Sticky Sweet...

Good things come to those who wait. And I don't just say that because I technically baked these cookies with Katherine on Monday night, the first evening she was in town, and didn't get around to blogging about them now. I say that mostly because I've been waiting to bake these cookies basically ever since I first got my copy of Martha Stewart's Cookies: The Very Best Treats to Bake and Share three years ago. The recipe, and accompanying photo, for Macadamia-Maple Sticky bars practically leapt off the page at me and screamed, "BAKE ME!!!" At the time, I'd never baked a bar cookie and wasn't even particularly fond of them as a genre, (though I've since overcome that aversion), but the pairing of my beloved maple flavoring with chewy caramel, crunchy nuts, and buttery shortbread, was too much to pass up.

However, due to no fault of my own, pass on it I did. You see, the recipe calls for maple sugar, which I had an endlessly difficult time locating in the Midwest. It's a far more common ingredient on the East Coast, where they manufacture maple syrup and other maple products, but around here, it's either considered a gourmet ingredient or a health food -- an alternative for those who turn up their nose at refined sugar. (Honestly though, I haven't the faintest idea how you could argue that maple sugar is somehow more natural than white sugar; both products undergo quite a bit of refinement to make it to the shelf. Chemically, it's composed of sucrose, just like white sugar. I don't understand health food folks.)

In the past three years, I managed to locate maple sugar exactly once, at Fox & Obel, my favorite gourmet food shop, but it was too expensive at the time for me to justify purchasing it for one recipe. When I went back, resolved to purchase it despite the expense, I found they no longer stocked it. I tried looking at Whole Foods, but every time I remembered to check, it was sold out. However, just when I was starting to consider the recipe a lost cause, Katherine asked if she could bring me some maple sugar as a hostess gift when she came to visit me last week. She'd originally wanted to bring maple syrup, but as a liquid, it never would have made it on the plane, and maple sugar seemed like the next best thing for bringing me a piece of the Northeast. Of course, given my struggles, I readily agreed.

Since an embarrassing percentage of my freezer space is given to nuts that I've found on sale and saved for later baking experiments (it's entirely possible that I may have been a squirrel in a previous life), I had all the other ingredients I needed to make these bars on hand, and I thought it would be nice to bake them with Katherine, not only because she provided the crucial missing ingredient, but because we always enjoyed baking together when we used to be roommates. It turned out to be the perfect project for us, as I prefer cookie baking, and Katherine has recently developed an interest in candy making.

Ultimately, the cookies turned out perfectly. In a rookie move, I failed to read the recipe carefully and ended up adding an extra half-teaspoon of salt to the cookie base, but ultimately, I think the extra saltiness added a nice counterpoint to the sweetness of the topping. These bars, though messy to eat, are by far, the best cookies to come out of my kitchen since the rugelach I made in March. I took the leftovers with me to Grandma's house over the weekend, where they even garnered her approval. In fact, I think she ate three of them herself. Given that Grandma Betsy has always been the baker in the family, perhaps this is a sign that the student is slowly becoming the master after all...

Star Wars references aside, I think you need to make these cookies. They do sell maple sugar on the internet, and now that I know this recipe is a keeper, I'll be buying it online in the future once I use up the rest of my gift from Katherine. It'll be so worth it!

Macadamia-Maple Sticky Bars
adapted from Martha Stewart

1/2 c. plus 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 c. coarsely chopped macadamia nuts, toasted
1/4 c. plus 3 tablespoons light brown sugar
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
1/4 c. plus 1 1/2 teaspoons maple sugar
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
3 tablespoons heavy cream

Preheat oven to 350.
1. Butter a 8 inch square baking pan; line with parchment paper, allowing 2-inch overhang on two sides. Butter lining (not overhang).
2. Whisk together flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 cup nuts in a bowl.
3. Put 1/2 c. butter and 1/4 c. brown sugar into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment; mix on medium speed until pale and fluffy. Mix in flour mixture and 1 teaspoon maple syrup. Press dough evenly into bottom of prepared pan. Refrigerate 30 minutes.
4. Bake until set in center and pale golden, 22 to 25 minutes. Transfer to wire rack; let cool slightly.
5. Put remaining 6 tablespoons butter and 1/2 c. nuts into a small saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat stirring constantly, until butter is very foamy and nuts are fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Add remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, 3 tablespoons brown sugar, 1 teaspoon maple syrup, maple sugar, corn syrup, and cream. Boil, stirring constantly, 2 minutes.
6. Spread over crust. Let cool completely. Run a knife around non-parchment sides; life out of dish using overhang. Cut into 16 2-inch squares. Bars can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature up to 3 days.


It's A Family Affair...

Just because Katherine left on Thursday didn't mean my vacation was over; instead, Justin and I packed up the car for a leisurely drive to the exotic, glamorous destination of White Hall. In addition to Christmas, the Wyatt clan also gathers over Memorial Day weekend at Grandma's house, and although I usually don't attend that particular event, this year I thought it would provide a nice opportunity for my family to meet Justin. I figured we'll each want to spend Christmas with our own families, so that was out of the question, but luckily for me, his family doesn't have an annual Memorial Day cookout or anything like that, so he was free to accompany me and meet the Wyatts.

After my aunts and cousins gave me no small amount of crap these past seven months about when I'd bring him downstate, I decided to kill many birds with one stone and bring him by when they'd all be in one place, including the Iowa contingent and my cousin Jenny, who lives in Las Vegas and seldom makes it back for visits. Justin would have the opportunity to meet more of my mom's family than even I usually see at the average family get-together.

Since the family is growing by leaps and bounds every year, there was no room for us to stay at Grandma's, so Justin and I ended up getting a room at the luxurious Comfort Inn in Jacksonville, about a half hour away. On the plus side, there was a free breakfast every morning, if you were willing to wait out the easily 600 pound man lording over the waffle iron as if it were his own private domain. On the negative side, the hotel was host to the participants in a Little League baseball tournament, and the place was teeming with running, screaming children. At least, as Justin pointed out, we were together.

I filled our schedule for the weekend with experiences typical for the region. We ate giant fried pork tenderloin sandwiches, which Justin likened to the enormous wiener schnitzel found in Austria, albeit on a seriously undersized bun. I took him down to Kampsville, Illinois, via the Kampsville ferry, where we consumed enough onion rings and catfish fritters to meet our quota of fried food for the rest of the year. We drove around the small towns of the area on a photographic odyssey to capture the decay and poverty of the region, taking in the collapsing homes and barns, empty, rusting boxcars, and crumbling small businesses. Most of the time, I think Justin was probably bored/suffering from indigestion from all the fried food he's not accustomed to eating regularly (and that's a good thing), but he was a trooper, and was very polite about the whole experience.

Most of the time though, we spend time hanging out with Grandma and the rest of the Wyatt clan. I got to meet my new, baby cousin Charlee, and chat with all my cousins. Justin displayed a truly amazing talent for remember names and family relationships, and was able to complete a family tree of all of us by the end of his first day meeting them all. It meant a lot to me that he put so much effort into meeting and remembering everyone.

Justin and I, in Grandma's living room.

My generation. Top row, from left: Matt, Danielle, and Jenny. Bottom row, from left: Me, Nicki, Trista, and Aimee. We haven't all been in a photo together since the 1990s, I think, so this is sort of a big deal.

The next generation, from left: Jalen, Avery, Braden, Madelyn, Charlee, Will, Mya, Ben, and Abbie.

As always, it was good to see everyone, and kind of scary to see how much all the kids are growing even after only a few months. I seriously don't know how their parents handle it. I remember when I was that age, running around playing with my cousins at Grandma's house, and while I'm glad that they get to have that same experience, it makes me feel very, very old.

It may not have been the most exciting way for Justin and I to spend our first actual vacation together, but I was so proud to get a chance to show him off in person to all my family, instead of just here on my blog. I was relieved to discover that we travel well together, and I'm more excited now than ever for all the adventures we'll have together going forward, and all the interesting places we'll get to see and explore.


Together Again - Part Three

Although tomorrow is technically Katherine's last day in the city, it looks like the cold, rainy weather is going to eliminate my plan of taking her to the Chicago Botanic Garden, so I think we'll just have a quiet day together before I take her to the airport. That means that I needed to pack all the rest of our sightseeing into today, and I think I managed to accomplish that fairly well. This time, Justin joined us for the day, not only because I wanted my best friend to meet the man I love (goodness knows she hears enough about him), but because we were planning on seeing museums all day and I wanted to maximize the utility of my museum employee discount by getting as many people as possible in for free.

Our first stop of the day was the Shedd Aquarium, Katherine's only tourism request for her entire visit. (I got to plan everything else and she just trusted my judgment -- that's friendship for you!) The Shedd is currently home to Jellies, an exhibit that focuses on jellyfish, the unusual ways they've evolved into the creatures we know today, the environmental impact caused by the creatures, and of course, their innate beauty. We tried arriving at the aquarium soon after it opened for the day in an effort to avoid its notoriously long lines, but we managed to get completely drenched in the downpour that was going on outside on the way there. I wouldn't recommend starting your day at the aquarium dripping water; it won't give you a greater appreciation for the experience of being under the sea.

Justin, Katherine, and I in front of the Shedd, after our visit when we'd had a chance to dry out a bit.

All three of us were excited to see the Jellies exhibit, but I was beyond perturbed when the ticket saleslady informed that my museum employee privileges would only give us an $8 discount on the price of admission if we wanted to see the special exhibit. If we wanted to see the regular aquarium offerings, it would be free, but to see the jellies would cost us $23 per person. I'm used to paying extra for special exhibits, even with my special discount, but usually the admission to one exhibit costs somewhere between five and ten dollars. Truly, the pricing structure at the Shedd is outrageous.

I've always had a soft spot for sea anemones, ever since I did a project on them in fifth grade and had to make a model of one for school.

Although the Shedd's sea horse collection receives a lot of hype, they only have about four tanks that contain the creatures.

To get the most out of our $23, we walked through the entire aquarium, including the Wild Reef exhibit that technically costs extra but was included with the package we were forced to buy in order to gain admission to Jellies. The building was crawling with school groups on field trips, and it was loud and crowded. I'm pretty much over the entire Shedd experience, having seen it so many times now, but at least I managed to get some better photos of the sea creatures on display than I have in the past. The trick, I think, is to only attempt to photograph the animals that don't move much.

I love the facial expression on this guy.

Finally, we were ready to see the jellyfish. Although the exhibit proved to be much smaller than anyone expected (it only took about ten or fifteen minutes to see the entire thing), the fact that it cost extra to get in meant that it was devoid of rowdy school children and that reprieve almost made it worth the price of admission all on its own. Without a doubt, the jellies were beautiful; each tank was like a slow-moving piece of abstract art. It was mesmerizing to watch them float about in their tanks, getting tangled up with one another and colliding their amorphous, gelatinous bodies together.

Either Japanese or Pacific Northwest Sea Nettles.

Lion's Mane Jellies, which grow to become the largest species of jellyfish on Earth, with tentacles up to 100 feet in length.

Perhaps the most informative portion of the exhibit dealt with the issue of jellyfish "blooms," or rapid proliferations of jellyfish populations in a localized geographic area. Such occurrences can cause havoc by disrupting shipping lanes, killing off fish farms and other aquaculture enterprises, and in one case, clogging the water intake valves at a nuclear power plant, causing a major disruption in energy production that led to political instability in the Philippines in 1999. These blooms are caused by a multitude of causes including overfishing that eliminates jellies' natural predators and climate change. It truly is amazing how interconnected all life on Earth is, and how even one element out of balance, such as jellyfish overpopulation, can cause widespread chaos.

Upside-Down Jellies. Yes, that's actually what the species is called.

Spotted Lagoon Jellies.

My personal favorite, the Flower Hat Jelly. I think the purple stripes and phosphorescent tentacles make this one the prettiest, in my opinion.

At the end of the day, I'm left somewhat torn over whether Jellies was worth the $23 dollars it cost to see it (and without a discount, the average visitor pays $32, or $23 for kids under age 11). Yes, they were beautiful, and made for some great photo ops. I learned lots of things about jellyfish and biodiversity in general that I did not know before. But, as I said, the exhibit was pretty tiny. In spite of all the good things that Jellies had going for it, I couldn't help but feel a bit ripped off. You'll have to make your own decision about whether you think it's worth it to see Jellies for yourself. I'm afraid I can't make a recommendation on this one.

Justin and I in front of the Caribbean Reef, where divers give live shows about reef fauna while feeding the fish.

After the Shedd, the three of us headed over to the Field Museum for a quick lunch at the Corner Bakery, followed by a visit to the two special exhibits the museum is hosting for the summer: The Horse, and Whales: Giants of the Deep. The combination of special exhibits set us back $20 a piece, causing this day to rapidly escalate beyond what I'd expected it to cost for all of us, but at least I was able to save my friends a bit of money, which is better than paying the full admission price at both places. The sky-high ticket prices at the Museum Campus locations is why I usually recommend purchasing a City Pass to out-of-towners who plan to hit more than two museums during a visit to the city.

Katherine and I, posing for the obligatory Sue photo op.

I know I've been fairly critical of the Field the past few years for their dubiously topical exhibits on gold and diamonds, as I didn't feel that they particularly advanced the Field Museum's mission for the "accumulation and dissemination of knowledge, and the preservation and exhibition of objects illustrating art, archaeology, science, and history." However, I felt that both of their current special exhibits were on-target with the kind of presentation I expect from the Field (though both of them are touring exhibitions that originated elsewhere.)

My favorite was The Horse, which explored the evolution of horses through fossil evidence and videos that discussed how different branches of archaeology use their research methodologies to learn about horses in prehistory, and in ancient times. There was also a fascinating anthropological look at how horses and humans have shaped one another, from how humans domesticated and bred horses to fit their needs, to how horses in turn shaped labor, food production, warfare, sport, and entertainment for humans. This portion was punctuated by unusual artifacts that were often presented in a manner that asked the viewer to guess what they were before sliding a window to receive the correct answer. It was a simple, but effective way of fostering audience participation.

Whales: Giants of the Deep drew on a similar balance of fossil evidence, archaeology, and anthropology to create a solid, informative exhibit, however, the show came to Chicago from a museum in New Zealand, and many of the cultural references didn't transfer as well to an American audience. For example, out of deference to the importance of whales in traditional Maori society (New Zealand's indigenous people), the curators of Whales opted to write all the informational panels throughout the exhibit in both English and Maori. While it was a nice gesture, I seriously doubt that many Americans could read the Maori translations, and it seemed like a bit of a waste of space.

Also, in its exploration of the whaling industry, this treatment of the subject focused almost solely on the whaling industry in New Zealand where it was far less extensive and less of an economic force than it was in other parts of the world. Finally, in its anthropological look at the interaction between humans and whales, the exhibit focused almost entirely on the role of whales in Maori creation myths, and images of whales in Maori artwork. It was interesting, to a point, but by the end, I couldn't help but wonder if a more apt title for the show would have been Whales and the Maori. To be honest, I think their national focus was a bit too specific for an international traveling exhibition. You could easily stay home, stream the 2002 film Whale Rider on Netflix, and get get much of the same experience.

We finished with Whales just in time for the museum to close, so we headed out to dinner at Tampopo, a Japanese restaurant that I'd seen ages ago on Check Please! and about which I had read fairly decent reviews. Katherine often laments the lack of decent Japanese food in the small college town where she lives, so I wanted to try to find something that would please her exceptionally well-educated palette after so many years of living in Japan. I was hesitant, having never actually been there before, and the restaurant was definitely a hike from my neighborhood, but the menu was vast and featured many items that aren't especially common in American Japanese restaurants, which pleased Katherine. For my part, I was relieved to find a Japanese dining establishment that doesn't consider sushi to be the end-all-be-all of the cuisine (though I do enjoy sushi, variety is the spice of life). The three of us had a lovely dinner, and I will definitely be going back if I have a reason to be up on the Far North Side.

Even though it was a full day, and we accomplished a lot of tourism in the past three days, I think I was able to strike a good balance of planned activities and unstructured time to merely coexist in the same space and enjoy each others' presence. If there's one thing I've learned from my apparent inability to regularly schedule visits with my best friend, it's that I must value these opportunities to see her while I can. I'm not going to make any more promises to myself about seeing her more often, because it's clear to me now that life will intervene in any plans I try to make. Instead, I'm going to hold the memories from this trip close to my heart, and start looking forward to the next time I get to spend some precious time with Katherine.


Together Again - Part Two

After spending the first day of Katherine's visit exploring the neighborhood of Chinatown on the city's Near South Side, I decided that for our second day together, we would head north to Andersonville to partake in some delicious cinnamon buns at Ann Sather, followed by scratching another item off my Chicago bucket list -- a visit to Rosehill Cemetery.

Depending on how well you know me, you may or may not be aware of my aesthetic inclination towards the macabre. Generally speaking, I prefer my art creepy, surreal, and often of German Expressionist extraction. Hanging in my apartment is one Czech woodblock print of weeping nuns, and an etching waiting to be hung on the wall depicts the figure of Death looming over a sleeping man. Similarly, I have what some people consider to be a strange affinity for visiting cemeteries. Funerary art and iconography fascinates me, and I genuinely enjoy visiting cemeteries of different eras to study how people memorialize the dead. During my travels, I often seek out interesting or historically significant burial grounds, and just like with my ongoing church exploration project, I treat my hometown no differently.

An interest in cemeteries is one of the things that Katherine and I have long had in common. We made an effort in college to visit at least one St. Louis area graveyard a year, and when we came to Chicago during Spring Break of our senior year, I took Katherine to see Graceland Cemetery, where all the wealthiest Chicagoans of the Gilded Age are buried. Marshall Field and his descendents are there, along with the Palmer family of hoteliers and the Armour meat-packing heirs. This was a group of people who was accustomed to the best in life (as my visit to their neighborhood church bore out), and their taste for luxury carried over to their wishes for the afterlife as well. It's one of the most architecturally important cemeteries in America, and I highly recommend checking it out even if cemeteries aren't ordinarily your thing. The History Museum offers tours, and there is also a helpful guidebook you can purchase at the cemetery itself.

Rosehill is Chicago's other great historic graveyard, as it contains the final resting places of some of Chicago's earliest citizens. Their remains were moved to Rosehill after the Great Chicago Fire, when the city decided to tackle the public health threat posed by having its existing cemeteries along the edge of the lakefront (the source of all the city's drinking water), in the area that is now Lincoln Park, by moving all human remains further northwest. As a result, Rosehill features graves, tombs, and other monuments that are of astonishing age given the relative youth of the city in general.

The gate to Rosehill was designed by William H. Boyington, the same architect who created the Chicago Water Tower. It was added to the U.S. Register of Historic Landmarks in 1975.

Due to its age and the time of its construction, Rosehill is the final resting place of the largest number of Civil War veterans in the Chicagoland area.

I found this to be a particularly polite euphemism for death.

One of my favorite monuments at Rosehill featured these two dogs, one at attention and one taking a rest. I don't know if the couple buried here were avid dog lovers or if their choice was motivated by a different type of symbolism, but I thought it had a great deal of charm and personality.

There aren't quite as many locally famous people buried at Rosehill as there are at Graceland, but the cemetery does boast a few big names: Jack Brickhouse, Oscar Mayer, Aaron Montgomery Ward, Burr Tillstrom of Kukla, Fran, and Ollie fame, former Vice President Charles G. Dawes, and a number of obscure former Chicago mayors. Not too shabby...

As the largest cemetery in Chicago, it took us the better part of the day to traverse Rosehill's extensive grounds, so after we'd worked up a sufficient appetite, we headed back downtown for the requisite deep dish pizza experience at Giordano's. Truly, no visit to Chicago is complete without the pizza, and even for a local who experiences deep dish on a semi-regular basis, taking out-of-towners to eat it never seems to get old. In this case, the long wait time works in your favor, as it gives you ample time to rest from a long day of local tourism and enjoy unhurried conversation with your guests. Besides, with the day I've scheduled for tomorrow, we're going to be glad we took it easy this evening...


Together Again - Part One

Eventually, you get to the point where enough is enough. Back in October of 2009, I had a visit from my college best friend, Katherine. I was excited about the fact that she'd recently moved back to the U.S. after receiving a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Japan, after which she stayed there an extra year to live the expat lifestyle and teach English. Now that we were living on the same continent, it would be easier to visit one another, and I was determined not to let so much time elapse between visits going forward. Yet, somehow, life kept stepping in and messing up my plans, and nearly two whole years went by without finding an opportunity to see my friend again. Unacceptable.

This year, I was determined to utilize some of my use-it-or-lose-it vacation time to travel to Massachusetts to see Katherine. However, due to her school schedule, I had to wait until May when she was on summer vacation. By then, I couldn't find a hotel room within a remotely reasonable distance from her apartment because it was graduation season, and there are an abnormally high concentration of universities in her area. (I couldn't just stay at her apartment because she has cats, and I'm horribly allergic.) Refusing to be deterred, I decided to use the money I would have used on my plane ticket to visit her to buy her a plane ticket to visit me, and I used my vacation time to take yet another staycation so we could have maximum time together during her visit.

For her first day in town, I scheduled a local tourism item that had been lingering on my to-do list while I waited for the time and opportunity to make it happen. I've long been a subscriber to the Choose Chicago Facebook feed, the official site of the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau. It conveniently notifies me of interesting things going on in the city, articles about Chicago featured in national publications, and occasionally, offers coupon codes for activities around town. One such deal featured on their feed was for a company called Chicago Food Planet Tours, which offers food-centric walking tours of three different Chicago neighborhoods -- Bucktown/Wicker Park, the Gold Coast, and, the one that caught my eye, Chinatown.

Much as I like Chinese food, and convenient as Chinatown is to where I live, I only go there once every couple years, and it's always to the same place, Phoenix Restaurant, where I went for dim sum for my birthday. To be honest, I found Chinatown a little bit intimidating. When you pass by most of the restaurants, they seem to be full of people who are of at least some sort of Asian decent, if not specifically Chinese, and many of the menus don't exactly cater to native English speakers. It would be nice, I thought, to have an expert point out some of the better spots in the neighborhood and expand my knowledge of Chinese cuisine so I'd have a better idea of what to order.

The only drawback was that, unlike the company's other tours, which are offered several times a week and on weekends, the Chinatown tour is only available on Monday afternoons, which doesn't exactly make it an easy sell for employed locals. As a result, I filed it away on my local "bucket list" and waited for another staycation to roll around. Katherine's visit would present just that opportunity, and luckily for me, the Choose Chicago coupon code that brought the tour to my attention in the first place was still applicable.

Unfortunately, even though I thought I'd finally resolved my conundrum of how to finally spend time with my friend, fate intervened once more and severe weather last night caused her flight to be cancelled. She was able to get moved to a flight that left early this morning, but it looked like she was going to miss the tour. I couldn't round up any of my unemployed or underemployed friends to go, so I struck out for Chinatown on my own, determined not to let the entire ticket investment go to waste.

As it turned out, the tour guide was really friendly and chill, and offered to help Katherine meet up with us whenever she made it into the city, so at least she'd get some use out of the tour I'd paid for. He gave us a rough idea of where we'd be at every point in the afternoon, and even helped me give her directions via text message so she could find us. He really went above and beyond the call of duty. If their customer service is always this good, I can unequivocally recommend that you do business with Chicago Food Planet in the future, if you're interested in learning more about Chicago's neighborhoods and their unique culinary offerings.

For me, the tour wasn't quite as informative as it would be for the average attendee. Working at the History Museum, which currently houses an exhibit entitled, "My Chinatown," I'd pretty much already been exposed to all the historical information the guide had in his presentation. I knew about the tongs, "brotherhood" groups that were formed by early Chinese immigrants that engaged in gambling, human trafficking, and other forms of organized crime within the neighborhood up until major FBI raids in the 1980s. I knew about Ping Tom Memorial Park, a beautifully landscaped park complete with a somewhat out-of-place pagoda, named after an influential local businessman who helped acquire real estate to expand Chinatown at a time when many existing residents were unwilling to sell to Chinese buyers. For someone with less background, the tour would have been very informative, but for me, it was basically a rehash of what I learned at work.

For me then, the real star of the tour was the food. We had five separate tastings on the tour, including three hot meals, and four sit-down stops that helped break up some of the exertion of the walk. The tour operators selected the food for us, and they picked items that were easily accessible to people who have had limited experience with Chinese cuisine. Out of the five tastings, only one restaurant presented options I'd never tried before, but nevertheless, I would return to all five of those restaurants, which gives me five dining options in the neighborhood that I would have been too intimidated to try on my own.

The first stop was Triple Crown, a seafood-focused dim sum restaurant, where we tried this taro puff and a standard barbeque pork bun. They offer made-to-order dim sum, in contrast with Phoenix Restaurant which sends out their food on carts from which the customers choose what they'd like to eat. I prefer the sense of adventure at Phoenix, but if I were with picky eaters, Triple Crown would offer more control over what I was ordering and consuming.

Next, we stoped at Ten Ren Tea & Ginseng Co., where we received a to-go cup of iced lychee-flavored green tea to drink while we continued our walk. It was a refreshing, if a little over-sweetened for me, and a welcome addition to the unseasonably warm day.

The biggest revelation of the day for me was Lao Sze Chuan, a restaurant focusing on the spicy, pungent flavors of Szechuan cooking. Although I can tolerate some spice in my food, I've always shied away from the notorious heat of this style of cuisine, but now I was forced to give it a try and I was pleasantly surprised. I also think Justin, who enjoys spicy food far more than I do, would particularly like the food there, so Lao Sze Chuan is actually at the top of my list for places to return to at a later time. Luckily, Katherine made it just in time to catch the tasting here, which was by far the most substantial vegetarian offering of the afternoon. I was definitely not a fan of the mapo tofu we were served there, considering I don't particularly enjoy the texture of tofu and this dish was very, very spicy, but Katherine loved it, and the guide even let her take the leftovers home with her since she'd missed out on the previous two tastings. Again, he truly went out of his way to give her the best experience possible given the circumstances.

Although I've had Peking duck before, the one we sampled at Lao Bejing, our next stop, was probably the most authentic. It was good, but by that point I was quickly running out of stomach space. The guide mentioned that the Chinatown tour has the most food and the largest portions of all the Chicago Food Planet tours, which are more snack-oriented. The Chinatown tour, however, is sort of like eating three back-to-back lunches. Remember to pace yourself, if you check it out for yourself.

I've never seen oblong egg custard tarts like those at our last stop, Saint Anna Bakery, but they were tasty nevertheless. Aside from being oblong instead of round, they had a short crust, more akin to a pie crust, than the flaky, puff pastry version found on most egg custard tarts in Chinatown.

After the tour, despite spending several hours walking, Katherine felt that she needed additional exercise to work off some of the calories we'd just consumed, so we headed up to the Water Tower on Michigan Avenue and took a long, scenic walk home down the Mag Mile as we finally got an opportunity to chat and catch up. We spent most of the evening doing the same, as we were too stuffed to even consider dinner, although we did engage in a little baking project that I had planned for us, which deserves its own post. Awesome as the tour was, and much as I would recommend it to anyone interested in Chinese food or Chinatown, spending some quiet time with my best friend was by far the best part of the day.

Modern methods of communication allow us to stay in contact basically all the time. I can send Katherine a text message and hear back within the hour, send her an email when I want to share an article or picture with her, or call her whenever I want to hear her voice. However, what I didn't realize until I saw her was how much I missed her face. I've heard other people use that expression before, "I miss your face," and I always thought it sounded weird and borderline creepy, but I finally get it now. There's nothing that replicates the experience of being face-to-face with your best friend, watching her facial expressions, her unique hand gestures, and getting to give her a hug if you feel like it. It's crazy how much you can miss someone and not even realize it. I'm so excited to get to get to spend even more quality time with her this week!


Coffee Talk...

Not unlike my favorite lifestyle guru, Martha Stewart, I try to be a good hostess whenever I have house guests. I don't go so far as to put out little custom-monogrammed novelty soaps in the bathroom, but I try to make sure everything in the house is as clean as I would hope my accommodations to be if the tables were turned (this rarely seems to be the case when I go visit people, but I suppose that's the cost of free lodging), and I try to have some manner of homemade treat on hand to offer my boarders. Since I'm eagerly anticipating the arrival of Katherine, my college best friend, who is visiting Chicago after another year and a half of our mutual inability to arrange more frequent rendezvous, I decided to bake up a batch of muffins so we'd have a delicious and easy breakfast on hand to fuel our planned agenda of local tourism.

Since these muffins were slated for breakfast, it seemed natural to turn to my old, reliable recipe for coffee cake muffins. Though I've apparently not made them in the last couple years (all those new recipes I blog about serve as a distraction from some of my "classic" dishes), these muffins are definitely an old favorite. The recipe came into my life when I was just starting to teach myself to bake, after Mom copied it from an issue of Midwest Living because she thought they sounded tasty.

I never got around to trying the other recipes that she sent me at the same time, but for whatever reason, I did try the muffins, and they quickly became popular within my group of college friends. Whenever I would make them, they would quickly disappear, and often, they didn't even survive long enough to actually eat them for their intended meal the next morning. Since I associate them so strongly with life at the Pershing house during my senior year of college, when Katherine and I were housemates, they had an added nostalgia factor to recommend them as an option for her visit.

These muffins really do taste like a perfectly light, moist, sour cream coffee cake. Much of the coffee cake I've eaten in my lifetime has been dry and dense, prompting me to wonder if it's so named because it requires a dunk in some coffee to be palatable. Hence, these muffins are actually way better than 90% of the coffee cake experiences I've ever had. Whether you're expecting guests, or you want to keep them all to yourself, you need to give these muffins a try. Seriously.

Coffee Cake Muffins
adapted from Midwest Living

1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 c. shortening
8 oz. sour cream or plain yogurt
1/2 c. milk
1/2 c. + 2 tablespoons sugar
1 egg, beaten
1/4 c. packed brown sugar
1/4 c. chopped walnuts or pecans
1 tsp cinnamon
additional spices to taste

Preheat oven to 375.
1. Lightly coat 9 muffin cups with non-stick spray or line with paper baking cups and set aside.
2. In a mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add any additional spices you like; I add a couple generous shakes of cinnamon, a pinch of clove, and a pinch of nutmeg. Cut in the shortening using a pastry blender until mixture is crumbly.
3. In a large glass measuring cup, combine the milk, sour cream or yogurt, egg, and 1/2 cup of sugar.
4. Stir together the brown sugar, nuts, teaspoon of cinnamon, and 2 tablespoons of white sugar in a small bowl.
5. Add the wet ingredients to the dry, and stir until just combined. Batter will be slightly lumpy.
6. Spoon half the batter into the prepared muffin tin. Sprinkle half of the nut mixture over the batter in the cups. Top with remaining muffin batter and remaining nut mixture.
7. Bake muffins 15-18 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of one of the muffins comes out clean. Cool 1o minutes in the pan, then remove and serve warm, or save until the next morning.


Love Me, Love Me...

When I first started working at the museum, I was confronted with a rather unwelcoming corporate culture. I quickly discovered that people did not socialize with people outside their department, and since I work in a department that consists of me and my supervisor, I would go days at a time without talking to anyone all day, since my officemates, Irene and Mireya, only worked part-time. In order to ingratiate myself with my peers, I embarked on an ambitious cookie-baking plan. I figured that if all else failed, I could break the ice with my coworkers, and maybe even bribe them into befriending me. So, for the last few months of 2008, I brought cookies into work once a week, usually on Fridays, and got into a routine of baking Thursday nights while watching Grey's Anatomy.

I became known as the "cookie fairy of the first floor," because I often dropped off my treats in the break room early in the morning, before anyone else showed up to the office. To a certain extent, my plan worked. People became friendlier, and I certainly became popular with the security staff, which is a good crowd of people to have on your side. Eventually, I became closer with Mireya and made friends with Natasha from the gift shop.

However, when I moved up to the administrative floor in 2009, I found myself facing the same problem that had plagued me before -- nobody ever talked to me. As a result, I revisited my cookie strategy, and started regularly baking for my new set of coworkers. Eventually, I earned a small following for my baked goods, and people were talking to me again, even if it was mostly to compliment my baking prowess. At least they knew my name, and most of them figured out I wasn't an intern.

My coworkers have become an invaluable part of my baking hobby. They provide a source of feedback for new recipes, and more importantly, a place to dispose of my experiments so that I don't end up eating all those dozens of cookies myself.

Today, I brought in a new batch of cookies that I baked last night, building off my new-found sense of inspiration from Martha Stewart's Cookies: The Very Best Treats to Bake and Share. (I have other cookie cookbooks, I swear. I just happen to find this one the most inspirational.) This time, I decided to tackle a recipe that has long been on my radar, for Iced Oatmeal Applesauce Cookies. Since apples are among the short list of fruits that I enjoy eating, I had long wanted to give these a try, but the recipe calls for chunky applesauce, which I hate and was reluctant to purchase and leave sitting around the house indefinitely. Now that I have a boyfriend that is less of a picky eater than I am to eat the leftovers, I set about trying the recipe at last.

The results were pleasing, with a nice balance of softness and chew to the texture, and a subtle hint of maple flavoring from the glaze. The applesauce was not a dominant flavor at all, but I was still glad that I added cinnamon to the batter. I had thought that it would pair well with the apples, and even though the apple flavor isn't noticeable, I think the finished product would be a little bland without the extra spice. After less than an hour in the staff kitchen this morning, the cookies were gone -- always a good sign, and I received some good feedback from my coworkers, who found them comforting and homey.

They might not be the fanciest cookies I've made, but the maple icing provides a bit of a flourish that elevates them. I see these as a perfect "mom cookie," something to have on hand as a snack for your kids when they get home from school. They were astonishingly quick and easy to make, which makes them perfect for such a purpose. If you're a mom, or would just like to recreate some of the comforts of home in your own kitchen, I'd certainly recommend giving these a try.

Iced Oatmeal Applesauce Cookies
adapted from Martha Stewart

For the cookies:
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 c. light brown sugar, packed
1/2 c. sugar
1 large egg
1/2 c. chunky applesauce
1 1/2 c. old-fashioned rolled oats
1 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 c. raisins (optional)

For the icing:
1 c. powdered sugar
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
2 tablespoons water

Preheat oven to 350.
1. Put the melted butter and both sugars in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, and stir together on low until combined. Add egg and applesauce, and mix until well-blended, 2-3 minutes. Mix in oats, flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Mix in raisins, if using.
2. Spoon tablespoons of dough onto a parchment-lined baking sheet, 2 inches apart. Bake cookies until golden and just set, about 13-15 minutes. Let cool on sheets 5 minutes, then remove to cooling racks to cool completely before icing.
3. Whisk icing ingredients together in a small bowl and drizzle over cookies. Let set completely before eating.


A Religious Experience - Part Seven

Ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to bring you the (hopefully) triumphant return of my series on architecturally significant churches of the Chicagoland area. I momentarily paused my pilgrimage when our city's ridiculously long winter began, with a promise (and later a New Year's resolution) to carry on when the weather improved. We might still be waiting on those elusive warmer temperatures, but today I finally got a day of sunshine and I decided to seize upon it to take a little field trip during my lunch hour.

I still have plenty of houses of worship left on my original list, and now that I've checked out George Lane's Chicago Churches and Synagogues: An Architectural Pilgrimage from the library once more, I'm sure my list will be rapidly expanding. Look forward to more installations in this series as long as the weather holds, and for those of you who are new here, you can find accounts and photos from my previous visits here.

St. Clement Church
642 West Deming Place
Chicago, Illinois

I was initially drawn to St. Clement when I was conducting my initial research for this project by paging through Heavenly City: The Architectural Tradition of Catholic Chicago in the Special Collections department of the Harold Washington Library. The book is full of gorgeous photographs and illustrations, and an image of the Byzantine interior of St. Clement caught my attention right off the bat.

You see, I have a bit of an obsession with Byzantine art that goes back to the first time I ever studied the Byzantine empire in a history class so long ago, I can scarcely even remember it. Perhaps it was 6th grade? My interest in ancient Byzantium fueled my love for mosaics as an art form, and motivated me to travel to Istanbul in 2007, to see the monuments of Constantinople, its imperial capital. Hence, when I saw a little slice of the Byzantine world recreated in my own fair city, I knew right away that I had to see it.

St. Clement was dedicated in 1918, to serve the rapidly growing Catholic population of Lincoln Park. The parish's leader at the time, Reverend Francis Rempe, had traveled to St. Louis to witness the dedication of St. Louis' Cathedral Basilica, and was so struck by the beauty of that church that he returned to the city determined to recreate it in Chicago. To that end, he hired the same architectural firm out of St. Louis, Barnett, Haynes, and Barnett to design a similar Byzantine church for the congregation of St. Clement.

I can see why Rev. Rempe was so motivated -- of the churches I've seen in the United States, the Cathedral Basilica is by far the most beautiful, in my opinion. That it has the most mosaics of any interior space in the world, many of them designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, is just icing on the cake. It goes toe to toe with any of the great cathedrals of Europe, even though it is hundreds of years younger.

Any church inspired by it had to be worth seeing, so I checked the congregation's website, which proved fruitless, other than an architectural tour I'd already missed. I emailed them to see if they would be offering another such tour in the future, and although they apparently offer one on the last Sunday of every month, I wouldn't be able to attend in May, and didn't want to wait until the end of June. Instead, they informed me that if I visited the church office, someone would let me in to view the church, which is precisely what I did.

Sadly, the dome of St. Clement is not visible from the front of the church. From the exterior, however, it greatly resembles the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.

Although St. Clement conforms to a basic cruciform plan, the inside of the church echoes the construction of Hagia Sofia in Istanbul in that it features a large dome resting on a series of dramatic arches. Although greatly scaled down from their St. Louis project, Barnett, Haynes, and Barnett were able to capture some of the feel of the original.

When the parish office's secretary let me into the church, I assumed that she would turn on some lights for me. I was mistaken, however, and was glad that I had picked a sunny day and brought my tripod so I could take photos with very long exposure times. I have to say though, being alone in a dark, empty church is a pretty creepy experience. The darkness, the candles, and the solitude reminded me a bit of the off-the-beaten-track churches I've visited in Europe, but all things considered, I would have appreciated some artificial illumination.

In keeping with the Byzantine style of the church, St. Clement's pastor at the time selected a Russian painter to create the building's extensive murals. Gleb Werchovsky had studied Russian Orthodox icon painting techniques at the Fine Arts Academy in St. Petersburg before converting to Catholicism and coming to the United States to work as a liturgical artist. The dome features images of the angels bearing the signs of the zodiac, which in early Christianity were symbols of the heavenly cycle of time.

St. Clement features extensive symbolic stained glass work. Above is one of the three rose windows representing the three members of the Holy Trinity. The window above portrays Christ, as seen in the small lamb at the center. In the ambulatory behind the altar there are seven windows depicting angels bearing symbols of the seven sacraments, which alternate with mosaics picturing the early Fathers of the Catholic Church.

In the transept, six stained glass windows in the Pre-Raphaelite style represent the six days of creation in the Book of Genesis. On the left is the creation of the sun, moon, and stars; on the right is the creation of man.

Given some of the run-down churches I've seen in the course of this project, and the historic houses of worship that are losing their congregations (and therefore revenue sources) to changing neighborhood populations, it was refreshing to see a building that is still thriving and well-maintained. Once again, it was amazing to me to find such a architectural and artistic masterpiece, quietly serving its purpose on a side-street in Chicago, unbeknownst to the majority of its citizens. It just goes to show that you never know what treasures await you in the city, as long as you are willing to look for them...



After last month's credit card bill jarred me into a newly frugal state of mind, I've been looking for new ways to stretch my monthly entertainment budget. I found some gift certificates to restaurants that I've been meaning to try on sale for 80% off, meaning I'll save $22 dollars whenever I go check them out. I've also lucked out and found a spate of neighborhood restaurants offering deals on Groupon, just as I was getting ready to give up checking the site since all it ever seemed to have were offers for Botox injections, sailing lessons, and restaurants so far away I'd spend my savings in gas and public transportation trying to get there. I've also purchased some Groupons recently for cooking classes from venues I wouldn't have even known about had they not been featured on the site.

Tonight, however, it was time to use a coupon I purchased from Living Social, a Groupon competitor, that offered a deal a few months ago for buy-one-get-one movie tickets from Fandango. At the time I purchased it, I assumed I had plenty of time to use it and promptly forgot about it until I got an email alert from the website letting me know that it was going to expire soon. Apparently, the sneaky powers that be at Fandango offered the coupons to get people to the theater during the slow spring season, but wanted to make maximum income during the lucrative summer blockbuster season. It makes financial sense for them, but I was still irked that I didn't get a chance to hold out for more interesting movie options.

I ended up taking Justin to see Bridesmaids, since he was attracted by Judd Apatow's producer credit, and I was naturally drawn to what seemed to be an unorthodox spin on the traditional wedding-focused chick flick. I've also long been a fan of Kristen Wiig's work on Saturday Night Live, so even though I also enjoy a good comic book movie from time to time, Bridesmaids seemed to be a far more attractive cinematic option for this weekend than Thor.

Even though comedies usually aren't my thing, I mostly enjoyed Bridesmaids. I say "mostly" because there were definitely some Apatow-ian moments of raunch and toilet humor that I think were incongruously imposed on the script to appease the male members of the audience. Not that women can't be amused by poop jokes -- indeed, the mostly female members of my maternal extended family seem to love them -- but the gross-out factor was above and beyond anything usually seen in movies marketed to a female audience.

That aside, I felt that Bridesmaids veered from the usual Apatow formula in some important ways. Whereas most of his movies deal with immature man-children whose lives are under assault by women who drag them reluctantly into the world of adult responsibility, Bridesmaids deals with a world in which women face the pressures of maturity and the effects of jealousy and feelings of inadequacy on interpersonal relationships between women. Men are relegated to the periphery of these women's lives, in fact, the groom in the wedding around which the entire plot revolves doesn't even have a single line. Refreshingly, men are not cast as knights in shining armor; instead, the female characters must find the impetus for growth and change from within. For that reason alone, it felt to me like Bridesmaids had much more of a heart and a relevant message than the typical Hollywood chick flick.

Although at times I wondered if Wiig was truly capable of pulling off a leading-woman role, I was impressed by the chemistry between her and her best friend in the film, played by Maya Rudolph. Apparently, Wiig and Rudolph are best friends in real life as well, and that rapport and intimacy transferred onto the big screen in a palpable way. In the scenes between the two of them, I felt that I could have been watching any number of conversations and interactions I've had with my own girlfriends. It was easy to see that the film was written by women with a real understanding of how women interact with one another, not some male fantasy of how women behave behind closed doors.

For its accurate portrayal of female friendship, I think Bridesmaids would be a great choice for a girls' night out with your girlfriends. For the gross-out humor, Bridesmaids is also an acceptable date-night compromise with story elements to appeal to both genders. Either way, the movie comes highly recommended from me, if only because Hollywood needs to receive the message that consumers will support more realistic, female-authored, female-focused films. If nothing else, go see it as a feminist statement, though I promise you'll laugh your butt off in the process.


Coming Around Again...

Sometimes, I feel like I get caught in a vicious cycle in the kitchen, and not because I've gotten stuck in a rut by cooking the same dishes over and over again. No, this vicious cycle is intentionally caused at least in part by food companies who sell complimentary products but in amounts designed to leave you with leftovers. Take hot dogs, and hot dog buns -- the encased meats usually come in packages of eight, while their accompanying bread products come in packages of six. You're doomed to either have extra dogs or extra buns. Chips and salsa are also big offenders -- inevitably, I either have leftover chips or leftover salsa and keep having to buy one to use up the other. They're virtually never finished at the same time.

This time, however, I've managed to fall into a trap of my own making. When I made my blogiversary cake a couple weeks ago, I found myself in possession of unused cream cheese frosting. It was so tasty I didn't want to just throw it away, but I also love Justin too much and have too much invested in his long-term survival to let him eat the leftovers straight from the piping bag. Initially, I considered making some red-velvet cupcakes to use up the excess frosting, but my inner Wyatt couldn't make peace with the idea of putting cream cheese frosting on a red velvet cake. In our family, it's 7-minute frosting all the way, and cream cheese frosting was just too much of an abomination to consider seriously. So, I let it sit in the fridge while I pondered on it some more. (Don't worry, it has a surprisingly long shelf life.)

The answer finally came to me when I was perusing one of my most-used cookbooks, Martha Stewart's Cookies: The Very Best Treats To Bake and to Share. Deep down, I've long been harboring the aspiration of trying every recipe contained within its pages, but realistically, given my picky eating habits, it's not likely to happen. There are way too many cookies in there that employ fruits and nuts that I don't eat. However, my most recent read-through offered a bit of hope for my long-simmering project, when I discovered that my palate has in fact gotten more expansive in the last year.

I used to think that I didn't like apricot jam or cream cheese in baked goods, so I wrote off a variety of cookies from Martha's book. Then I made this year's attempt at hamantaschen, and the resultant batch of rugelach designed to rid myself of the leftover cream cheese (leftover cream cheese products seem to be a reoccurring theme in my kitchen this year), both of which contained apricot jam. I loved both recipes, and now that I've proven myself wrong, I look forward to testing a variety of new cookie recipes in the future.

This brings me to my latest discovery in Cookies: The Very Best Treats To Bake and to Share: whereas I used to think that I didn't like either carrot cake or cream cheese frosting, now that I have the incredible cream cheese frosting recipe from my blogiversary cake, I've learned to appreciate the flavor combination. Which is why a recipe for carrot cake sandwich cookies in Martha's book caught my eye. I already had all the ingredients for the cookies in the fridge, and I wouldn't even have to make any cream cheese frosting since I already had some I needed to use up. It was the perfect solution to my problem.

The cookies turned out to be delicious -- spicy from the cinnamon and ginger, toothsome from the carrots and oatmeal, but also soft and cake-like, they were almost a hybrid of a sandwich cookie and a whoopie pie. However, it turned out that I grossly overestimated how much frosting I had left, and I was only able to produce a dozen sandwich cookies using it, which left me with more than half of the cookies naked and unpaired. I ended up having to make more cream cheese frosting, of which there was naturally a surplus. Now I'm in basically the same position I was before.

Even if I didn't solve my leftovers dilemma, I was still glad I gave these carrot sandwich cookies a try. They were wildly popular with everyone I shared them with, so they'll definitely be gracing my kitchen again. I think they even have good make-ahead potential. Following my technique outlined here, you could freeze the dough a couple weeks or months in advance, make the frosting a few days in advance, and assemble them when ready to serve. They'd be perfect for serving at a party or family gathering, and I think there's a good chance that they might just make an appearance at my next cookie exchange...

Carrot Cake Sandwich Cookies
adapted from Martha Stewart

1 c. packed light-brown sugar
1 c. granulated sugar
1 c. unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 c. all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
2 c. old-fashioned rolled oats
1 1/2 c. finely grated carrots
1 c. raisins (optional -- I left them out)
1/2 recipe Maple Cream Cheese Frosting

Preheat oven to 350.
1. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together butter and both sugars until fluffy, 3-4 minutes. Add eggs and vanilla and beat on medium speed until combined.
2. In a large bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and spices. Gradually add flour mixture to butter, mixing on low speed to combine. Mix in oats, carrots, and raisins, if using. Chill dough in the refrigerator at least one hour, until firm.
3. Roll tablespoons of dough into balls and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet, leaving two inches of space in between. Transfer to oven and bake until browned and crisp, about 12-15 minutes. Remove to a wire rack to cool completely.
4. Use an offset spatula to spread about 2 teaspoons of cream cheese frosting onto half the cookies, and top with a cookie of similar size and shape to form sandwiches. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to three days.


Here Comes My Hero...

Everyone always tells you to back up your data, but it never seems pressing until you've already lost it, and you feel like an idiot for ignoring all those people who warned you to back up. In all honesty, however, it never occurred to me that Blogger would have a failure that caused them to delete my posts. They promised they would restore all the posts they had removed, but apparently my blog was among a "small number" of blogs whose deleted posts were reverted to earlier drafts instead of being restored as they were published. As a result, I lost the entirety of my Mother's Day post, the majority of my Cubs game post from yesterday, and only a few lines from my post about my inconsequential office photo. It figures that the least important post would survive mostly intact.

Thinking that I would have to reconstruct those three posts, I was, ahem, greatly displeased with Blogger, and was dragging my feet something fierce. Just when I was buckling down to write, however, I got a message from Darrell asking me why he couldn't comment on my post about the Cubs vs. Cards game, which he had just finished reading on his blog feed. Apparently, even though I couldn't locate a cached copy of my blog anywhere on the internet, the missing posts were still in Darrell's feed, and he was kind enough to copy and paste them into an email so I wouldn't have to start again from scratch. He really saved the day in this entire blogging crisis, and from now on, I'm going to start following my own blog so I'll have back-ups in the future. Thanks Darrell!


Take Me Out To The Ball Game...

Today, summer arrived in Chicago, not only due to our notoriously capricious weather going from 0 to 60 in characteristic style, breaking a 115 year-old record for heat with 90 degree temperatures, but because I went to my first Cubs game of the season. Don't get me wrong, I still think baseball is the second most boring sport after golf, but on a nice day, you could do a lot worse in terms of ways to spend time outdoors. Bring along some good company, enjoy the people watching, and eat a hot dog -- what more could you ask for?

Besides, tonight I was able to indulge in a little Midwest rivalry between my beloved hometown, and my former temporarily adopted city of residence -- St. Louis. As part of his season ticket sharing deal with his buddies, Dad always requests tickets to the Cubs vs. Cardinals games so he can bribe our relatives into coming to visit us (the chance to see us usually doesn't cut it unless we can sweeten the deal, go figure), but since this series fell in the middle of the week, and May is usually still a miserable month for weather in Chicago, he had no takers for the game tonight. It wasn't difficult to persuade Cubs super-fan Mireya to go with me, and it was surprisingly easy to talk Justin into coming too, even though sporting events aren't really his thing either.

Justin and I, before the game.

This year, Dad's tickets moved from the outfield along the third base line, to the infield along the first base line, and I'd have to say they were a marked improvement. It's easier to see who's at bat without relying on the Jumbotron, and it was cool to watch the pitcher head-on. We could also see into the Cubs dugout, and watch the reaction of the coach. It was a little strange getting used to seeing the game from a whole new angle, but definitely worth it.

Tonight's featured match-up included Carlos Zambrano, and was supposed to be a pitching battle. I have no idea whether that came to pass. Mostly, I thought it was cool to try out the continuous sports shooting mode on my camera, from which I got this neat shot of the ball hurtling towards the home plate.

Our new seats were also close to the television cameras. Check out how big those things are!

Mireya and I, sometime after the midpoint of the game -- I wasn't really paying attention.

Sadly, the Cubs endured a defeat at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals, but I think I actually had the most fun of any baseball game I've ever been to, definitively proving my hypothesis that I could have fun doing anything, as long as I'm with Justin. He spent most of the game happily snapping away with his camera, testing different modes and functions and trying to capture various shots. Even if he doesn't particularly like baseball, he was at least able to seize on the game as an interesting photography opportunity. As for me, I spent most of the evening people watching and making fun of the older, married gentleman in front of me who was blatantly checking out the breasts of the young, attractive stranger sitting next to him. His lechery was way more entertaining than the game, if you ask me.

Most of all though, my evening at Wrigley filled me with hope for the summer ahead. With Justin by my side, and all the amazing friends I have in my life, I feel like the next few months are going to be filled with fun times, and I'm getting excited to see what the summer will bring. Stay tuned to find out!