Rubber Ducky, You're the One...

I was all set to deliver a post this week on the topic of routine. Really, I was, but then I heard through the family grapevine that my cousin, Trista, and her kids might be coming to town for an impromptu day trip. I've been itching for a break lately. We've been in the preliminary stages of planning a father-daughter vacation, and my already acute sense of wanderlust has taken on epic proportions. For today, however, I was more than willing to settle for a "staycation." As soon as I heard the Manars were headed to town, I asked my boss if I could use some personal time, and I was on board for a fun day in the city. You'll just have to wait on that other post...

Will, with some pancake bites. This photo doesn't quite do justice to how huge the fork was in proportion to his body.

We started off our day with lunch at Yolk, Trista's dining request, where we filled our bellies with delicious breakfast treats, with the exception of Abbie, who requested the ubiquitous meal craved by kids nationwide -- chicken fingers and fries. To my delight, they tasted just like the ones at Baker's Square, my own childhood favorite. Truly, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

To be completely honest, I had somewhat of an ulterior motive in taking the day off: I was hoping to persuade everyone to attend the Ducky Derby, a fundraiser for the Special Olympics. I had first become aware of the event the year before, when I spotted the huge rubber ducky near the Michigan Avenue Bridge last year, and discovered the derby upon further investigation. Unfortunately, I had already missed the race, despite the fact that I was unemployed at the time, and would have had no scheduling dilemma resulting from full-time employment. I was sorely disappointed that I was going to miss it this year as well, but the presence of my seldom-seen young relatives was just the excuse I needed. After all, what would be a better way to pass an afternoon with children, than to check out an epic race of rubber ducks?

Abbie, Will, and their souvenir ducks, waiting for the Ducky Derby to begin.

The race begins at the Columbus Drive Bridge over the Chicago River. The city closes the street, and raises one half of the bridge, allowing a dump truck stationed on the remaining side to unload its cargo over the side of the bridge and into the water. There, the ducks float downstream, aided by the spray of a hose from a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District boat, through a course demarcated by a system of bumpers. The first duck to reach the end of the course is the winner. 

The best part of the whole thing was watching them dump all the ducks off the back of a truck into the Chicago River. On the water taxi, you can see the Derby's mascot.

Each duck is numbered, and for a donation to the Special Olympics, you receive your own number (although we found the donation process to be rather dubious: we paid for a "quack pack" of six entries for the price of five, but only received one number; at least it was all for a good cause!), and if you have the first-place duck, you win one of a number of donated prizes, including a trip to the Dominican Republic, a spa visit, or sports tickets. As of yet, we haven't been able to locate the results, but I'm not holding out much hope. 

They keep the ducks confined to a course, so that they can all be recovered instead of polluting the river.

As it turns out, the ducks move at a very leisurely pace. Apparently, without the assistance from the water spray, the race can take up to four hours! Even with the assistance, things were progressing far more slowly than the fifteen minutes quoted to us by the race's announcers. Coincidentally, the announcers also misrepresented the length of the journey, billing the event as a race from the Columbus Drive Bridge to the Michigan Avenue Bridge. In reality, the race went only as far as a pontoon boat floating between the two bridges. Although we picked a poor viewing spot in light of the actual destination, it proved to be of little importance, as the full distance probably would have taken the entire day.


As it was, the kids quickly lost interest in the proceedings. They simply had to wait too long for things to get going, and once the race started, the action was too far away, and too slow-moving to be of much interest to them. We ended up throwing in the towel before the race was even half over. Nevertheless, I'm still glad to have gone at least once. How often do you get to see thousands of rubber ducks pouring into the river? Even if it wasn't as exciting as I had expected, it was still pretty neat. Not to mention, I got to walk along Chicago's Riverwalk for the first time. It's really quite pleasant down there!

The kids were completely tuckered out by the end of the day.

Overall, I thought it was a pretty great day. Trista and Mom may have been a little traumatized by my admittedly poor decision that it would be acceptable to take the double stroller on the bus (it was, after all, the middle of the day on a weekday, I just failed to account for the increased ridership levels of high tourist season), but there were some incredible moments as well, ones that I couldn't catch on film --the wonderment on Abbie's face as she craned her neck to watch all the skyscrapers go by on the bus; Will's tiny hand reaching out to hold Mom's as he fell asleep in the stroller on the walk back -- these are the tableaus that warmed the cockles of my heart as I witnessed them unfold, and the memories that will stick with me. No routine day at the office could even hope to hold a candle to that kind of day.


Parking FAIL...

After a quiet weekend spent catching up on unglamorous, but necessary household chores, I had a quiet and unassuming Monday at work, punctuated by a broken and incessantly blinking emergency exit sign over my desk. On my way home from work, I heard a strange crackling sound, similar to a recently extinguished engine. Looking around, I couldn't spot any cars that looked like they had been recently parked, but I did spot this little gem:

The crackling sound was emitting from the listing street lamp. Best of all, the driver hadn't even backed up after hitting the light, s/he just left it there, with no ambiguity as to who had caused the damage. That's life in the city for you -- equal parts audacity and haste while remaining unapologetic about the whole thing.


Hail To The Chief...

Yesterday, I had one of those moments in life which cause you to take a step back and wonder, "Am I too jaded?"

Dad, for reasons comprehensible only to himself, had purchased two tickets to a Democratic National Committee fundraiser, featuring an appearance by President Obama, to which he had no intention of going, despite the fact that it was to be held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, which is next to his office building. Instead, he gave the tickets to me, and left me with the task of finding a guest. I decided to invite my coworker, Irene, a self-described "Obama junkie."

The event was supposed to start at 5:00, but Dad had warned me that we needed to get there early if we wanted to secure a decent vantage point, as it was sure to be crowded. We left the museum at 4:30, and when we arrived at 4:45, the security line had stacked up throughout the underground Pedway system for an immense distance. We ended up standing in line for nearly an hour, before making it up to the Secret Service checkpoint, where they confiscated our umbrellas, tossing them in a pile behind the check-in table for "safe"-keeping. (Thankfully, my umbrella is brown with turquoise and orange raindrops printed on it, so it was easier to find in the pile in the end of the night. I was incredulous that I got it back at all.)

The event did feature free cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, but Irene and I were so preoccupied with scoring a good spot that we did not partake of much. I thought I had found a decent spot, off to one side, and behind some petite women, landing me in the second row of people. Then the wait began in earnest. No amount of uplifting pop standards of the 80's and 90's could have distracted me from standing on my feet in one spot, afraid to move for fear of relinquishing my treasured viewing spot, for nearly two hours as we waited for the President to appear. Annoyingly, the woman standing next to me had brought her 10 year old daughter to the event, whose incessant whining gave voice to what I was already silently thinking to myself, "My feet hurt! I'm tired! I want to sit down! I want to go home! Why is he so late? I'm bored!!!"

Just when I thought I couldn't stand any more, they trotted out a slate of speakers to encourage us to continue our grass-roots organizing for the President, and to continue to support him. As one of the five speakers put it, "We can't leave him to do it alone!" Finally, as Lovie Smith, coach of the Chicago Bears orated to the adoring crowd, a wave of VIPs filed into the open area in front of us, obscuring my hard-won line of sight. Even though I was standing three feet away from Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, I couldn't help but be crushed.

I had been on my feet for almost three hours. My toes were tingling, my bad knee was bordering on collapse, and I could scarcely see. Yet when the first strains of, "Hail to the Chief" came over the speakers, the crowd erupted in cheers and applause. Hundreds of arms popped up wielding cameras, and even I found myself straining on the tiptoes of my tired legs and craning my neck to catch a glimpse. I may have been miserable, but I was not immune to the Obamania.

Check out the VIPs who came and obstructed my view. I guess this is what $250 buys you in the world of political appearances.

Most importantly, I did manage to get this one decent picture, right before my camera battery died. It almost looks fake, doesn't it?

The President spoke mostly on the topic of health care reform, about which he was quite stern, but he also commented joyously on the White Sox's perfect game, pitched earlier in the day by Mark Buehrle. Although his oratorical skills are widely recognized, in person, it is difficult not to be struck by his articulate, thoughtful rhetoric. After eight years of George W. Bush, it is endlessly refreshing to observe the return of intelligent leadership in America.

Impressed as I was, my excitement paled in comparison to that of the audience. People love this man. People are proud to have him as their leader. The crowd reacted to his speech with the sort of call and response that is usually reserved for church. Cries of "Amen!" and "You tell it, Barack!" rang out from across the room. Although not quite as full of naked ebullience as the election night celebration in Grant Park last November, the energy of the crowd was a rare thing indeed.

Still, I found myself wondering, "Was it worth it?" After a long day at the office, was the chance to see the president speak for ten minutes, at a distance of a hundred feet, through a forest of heads and cameras, worth it? Surely I was being ungrateful?

Then, later that evening, when I was comfortably ensconced in my favorite chair at home, my mom told me a little story that Grandma had told her for the very first time, earlier that day. When she was a little girl, roughly five years old, her father had dragged her to Alton to see FDR at a whistle-stop tour. She sat atop her father's shoulders, and saw him in the distance, and she couldn't have cared less at the time. All these years later though, it's something she still remembers, and it's a story she could pass down to her daughter, and granddaughter. It's too early to say, but it's entirely possible that Obama will become the FDR of the 21st century. Maybe someday, I'll be able to tell my grandchildren that I saw him with my own eyes. On that day, it will have been worth it.


Much Ado About Nothing...

Anyone who has been following the news in Illinois must be familiar with the Illinois Admissions Review Commission, which was convened to investigate allegations of public officials and other influential people using clout to secure admission for otherwise unqualified prospective students to the University of Illinois. Today, the intrepid reporters over at the Chicago Tribune broke another story, this time uncovering the use of clout to obtain admission to the elite magnet schools of the Chicago Public School System. Is it unfair that some students get an advantage based on who their parents are? Yes. But it's also nothing new, and I can't help but wonder if all of this newly fomenting rage over the use of privilege is grounded not in a fundamental discontent with the disparities between the classes, but in the recent economic crisis.

By and large, America is an aspirational society. We have bought into the Horatio Alger myth that if you work hard, and pull yourself up by your bootstraps, great wealth and fame are well within your reach. While I could go on at length about the inherent dichotomies of the so-called "American Dream" and its hold on our collective imagination, I will merely point out that our belief that riches are just around the corner often leads us to protect the rights of the wealthy. Take, for example, the phenomenon of the "death tax." Legions of Americans who are far from feeling the burden of a 55% tax on inheritances of more than $1.5 million have worked themselves into a lather over the maximum limitations on the uppermost echelon of the tax brackets. Americans pulling in a modest salary, struggling to pay off their credit card debts, their mortgages, and afford decent health care are still concerned about their ability to protect their non-existent wealth, because they are under the belief that they will someday become rich.

So, in my estimation, this sudden outrage over the inequities of the educational system must be rooted in the precarious state of the economic system. With the American Dream under assault, Illinoisans are less willing to accept that the privileged classes are exercising their clout when it seems less likely that they will someday enjoy the same advantages
themselves. Wealth has always brought privilege; if it did not, there would be very little incentive to accumulating it. The rich have used their influence and connections to obtain special treatment since time in memoriam. The only reason this story is now attracting so much indignation in the press is because people have less hope that it will be them in the future, calling in a favor to get their children a better opportunity. When the economy recovers, people will be more than willing to accept the status quo.


Oh, Japan...

Sure, America is full of strange, quirky things that make very little sense, even to natives (I'm looking at you Carhenge and the Collinsville Ketchup Bottle). But, with a cadre of ex-pat pals living in Japan, I've had enough contact with Japanese culture to safely say that I think Japan is a little bit weirder. True or not, it's a stereotype that was reinforced today, when I pulled a box of Japanese cookies out of my lunch bag today, as I continue to work my way through the stash of exotic treats Abel brought me back in June. 

According to Abel, they are supposed to be shaped like bamboo shoots, only chocolate-covered. Like all of the (admittedly limited) range of Japanese snack foods I've encountered, there was an excessively abundant amount of packaging. At least they weren't individually wrapped. What really caught my eye, however, was the upper right hand corner of the inside of the tab.

I have no idea what that says, but really, what would be the appropriate dialogue for a tiny, levitating, guitar-playing bamboo shoot? It's just fantastically bizarre. Oh, Japan, you're such a card...


Move Yer Bloomin' Arse...

For Dad's birthday, we decided to spend the day out at the Arlington Race Track, for a little light gambling and quality time with Dad's friends Joe and Ann. Although it wasn't nearly as glamorous as the Ascot scene in My Fair Lady (and truly, what in life would not benefit from towering displays of millinery excess?), we did secure some excellent box seats from one of Dad's associates, and with the cooperation of the weather, a pleasant day was had by all.

We had great seats, under the cantilevered overhang and in front of the finish line.

Dad is big on traditions, and as such, we picked up four discrete sources for tips on the day's horses: the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the daily racetrack program, and the Green Sheet also available at the track. Dad, as always, carefully culled his betting selections from all four sources, much as he consults his files of newspaper and magazine clippings for his annual newsletter of stock market picks. There must have been something to his strategy, because he hit big in the fifth race, accurately predicting the trifecta (a so-called "exotic bet" which guesses which horses will come in first, second, and third), to the tune of $326! Clearly, five was his lucky number for the day, considering he made his best bet of the day in the fifth race, on his 55th birthday. It was the highlight of the afternoon.

Dad and Joe, intently focused on picking their bets.

Although neither of us had any particular strategy -- Mom chose her horses based on which names she liked, and I chose mine based largely on moderate odds -- we also performed respectably. Mom won a little bit of money in almost every race, but ultimately less than she spent on bets, and ended up sustaining a small loss for the day. I managed to hit an exacta (another "exotic bet" that predicts which horses will come in first and second) to win $29, but my other bets for the day were less successful, and I left the track with an extra $8 in my pocket overall. Of course, in a display of his customary generosity, Dad was kind enough to share part of his haul with me, so it turned into quite the profitable day for me -- moreso than an average day at the office!

Dad, Mom, and I in our box at the track.

It was also nice to spend some time with Joe and Ann, who I hadn't seen in quite some time. I think most of you know Joe as the original "Joe the Plumber" -- Dad likes to give many of his friends nicknames incorporating their profession, and I can't think of a time in our more than a decade of acquaintance that we haven't known him by that epithet. He is so gregarious and mischievious that you can't help but enjoy yourself in his presence, and Ann provides just the right amount of balance in her calm and sweet demeanor. Dad is lucky to have them as friends.

All in all, Dad proclaimed it to be a "great day," which, on his birthday, is really the best we could have asked for. Here's hoping that his great day leads to a great 55th year!

Happy Birthday to Dad...

We have a full schedule of events in store for Dad's birthday today, which I will post about later, but for the moment, I just wanted to wish him a happy birthday. So, Happy Birthday Dad!


When Words Get In The Way...

Those of you who are regular readers here may have noticed that I am seldom at a loss for words. In print, I am and always have been exceedingly verbose. In college, I found myself shrinking margins ever-so-slightly and resorting to 11.5 point fonts to bring my essays in under the page limit. Recently, I received a lovely compliment for my ability to think of just the right word to capture what I wish to express. Although I think it's far from the truth, it was still nice to hear.

In my relationships, however, I find that I often take on the role of listener. I am the person that you turn to when you need a shoulder to cry on, or a sounding board for your grievances. I am also a bottomless source of (often unsolicited) sage advice. At least I'm aware of it. Among strangers I am painfully shy, with my latent social anxieties bubbling up in force. Only in my very closest friendships do I find myself comfortable speaking openly about what is on my mind. Even so, I opted to start this blog to express myself in the medium in which I am most articulate.

Sometimes, however, there are no words. Today was a day for bad news. Lisa called me at work this morning, to tell me that she had lost her job. She had just started with the organization a few months ago, after they lured her from her existing job with promises of increased pay and more fulfilling challenges. Now she finds herself unemployed in one of the toughest job markets in decades. I have faith that she will land quickly on her feet -- she is, after all, one of the best networkers I know, and she is astoundingly well-connected within her field for someone of our age -- but there are few feelings worse than being fired. I would know.

Another friend of mine had dropped off the radar a bit; it had been a while since I had heard from him. When I spotted him yesterday on Google Chat, he informed me that his father had passed away suddenly. As it turns out, I also know a little bit about losing a loved one without the chance to say goodbye. It is, I think, the worst feeling that exists.

In both cases, I found myself at a loss for words. That is one of the problems with modern society -- in spite of the technological advances that keep us in constant communication with one another, that same technology makes it more difficult to express genuine sentiment. How do you convey your understanding and sympathy to a friend, over the phone, while your coworkers can overhear your every word? How do you express the profundity of loss in the jargon of internet chat? I once received a text message reading, "OMG, Im so sorry 4 ur loss." I think, in such cases, it is best to at least type out every word. Still, without a look of understanding, or a hug, such words seem to ring hollow.

Sometimes, the most compassionate thing you can do is realize the need for silence.
Sometimes all you can do is be there, or maybe even offer a bit of escapism. For one night, some popsicles and trashy reality television can take your mind off your mortgage, and all the well-meaning bystanders who have made you talk about your problems all day long. A link to a funny website can be a better salve than a litany of platitudes about loss, even if they are coming from a place of empathy. When it feels like your world has been turned upside down, it can be a relief to find a moment or two of normalcy. Sometimes, there are just no words. There don't have to be.


One last post on the topic...

Okay, I get the sense that you are tired of reading about food, but this is what happens when I slow down my social life -- I finally have time to cook! Besides, I think food is fascinating. Just indulge me one last time, and I promise, I'll try to think of something else to talk about for a while.

According to yesterday's Red Eye, I'm somewhere between a "foodie" and a "food enthusiast." I own an immersion blender and although I can't name all five of the classical French "mother sauces," I can name bechamel, veloute, and the poorly defined category of emulsified sauces, such as bernaise, mayonnaise, or hollandaise -- characteristics of the foodie. However, I don't miss an episode of Top Chef, I can't wait for the Julie and Julia movie, I own a rabbit corkscrew, but I'm not above eating at P.F. Chang's -- the hallmarks of a food enthusiast.

Often, in my conversations with people about food, a central theme emerges time and time again -- how far are you willing to go for food? Once upon a time, an old friend of mine said to me, "It's just food, it can only be so good," while arguing against spending too much on what he deemed to be overpriced restaurants. To some extent, I agree. I've never eaten at Alinea, the restaurant typically heralded as the best in Chicago, and often included in lists of the best restaurants of the nation, and the world at large, but it is hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that the bare minimum you can spend there is $145 per person, before tax and tip. The food may be ground-breaking, but how much better can it be than your favorite dish at a local restaurant for a fraction of the price? In the end, you are really paying for the experience of enjoying food as a form of performance art, and only you can place a subjective value on what that experience is worth.

Although far less expensive, another vanguard of the Chicago dining scene recieves similar attention in my circles -- Hot Doug's. This "encased meat emporium" is the mecca of sausage afficianados nationwide, and yet, as much as I love sausage, in almost any incarnation (I'm going to exclude the tofu hotdog), I have never been to Hot Doug's. Why? It's too far, and I can't find anyone to go with me. Call me crazy, but the prospect of two trains, a bus, and a long walk, followed by an average two-hour long wait begs for some company. I think this is an affirmation that I'm not a true "foodie;" I just can't see myself devoting half a day to obtaining a hot dog by myself, even if it is the greatest available exemplar of said food product.

There is one area, however, in which I am willing to go the distance for food: actual cooking. This weekend, for instance, I prepared my caramelized onion and bacon pizza with gruyere for me and Mom, which only took a mere seven hours of prep time, spread over the course of two days. Yes, I live in one of the country's great pizza capitals, but this dish is worthy of the effort of making it at home. It was inspired by one of my favorite dishes at the Park Grill, in Millennium Park, which I used to order on every visit until it was taken off their seasonally rotating menu. My only choice was to devise a home version. When I first made it, my Mom asked me, "Okay, it's good, but is it really seven hours' worth of good?" The definitive answer is yes. It is that delicious, but more importantly, if you make someone a dish that takes seven hours to make, it shows that person that they are worth seven hours of your time. Sure, I like to cook for the soothing methodical process and the near-instant gratification, but cooking for someone else is a million times better than cooking for yourself. As the old cliche goes, 'tis better to give...

I'm not going to give you the recipe, because, as you might expect, seven hours' worth of instructions would take a long time to type, and the recipe for the crust comes from Cook's Illustrated, which actually scours the web for people who try to give their recipes out for free, and serves them with cease and desist orders. So, you'll just have to play your cards right, and if you're nice to me, maybe I'll make one for you...
Caramelizing the onions alone can take between 1-2 hours. Here are photos taken at each half-hour mark in the process. I always take my caramelized onions to about the point seen in the bottom photo. Much longer, and they start to burn.

The finished product. My mouth is watering just thinking about it...

Check out the crispy, golden delicious crust. We joked that we should have taken a audio clip of us eating, so you could hear the audible crunch of the crust. Using a non-insulated pan in a non-convection oven is key; the pizza is a soggy, under-baked disaster otherwise.


Just peachy keen...

Every so often, you take a chance on a recipe, and it succeeds beyond your wildest dreams. That was how it went with the peach popsicles I made for my party last weekend. I had been fully prepared to make another one of my favorite frozen treats, Fuzzy Navel Sorbet, but I was flipping through my most recent edition of Gourmet and spotted a page of "adult" ice pops, and thought, "Huh, that would be fun and summery." So I borrowed some molds from Mom, and augmented with some from Target, and set to work. I made the peach recipe one day, and got to sample an ice cube-sized remnant of the mix while I was making the pineapple coconut ice pops the next day. I was astounded by how good they were! I wrote the recipe down in my cookbook that very same night, and it takes a pretty special recipe to be cookbook-worthy on the first attempt.

Although the pineapple coconut popsicles were more popular at the party, I was just fine with having lots of leftovers of the peach ones. If only my guests had known what they were missing! I'm hoarding mine for myself, so you need to go make your own...
Peaches and Cream Yogurt Popsicles
adapted from Gourmet, July 2009

3 ripe peaches or nectarines, about 1 lb., chopped
3/4 c. Greek-style yogurt (5 oz)
1/2 c. granulated sugar
1/3 c. water
2 1/2 T. peach schnapps
1/4 t. salt

Puree all ingredients in a blender until smooth. Pour into 8* popsicle molds. Freeze until firm, about 24 hours.

*Each mold should hold 1/3 cup of liquid.


Nom nom nom...

Originally, I was just going to make muffulettas for my party over the weekend, until I was sitting at my desk late last week, and like a lightning bolt I realized that muffulettas are a symphony of porcine delights, and more than half of my guests keep kosher. I needed a pork-free alternative and fast. Mom suggested chicken salad, and sent me a recipe she'd spotted in a recent issue of Southern Living. At that point, I didn't have time to think of anything else, so I went ahead and made it. I made a few modifications, based on what I had on hand. For instance, the original recipe called for all mayonnaise, but I had some lowfat Greek yogurt leftover from my peaches and cream popsicles, so I threw that in to lighten up the calorie content. I also substituted shallots and green onion for ordinary white onion, since I had them on hand, and I thought they'd add some nice extra color.

Lo and behold, it was the greatest surprise of my culinary efforts for the party. It wasn't just good, it was really good! I went for the muffuletta for dinner at the party, but I was craving the chicken salad until I got to have some for dinner the next day. As such, I feel it is my duty to share it with you...

Cranberry Pecan Chicken Salad
adapted from Southern Living

2/3 c. chopped pecans
3 c. chopped, cooked chicken
3/4 c. sweetened, dried cranberries
2 stalks celery, diced
3 oz. 2% Greek-style yogurt
3 oz. mayonnaise
2 T. lemon juice
1 T. Greek seasoning
1 small shallot, finely minced
3 green onions, thinly sliced

1. Preheat oven to 350. Bake pecans in a single layer in a shallow pan for 5-7 minutes until lightly toasted and fragrant. Cool completely.
2. Stir together all ingredients, serve immediately or chill until needed.


It's Cocktail Time...

To start off my week of party recipes, I thought I'd give you a cocktail, just to set the mood. Sangria, the fruity Spanish wine cocktail, seemed fresh and summery to me, so I randomly selected a palatable-looking version that incorporated peaches, my favorite summer fruit. Although I generally hate wine in all its forms, I actually liked this sangria, so I thought I'd share it with all of you.

Strawberry Peach Sangria
adapted from Bon Apétit, August 2005

1 750mL bottle white zinfandel
1 375mL bottle orange muscat dessert wine
1 1/2 c. sliced strawberries
3 peaches or nectarines, sliced
1 large orange, cut crosswise into slices
1 large lemon, cut crosswise into slices
1 c. peach schnapps

Combine all ingredients in a large pitcher, mashing citrus lightly. Let stand at room temperature for two hours prior to serving, or chill for at least four hours before serving.


Happy 233rd Birthday America...

With all of the fireworks and festivities of the 3rd of July, there was not much left to do on the actual 4th of July but kick back and enjoy the day. For the first time in over two months, I got to sleep until I woke up naturally. I cannot properly convey how much I relished the chance to sleep in, and how much I needed it. 

Later, faced with a totally packed refrigerator, I invited my parents over to help with the leftovers from the night before. Somehow, I seem to be totally incapable of preparing a reasonable amount of food for my party guests. Without fail, I am inundated by leftovers. So they took me out to lunch, to give me some reprieve from eating the same food all weekend long, and we enjoyed some popsicles before I sent them home with a respectable care-package. 

I spent the evening engaged in my favorite 4th of July tradition: watching 1776. It used to be that you could find 1776 on television on the 4th of July, often on PBS. But in recent years, it seems to have dropped off the face of the earth. We used to have a family copy on VHS to remedy the situation, but it was one of the first casualties of the broken VCR that led to our purchase of a DVD player. I can still recall the heartbreak of watching the feet of tape spooling out of the front of the VCR. It was a sad day. Eventually, they finally released a DVD version of the film (albeit a far longer "director's cut), and it provided the soundtrack to my holiday.

The highlight of the evening, however, was the fireworks display that was visible from my southern window. As it turns out, even if I cannot see the official fireworks from my condo, I can see an entire evening's worth of illegal fireworks detonations on the city's south and southwest sides. I shudder to think of how crowded the local emergency rooms and fire crews must have been, based solely on the number of sirens I heard throughout the evening, but it certainly looked pretty outside. It was an exciting end to a pleasantly quiet day. 


There's Gonna Be Fireworks...

Okay, so maybe the Schoolhouse Rock reference is a little obscure, but I figured that it was appropriate, given the occasion. Today I had a little get-together for the 4th of July. Except that, in Chicago, we have our annual fireworks display over the lake on the day before, so I decided to throw a 3rd of July party instead. The plan was to have a few friends over for dinner, and then we would stroll over to the baseball diamonds in Grant Park for a choice view of the fireworks. Aside from a few no-shows on the guest list, everything went according to plan.

For hors d'oeuvres I honored Lisa's request and made the Crescent Roll pigs in blankets for which I've honed my skills over many Wyatt family Christmases. The main course consisted of muffuletta sandwiches for the pork eaters, chicken salad sandwiches for the kosher guests, a corn and black bean salad, and since it wouldn't be summer without food on a stick, Caprese salad skewers. To further the theme, I made popsicles for dessert - both peaches and cream and pineapple coconut. I even went the Sandra Lee route, and offered up a signature cocktail -- a delightful strawberry peach sangria.

Although I had some apprehensions about serving a menu in which I had only made two items before (the pigs in blankets and the Caprese salad), the food was largely a success. The only dark spots were the corn and black bean salad, made from a labor-intensive Martha Stewart recipe that yielded a strangely bland and gummy final result, and the pineapple coconut popsicles, which weren't terrible, but weren't as intensely flavored as their peach counterparts. Look for some of the more successful recipes during the following week.

After eating, we headed over to Grant Park for the fireworks. Here is Lisa and Alex...

...and Lauren and Clarence.

I led everyone over to the park with picnic blankets in tow, around 8:30, as I was under the belief that the fireworks started at 9:30. I thought we'd have plenty of time to get a good spot and enjoy the lovely lemon cookies that Lauren had baked for the occasion, but we were totally taken by surprise when the sky lit up slightly before 9:00. It turned out to be of little importance, and everyone was impressed by my knowledge of such a good location for fireworks viewing. The baseball diamonds are a perfect spot, because they aren't nearly as crowded as the lakefront or the promontory in front of the museum campus, but you still get an unobstructed view over the treetops. The fireworks were great, as always, although I think there were fewer than there have been in more economically abundant times.

Fireworks go BOOM!

After the display, we booked it back to the condo in advance of the hordes, and had a few more beverages while everyone waited for the traffic to die down. All in all, I thought it was a successful party, and I was glad I could show my friends a bit of hospitality. I love being a hostess, and it always warms the cockles of my heart to have the opportunity!