Loyal readers, I have a confession to make. I haven't been entirely honest with you these past couple weeks. If you've been following my Facebook feed (which, I discovered, many of you are), then the cat's out of the bag, but for those of you who don't, I have a piece of exciting news: I have a new boyfriend. It all seems slightly surreal, but as the reality of it sinks in, I couldn't be happier. I've been keeping things under wraps for a while now, but we're ready to go public, so allow me to own up to a few omissions of truth in some of my recent posts. My trip to the Museum of Science and Industry? Our first date. The Hurt Locker? Date number two. I was reluctant to write about our budding relationship until I was certain things were going somewhere, but now I'm ready to share my joy with all of you.

His name is Zac, and as most of you probably already know, we met on an online dating site, which I am not even embarrassed about. Back in February (not coincidentally, around the time of Valentines Day), I had decided that enough singledom was enough already. If I wanted to make a change, I would have to be proactive. Love wasn't going to just fall in my lap; I had to go looking for it. So, inspired by one of my friends who had joined the same site, I signed up. I had a couple misadventures, a couple dates that were duds, but then I met Zac, and things started looking up. We've been seeing each other exclusively for about a week and a half now.

Last night, we went on a bit of a special date. You see, Zac had mentioned that he is a Phoenix Suns fan (a little bit traitorous to our fair city, but I'm willing to look past it), but that he had been unable to get tickets to the upcoming Suns/Bulls game. Having more than a few connections by way of my father, I tapped my network and secured some tickets. Not just any old tickets, mind you, incredible tickets. Second row tickets! And there were four of them, so I invited along my friend Mireya, the consummate Chicago sports enthusiast, and her gentleman friend for a double date.

Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you me and Zac.

Now, I don't follow basketball very closely whatsoever, but it is probably my favorite of the mainstream sports that are typically broadcast on television. I appreciate that it is played on a timer, unlike baseball, and that the action keeps moving, unlike football. Even though the noise level was intense, and the constant barrage of sensory stimuli was a little overwhelming, it wasn't an unpleasant way to spend the evening. Mostly, I was just happy that Zac was having such a good time. He had been sick the entire week prior to the game, and I was thankful to be able to do something nice for him to take his mind off things.

Our seats were so close, it was practically like watching the game on television. In the center is #13, Joakim Noah, the only Bulls player I can visually identify, due to his distinctive coif.

Coincidentally, Zac's favorite player for the Suns is also #13, Steve Nash.

There you have it, full disclosure. It's a relief to be honest with all of you, especially about something so important in my life. You should get used to hearing about Zac; I have a sneaking suspicion he might just be around for a while...


Dr. Haley's Sing-Along Blog...

I am blessed to have really great friends. Tremendous friends, like Lisa, who come up with amazing ideas for things to do together that I would have been unaware of. For instance, when Lisa heard about a Hedwig and the Angry Inch sing-along with a live shadow cast, she passed along the information, and plans were made immediately. Because we all know how Lisa and I feel about Hedwig. Truly, nothing was going to stop us from being on hand to belt out all of our favorite songs.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with how a shadow cast works, it consists of a group of volunteers who act out the scenes from the film on a stage below the screen, complete with accurate costumes and props. They encourage audience participation by distributing items for the audience to use at appropriate times. For instance, at the Hedwig sing-along they gave us seafood restaurant bibs to wear, since The Angry Inch performs in a string of seafood chain restaurants, Sugar Daddy suckers to eat in homage to the eponymous song, and dinner rolls to throw at one another during the food fight scene. I appreciated all of these interactive activities except the last one -- I got beaned in the eye by an errant roll. Thankfully, it didn't leave a bruise.

The shadow cast performance and the sing-along were all in good fun, but the overall experience couldn't hold up to watching last year's live production at the American Theater Company, or just simply watching the movie on its own. It was campy and fun, but I think I take the Hedwig experience too seriously for that. I am more interested in the film for its message and its beautifully crafted symbolism, and for me, all of the extra garnishes were a bit of a distraction. Still, I'm glad that I went, if only because it prompted me to watch the movie again, and seeing it always puts me in a good mood for days.


The Hurt Locker...

It is a little-known quirk of my personality that, among my appreciation of fashion, celebrity gossip, tearjerking films, and other traditionally "feminine" pursuits, I also appreciate a good war movie from time to time. I think they appeal less to my desire to watch things explode and see people murder each other, and more to my fondness for history. I tend to only enjoy movies that tell the stories of 20th century conflicts; Saving Private Ryan and Full Metal Jacket hold far greater appeal for me than Braveheart, for instance. I have extensively explored the realm of Vietnam and Cold War-related films, and I watched a wide sampling of World War II films for a course I took in college dedicated solely to that topic. Even so, before this weekend I had never seen a film dedicated to a contemporary conflict, but The Hurt Locker's Oscar triumph over Avatar proved more of a temptation than I could deny, and I headed to the theater last weekend to investigate the source of the hype.

Overall, I would say that The Hurt Locker's win was more than justified. The acting was subtle, nuanced, and rendered with tremendous authenticity. Even though the film tells the story of a bomb disposal squad in Iraq, special effects were judiciously used as an accent, not the main attraction. The tightly-constructed writing struck a balance between realism and suspense, contributing to a pacing that underscored the sensory assault that is modern warfare. There are no moments of relief in The Hurt Locker. Unlike in war films dealing with the Second World War, there are no battles followed by respites in familiar towns full of adoring locals. The mood has much more in common with the films of the Vietnam era -- the soldiers must maintain a state of constant vigilance, because anyone can be an enemy. Danger lurks at ever corner. The soldiers aren't even safe in their own camp. Tension reigns supreme but there is no catharsis, only more bombs and more missions. By the time the film was over, I was emotionally exhausted.

Generally speaking, I found the guiding hand of a female director to be undetectable. Nothing about Bigelow's vision of war was distinctly feminine. I don't think her gender brought anything to the table, and perhaps that is for the best. As the first woman to ever win Best Director, Bigelow has shown that she can stand toe to toe as equals with her male peers. Her gender should have no bearing on the genius of her work, and it doesn't. Bigelow is able to negotiate being a woman working in a man's industry, crafting a film about a male-dominated world, and she does so oustandingly.

The Hurt Locker isn't for everyone. It is honest, brutal, and at times, profoundly disturbing. But, as citizens, I think we should feel obligated to understand the realities of what we allow to happen on our behalves. If nothing else, The Hurt Locker will make you a more informed citizen. And who knows, you might even discover your own latent interest in war films as a genre...


Excuses, Excuses...

You'll have to forgive the lack of recent posts, as I have been sick and feverish on and off since the weekend. I do have a review of The Hurt Locker on the docket, but I haven't been feeling well enough to write lately. As soon as I can form a coherent thought, I'll get to typing, but for now, the sofa and that mortifying pink Snuggie I received for Christmas are looking pretty good...


Strange Creature...

Not unlike my experience in bringing you my post on green tea ice cream, this post has a similarly tortured history. I've been aware for quite some time that while I've written extensively on my mother and father, someone in our immediate family was being left out. Caesar, our dog, is the member of my family with whom I have perhaps the most tenuous relationship. Although he is technically my dog (my name is on his papers), he has always been a true mama's boy. Our relationship has long been characterized by sibling rivalry, and he can be extremely fickle in his affections for me. Usually, he'll want to snuggle with me for about the first ten minutes I'm home, and after that, he's more interested in taking my arm off. Lately, he's grown fond of luring me in for a belly rub, and then lashing out to bite me instead. I suppose you could say that my love for my pet is of the unrequited variety.

Still, I wanted to include him in my blogging efforts anyway, and I decided the best way would be to take a video of him, engaged in one of his idiosyncratic rituals. Every day, like clockwork, Caesar feels a need to rub himself all over the sofa after dinner. We have never been able to discern the motivation behind this behavior, but it is rather comical nevertheless. Every time, we find ourselves holding our breaths to see if this will be the time he finally falls off the couch while engrossed in his strange rubbing habit, but somehow, he always manages to remain on the sofa.

However, regardless of the fact that he always engages in this behavior, he suddenly became camera shy every time I tried to capture him on video. The last few times I've seen him, I've been poised with camera in hand to shoot my own little nature documentary, and every time, Caesar remained seated on the floor, chewing on a toy. He was determined to thwart me. Last night, however, after Mom brought him to the condo, the itching caused by wearing his collar for all of five minutes on the elevator was too much for him, and he finally delivered, and I was able to grab my camera in time to catch it. Finally, nearly a month after this post was originally conceived, I bring you Caesar:


Happy St. Patrick's Day...

As I mentioned this weekend, there is nary a food item that isn't available in seasonal green for St. Patrick's Day around here. I, however, tried to think outside the box in bringing you a festive holiday treat. I wanted to achieve something green without adding food coloring, and celebrate the rising temperatures outside with a premature return to my hobby of tinkering with my not-so-new anymore-favorite-toy. In the frozen dessert world, that really only left me one option -- green tea ice cream. I suppose I could have made a kiwi sorbet or some such, but I don't really like kiwi, and I've loved green tea ice cream ever since I started eating Japanese food as a wee lass. In the beginning, my fondness for it was more of an attraction to the unusual color, and although I still can't quite put my finger on what it tastes like, its unique flavor has grown on me over time.

However, it seemed that fate was not smiling upon my gastronomical decision. Perhaps St. Patrick himself was offended by my Japanese-Irish fusion, but I ended up checking four different stores for the matcha powder necessary to make green tea ice cream. Matcha is a powdered form of green tea produced only from shade-grown tea leaves, which achieve a darker shade of green, and therefore a higher concentration of anti-oxidants and nutrients. It is a coveted product, utilized in the formal Japanese tea ceremony, which is considered by some to be the highest expression of Japanese culture. I don't actually like to drink matcha -- I find its consistency to be somewhat off-putting -- but when it it is dissolved into ice cream, I am able to appreciate its earthy, buttery, pungency more fully.

So, after checking the regular grocery store, Whole Foods (where I purchased a container that purportedly held matcha, but when I got home and opened it, contained a combination of green tea leaves and a dusting of matcha powder), and Teavana (where the matcha powder was out of stock), I finally struck gold, or green as it were, at the Tee Geschwender, a Chicago outpost of the German chain. Ironically, it was the Germans who came to my rescue in my effort to make a Japanese dessert for an Irish holiday, but that's really neither here nor there. The canister was a pricey $20 for a few scant ounces, but after chasing the ingredient all over the South Loop and Gold Coast, I was determined to have it.

In the end, the product more than justified the effort and expense in tracking down the ingredients. My green tea ice cream, concocted from a recipe from my beloved The Perfect Scoop, by David Lebovitz, was by far the best I've ever had. The green tea flavor was more pronounced than any store-bought or restaurant-produced version I've sampled, although the color wasn't quite as vivid as I was hoping. I'll chalk that up to the lack of food coloring. Even so, despite the drama that surrounded it's creation, I'm going to pronounce my green tea ice cream experiment to be a resounding success.


Blinding Me With Science...

With a little over three months left in my tenure at the History Museum, I have decided to make a concentrated effort to milk my job for all the perks I can. I've booked a slew of doctors' appointments to garner maximum utility from my health insurance while I still have it, and, building off last weekend's trip to the Field Museum, I have decided to try to make it to all the remaining institutions in Chicago that have reciprocal free admission privileges for museum staff. Since today was Pi Day, and I am not much of a pie baker, I decided that it would be fitting to celebrate with a trip to the Museum of Science and Industry.

I very seldom make it to the MSI, largely because the distance to Hyde Park seems insurmountable when there are so many other fine museums closer to home. Prior to this weekend, I hadn't been there since my freshman year of college, when I brought my friends to Chicago for Spring Break. However, now that I am older, wiser, and more open-minded about public transit, I discovered that the #10 bus can get me to the doorstep of the Museum of Science and Industry in about 15 minutes, and its schedule is considerable more flexible than that of the Metra, which operates about every two hours on the weekend. In the future, I'll be able to visit the MSI with much greater frequency.

Which I might need to investigate, as the lure of Pi Day had drawn me to the museum on a day when there was little to see. It was the last weekend for "ART + Science = Architecture," an exhibit of Chicago and global landmarks constructed from Legos. However, the website made the exhibit seem much larger than it actually was -- there couldn't have been more than eight buildings all together. They were impressive, but they wouldn't have been worth the price of admission, if I'd had to pay to gain entrance in the first place.

A new temporary exhibit, "Science Storms" which explores the science behind natural disasters is scheduled to open next week, and perhaps I should have held off another week to see it, because aside from the massively crowded new, "You: The Experience" exhibit that investigates the human body, there was nothing new that I hadn't seen before. "You" employed a number of interesting and innovative interactive experiences, however, there were so many other guests in the exhibit that it was difficult to get close enough to any of them to use them. Perhaps it would have been more user-friendly on a weekday in the middle of the day, but I don't happen to fit into the demographic of people who are free at that time.

My disappointment over the Museum of Science and Industry's offerings should not be misconstrued as translating into an unpleasant experience. To the contrary, I had a rather fun day at the museum, getting reacquainted with the old exhibits. It was comfortable, like hanging out with an old, dear friend. And for the price, how could I complain?


The Luck of the Chi-rish...

It is said that every Chicagoan is Irish on St. Patrick's Day. Irish-Americans have held the reigns of city government in Chicago for almost a full century, and as a result, St. Patrick's Day is essentially a civic holiday here. Of course, we celebrate in all the requisite ways -- green beer, green bagels, corned beef and potatoes, raucous public drunkenness, and, up until this year, two separate parades -- but Chicago boasts one way of marking the holiday that is uniquely ours. You see, Chicagoans love to dump stuff in the Chicago River, and St. Patrick's Day is no exception. In fact, it is the perfect excuse to dye our river green.

Please note that I did absolutely no color enhancing of this photo. They get the river that green.

The greening of the river is a Chicago tradition that dates back to the age of that most legendary of Chicago politicians, Richard J. Daley. However, he bears little involvement in the story of its inception, as the dyeing of the river is actually a privately-sponsored event, devised and executed by a local plumbers' union. Legend has it that one day, back in 1961, a plumber was using a special dye to detect the source of waste water that was leaking into the Chicago River. When he discovered that the dye was reacting with the river water to turn it a vibrant shade of green, he went to his supervisor and the two of them hatched a plan to dye the entire river green for St. Patrick's Day. They conferred with the city, got its approval, and a tradition was born.

It was actually kind of a miserable, foggy day, but the lack of sunlight made the river appear even more phosphorescent.

Over the years, the plumbers' union has tinkered with the formulation. In the early days of the river dyeing, they would add so much dye that the river would be green for nearly an entire week. Over time, the amount has been reduced to keep the river green for just a day, and the dye itself has been changed to a more environmentally-friendly formulation. Interestingly, the dye itself is bright orange, and it only turns green when it mixes with the water. The dye is distributed by a crew on a loaned fire rescue boat, whose white coveralls are largely orange by the time the spectacle is completed. That crew is followed by two other volunteers in a motorboat, who run circles and zigzags through the water to churn it up and distribute the dye, turning the river into a vibrant carpet of green.

Lauren and I, with my festive novelty headband.

Shockingly, despite my 21 years of living in Chicago, I had never gone to watch the dyeing of the river before, so I met up with Lauren to take in the spectacle. Despite the horrendous weather, there was actually a rather sizable crowd accumulated along the banks of the river, many of whom were clad in elaborate green costumes, face paint, and wigs. Chicagoans are hardcore about their annual day of being honorary Irishmen! Lauren and I might have adopted a more low-key approach to the event, but we were nonetheless impressed by the river dyeing. It really turns a phenomenal shade of neon green, slightly unnerving though it may be. I might not want to think too hard about the ramifications of all that dye (I'll just take their word for it that it's environmentally sound), but it gives me no small amount of joy to have witnessed such a unique piece of Chicagocana this weekend...


My Lucky Penny...

As if there hasn't been enough sad news at work lately, today I learned about a particularly tragic development afflicting the Chicago History Museum next week: we are going to lose our souvenir penny press. Evidently, the company that supplies the press engages in a 50/50 profit-sharing scheme with the museum, and with our attendance waning in the down economy, it is no longer profitable to have a machine located here. It just so happens, that I love pressed pennies (or elongated pennies, which is the technical term).

A few of the pressed pennies I've made around town, including the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, which also lost its penny press last year, due to poor attendance figures.

As I have gotten older, kitschy souvenirs like stuffed animals, t-shirts, and assorted bric-a-brac appeal to me less and less. They do nothing but take up space and collect dust. Not to mention that they're usually overpriced to begin with. Pressed pennies, however, are a different story. They are small, evocative of a specific location, and at 51 cents, the price is right. I get a special thrill whenever I find a pressed penny machine somewhere I'm visiting. I'm not a sufficiently hardcore enough collector to get every available design wherever I find a press; instead, I usually opt only for the designs that appeal specifically to me. I try to avoid dies that have only text, or that have generic images that aren't specifically related to the place they came from.

Some of my elongated pennies from around the U.S.

I had been putting off getting any elongated pennies here at the History Museum, because I felt a little sheepish getting a souvenir item from my place of employment, particularly because the press is located in a very public hallway. But today, upon learning that my window was quickly closing, I got change from a five dollar bill and got cranking. Even though I really only liked one of the four available designs, I got all of them anyway, since I'd never have another chance if I changed my mind. It was approximately as embarrassing as I feared it would be, especially when one of the security guards gave me a hard time about all the noise I was making, but I would not be deterred.

My newly minted CHM pennies. The hot dog design (top) is my favorite by far.

In my opinion, the loss of our penny press is especially sad, given the historical connection between Chicago and elongated pennies. You see, the first penny press machines were created for the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893. It almost seems like it should be our duty to carry on the same tradition. Plus, the existence of Chicago History Museum-branded pennies gives us some legitimacy as a tourist destination. Even though we are much smaller, it put us into the same league as museum powerhouses like the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry. Now we belong to the same ignominious category as the perennially struggling Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. It's yet another small indignity served up by the Great Recession in my fair city. I wonder how many more there will be before the economy recovers...


A Hot Mess...

Sometimes I think I have some sort of kitchen-specific form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I get the inspiration to try a new recipe, and I cannot purge the idea from my mind until I follow through. For the past couple weeks, it has been lasagna that has been dominating my food-related thoughts.

Considering how much I like Italian food (you can't fight genetics), lasagna is a relative newcomer to the pantheon of things I'm willing to eat. I only started eating it in earnest when I was in college, and that was solely because my roommate Katherine would make it for me from scratch when I was having a bad day, or she just wanted to do something nice for me. To this day, there is only one restaurant at which I will order lasagna -- La Scarola, on Chicago's Near West Side.

The problem? Ricotta cheese. I loathe ricotta cheese -- both its flavor and its texture. But ricotta is one of the quintessential components of lasagna; just about the only way to avoid it is to make it yourself. Katherine would leave the ricotta out of the lasagna she would make for me, substituting extra mozzarella instead, and that was the only way I was able to enjoy the layered delicacy. But, without Katherine as my roommate, my life has been sadly bereft of homemade, ricotta-free lasagna for the past three years.

I could only hold out so long before I was forced to learn the art of lasagna-making on my own. The idea had been percolating for a couple months before I finally garnered the motivation to take on a cooking project of such a scope. After viewing scores of lasagna recipes online, none had stood out as particularly compelling to me, so I decided to take an extra risk and improvise my own rendition. For a sauce, I looked to a tomato-saffron sauce that I've been a little obsessed with of late, having made it five times since I first tested the recipe last fall. I added spicy Italian sausage, fresh mozzarella cheese, grated pecorino and parmesan cheeses, and some no-boil lasagna noodles to round things out.

Given that it was my first attempt at lasagna, I think the dish turned out reasonably well, flavor-wise. My only complaint was that I should have purchased more cheese, because my end product was a little light on the mozzarella. However, during baking, I experienced a bit of a disaster, when I could smell the distinct aroma of burning food wafting from the kitchen. I ran to check on the oven, discovering that the lasagna was bubbling over the side of the dish, leaking melted cheese and tomato sauce all over the oven floor. I threw a cookie sheet under it to catch the remainder, but the damage was already done -- I had to run the oven on its self-cleaning cycle the next day. Trust me, the fumes released from a self-cleaning oven are in no way pleasant!

As an aside, if you are interested in adding a bit of luxury to your weeknight pasta dinner, I thought I would pass along the recipe for the tomato saffron sauce. Saffron might be the world's most expensive spice, but it goes a long way, and it definitely adds a certain je ne sais quoi to tomato sauce. Its earthy pungency is a perfect complement. Even better, if you skip the lasagna route, and just sauce some pasta and top with some grated parmesan cheese, you can have dinner on the table in under an hour. Take that Rachel Ray!

Tomato Saffron Sauce with Sausage
(adapted from SeriousEats)

1 small onion, minced
2 cloves fresh garlic, minced
1 lb. spicy Italian sausage, casings removed
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
generous pinch of saffron
10 fresh basil leaves, cut into a chiffonade
1 lb. short pasta (I like campanelle for this dish)

1. Saute the onion in a few tablespoons of olive oil, until softened. Add the garlic and saute for one minute. Add the sausage and saffron to the pan and cook until meat is no longer pink.
2. Add tomatoes, half of the basil, and salt to taste. Simmer until slightly thickened and the flavors have had a chance to meld. Test for seasoning, and add more salt if necessary.
3. Add the pasta to boiling water, and cook according to package directions while the sauce simmers.
4. Combine the cooked pasta with sauce and remaining basil. Serve with grated parmesan cheese.


And The Oscar Goes To...

Out of the 82 films that have been nominated for Best Picture, I have only seen 30. Someday, I hope to be able to say that I have seen them all, but in recent years, my ability to predict the winner has gotten worse and worse. Last year, I saw four of the five nominated films, and the only one I didn't see, Slumdog Millionaire, took home the prize. Ditto for 2007 and 2006. This year, I saw five of the ten nominated films, so my chances of seeing the winner were significantly diminished, but I was sure that by having Avatar under my belt, I would still make it. So, even though I generally like it when a film I've actually seen wins Best Picture, I was ecstatic this year when Avatar lost to The Hurt Locker.

I had wanted to see The Hurt Locker, but I never got around to it. Sight unseen, however, I was still rooting for it. Avatar lacked decent writing, original plot construction, character development, and nuanced acting. If it had won Best Picture on the strength of its special effects alone, it would have been a sad day for the American film industry. I'm fine with awarding it a bevy of Scientific and Technical Oscars, but let's not kid ourselves that Avatar's artistic merits extend beyond its technological innovations. Plus, on a purely subjective level, James Cameron strikes me as someone with an out-of-control ego. If he could spend the most amount of money ever spent on a film, and be beaten by a commercial unsuccessful independent film, directed by his ex-wife of all people, all the better.

Beyond the triumph of The Hurt Locker, and the first female to win Best Director, the evening had several other things going for it. There was the sassy opening number with Neil Patrick Harris (and what awards show isn't improved by a NPH cameo?), the bizarre Kanye-esque moment in the acceptance speech for Best Documentary Short Subject, and the fact that I accurately predicted the winner for Best Animated Short Film -- Logorama.

There was also glamorous fashion in spades: Vera Farmiga won my vote for best dressed of the evening, in her ebullient cascade of fuchsia pleated ruffles; I also loved Sarah Jessica Parker's retro embellished column dress and although I thought Kate Winslet's dress was rather unflattering, her stunning diamond necklace was my favorite accessory of the evening. There were also some spectacular fashion disasters, chief among them being Zoe Saldana's Givenchy haute-couture. That purple abomination proved the old adage that less is more; a dress doesn't need a rhinestone-encrusted bodice, a slit up-to-there, an ombré skirt, and enough ruffles to resemble a lilac French poodle. In the immortal words of Project Runway's Tim Gunn, it was "a lot of look."

There with me to snarkily assess the nominee's fashion choices, and to cheer on our favorite films and actors was Lauren, who I had invited over for the telecast and a very modest spread of hors d'oeuvres. Culinarily speaking, the highlight of the evening were the chocolate meringue sandwich cookies that I repeated after taking them to Lauren's New Year's Eve party back in January. She had enjoyed them then, so I thought I would try them again, this time with a few tweaks. I changed the ganache recipe to one with a lower cream-to-chocolate ratio, in hopes of producing a firmer filling that would set up properly. While the filling did work out much better, and the cookies even tasted slightly more chocolately than the previous attempt, the meringues went soggy at a brisk clip, and were inedible by the next morning. I'm not sure what happened, but I suspect the fog and rain we've been experiencing may have contributed to a humidity problem. Hence, I'm not ready to share a recipe with you until I've had time to figure out what is wrong, but, I thought I'd share a photo of the dainty confections nonetheless:

I think the chocolate meringue sandwich cookies were an elegant finger food, definitely worthy of Hollywood's most glamorous evening.


Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend...

My birthday is coming up next month, and the divine providence that caused me to be born in April also conferred upon me the greatest of all potential birthstones -- the diamond. I received my first piece of diamond jewelry when I was very young, in fact, it is one of my earliest memories, fuzzy though it may be. I mostly remember sitting on the couch, looking at the little golden pendant that spelled out my name, with a diminutive diamond attached. I clutched its little black velvet box, and moved the necklace back and forth in the light, watching it sparkle. I would wear it on special occasions for years, and in college, when I chose to wear only one piece of jewelry and never take it off for fear of having things stolen in the dorm, it was my "Haley necklace."

I was completely beside myself the day that it fell off the corner of my desk and I inadvertently rolled over it with my desk chair while I was looking for it, breaking it into two pieces. That day stands with the day I lost my first credit card as the most traumatic material possession-related moments of my life. Luckily for me, my parents replaced the broken necklace with a more elegant, mature pendant for my 20th birthday. And it just so happened that the diamond was bigger too. Now, nary a moment goes by that I'm not wearing diamonds in some form, whether it be my new necklace, or some diamond earrings. I might flirt with other baubles, but for me, diamonds are forever.

So, when the Field Museum announced its new exhibit, The Nature of Diamonds, last October, it immediately became a must-see for me. However, I never seemed to be able to persuade anyone to go with me. I hinted, asked, and badgered, but nobody was biting. So today, with only a month left in the exhibit's run, I sucked it up and went alone.

As one might expect of the Field Museum, the first portion of the exhibit focused on the geological and historical backgrounds of diamonds. Plentiful reader rails and infographics discussed the formation of diamonds and the process through which they are brought to the Earth's surface by volcanic pipes. The history and technology of diamond mining is also explored at length, as the exhibit traces the discovery of diamonds in India, South America, South Africa, Russia, and most recently, Canada. Interesting, the exhibit chose to avoid the political implications of diamond mining in Africa entirely, and only gave a cursory nod to the role of the DeBeers monopoly in controlling the diamond market throughout the 20th century.

However, there was an interesting panel on DeBeer's role in diamond marketing, which shed light on how the company created and expanded the market for their product. For instance, the famous, "Diamonds Are Forever" campaign was originally intended not to brand diamonds as an eternal symbol of love, but to instruct consumers that the stones were heirlooms, and should not be sold or purchased on the second-hand market as had been the earlier custom. I have hand it to them, the DeBeers folks have always had a knack for advertising.

Fascinating though the information was, I found it difficult to focus on what was in front of me when I knew that the exhibition's real draw was just around the corner -- the mind-boggling jewels. Diamond jewelry from all periods of history were represented, with a few ancient Indian and Roman pieces being the oldest. Imperial and court jewelry from the 16th through 19th centuries also made a respectable showing, but the true standout pieces came from the turn of the 20th century and onward, when the discovery of rich diamond deposits in Africa made the gems more accessible to a wider audience. There were phenomenal Art Deco bracelets, naturalistic brooches from the 1950s and 60s, and fanciful, avant-garde contemporary pieces that had me drooling. All told, I spent about two hours salivating over the glittering creations.

Normally, thinly-veiled edutainment really annoys me, but in this case, I'm going to let it slide. After all, the Field Museum does provide some solid educational material to back up what is obviously an attempt to draw a massive female audience. I might be blinded by the sparkles, but I felt like The Nature of Diamonds was still appropriate for the Field's stated mission.

Simply put, if you are a magpie, or even remotely interested in jewelry or geology at all, you owe it to yourself and check out The Nature of Diamonds before it closes at the end of the month.


Attention Passengers...

My love/hate relationship with the CTA is well-documented. Last week, the CTA and I went through a rough patch when I left work early and didn't make it home until 6:30. It should never take nearly two hours to travel a little over three miles. I could have walked home faster, except the announcement system kept saying that our delayed train would be arriving shortly. If there is one thing I remember from my abysmal attempt at studying economics in college, it is the sunk costs fallacy, but I still fell into its grasp. There's no conquering human nature.

Much as I was fuming over that situation, the CTA redeemed itself slightly today. Ever since a bizarre incident last fall, in which a baby strapped into a stroller was allegedly caught in the doors of an El train and dragged off the platform (and yet, was miraculously uninjured and lacking in witnesses and evidence to prove that it actually happened), CTA conductors have been compelled to make an announcement at every station, along the lines of, "Attention passengers, please do not attempt to board the train, the doors are closing." This is in addition to the normal, automated message that plays whenever the doors are closing, which consists of two chimes followed by a man's voice saying, "Doors closing!" It's easy to tune out the pre-recorded message, but hearing the same long, garbled message from the conductor, station after station, gets old quickly.

That's why I was so pleasantly surprised during my moring commute when I discovered that my conductor for the day had clearly consulted a thesaurus in crafting his announcements. At the first station, he asked that the passengers not alight the train. Next, he requested that they not embark. Throughout the course of my commute he threw out enter, get on, and my personal favorite, entrain. When was the last time you heard somebody use the word entrain in real life? I'm not sure I've ever heard it. It was impressive.

It may seem like a small, insignificant occurance, but it always makes me happy to encounter people who have an expansive vocabulary. I believe you have to take your pleasures in life where you can find them, and delighting in the precise use of language is a simple thing that brings me joy. I'm sure this sense of goodwill towards the CTA will be fleeting, but I'll just have to endeavor to savor it as long as I can.


Happy 173rd Birthday Chicago...

Perhaps one of the greatest, and most cherished perks in the world of office jobs is the food -- donuts at meetings, cake for birthdays and special celebrations, breakfasts for departing colleagues, you get the idea. However, ever since we entered another new era of cost-cutting at the museum, those perks (along with the size of the staff), have been dwindling. Nowadays, it seems like the only time we get any special treats is when yet another coworker is saying goodbye, or when I bring my leftover baked goods so that I don't end up eating them all myself. Times are lean around the office, in every sense of the word.

Today, however, presented one of the rare remaining opportunities to satiate our collective sweet tooths on the museum's dime: Chicago's birthday. Every year, the museum hosts a big celebration in honor of the anniversary of the city's founding, complete with singing children's choirs, appearances by local politicians, and, of course, birthday cake. Thankfully, the museum always orders too much cake, so the extras are distributed to the staff after the public gets the initial stab at it. This year's cake was provided by Bleeding Heart Bakery, and although I didn't see what it looked like before it was cut, I was pleased with the vanilla bean cake with vanilla buttercream filling. I usually don't care for bakery cakes, but this one was definitely a pleasant surprise.

So, in honor of the date of my beloved city's founding (and the excuse to eat cake that it provides), here are a few of my favorite quotes about Chicago:

I give you Chicago. It is not London and Harvard. It is not Paris and buttermilk. It is American in every chittling and sparerib. It is alive from snout to tail. - H.L. Mencken

Hog butcher for the world,
Tool maker, stacker of wheat,
Player with railroads and the nation's freight handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of big shoulders.
- Carl Sandburg

It is hopeless for the occasional visitor to keep up with Chicago -- she outgrows his prophecies faster than he can make them. She is always a novelty; for she is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time. - Mark Twain

Chicago is a city of contradictions, of private visions haphazardly overlaid and linked together. If the city was unhappy with itself yesterday -- and invariably it was -- it will reinvent itself today. - Pat Colander

New York is one of the capitals of the world and Los Angeles is a constellation of plastic, San Francisco is a lady, Boston has become urban renewal, Philadelphia and Baltimore and Washington wink like dull diamonds in the smog of Eastern Megalopolis, and New Orleans is unremarkable beyond the French Quarter. Detroit is a one-trade town, Pittsburgh has lost its golden triangle, St. Louis has become the golden arch of the corporation, and nights in Kansas City close early. The oil depletion allowance makes Houston and Dallas naught but checkerboards for this sort of game. But Chicago is a great American city. Perhaps it is the last of the great American cities. - Normal Mailer


All Around The World...

When I was but a wee, not-yet-even-proto-foodie, and the blogosphere was but a mere glimmer in some computer programmer's eye, somebody gave my dad a copy of the Zagat Survey as a gift. In those days, before Google had all the answers, Yelp had a review for every restaurant, and Opentable could help you book your reservation, the slim, paperback Zagat Survey was your best source of advice on eating out. Although at that time I had not yet learned to cook, and only dined at the restaurants to which my parents took me, I was fascinated by the Zagat Guide. To me, it represented a whole world of possibilities, a glimpse of the glamorous world of adult city life, just beyond my mundane suburban existence. I can remember sitting up at night reading it in bed, thinking about all the places I would go someday.

One of the restaurants that was listed prominently in that Zagat Survey was Le Colonial, an upscale, French colonial Vietnamese restaurant lauded as one of the top restaurants in the city on both the strength of its food and its romantic atmosphere. It was never part of my regular dining rotation with my parents, and its prohibitive pricing left it just out of my reach, but every time I read something about it, I thought back to my girlhood readings of the Zagat Survey. So, when Restaurant Week rolled around this year, fate would finally give me a chance to visit Le Colonial. Restaurant Week is a relatively new tradition in Chicago, consisting of a Great Recession-era promotion in which many of Chicago's preeminent (and very expensive) offer slightly more affordable fixed-price menus at lunch and dinner. You can get an appetizer, entree, and dessert from a limited set of predetermined choices for $22 at lunch and $32 at dinner. It's still not cheap, but it definitely falls within the realm of affordability.

On Saturday, when Lauren, my trusty weekend brunch partner, texted and invited me out to brunch at Le Colonial, I immediately said yes. My acceptance was followed by a momentary panic as I questioned whether the Restaurant Week promotion would still be running, but thankfully, Lauren had done her research in advance. In the span of a week, I would have gone from sampling my first Swedish food at Ann Sather, to Greek gyros with Mom last weekend, to Italian food with Dad at dinner during the week, and finally, French colonial Vietnamese food with Lauren once more. It would be a veritable culinary world tour, without even leaving Chicago.

Honestly, I've always been a little leery of Vietnamese food. I love Thai, Chinese, and Japanese food, but the prevalence of cilantro in Vietnamese cuisine has always been a turn-off for me. (I really, really hate cilantro, but that's a story for another day.) I was doubly concerned about the choices on the fixed-price Restaurant Week menu, as none of them stood out as particularly appealing in my eyes, but the prices on the regular menu kept me from venturing into ala carte territory. In actuality, I needn't have worried. Every dish that I sampled was incredibly tasty, even if I wouldn't have had the gumption to order them if it hadn't been for financial necessity.

I started the meal with a bowl of sup ga, billed as chicken soup with baby corn. The texture was more akin to that of the egg-drop soup found at Chinese restaurants, with bits of chicken and chopped baby corn suspended throughout. Thankfully, the cilantro was limited to an easily-removed sprig floating on the surface. It was ridiculously delicious, and deeply comforting at the same time -- a perfect dish for winter. Lauren allowed me to sample her bo bia, spring rolls filled with a soft salad of vegetables. I was also pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying them, even though I could detect the presence of cilantro in them as well. For an entree, I selected the com tho ga, a dish of exceptionally tender chicken and vegetables served over jasmine rice in a clay cooking vessel. Aside from the succulent meat, the dish was actually somewhat bland, but it complemented the comfort-food vibe that I had inadvertently created within my meal. Lauren's entree, ca nuong, consisted of superbly cooked, flavorfully marinated salmon over rice noodles. I almost wished I had made the same selection as her, but I was thankful to have gotten to try two different dishes. My dessert of chocolate ice cream, although in no way exotic, satisfied a craving that I had been nurturing all week, and provided a refreshing capstone to what had been a rather heavy lunch.

Also, the atmosphere lived up to its billing. Although a reviewer on Yelp had described it as, "fine, if you like your dining with a side of Third-World subjugation," I enjoyed the slightly threadbare, crumbling empire ambiance at Le Colonial. Perhaps it has something to do with all the time I spent dedicated to studying the Vietnam War and its causes in college, but for me it captured the romantic essence of a world long-gone. I would most certainly recommend it if you are feeling adventurous, amorous, and like your pockets are too heavy for your liking. Otherwise, I might suggest waiting until Restaurant Week in 2011...