I made potato salad (yes, two of my stockpots are on top of another rack over the sink.)  This week I may make a dessert.  I gave away at least 10 loaf pans and round pans and square pans in 8”, 9” and 10” sizes.

Here is the lemon cake everyone likes; as Staples says, “We have that!”

 

Lemon Cake

Adapted from Barefoot Contessa Parties by Ina Garten (Clarkson Potter/Publishers, New York, 2001)

Yield: Two 8-inch loaves

Lemon-cake_592½ (one-half) pound unsalted butter at room temperature
2 ½ (two and one-half) cups granulated sugar, divided
4 extra-large (or 5 large) eggs at room temperature
1/3 (one-third) cup grated lemon zest (6 to 8 large lemons)
3 cups all-purpose flour
One-half teaspoon baking powder
One-half teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher (or sea) salt
Three-quarter cup freshly squeezed lemon juice, divided*
Three-quarter cup buttermilk at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For the glaze:

2 cups confectioners’ sugar

three and one-half tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 8 ½ (eight and one-half) by 4 ¼ (four and one-quarter) by 2 ½ (two and one-half) inch loaf pans.

Cream butter and 2 cups of the granulated sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment for about 5 minutes, or until light and fluffy. With the mixer on medium speed, add eggs, one at a time, and the lemon zest.

Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a bowl. In another bowl, combine one-quarter cup lemon juice, the buttermilk and vanilla. Add flour and buttermilk mixtures alternately to the batter, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Divide batter evenly between the pans, smooth the tops and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until a cake tester comes out clean. (I find that on convection bake, this takes just over 35 minutes, so check with a cake tester after this period of time.)

Combine one-half cup granulated sugar with one-half cup lemon juice in a small saucepan and cook over low heat until sugar dissolves.

When cakes are done, let them cool for 10 minutes in the pan, then invert them onto a rack set over a tray. Spoon lemon syrup over inverted cakes. Allow cakes to cook completely.

For the glaze, combine confectioners’ sugar and lemon juice in a bowl, mixing with a wire whisk until smooth. (It should be thick but if it’s too thick, add a few drops of water.) Turn cakes right side up and pour glaze over tops of cakes. Allow glaze to drizzle down sides.

This is where I use the release kind of Reynolds Aluminum foil to wrap the cakes. But wax paper works well, too. The important part is to wrap them so the wrapping doesn’t strip off the glaze when you unwrap. After wrapping (if you’re not serving these right away), I put them in zippered freezer bags and freeze until ready to use.

*If you squeeze all the lemons you use for the zest (7 or 8), you get about 1 cup of juice, enough for cake, syrup and glaze..

Canisters for dry goods

One thing I did not mind leaving at my old house was the weevils.  Maybe they are not exactly weevils, but they began as evil little things and wound up as moths.  I spent lots of money on Pantry Pests, not as ugly as fly paper, but not the prettiest thing in my pantry.  Before I left the old kitchen, I dumped all the dry food, like flour, sugar (although I don’t think they like sugar), barley, couscous and the like, along with the canisters that held the stuff.

For over two weeks, I looked for canisters that would hold at least 10 pounds of flour, 5 pounds of sugar and enough rice and quinoa to hold weevil-free white goods.

I found them in T.J. Maxx.  Not sparingly, they are made by OXO Good Grips, a company that began with a potato peeler for people whose grip wasn’t as good as it used to be.  I wrote about them years ago and they sent me a Christmas card signed by all seven of OXO’s employees.  They still make incredible, reasonably priced, gadgets. Especially now that my grips are not as young as they used to be.

headshot_LeeAbout the author: Lee White (left) has been writing about restaurants and cooking since 1976 and has been extensively published in the Worcester (Mass.) Magazine, The Day, Norwich Bulletin, and Hartford Courant.  She currently writes Nibbles and a cooking column called A La Carte for LymeLine.com and the Shore Publishing newspapers, and Elan, a quarterly magazine, all of which are now owned by The Day. 

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Reefer Sanity: Seven Great Myths About Marijuana Exploded at CT College, Tomorrow

marijuana_leafLedge Light Health District, along with seven substance abuse prevention coalitions throughout Connecticut, including the Lyme-Old Lyme Community Action for Substance Free Youth Coalition, presents “Reefer Sanity: Seven Great Myths about Marijuana” with Dr. Kevin Sabet. This forum will be held tomorrow, Tuesday, June 17, at 9 a.m. at Connecticut College in New London. Registration starts at 8:30 a.m.

Sabet is the co-founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana and past Senior Advisor for Policy to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. He started the movement to educate the community on medical marijuana and he is concerned with the national trend towards legalization.

The purpose of the forum is to inform state and local policymakers about this important public health issue. Sabet will discuss marijuana’s impact on youth, the importance of preventing another “Big Tobacco,” legal reform, as well as the latest data and experiences from Colorado and Washington.

“As more states consider further legalization efforts, it is important for us to fully understand the physical and mental health implications of marijuana use, particularly as it affects our young people,” said State Representative Timothy Bowles.

“Marijuana use rates are higher among states with medical marijuana laws than states without these laws; therefore, showing the need to focus on the smart approach to medical marijuana by informing the public and policymakers about today’s science on medical marijuana and the untended consequences of medical marijuana,” Sabet said.

Currently, rates among 12-17 year olds are among the highest levels nationally in states that have medical marijuana programs. (SAMHSA NSDUH Report).

“Today’s marijuana industry is following exactly the same tactics as ‘Big Tobacco’ did decades ago, framing its product as healthy, denying the science linking its use to numerous health problems and targeting youth as lifelong customers,” Sabet said.

The following coalition have partnered with Ledge Light Health District for this event: Connecticut Associations of Prevention Practitioners, Groton Adolescent Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition, Haddam-Killingworth Healthy Communities-Healthy Kids Coalition, Ledyard Safe Teens Coalition, New London Community and Campus Coalition, Stonington Prevention Council, Lyme-Old Lyme Community Action for Substance Free Youth Coalition, and Windham Substance Abuse Task Force.

For more information or to RSVP, contact Michelle Hamilton at mhamilton@llhd.org or call 860-448-4882 ext. 305.

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Talking Transportation: “Traffic Calming”

You’ve seen the bumper stickers:  “Slow down in town”.  They’re an often futile attempt to encourage speeding motorists to be more respectful of the neighborhoods they are zooming through, especially of the pedestrians.  I wouldn’t exactly call it road rage, but why is it that when we’re behind the wheel, our goal is to get on down the road as fast as traffic will allow, the speed limit be damned?

Of course in our own neighborhoods our interests are reversed.  We curse “those idiots” who speed down our local streets ignoring the signs (“Drive Like Your Kids Lived Here”).

Increasingly, local neighborhoods are serving as short-cuts around clogged arterial streets, spreading out the traffic into our sleepy, bucolic ‘burbs.  But there is a way to enforce the speed limit without radar traps.  It’s what traffic engineers call “traffic calming”.

You might not know that the first US city to develop a master plan for neighborhood traffic calming was Hartford.  And the second city will be Stamford.  Work is also underway in New Canaan and New Haven.  More than just “speed bumps”, engineers have a slew of street re-designs in their repertoire that can force us to reduce our speed.  Among them …

Speed Tables:  Think of these as extended speed bumps with a six-foot-long ramp up, a ten-foot-long flat table and a six-foot-long ramp down.

Roundabouts:  Small traffic circles with landscaping in the center make us slow down as we go around them, eventually taking a right turn to continue our journey.

Chicanes:  These are the stubby, picket-fence-like, mini-roadblocks seen on some private streets, alternating their placement on the right and left sides of the road, forcing drivers to make a zigzag maneuver down the street.  The same effect can be achieved by placing parking spaces alternately on the right and left sides.

Bulb-Outs or Neck-Downs:  These are extensions of the sidewalk into car parking areas at corner crossings.  Again, you gotta slow down.

Sidewalks:  It’s amazing how many of our communities lack these pedestrian amenities, forcing hoofers to compete for space on the asphalt with cars.  Sidewalks get pedestrians out of the traffic and encourage us to walk and leave the car at home.

Crosswalks:  What a concept!  A place where pedestrians have the right-of-way over cars, sometimes even mid-block and without the need for stop signs or red lights.

Roadblocks and Mazes:  These were inspired by anti-crime efforts in drug dealing neighborhoods (“crime calming”), making it hard for drive-through drug buyers to find their way in and out of a neighborhood.  Local residents know how to maneuver the maze, but casual short-cutters won’t try it again.

Of course, all of these traffic calming techniques assume that the major traffic arterials, where the cars belong, can be kept flowing with their own traffic tricks.  Otherwise, we’re just spreading the gridlock into the neighborhoods.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 23 years.  He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

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Talking Transportation: America’s Interstate Highways

The 47,000 miles of highways that comprise America’s interstate highway system are nothing short of an engineering marvel, surpassed only by what China has built in the last few years.

We take them for granted, but when they were designed almost 60 years ago these super-highways presented both great opportunity and vast challenges.  The US wasn’t the first with super-highways. Those bragging rights go to the Germans, whose Reichsautobahn saw cars zooming along at 100+ mph in the 1930’s.

Most credit President Eisenhower, whose troops rode the Autobahn in WWII, for seeing the military value of an American equivalent, though engineering such a complex across the US was far more difficult.

Of course, by 1940 the US already had the Pennsylvania Turnpike and, by 1954, the NY State Thruway, but private toll roads were just the beginning.

To build a road expected to last, in 1955 the federal government, AAA and automakers first built a $27 million seven mile test road near Ottawa, Illinois.  Half was concrete, the other half asphalt.  The 836 separate sections of highway had various sub-surfaces and 16 bridges.  For two years army trucks drove night and day, seeing which road designs would hold up.

Weather and traffic dictated different designs:  in desert areas the highways need be only a foot thick, while in Maine the tough winter and freeze-thaw cycles required that I-95 would be five feet thick.

Construction of the highways required moving 42 billion cubic feet of soil.  To expedite construction of I-40 in California, there was even a plan to use nuclear bombs to vaporize part of the Bristol Mountain range.

As author Dan McNichol writes in his excellent book, “The Roads that Built America”, “VIP seating was even planned for the event.  The (nuclear) bombing was to produce a cloud 12,000 feet high and a radioactive blast 133 times that of Hiroshima.”  Needless to say, the mountains were moved using more conventional explosives.

Outside of Greenbelt, Md., another site tested the design of road signs … white lettering on a black background, white on blue (already adopted by the NY Thruway) or, what proved to be the winning model, white on green.

Just 5,200 of the original 41,000 miles of Interstates were to be built in urban areas, but those few miles accounted for almost half of the $425 billion total cost.  By 1992 the system was deemed “completed”.  Bragging rights for the longest of the interstates goes to I-90 running 3,020 miles from Boston to Seattle and our own beloved I-95, which runs 1,920 miles from the Canadian border to Miami, Fla.

As anyone who drives on I-95 in Connecticut knows, the interstates have far surpassed their expected traffic load and are in need of billions of repairs.  Little did we know 60 years ago what our automotive future might bring.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 22 years.  He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

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Nibbles: Strawberry-Rhubarb Crumble is Always a Winner

strawberries&rhubarbI spent a fair amount of time with friends and sometimes  acquaintances turn out to be friends.  As usual, we talk about food.

One of the evenings, three of us were to eat Thai food at Spice Club and walk over to see, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” in Niantic Cinema.  Because one of us hurt his back, we ordered pizza and I made a salad.

I like to make the salad dressing because I don’t like too much vinegar, but I wasn’t sure what might be available to make the dressing.  There was a lemon in the refrigerator and the only vinegar was balsamic.  I am tired of that, so I used the lemon.  I asked if there was fresh garlic.  There was, but it was in a plastic bag in the crisper of the fridge.  It was sad and tired, but I found two cloves that were good enough.  I also mentioned, not that anyone asked, that garlic doesn’t want to be in a plastic bag nor in a refrigerator crisper (and neither do lemons, by the way).

So we talked about grocery shopping.  Neither Gil nor Max love grocery shopping as much as I do.  Then again, maybe no one likes to go grocery shopping as much as I do.  I always go with a list, but sometimes I actually make the list while I am parked in the lot of the supermarket, i.e., I just want to go grocery shopping and pretending I had a  list means that I must go grocery shopping.

On one of my five-times-a-week supermarket jaunts, to get two tomatoes and a quart of Lactaid, I saw rhubarb and bought six ruby-red stalks and some anemic strawberries.  I had  frozen strawberry juice from last summer.  I also have lots of Deborah Jensen’s crumble mix  in the freezer.  So I made three strawberry-rhubarb crumbles.  Friends ate one, and I froze two, unbaked.

Here’s the recipe.

To make rhubarb: 2 pounds rhubarb, washed, trimmed at both ends and cut into 1-inch pieces. Place rhubarb into a bowl and add one-half to one cup of sugar, 2 tablespoons cornstarch and, if you like, one-half teaspoon of pure almond extract; stir together.

To prepare strawberries: Buy one pound of strawberries, remove leaves and part of the core. Wash them in a colander, halve the berries and put them in another bowl. Add a little sugar, toss them and let them sit on the counter for a few hours (or overnight in the fridge).

To make a crisp, use the following recipe.

Deb Jensen’s Perfect Crisp Topping

Yield: makes around 5 cups (put the rest in two small plastic bags, freeze them and save for another two crisps)

1 cup flour
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup oatmeal (rolled oats)
1 cup walnuts or pecans
1 cup almonds or pine nuts
1 and one-half stick (8 tablespoons) butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Add all ingredients into a bowl and mix together with nice, clean hands.  Place the rhubarb and strawberries in a buttered ovenproof glass or ceramic gratin (8″ by 8″ or a 9″ x 12″) and top with enough crisp topping to cover.  Bake until rhubarb bubbles, about 30 minutes.

headshot_LeeAbout the author: Lee White (left) is a resident of Old Lyme in a section of town where she and her house are the oldest members.  She has been writing about restaurants and cooking since 1976 and has been extensively published in the Worcester (Mass.) Magazine, The Day, Norwich Bulletin, and Hartford Courant.  She currently writes Nibbles and a cooking column called A La Carte for the Shore Publishing newspapers, and Elan, a quarterly magazine, all of which are now owned by The Day. 

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Simple, Real Food: Eating Light, But Still Tasty

I have always been a fan of lighter food even at the height of my catering career in NYC when I would cook for hundreds, at the end of the day I love to eat clean, simple meals.  Simple doesn’t mean boring or dull mind you, but can be the best if you chose quality ingredients.

People often ask me where I shop since we are not exactly in the middle of it all here and I must admit I drive all over to find ingredients that I enjoy.  It is worth the effort and, if planned properly, you can make a twice a month trip either north or west and you have many options for food shopping.

I personally prefer to take 95 South and hit Orange and Milford due to the abundance of markets along the Post Road. From Trader Joes and Whole Foods to Lin Asian Market, the Post road from exits 39 to 41 has it all.  If you live closer to Haddam, taking a trip to Glastonbury or West Hartford will be perfect for everything from a fabulous Whole Foods to wonderful Asian markets.

I love ethnic markets and Groton has a couple of good ones:– New Asia Market and Raj Cash and Carry both are ideal for ingredients from the East.

Here are a couple of recipes utilizing more exotic ingredients- perfect for entertaining:

Crispy_Fried_Shrimp_croppedFried Shrimp with Vietnamese Dipping Sauce

Makes 25

Ingredients

1 1/2 pounds large shrimp, peeled, de-veined, butter-flied

Flour with salt and pepper

3 large eggs, lightly beaten

2 cups Panko (Japanese bread crumbs) or unsweetened coconut

Vegetable oil

Sauce:

3/4 cup lime juice

3 Tb. fish sauce or soy sauce

2 garlic cloves, minced

3 Tb. sugar

1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes or 1 small Thai chili, minced

Procedure

  1. Dredge the shrimp in seasoned flour. Then dip in the egg and then the bread crumbs.
  2. Place the shrimp on a baking sheet.
  3. Heat up a saucepan and add enough oil to come up halfway. When the oil is hot fry the shrimp a few at a time until golden. Drain on paper towels.
  4. Combine the sauce ingredients in a small saucepan and simmer a few minutes.
  5. Serve the shrimp with the sauce.

 

Rice Noodles with Cilantro, Peanuts and Mint

Serves 6

Ingredients

¼ cup rice vinegar

1 Tb. sugar

1 Vidalia onion, cut into half moons

8 oz. rice noodles

Sauce:

¼ cup lime juice

2 teaspoons vegetable oil

½ teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 cloves garlic, minced

4 scallions, sliced thinly

1/3 cup cilantro, chopped

1/3 cup mint, chopped

3 Tb. fish sauce*

1 Tb. soy or tamari sauce

Stir Fry:

1 Tb. vegetable oil

2 Tablespoons, chopped dry roasted peanuts

1 large cucumber, peeled, halved, seeded, thinly sliced

Procedure

  1. Combine the vinegar and sugar in a medium bowl and add the onion, cover and marinate for 30 minutes drain, reserving 2 tablespoons of the liquid.
  2. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil and cook the noodles for 2 minutes. Drain. Rinse well and transfer to a bowl and cut into three sections with scissors. Add the reserved vinegar and toss well.
  1. Combine the lime juice, oil, red pepper flakes, garlic, scallions, cilantro, fish sauce, mint and soy sauce in a medium bowl and whisk.
  2. Heat a large wok over high heat and heat the canola oil add the noodles and stir fry 4 minutes. Add the sauce and coat well. Serve on a platter with the onions, peanuts and cucumber on top

* for a vegan dish use all tamari in place of the fish sauce.

Amanda Cushman

Amanda Cushman

Editor’s Note: Amanda Cushman of Simple Real Food Inc., is a culinary educator who has cooked professionally for over 30 years.  She has taught corporate team building classes for over 15 years for a variety of Fortune 500 companies including Yahoo, Nike and Google.  She began her food career in the eighties and worked with Martha Stewart and Glorious Foods before becoming a recipe developer for Food and Wine magazine as well as Ladies Home Journal.  Having lived all over the United States including Boston, NYC, Miami and Los Angeles, she has recently returned to her home state of Connecticut where she continues to teach in private homes as well as write for local publications. 

Amanda teaches weekly classes at White Gate Farm and Homeworks and is also available for private classes.  Her cookbook; Simple Real Food can be ordered at Amazon as well as through her website www.amandacooks.com 

For more information, click here to visit her website.

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Talking Transportation: Things Are Getting Better on Metro-North

I know it may be hard to believe, but I think things are getting better on Metro-North.

Last week I finally met Joseph Giulietti, the new President of Metro-North.  I found him to be very smart, quite candid and equipped with a reasonable plan to bring this railroad back to its once-deserved world-class status.

On May 11th a new timetable will become effective, aimed at achieving two goals:  safety and reliability.  The timetable will mean running trains on-time but still allowing for track and catenary work to keep the railroad in a state of good repair.

At a Commuter Forum in Westport, Giulietti was the first to admit that the railroad was in bad shape, that trains are running slower and later, often with standees.  But unlike GM’s Chairman explaining delays in safety recalls and blaming it on “the old GM”, Giulietti is taking ownership of the problems. That’s refreshing.

Yes, trains are not on time (just 76 percent in February), but that’s because after the last May’s Bridgeport derailment the FRA issued speed restrictions on bridges and curves.  The current timetable is, as one commuter put it in our recent survey, “more of a suggestion” than anything else.

So for the past months the railroad has been analyzing the entire timetable, looking at the reasons for every late train and being open to revising everything.  The new timetable will rationalize the current running times, adding 2-4 minutes for trains between New Haven and Stamford, but cutting two to four minutes for runs from Stamford to GCT.

That means that your 7:35 a.m. train to work, usually arriving this winter at 7:40 or 7:45, may be rescheduled to arrive at 7:40 and, probably, will.  This means you can plan your life with reliability and not be wasting time on the platform peering down the track.

The problem of standees on trains will hopefully lessen when people return to a routine commuting cycle and extra railcars will be provided on trains where ridership shows the demand for more seats.

The good news is that with increased reliability, we may also see greater frequency of service … four trains an hour in the a.m. peak instead of three trains every half-hour off-peak.  Yes, the run may take a bit longer, but you’ll have more options, always knowing the scheduled departure and arrival times will be achieved.

But is the railroad safe?  Yes, insist both Giulietti and CDOT Commissioner Jim Redeker.  But so too was airline safety / security after 9-11.  And our bridges became safer after the collapse of the Mianus River Bridge 30 years ago.  Even in the “land of steady habits,” we hopefully learn from our mistakes.

We’re now about half-way through Mr. Giulietti’s 100 day plan to get Metro-North back on track.  I, for one, am hopeful he will achieve his goals.  But on day 100, June 11th, I’ll be checking the scorecard and seeing what he’s achieved versus what was promised.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron


Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 22 years.  He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

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Letter From Paris:  Van Gogh at the Orsay Museum

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

During the last four years of his life, Vincent Van Gogh produced a phenomenal number of works.  But it was also the time when he suffered episodes of madness, which were to lead him to suicide in 1890 at the age of 37.

The Orsay museum chose this period of intense creation and of psychological despair to present the current exhibit entitled,  “Van Gogh/Artaud. The man driven to suicide by society.”   This new approach to the genius of Van Gogh is through the eyes of Antonin Artaud, a poet, actor and artist, who suffered serious mental illness, was interned nine years and underwent shock treatment.  In 1947, he had a chance to see a major retrospective of Van Gogh’s works at the Orangerie museum.  He wrote, “Van Gogh was not crazy, he was saying a truth that society could not accept.”  He went on by denouncing the prejudices of  moral and science unable to fit genius and madness within the accepted norms.  Throughout the exhibit,the paintings and drawings of Van Gogh are commented in poetic terms by this  troubled soul mate.

Visitors study the Van Gogh paintings in the new exhibition of the artist's work at the Musee d'Orsay.

Visitors study the Van Gogh paintings in the new exhibition of the artist’s work at the Musee d’Orsay.

The exhibit opens in a very dark room, with incoherent sentences scattered on the black walls with a back drop of moaning sounds.  Forty six of Van Gogh’s strongest works have been selected along with some graphic works.  The visitor travels through four periods of the Dutch painter’s life – in Paris, Arles, Saint-Remy-de-Provence and Auvers-sur-Oise.

Several among the more than 40 self portraitsVan Gogh painted throughout his life are — for the public — like a brutal confrontation with the artist.  They certainly are not an exercise in complacency, but a harsh and almost merciless exercise.  American art historian Meyer Schapiro remarks that, for Van Gogh, creating a self portrait was a form of therapy and a way to reconstruct his inner self.  The artist used it to protect himself from crises of instability.

In contrast, portraits of ” La Berceuse”  and “Père Tanguy” express the peaceful and introspective mood of the models. In both paintings, the background — floral in one,  Japanese etchings in the other — show his attraction to pure decorative and aesthetic considerations reminiscent of Matisse’s.   The portrait of Dr. Gachet, at first his psychiatrist and then his friend, seems to radiate kindness, but also melancholy.  Van Gogh writes, “This man is in as bad a shape as myself.  He wears the sorry expression of our times.”

After the tragedy of the night of Dec. 23, 1888, when he had a fight with Gauguin, who was visiting him in Arles, Van Gogh sliced his left ear.  At his own request, he was admitted at the Saint-Paul hospital, near Saint-Remy-de-Provence.  However, he was  authorized to go out and, on those occasions, painted some of his most powerful  landscapes.

His trees are soaring into the sky and dwarf the silhouettes of people.  In “Cyprès avec deux femmes“, June 1889, the tormented volutes of the trees are an ominous shape hovering over two young women walking.  In “Arbres dans le jardin de l’hopital Saint -Paul” , October 1889, the twisted trunks tower over a barely visible woman carrying a red parasol.  His “Foret de pins au declin du jour ,” (pine forest at dusk) December 1889, is a frightening scene, where the trees are beaten by the wind.  They are outlined on an acid yellow sky and a smoldering orange sun.

During his last months in Auvers-sur-Oise, north of Paris, he painted  farm houses with red tiles or thatch roof, giving them a quaint and welcoming touch.  Only the sky, scratched with jagged lines,  reveals the artist’s tension.

The most important work of the exhibit – “Champ de Ble avec Corbeaux” (wheat field with crows) – is projected on a screen, drawing the onlooker into the heavy yellow mass of wheat swaying under a stormy sky.   The tracks on the path combined with the birds everywhere create a harried movement with little time to spare.

HeadshotAbout the author:  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Talking Transportation: A Report Card for Metro-North

If Metro-North were a student and commuters its teacher, the railroad’s winter report card would be a D+ and the comment would be “needs to improve”.

As new Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti finishes his second month on the job, he’s making the rounds to meet and listen to commuters.  But his 100-Day Plan for bringing the railroad back won’t conclude until mid-June, so I thought that now would be a great time to survey riders and get a baseline of their sentiments against which we can measure any gains in the months ahead.

Our unscientific online survey ran for seven days and got 642 responses.  Clearly, those who wanted to opine were probably those with gripes, so take the results with a grain of salt.

Asked to give Metro-North a letter grade based on the past months’ performance, the railroad got an average D+.

Asked if service was getting better, 22 percent said yes, 31 percent said it was getting worse and 47 percent said it was “about the same”.

When asked what their biggest complaints were (respondents could list multiple issues),  88 percent said it was late or delayed trains, 60 percent said poor communications when things went wrong, and 59 percent said it was lack of sufficient seating on trains.  Another 30% percent complained about the train cars’ heating / cooling system (or lack thereof), while others (18 percent) said there was insufficient station parking and 15 percent said the stations had poor upkeep.

The survey also asked how commuters reported their gripes.  Ten percent said they never had complaints, 46 percent  said they didn’t complain “because it seemed useless” but 61 percent said they did complain to conductors or to Metro-North.  Of those who did complained almost half of respondents (45 percent) said their problem was never fixed.

We also asked who commuters thought was to blame for the railroad’s problems.  An overwhelming 90 percent blamed Metro-North management, 48% percent said they were due to the Department of Transportation, 35 percent said it was their state legislature’s fault, 28 percent said it was because of Metro-North employees, 12 percent blamed the Federal government, and 9 percent blamed their fellow commuters.

Our last question was most telling:  “Do you feel safe riding Metro-North?” 56 percent said yes, 15 percent said no and 29% percent said they weren’t sure.

We designed the survey to be brief, taking maybe two minutes to answer.  But we also gave space for commuters to comment, and 267 of them did, some at great length.  Here’s a sampling of their opinions:

Sorry to be so harsh … It is 2014, pseudo-modern, wealthy society and the most laughable public transportation system in any advanced country and metropolitan area.

This service is really shameful for the amount that we pay.  I have not been on a train in the last 6 months that has arrived on time.

When I moved here 10 years ago you could set your watch by MetroNorth.  Now the timetable is just a suggestion.

The Danbury Line is the orphaned stepchild of the system.

The lack of self control of “irate” commuters does not help the situation.  Makes us look bad.

The full results of the survey and all of the comments are available online via links from our website, www.CommuterActionGroup.org

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 22 years.  He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

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Letter From Paris: Two Local Elections — Two Remarkably Different Outcomes

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

Local elections have just taken place in Turkey and in France.  The outcomes of the elections speak a great deal about these two countries .

Primeminister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, already in power for 12 years, is showing no intention of stepping down.  His aura at the polls was barely affected by the scandals and accusations of wrong-doing.  Particularly the violent repression of the popular manifestations on Istanbul Taksim Square, the  allegations of frauds directed not only at him, but at his family, the murky circumstances of score settlings.

His recent strategy includes the taking over 85 percent of the main TV channel and the curbing of social networks like Twitter or Facebook.  Nevertheless  Erdogan’s party, the AKP  (Party of Justice and Development),  passed  the test of the polls with flying colors, not acknowledging the distress of the public opinion.  These events did not speak much for the democratic system of that country and should constitute a red flag for the 28 EU members next time Turkey knocks at their door.

In contrast, the French municipales (local elections) were a reflection of the French opinion’s strong disapproval of the policy  of the Francois Hollande government and brought on major changes.

The municipales,  are always an important and colorful event in France,  when mayors and  council members of 36,500 communes (towns) are elected for six years.  But this time they turned into a tsunami, which modified the political landscape of the country.  The vague bleue (blue wave ) showing the gains of the Right and even the vague bleue marine (navy blue wave ) named after Marine Le Pen, head of the far right Front National.  Just a few figures:  in 2008 in the towns of more than 10,000 inhabitants, the Left had 509 mayors and the Right 433.  In 2004, the Left was reduced to 349 and the Right grew to 572.  Emblematic  was the town of Limoges, which had voted socialist since 1912, and turned conservative.

Paris resisted this tidal wave and remained socialist.  Incumbent Mayor Bertrand  Delanoe had groomed his assistant Anne Hidalgo to be his successor.  Together, they engaged in an intensive and efficient campaign.  The Mayor of Paris is elected according to a special system of voting in three rounds.  The first two rounds each Parisian vote for the mayor and council in each arrondissement.  Then mayors and councils vote for the mayor of Paris.  The fight to the finish between Anne Hidalgo and her conservative opponent Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet , was fierce, to say the least.  The former won by 53.34 over 44.06 percent.

The map of Paris to-day is made up of two halves: a blue west, and a red east.   With 11 versus nine arrondissements,   Hidalgo leads but not as much as  Jacques Chirac did in 1983 when he won all of them.  These results will be important in the next senatorial elections since the members of the Senat (high chamber)  are elected by the mayors.

Barely 24 hours after the closing of the polls, president François Hollande appeared on TV.  He declared that he had heard and understood the people’s message of disapproval of the policy he conducted since 2012.  He reassured his audience that appropriate measures would be taken.

A day later he announced the remaniement (reshuffle) of the government.  The soft spoken, kind-looking prime minister Jean Marc Ayrault was replaced by tough and energetic Manuel Valls, former minister of the interior.  The number of ministers was trimmed down from 38 to 16 and the parity men/women respected.  The new ministers are more experienced and some of the “heavyweights” remained, like Laurent Fabius, at the Foreign Affairs desk.

The decision concerning Bercy (ministry of Finances and Economy)  was crucial given the urgency to reduce the budget deficit and increase the competitivité (competitiveness)  of the French industry.  The new prime minister Manuel Valls decided to split the responsibilities between two ministers: Michel Papin handling Budget and Finances , Arnaud Montebourg becoming minister of Economy.  This will be a “hot” area since France has to work in a partnership with Brussels.

Ségolène Royal

Ségolène Royal

The second spectacular move was the nomination of Ségolène Royal as the minister of Ecology, Sustainable Industry and Energy.  She will rank as number three in the new cabinet.  She is an old timer, particularly in the environmental field.  Her appearance in the courtyard of Hotel de Matignon made quite a splash.  Royal is a highly educated woman, used to be Hollande’s companion for 29 years, the mother of their four children and the last contestant for the presidency against Sarkozy in  2002.  Her appointment will be helpful to Valls’ government because she brings her strong connections to the lower working class with her.

The outspoken Housing minister Cecile Duflot left the Matignon in a huff and a puff , showing her overwhelming dislike for Valls.  Her colleagues in the Green party at the Assemblée Nationale, were upset by her move as they were willing to work within the cabinet.

The overhaul of the new government was greeted by salvos of criticisms and gibes from the UMP and naturally from the extreme parties – this is normal in France.   However, the composition of the new government was interpreted, by more unbiased analysts,  as the determination to follow the road map set out by François Hollande at the Jan. 14  press conference and to keep the course on the Pacte de Responsabilité, but to  implement it with more determination, more speed and more pedagogy.

Failure is not an option and Brussels  will not ease off the pressure.

HeadshotAbout the author:  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Eight Little Known Facts About Flying

We may never know what happened to that Malaysia Airlines 777, but there’s plenty more we should know about flying, even domestically.  Here are some little-known truths of aviation as shared by pilots and flight attendants:

Lavatory Doors Don’t Really Lock:

They can be opened from the outside by just sliding the “occupied” sign to one side.  This isn’t so attendants can catch “mile high club” wannabies, but so they can be sure the lavs are empty on take-off and landing.  And those ashtrays in the lavs?  Even though smoking has been banned for decades, the FAA still requires them.

Oxygen Masks Can Save Your Life:    

But only if you get them on fast!  In a rapid decompression at 35,000 feet, the oxygen is sucked from your lungs and you have 15 – 30 seconds to get that mask on or die.  And the on-board oxygen is only good for 15 minutes, so expect an express ride down to safer altitudes.

Airlines Are Suffering from a Pilot Shortage:

New regulations for increased rest time and more experience aviators are making it tough for airlines to keep their cockpits filled.  Boeing alone estimates that aviation growth worldwide will create demand for a half-million new pilots.  And just like Metro-North, airlines are now losing their most experienced crews to retirement.

Your Pilot May Be Asleep:

Actually, that’s a good thing during most of the flight, which can be pretty boring as the auto-pilot runs the plane.  And a good nap should make your pilot refreshed for landing.  But the FAA is also proposing to test ‘heavy’ pilots for potential sleep disorders so they don’t nod off at a crucial moment.

Keep Your Seatbelt On:

Otherwise, unexpected turbulence will see you bounce off the luggage racks like a ping-pong ball.  In an incident like that the hysterical screaming is bad enough, so stay belted.

Flight Attendants Aren’t In It for the Glamour:

They don’t get paid when they arrive at the airport or when they greet you boarding the plane.  For most, their pay starts ticking only at take-off.  They travel for a living and have to endure endless abuse for things that are not their fault.  For all that, median salary for flight attendants is about $37,000.  Food stamps they have to apply for separately.

Planes Are Germ Factories:

Most older jets recycle cabin air to conserve fuel, so if one passenger sneezes, everyone’s susceptible to a cold.  The air is also dry and the blankets and pillows (if you get them) haven’t been cleaned since the previous use.  The same is true of the headphones they pass out.  And your seatback tray table?  Just imagine whose baby diaper was seated there where you lay out your in-flight snack.  Moral to the story:  BYO sanitizer!

Don’t Drink the Water:

Unless it comes from a bottle, water on planes comes from onboard tanks that are rarely cleaned.  At least when they use it to make coffee it’s heated.  Again, BYO.

Overall, based on passenger miles, flying is the safest form of transportation in the world.  But it’s not without its risks, some of which you can help minimize using common sense.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron


Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 22 years.  He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

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