There are certain things, culturally, which we're told are simply not funny. Dead babies are one (which has, of course, spawned an entire internet subculture of people posting the most offensive jokes possible about them), and cancer is another classic. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States. It's a good bet that every family has either lost someone to the disease, or has a survivor in their midst. Because the disease's impact is so widespread, and virtually everyone has some sort of personal connection to it, it is indeed hard to argue that their is anything funny about it. Still, a new film, 50/50 has managed to find the humor in just that.

Written by Will Reiser, who based the film on his own real-life experience with a rare form of spinal cancer, for which he was quoted a 50% chance of survival, 50/50 provides a surprisingly nuanced and realistic portrait of how one man copes with a cancer diagnosis. From the very start, no one can say, or do the right thing to help or calm him, even the trained professionals who are part of his treatment process. What we, as the audience, discover is there is no "right" response in this situation; everyone processes things differently and has different needs. Universal platitudes of sympathy may prove well-meaning, but inappropriate. Loved ones often prove unable to look beyond how the patient's cancer affects them, instead of the person who is actually suffering. What is often needed is a dose of normalcy in the midst of a complete life upheaval, and in the life of Adam, the film's protagonist, that normalcy comes in the form of humor. 

Adam and his best friend, Kyle (played by Seth Rogen, real-life best friend of the film's writer, who encouraged him to put the story of their response to his cancer on film), react to his diagnosis by using comedy as a defense mechanism. It masks how scared they are, and gives them a way to blow off steam in what would otherwise be an intolerably stressful situation. They show that, yes, cancer can be funny, if you choose to view it that way, and the results are touching, if somewhat disarming. 

Both Rogen (who, up until now has never been in a movie I wanted to see), and Joseph Gordan-Levitt delivered great performances in this film, but for me, Rogen was the real surprise. Perhaps because he had already lived out this scenario in real-life, he brought a great deal of pathos to his role as Adam's primary support system. Though he uses his friend's illness to score sympathy dates with a variety of women, and scores vast quantities of medicinal marijuana off his buddy, you can see that underneath the veneer of wise-cracks is a man who genuinely loves and cares for his best friend. 

I went into the movie having read a review of the film that described it as "Beaches for dudes." Given that description, I was expecting (and secretly hoping for) a weepfest, but I must not have factored in the "for dudes" part of that description. While Beaches is a study in the strength of female friendships and how women lean on each other in difficult times, female friendships and male friendships are entirely different entities. Not to stereotype, but women talk, share, and emote together far more than men do. So while 50/50 is every bit as much about the power of male friendships, there is no sappiness in sight.

Even if I didn't get the tears I was hoping for (I really do love a good cry at the cinema), I'd still highly recommend 50/50. In fact, I might go as far to say that it should be required viewing for anyone with a loved one who is currently fighting, or has been through a fight with cancer. It gives you a unique perspective on how to handle the situation, and presents the subject with grace, humor, and a healthy dose of realism.


Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News...

After last week's good news/bad news roundup, I'm happy to report nothing but joyous happenings this week:

After frantically searching for a job the past several months and finding nothing, I received a reprieve from the History Museum. They're not letting me go at the end of the week, as scheduled, but instead, they've signed me on for another year. I'm getting a new supervisor and a new project, which will explore the impact of the Cold War on Chicago history. For now, it seems that the focus will be on people who immigrated to Chicago to escape Eastern Bloc nations and areas afflicted by the Vietnam War, but it will be intriguing to see how the scope of the project changes over time. Given that I spent my undergraduate years focusing on Cold War history, both from foreign relations and pop culture perspectives, this project is right in my wheelhouse and I'm very excited.

In other employment news, Justin has been offered a new, and very interesting part-time job at an architectural and engineering firm, in their company library. He's been going through the interview process there for what seems like an eternity, and I'm ecstatic that things have worked out for him. Congratulations babe!

And finally, Dad finally made good on his 2010 Christmas present to me, which was to schedule a trip to Italy. We'll be flying to Milan on October 19th, and visiting Florence, Bologna, Ravenna, and Venice before returning home on the 30th. It will be intense trying to cram in so much sightseeing into such a short period of time, but I'm looking forward to seeing Renaissance masterpieces, Byzantine mosaics, historic churches, and beautiful cities. I haven't been to Italy since I was about 13, so I'm looking forward to experiencing it as an adult, and sharing it all with you. Make sure to tune in during October!


The Big Easy...

Not to toot my own horn too much, but I think I'm a pretty awesome girlfriend. I cook, I bake, I plan most of our dates (taking Justin's interests into account), I try to be relatively easy-going, and tonight I engineered a surprise for my beloved. Ever since we have been serious enough to entertain the idea of vacationing together, Justin and I have been planning a hypothetical trip to New Orleans. We've both been before, but I was so young that I barely remember it and couldn't really appreciate any of the city's culinary charms, and Justin was so enamored with the city that he can't wait to go back. Given the ever-ailing economy and its effect on our personal finances, however, that trip to the Crescent City remains a shared dream for the moment, though we both enjoy talking about it on a regular basis.

Since we can't afford it right now, I decided to bring a bit of New Orleans to our lives in Chicago by signing us both up for a cooking class at The Chopping Block (where we went to learn about knife skills for Justin's Christmas present) where we would learn how to cook some New Orleans-themed dishes. Though classics such as jambalaya, gumbo and beignets were not on the menu for the evening, we would tackle blackened chicken, red beans and rice, and a bread pudding spin on bananas foster. Not bad for one evening, but it was the experience I was more interested in anyway.

You see, I decided to make the evening a surprise for Justin. I had to tell him weeks in advance that we would be doing something this evening, so he could put it in his schedule and plan accordingly, which meant that he was trying to guess what we were doing for weeks. In the past, all of my attempts to surprise him have been thwarted because we have a policy between us that any question gets an honest answer from either of us. Because Justin is exceptionally gifted at playing 20 Questions (seriously, he guessed that we were going to the Newberry Library Used Book Sale back in July when I tried to surprise him with that), he's managed to guess every surprise I've tried to plan for him in the past. After the last time, he suggested that I just respond to any of his guesses with, "It's a surprise," since it's technically true, and doesn't give anything away.

Justin and I, waiting for class to start.

This strategy worked like a charm, and by the time tonight rolled around, he was still in the dark about what was in store for him for the evening. I did drop a few hints while we were on the way there: when we were waiting on a Green Line train to transfer to the Brown Line to get to the Merchandise Mart (I'd selected that location over the one in Lincoln Square because we went to that one last time, and I thought going somewhere we'd never been before would throw him off the trail), he asked if we were going west, and I informed him that, "Actually, in a way, we're going south." Then, when we were waiting on the Brown Line, I let slip that, "In a way, you could say we've been talking about doing this for a long time." Both hints had him intrigued, but no closer to guessing.

Justin was thoroughly confused when I had him exit the train at the Merchandise Mart, and when we entered, I let him in on the gist of the surprise by telling him that since we couldn't go to New Orleans, I'd created a little bit of that city here in Chicago. When we rounded the corner that left the Chopping Block in sight, he asked if that was where we were going, and if we were having New Orleans food. When I answered in the affirmative, he was ecstatic, and couldn't believe I'd managed to keep a secret for so long. Mission accomplished.

The ingredients for our dirty rice and beans, ready to go.

The class itself turned out to be really great; better, I think, than the knife skills class that endeared me to the Chopping Block in the first place. The Merchandise Mart facility is more spacious and a little nicer than the one in Lincoln Square, and I was quite pleased with the space. Since our last class hadn't involved any actual cooking, I was pleased to see that the instructor and his assistant lay out the mise en place before the students arrive, assembling and measuring out the necessary ingredients in advance so that all the attendees must do is chop, mince, stir, combine, and actually cook the dishes. I wish I had that kind of service in my own home!

Our completed plates, with crab cakes, homemade tartar sauce, blackened chicken, and dirty rice and beans.

The class was structured as a date night, so everyone in attendance was part of a couple, and we worked in groups of four with a married duo from Hyde Park. They turned out to be very friendly and good conversationalists, so I think that improved the quality of our evening exponentially. Plus, they were a very impressive couple -- the husband was the head of the Milwaukee Zoological Society, and the wife was the Senior Vice President in charge of Human Resources at a local hospital. They were very down to earth though, and a lot of fun to work with.

The finished bananas foster bread pudding.

Though I'd probably never have selected to make crab cakes or bread pudding on my own (I don't really care for either dish, even if I make them myself), the recipes still provided a nice challenge to my culinary skills. The blackened chicken and dirty rice and beans were surprisingly delicious, and I'll definitely be adding those to my culinary repertoire. Besides being tasty, now when I recreate them at home using the recipes we were given at the class, I can call back memories of the night when I arranged a special surprise for Justin, and that alone makes the class worthwhile.

I will say that the class wasn't as informative as the knife skills lesson, but that could be the instructor's fault. I think he could sense that our group had a solid culinary grounding, so he seemed to direct most of his educational efforts elsewhere. I ended up giving our group a lesson on breading: using one hand for the flour and breadcrumbs, and one hand for the egg wash keeps both hands from getting totally crusted in breading. Thank goodness for the Food Network!

Even if I didn't learn as much this time, I still had an awesome time with cooking with Justin, meeting new people, and having a great meal. I probably won't be able to make it a surprise, but I'd sign up for another class at the Chopping Block in a heartbeat. The fact that I managed to make the evening extra-special for my man was just icing on the cake, and I'm sure it will be a fond memory for the both of us going forward.


Left Of Center...

At this point, I don't think there's anyone in America whose life hasn't been touched by the Great Recession in some way. Even if you haven't lost a job, had trouble finding one in the first place after graduating college, started economizing to a new extent, clipped coupons, or lost value in your house, it's a good bet you know someone who has. Unless you're a billionaire (in which case you're probably worried that the current wave of anti-corporate greed sentiment will touch you in some way), it's safe to say that times are hard all over.

Of course, this isn't the first time Americans have faced economic turmoil. The Great Depression may be 80 years in the past, but it remains our cultural touchstone for understanding abject poverty. The novels of John Steinbeck and the photography of Dorothea Lange may be the defining cultural artifacts of the era, but a wealth of materials were produced at the time that are becoming newly relevant in today's precarious economic climate. 

To that end, I was attracted to a new production of Clifford Odet's classic one-act play, Waiting for Lefty at the Victory Gardens Biography Theater on the city's north side. Written in 1935, Waiting for Lefty presents a series of vignettes about the crushing effects of corporate greed on average workers, framed by the action of a union meeting in which a group of cab drivers is deciding whether to strike in hopes of securing higher wages. Though the play's heavy-handed socialist message seems a little dated today, what could be more timely (especially in light of the burgeoning occupation of Wall Street that started earlier this week) than a denouncement of income disparity and the perils of capitalism run amok?

I was genuinely surprised by the quality of the American Blues Theater's production. Given that we were able to get tickets for about $12, and the fact that it was housed in the theater's studio space, I was expecting a fairly minimalist staging. However, the cast was surprisingly large (bigger, I think, than some of the shows I've seen in the big-name downtown theaters of late); their costumes, while slightly lacking in authenticity (I don't think working women had the luxury of owning enough pairs of shoes at the height of the Great Depression to own pairs of peep-toe sandals that would have let in show and rainwater on inclement days) didn't look like rented; and the space itself was surprisingly large, spacious, and well-appointed.

Despite the high production values, I found myself wondering at the end of the performance if I had actually enjoyed it. I found the dialogue exceedingly difficult to follow; the actors were speaking much too fast, and if the play had been written today instead of 1935, I would have said that the playwright was trying too hard to cram it full of period jargon to increase its populist appeal. Given that many of those slang expressions have fallen from usage in the intervening years, it was difficult to follow what the actors were saying. Plus, I'm not entirely convinced the actors themselves comprehended the meaning behind their dialogue, as it seemed to me that they were often giving emotional emphasis to the wrong parts of sentences.

I was also distracted by the company's use of blind casting to create a better gender balance for their production. A scene in which a high-ranking chemist at a large research facility quits her job instead of agreeing to her boss's demand that she spy on her coworkers was particularly jarring. I'm pretty sure that there were very few lady chemists in 1935, and those that existed probably weren't being offered lucrative raises. Ditto for another scene that featured a female physician who was supposed to be the head of a hospital's charity ward, who was being let go because she was Jewish. Supposedly, this character went to Harvard, where, in reality, the first female graduates matriculated from the medical school in 1949. I'm sure the company just didn't want all the choice roles to go to their male members, but for me, their casting decision shattered the illusion of historical accuracy.

Though I was ambivalent about the production as a whole, there was one vignette that I found particularly moving: in it, a young woman and her lover contemplate the fact that their economic circumstances will prevent them from marrying and raising a family. Ultimately, despite their love for each other, they decide to part ways since they cannot be together in the way they desire. More so than the other stories, I found their tale of dreams deferred and thwarted romance to be the most resonant for our time. It was less a socialist call to arms, and more a indictment of the economy's destruction of even the most basic tenets of the American Dream.

The American Dream is just as threatened today as it was in the 1930s, and I wish there were a solution as readily apparent as a strike for better wages. Politicians seem more interested today in being reelected than bringing about any relevant change, and more vested in protecting the interests of their corporate campaign donors than their constituents. Grass roots activism from the right has brought us nothing but the idiocy of the Tea Party movement. Will the left get its act together and provide a viable alternative? Only time will tell, but for now, I can only hope...


Under The Wire...

Fall has been in the air for a while now, at least in regard to weather, but it doesn't officially begin until Friday, so I thought I'd squeeze in one last summer treat while I still could. Plus, I thought it would be only fair to give The Perfect Scoop one more go before my new ice cream book arrives in the mail and steals my attention. (And, if I'm totally honest, I had a quart of whole milk in the fridge leftover from my Cake Day cookies last week and my weekend foray into cinnamon bun baking that had a "sell-by" date of yesterday, and ice cream seemed like the logical way of disposing of it.)

Since I was in a time crunch, I wanted to make a recipe that I had all the ingredients on hand for, so the caramelized pear ice cream I've had my eye on for the past couple years got overlooked once more in favor of a maple nut ice cream. (I think though, that I might just have to make some seasonally inappropriate ice cream this fall though and give that caramelized pear ice cream a try, since I've been on a caramel kick this year.) I do love the flavor combination of maple and nuts, and I'm always looking for new recipes that feature that pairing. Though I was a bit skeptical about the "wet nuts" called for in the recipe (apparently they're a common East Coast ice cream topping, but are largely unknown here in the Midwest), mostly due to their rather unappetizing name, I figured I'd give it a try nevertheless.

Now that I'm well-practiced in the art of making egg-based custards, I found this recipe to relatively painless to produce. Even the wet nuts were simple, if maybe a bit time consuming due to the time needed to heat the oven, toast the nuts, then wait for the completed mixture to cool before churning the ice cream. This was my first experience adding mix-ins to an ice cream, but it was fairly straightforward, though I think in the future I might chill my mix-ins first, because adding the room temperature wet nuts to the cold ice cream seemed to raise its temperature. Since adding the nuts was the last step, the runnier ice cream didn't freeze quite as smoothly as normal because it wasn't as cold going into the freezer.

Even if the final product was a bit grainier than some of my other efforts, I still thought the flavor was good, on balance. Despite the huge amount of maple syrup in the recipe, the ice cream wasn't too sweet. I was also amazed at how crunchy the nuts stayed; they were nothing like the soft nuts that one finds in the average container of supermarket butter pecan ice cream. My only criticism is that I think I've decided, after making the eggless Philadelphia-style, Mexican "Hot" Chocolate Ice Cream this summer, that I think I prefer ice cream recipes that don't rely on egg custard bases. The flavor of the egg yolks stands out too much to me, and takes away from the purity of the flavors you're trying to showcase. Though I have a few more custard-based ice creams in my frozen dessert queue to try, I think I'm going to look for more egg-free recipes in the future.

Maple Nut Ice Cream with Wet Nuts
adapted from David Lebovitz

1 1/2 c. whole milk
2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 c. heavy cream
5 large egg yolks
3/4 c. dark amber maple syrup
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
Wet Nuts (recipe follows)

Warm the milk and sugar in a medium saucepan. Pour the cream into a large bowl and set a mesh strainer on top.

In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks. Slowly pour the warm milk mixture into the egg yolks, whisking constantly, then scrape the warmed egg yolks back into the saucepan.

Stir the mixture constantly over medium heat with a heatproof spatula, scraping the bottom of the pan as you stir, until it thickens and coats the back of the spatula. Pour the custard through the strainer and stir it into the cream to cool. Add the maple syrup, salt, and vanilla, and stir until cool over an ice bath.

Chill the mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator, then freeze it in the ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. During the last few minutes of churning, add the Wet Nuts.

Wet Nuts

1/2 c. plus 1 tablespoon dark amber maple syrup
1 1/2 c. walnuts or pecans, toasted
Big pinch of salt

Heat the maple syrup in a small saucepan until it just begins to come to a full boil. Stir in the nuts, then cook until the liquid comes to a full boil once more. Stir the nuts for 10 seconds, then remove from heat and let cool completely. The nuts will be wet and sticky when cooled.


Luck Be A Lady...

Fate is a fickle beast. Sometimes luck is on our side, but from time to time, the universe deals us a bad hand. Today, I got a little bit of both.

In the realm of good news, I got an email from my favorite food blog, Serious Eats, that I had won their weekly "Cook the Book" contest, wherein they feature recipes from a newly released cook book and give away copies to five lucky readers. It turns out that I've got a copy of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams At Home in the mail, so you loyal followers can look forward to a spate of new ice cream recipes and techniques whenever it arrives. The timing is slightly less than ideal, given that we're headed into fall and winter and the book was sent via media (i.e. super slow) mail and won't arrive for 4-6 weeks, but hey, I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.

However, I also got a piece of bad news today. Remember that "mysterious illness" that's been plaguing Justin since we got back from St. Louis and that slowed him down during our visit to Starved Rock? Turns out, he has pneumonia. Though the infection is much more serious in the elderly, children, and the chronically ill, he's still going to need antibiotics and plenty of rest over the next few weeks to finally kick this thing. Let's all wish him a speedy recovery, mostly so that he will feel better and back to his old self, but also (selfishly), so I can go back to kissing him!


On A Roll...

To make a special weekend a little bit sweeter, I decided to try my hand at homemade cinnamon rolls for breakfast this morning for the first time. I've long been interested in trying my hand at them because they hold such positive associations for me: for most of my life, the majority of the cinnamon rolls I've consumed have been made by Grandma Betsy, who keeps a stash of them in the freezer, ready to serve to any family members who happen to come over for a visit. Though she changes her recipe frequently, and has long been frustrated by her inability to find a cinnamon that meets her rigorous standards for intensity of flavor, a warm, spicy-sweet cinnamon roll in the morning has become synonymous in my mind with hospitality. For me, cinnamon rolls are sort of the ultimate food of love.

Originally, I was intimidated out of trying them for myself because I was afraid of dealing with yeast, but years of making my favorite pizza dough and recently delving into yeasted waffles have made me more comfortable with the fungi, so my fear of yeast was no longer an impediment. Eventually, it just came down to a matter of time; cinnamon rolls take a long time to make. The dough needs time to rise, then you roll out the dough, sprinkle with cinnamon, roll the dough into a spiral log, cut it, place it in pans, then allow it to rise again before baking. Then you have to make icing, and ice them as well. They're not a convenient weekend breakfast -- this is why they're a food of love.

Since I'm completely head over heels in love, I decided it was time to suck it up and put some time and effort into making a special treat for my beloved. I'd long had my eye on a recipe from popular food blogger-come-Food Network personality Ree Drummond, a.k.a. The Pioneer Woman, that has been floating around the blogosphere for years and is regarded as one of the best cinnamon roll recipes out there, so I decided to use a reduced version of her recipe for my first attempt. (Drummond's original recipe is truly massive, as she suggests you make them as a holiday gift and share them with basically everyone you know, so I halved her version.)

I was particularly pleased to finally get around to trying this recipe because it gave me an excuse to finally use up some of the cinnamon that Katherine sent me as a birthday gift last year, in a sampler pack from Penzley's Spices. It featured several different single-origin cinnamons from around the world, each purporting to be ideal for a different purpose. The bottle of Chinese cinnamon touted that it was perfect for cinnamon rolls, so I decided to go with that, and I was glad I did. It was intensely flavored (despite being over a year old... oops), and had a pleasant sweetness to it that complimented the rolls.

The rolls themselves were fairly straightforward and not particularly difficult to make, though, as I predicted, they did present a serious time commitment. I started them last night after we got back from Starved Rock (and had Justin go to the store and get some yeast, because it turned out that I was under the mistaken impression that I had the right type in my cabinet), then I woke up early this morning to finish them before Justin had to leave for work, while I let him sleep in. Even with making only half the recipe, I still ended up with four pans of rolls, for a total of 28 cinnamon buns, so I think I'll be going the freezer route, just like Grandma Betsy.

Before icing. Even at half the original recipe, I ran out of pans and had to substitute one of my own cake pans.
I'm not prepared to make The Pioneer Woman's cinnamon bun recipe my gold standard just yet. Though I was attracted to them in part due to their maple glaze (I love me some maple flavoring), I found its overall effect on the rolls to be a bit too sweet. In the future, I might opt for a cream cheese based topping to add some much needed tanginess to the mix. I'd also like to give the Cook's Illustrated cinnamon bun recipe a try, as they've earned my complete trust when it comes to bread products. Still, now that I've shown myself that I can conquer cinnamon roll making, I look forward to perfecting my own version to share with my loved ones, just like Grandma Betsy.

After icing.
Pioneer Woman's Cinnamon Rolls

2 c. whole milk
1/2 c. vegetable oil
1/2 c. sugar
1 package active dry yeast
4 c. all purpose flour, plus 1/2 c., separated
1/2 teaspoon baking powder (heaping)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda (scant)
2 teaspoons salt
1 c. butter, melted
1 c. sugar
generous sprinkling of cinnamon
Maple Icing, recipe follows

Mix the milk, vegetable oil and sugar in a pan. Scald the mixture (heat until just before the boiling point). Turn off heat and leave to cool 45 minutes to 1 hour. When the mixture is lukewarm to warm, but NOT hot, sprinkle in the active dry yeast. Let this sit for a minute. Then add 4 cups of all-purpose flour. Stir mixture together. Cover and let rise for at least an hour.

After rising for at least an hour, add 1/2 cup of flour, the baking powder, baking soda and salt. Stir mixture together. (At this point, you could cover the dough and put it in the fridge until you need it - overnight or even a day or two, if necessary. Just keep your eye on it and if it starts to overflow out of the pan, just punch it down).

When ready to prepare rolls: Sprinkle rolling surface generously with flour. Take the dough and form a rough rectangle. Then roll the dough thin, maintaining a general rectangular shape. Drizzle 1/4 to 1/2 cup melted butter over the dough. Now sprinkle 1/2 cup of sugar over the butter followed by a generous sprinkling of cinnamon.

Now, starting at the opposite end, begin rolling the dough in a neat line toward you. Keep the roll relatively tight as you go. Next, pinch the seam of the roll to seal it.

Spread 1 tablespoon of melted butter in a seven inch round foil cake or pie pan. Then begin cutting the rolls approximately ¾ to 1 inch thick and laying them in the buttered pans. Let the rolls rise for 20 to 30 minutes, then bake at 375 degrees until light golden brown, about 15 to 18 minutes.

Maple Icing

1 lb. powdered sugar
1 teaspoon maple extract
1/4 c., plus 2 tablespoons whole milk
2 tablespoons butter, melted
pinch of salt

Mix together all ingredients and stir well until smooth. It should be thick but pourable. Taste and adjust as needed. Generously drizzle over the warm rolls. Go crazy and don't skimp on the frosting.


Love On The Rocks...

In one of the very first online conversations I ever had with Justin, we talked for (unbelievably) nearly six hours about a wide variety of getting-to-know-you subjects like family and hobbies. In the course of that conversation, we happened to talk a bit about Starved Rock State Park, which I had just seen on television that night, and I mentally filed it away as something we could do together if things worked out between us. Needless to say, things have worked out gloriously between the two of us, so when the weather began to turn this spring, I started looking for a viable day for a hiking day trip.

Spring is supposed to be the best time to visit Starved Rock, as the melt water from winter's snow feeds the myriad waterfalls that lend beauty to the area, so I was motivated to go sooner as opposed to later. However, fate intervened, and between Justin's weekend work schedule and the miserable weather we had all spring, the limited number of days when we were both available to go were all rained out. Summer came, and waterfall season came to an end, but we still tried several times to schedule a day trip out to Utica, but once again, we were hampered by excessive heat and illness. It was starting to feel like the whole trip had a curse upon it.

Ultimately, it wasn't until today, nearly a year after we first started talking about going, that we were finally able to make it to Starved Rock. Even then, a mysterious lingering illness that's been afflicting Justin ever since we came back from St. Louis threatened to intervene, as he was running a fever just last night. This morning, however, he proclaimed himself well enough to go hiking, so we jumped in the car and made the hour and half long trip southwest.

The view from Starved Rock looking south over the Illinois River. We caught the very beginning of the changing leaves, due to the chilly weather of late.

Still being somewhat delicate of health, we worked with a volunteer in the visitor center to craft a flexible hiking plan for the day. We would start with a quick trip up the eponymous rock, so named because a group of Illini Native Americans fled there to evade a group of marauding Ottowa and Potawatomi warriors. The invaders then laid seige, and the Illini starved to death there. Then, after taking in the view from Starved Rock, the volunteer laid out a trek for us that would take us through three of the canyons that characterize the park's geography, French Canyon, Pontiac Canyon, and Wildcat Canyon, then looping back around through three scenic river overlooks and back to the visitor center. He predicted that the hike would take us two hours.

My bonehead move for the day involved forgetting my handy mini-tripod for taking self-portraits. As a result, we had to rely on the kindness of strangers all day, and the elderly lady we asked to take a photo of us on Starved Rock insisted we adopt this corny pose. (Secretly, I kind of like this picture...)

Our original plan was to complete our two hour hike, then pause for lunch near the visitor center and evaluate whether we were feeling up for another round of hiking in the afternoon. However, the two hour hike ended up taking us nearly three hours, since we took a wrong turn, missed Pontiac Canyon entirely, and hiked somewhat out of our way. Plus, all the stairs that took us up to the tops of cliffs and down to the bottom of canyons ended up taking their toll on us, so we decided that three hours was enough for one day for us. It'll give us something to do if we ever manage to find our way back to Starved Rock State Park, though now that we've successfully made it once, perhaps our curse is broken.

The only photo I could get of Starved Rock that minimized the visual impact of all the vandalism.

I was somewhat underwhelmed by Starved Rock itself, as it wasn't particularly impressive looking. It was mostly covered in trees, except for a few patches of exposed sandstone where previous hikers had taken the time to carve their names into the rock. Their acts of vandalism kind of killed some of the natural beauty, but at least there was a panoramic view of the Illinois River valley from the top. Unfortunately, the vista is marred somewhat by the presence of the Starved Rock Lock and Dam, a massive man-made structure that stretches across the river just upstream of Starved Rock itself. Because of its presence, I had to be strategic in my photography for the day to try to capture more scenic images.

Justin snapping some photos of his own in French Canyon.

When the guide at the visitor center informed us that the park was dry and there would be no waterfalls, I have to admit, I was pretty bummed. Hopefully we'll get to come back and see them someday, but wherever God closes a door, He opens a window, so they say. Since the creeks and waterways were dried up, we were able to climb much further into the system of canyons than is normally possible when water is coursing through them, and this gave us a feeling of exploring "secret" parts of the park. It was slightly more treacherous than sticking to the regular path, but well worth the effort.

Justin and I in the "hidden" part of French Canyon. You can see behind us where the waterfall would normally be.

Of the two canyons that we hiked today, French Canyon was my favorite. It was a little bit more difficult to access, and due to some poor signage we very nearly missed it, but I was glad we found it. The stairs heading down to it were very steep, and I was happy for the extra ankle support provided by my hiking boots while we were trekking back through the canyon. (Justin was surprised I even had a proper pair of boots, but they were a holdover from the involuntary three week camping trip in South Dakota I was forced to take as a college junior when I won a scholarship through the American Studies department. I hadn't worn them in the five years since then.)

I'm obsessed with this picture of Justin in Wildcat Canyon. How lucky am I to have a boyfriend that is so ridiculously good-looking?

After French Canyon, we were supposed to hike over to Pontiac Canyon and then continue on to Wildcat Canyon, but instead of consulting our map, we relied on our memory of what the volunteer guide had told us and took a wrong turn, heading straight for Wildcat Canyon, the third stop on our suggested trip. The walk there was quiet and largely devoid of other hikers (which should have been a hint, perhaps, that we were not going the right way), but at least it was on mostly level terrain, so it gave our knees a bit of a break. Our destination wasn't quite as impressive as French Canyon had been, partially because it was swarming with more fellow tourists snapping photos. The only people there who weren't busy capturing the moment on their camera phones was a group of Amish or Mennonite hikers, who stood out in their traditional apparel and use of a Germanic dialect.

The banks of the Illinois River.

Our trip through Wildcat Canyon went fairly quickly, and from there the path took us along the sandy riverfront, where a profusion of royal blue dragonflies were buzzing about. The fact that they only seemed to exist within about 20 feet of the water's edge provided an interesting reminder of the importance of micro-climates in sustaining biodiversity in our environment.

Probably the best photo of the both of us from the whole day, taken at Eagle Cliff Overlook. We were told that this vantage point offered the best view of the day, but I think I disagree with that sentiment.

The path took us past a trio of scenic overlooks, for which we had to scale and descend a large volume of stairs. I'm not sure about the wisdom of putting this portion of the trip at the end of our hike, as my knees were complaining mightily and Justin's energy was flagging as well. Before all was said and done, we had agreed that there would be no afternoon hike for the day, and we'd be better off taking things easy and returning home as soon as we made it back to the visitor center.

Justin and I, keeping our feet planted on terra firma at Lover's Leap.

Still, even if we didn't do see as much as we had hoped, I'd say we had a pretty idyllic visit to Starved Rock. The weather could not have been more perfect, so perhaps it was worth the nearly year long wait for just the right conditions to go. Even if hiking isn't normally my thing, and I generally prefer the beauty of man-made art and architecture to the beauty found in nature, I have to admit that Starved Rock State Park is gorgeous. It's hard to believe it's in Illinois, a state that more often associated with endless corn and soybean fields. I think that's part of what makes it an ideal in-state day trip.

Someday, I'd like to go back to see the waterfalls, or perhaps the vivid colors of the fall foliage, but for now, I'm just happy that we finally made it there. It was fun doing something a little bit different with Justin for the day, and seeing how happy he was to finally get me to do something outdoorsy would have made the entire trip worthwhile on its own, even if the scenery hadn't been as splendid as it was. All in all, it was a day well-spent with the man I love.


Gimme S'More...

Well, I'm thoroughly off the wagon now. I've now baked two Martha cookie recipes in two days. I'm officially an addict, and for the most part, I'm okay with that.

I've actually been planning to bake these cookies since last week, when I came back from my Labor Day trip to discover that the group of coworkers I eat lunch with had proclaimed Tuesdays to be Cake Days from now on. Apparently, another department at the museum has elaborate potluck lunches together and has a cake day on a different day of the week, so they wanted to appropriate that tradition to make their own Tuesdays more tolerable. Someone else brought the inaugural Cake Day cake, but I quickly volunteered to be next, after I was granted an assurance that any form of baked goods would be acceptable. Cake Day is definitely the kind of tradition I can get behind!

I knew I wanted to make cookies for Cake Day, since they're easier to transport to the office than a homemade cake, but I still wanted to make something cake-like. I contemplated the carrot cake sandwich cookies I made back in May, but whereas I didn't happen to have cream cheese in the house, I did have the ingredients necessary for another Martha recipe I'd been meaning to try: Surprise Cookies. The treats get their name from a hidden marshmallow half, nestled on top of a soft, cake-like chocolate cookie, then camouflaged in chocolate frosting so that whoever is lucky enough to take a bite gets a marshmallowy surprise. The recipe promised that the flavor would call to mind hot chocolate in cookie form, and that was all I needed to read. I picked up the requisite marshmallows back in early June, when s'more season put them on sale, and before the Martha embargo.

My 9/11 emotional collapse brought my Martha moratorium to an early close and meant that I'd have to bake two days in a row, but the mammoth pile of dishes aside, I didn't really mind. Though yesterday's biscochitos were seemingly more popular at the office, these "surprise" cookies appealed to my palate much more. I can't help it if I'm a chocoholic, on top of being a Martha-holic. Even the batter was delicious -- it tasted like thick, room temperature hot chocolate, and I almost never eat raw cookie dough from the bowl. (People often marvel at my self-control in this regard, but I honestly find raw cookie dough fairly disgusting, and it's the reason why I'm able to produce so many finished cookies when many people end up eating most of the dough before it even hits the oven.)

The cookies were also perfect for Cake Day. The first of my coworkers to bite into one did a little happy dance when she discovered the secret marshmallow, and proclaimed them to be "like a classy Ho-Ho." If you're at all a fan of the Hostess line of products, I think you'd enjoy these cookies, and I think the surprise element of them would make them a fun project to bake for your kids, if you have any. Definitely give them a try.

Surprise Cookies
adapted from Martha Stewart

1 3/4 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 c. natural cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 c. unsalted butter, softened
1 c. sugar
1 large egg
1/2 c. whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
12 marshmallows, cut in half horizontally
1 recipe chocolate frosting, recipe follows

Preheat the oven to 375.
1. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, cocoa powder, and salt.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy, about two minutes. Add egg, milk, and vanilla; beat until well-combined. Add flour mixture, 1/2 cup at a time, until combined.
3. Roll the dough into 1 3/4 inch balls or use a comparably-sized ice cream scoop, and place 2 inches apart on parchment lined baking sheets. Bake cookies until firm, about 8-10 minutes.
4. Remove cookies from the oven and immediately press half a marshmallow, cut side down, in the center of each cookie, pressing slightly. Return to oven and continue baking until marshmallows begin to melt, 2-3 minutes more, keeping an eye on them. Transfer cookies to wire racks to cool completely.
5. Spread about 1 tablespoon chocolate frosting on top of the marshmallows, spreading to cover thoroughly, so marshmallows are hidden.

Chocolate Frosting

2 c. powdered sugar
1/2 stick unsalted butter, softened
1/4 c. natural cocoa powder
1/4 c. milk
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a small saucepan, melt together the butter and cocoa powder over low heat, stirring occasionally. Pour mixture over powdered sugar and whisk in milk and vanilla extract until smooth.


Guess Who's Back...

Enough is enough. I'm calling an end to the Martha moratorium. It's been nearly three months since I instigated my embargo on Cookies: The Very Best Recipes to Bake and Share, and while it was good to stretch myself by baking some pies, and make better use of my cookbook library, Martha's book was never far from my mind. I wish I could say that eventually it lost its hold over me, but I'd still flip through it, longingly looking at the gorgeous photography and plotting my next kitchen experiment. I suppose I'm a kind of addict; whereas I stayed on the wagon for almost three months, I never stopped thinking about Martha's cookie recipes. Yesterday, I finally broke.

I suppose it had something to do with the ill-advised decision I made to watch nearly seven hours of 9/11 programming on the History Channel.  Last year, I told my 9/11 story, but this year, I think the stories of miraculous survival and tragic loss hit me in an entirely different way. As I listened over and over to stories of women who lost husbands in the attack, my thoughts naturally turned to Justin. What would I do if the love of my life were suddenly ripped away from me? It's an outcome I can scarcely bring myself to contemplate, but for thousands of families, it became their reality. After thoroughly emotionally devastating myself, I turned to a source of pleasure and solace that was familiar to me: baking cookies.

For my foray back into the world of Martha, I went straight for the recipe that had been next in my queue before the moratorium started. Since I've been approaching the book with a more open-minded eye this year, I was attracted to a recipe for biscochitos, the state cookie of New Mexico and supposedly a holiday staple all over the American Southwest. I found the recipe intriguing because it was the first cookie recipe I could recall seeing that was composed in the modern era and still called for lard. Ever the curious sort when it comes to baking, I wanted to give them a try, even though I was dubious about their anise/orange/cinnamon flavor combination.

The unusual dough proved very difficult to work with; it was exceedingly soft. Though I usually use powdered sugar to roll out cookies instead of flour in order to prevent toughness and additional gluten formation, this dough was so wet I figured the extra flour couldn't hurt, and subsequent re-rollings of the dough did prove easier to handle, though I still had to work quickly to get them from the counter to the cookie sheets. All the flour, when combined with the cinnamon sugar that got sifted over the cookies turned my counter into an epic mess, but the finished product proved to make the mess worthwhile.

The lard gave the finished cookies a great, crumbly texture that I've not seen in any other cookie, while its flavor remained neutral. Surprisingly, the seemingly disparate flavor components all played well together and created a complex, but not unpleasant combination of tastes. Anise is, by far, the most dominant flavor, and they actually reminded me a bit of a less dry, texturally superior version of the "S" cookies made by my father's side of the family.

Most surprisingly of all, however, was their popularity at the office today. I had no idea that anise was such a popular flavor (I kind of regard it as an acquired taste, and despite eating "S" cookies my entire life, I still merely tolerate it), and people raved about them, though only one person could figure out the secret ingredient. Americans have such a fear of lard that most of us don't even know what it tastes like any more, but one person, my boss' Italian secretary, walked straight into my office and said in her lyrically-accented English, "You made these cookies with lard! I can tell! That's why they are SO good!"

Given that the dough was a pain to work with, I'm not sure when I'll get around to giving biscochitos another chance. They were exceptionally well-received, but I think it'll take a special occasion for me to want to go through the effort again. They're definitely worth trying once, if only so you can have the following exchange with your significant other:

Haley: I baked cookies tonight.
Justin: Ooo, what kind?
Haley: Biscochitos.
Justin: Disco Cheetos? What on earth is that?
Haley: (laughs hysterically and makes a mental note to blog this moment)

adapted from Martha Stewart

1 c. sugar plus 3/4 c. for sprinkling
1 1/4 c. lard or vegetable shortening
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier or other orange liquer
zest of one orange
3 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons anise seeds
2 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
all-purpose flour, for dusting the counter

1. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix 1 cup sugar and the lard on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about three minutes. Add egg; beat to combine. Add vanilla, orange liquer, and zest; beat to combine.
2. Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Gradually beat flour mixture into the sugar mixture on low speed. On medium, gradually add water until dough forms a ball, adding more if necessary. Wrap dough in plastic and refrigerate at least 30 minutes, up to overnight.
3. Preheat the oven to 350. Combine the remaining sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl; set aside.
4. On a floured surface, roll out the dough to 1/4 inch in thickness. Working quickly, cut the dough into desired shapes, and sift cinnamon sugar over them. Transfer to parchment-lined baking sheets and refrigerate or freeze 30 or 15 minutes, respectively. Bake 12-14 minutes, until set but not brown. Remove cookies to wire racks to cool completely before eating. Re-roll the scraps and repeat until all the dough is used.


A Religious Experience - St. Louis Edition

Although the purpose of my "A Religious Experience" series has been to shed light on the architectural gems to be found among Chicago's houses of worship, I wanted to write a post about my visit to the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis; after all, it is my favorite church in the United States. I plan on visiting more local churches as soon as I can work out the logistical details, but until then, you can get your ecclesiastic architecture fix while reading about St. Louis:

Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis
4431 Lindell Boulevard
St. Louis, Missouri

The Cathedral Basilica represents a critical story in the development of my interest in domestic churches. I first became aware of it when I was at Wash U., when one of my friends at the time, Drew, attended a string of organ concerts there. At the time, I was a bit of an architecture snob and believed that the only churches worth seeing were the ancient, medieval, and Gothic churches of Europe, but over time, he wore me down and convinced me to give this local landmark a shot, and I was glad I did. After being thoroughly wowed by what I saw there, I began to wonder what other hidden gems were to be found on this side of the pond, right under my nose.

Like the great churches of Europe, the Cathedral Basilica was built over a long period of time. It opened for services in 1914, seven years after the start of construction, when only the superstructure was completed and no interior ornamentation was present. The church was not consecrated until 1926, in conjunction with the centennial of the formation of the St. Louis Archdiocese, but work on the mosaics adorning the walls and ceilings was not finished until 1988. Initially, the budget for the building stood at one million dollars, an unfathomable sum in those days, which is roughly equivalent to $24 million in today's dollars. Of course, given the length of the project and the intricacy of the final mosaics, the Cathedral ended up costing far more than even that.

The Archdiocese held a design contest for plans for the new Cathedral, and their selection committee ultimately chose a Byzantine design from the local St. Louis firm of Barnett, Haynes, and Barnett. You can definitely see the resemblance to the copycat version the firm created for St. Clement Church in Chicago.

Outside the cathedral is this unique statue dedicated to the idea of racial harmony in the deeply divided city of St. Louis. The angel's wings are created from wind-chimes, which causes the audience to interact with the sculpture in more than just a visual manner. It was donated by a member of the Schlafly family, a prestigious local family with ties to the beer industry.

The "New Cathedral," as it was known at the time of its construction, was designed to accommodate St. Louis' burgeoning Catholic population, which had  far outgrown the much smaller original cathedral located downtown, near the riverfront. The Old Cathedral was built in a colonial American style, and was considerably more austere than its replacement. The mosaics in the principle dome of the church feature images from the New and Old Testaments, and were designed by famous liturgical artist Jan Henryk de Rosen when he was in the United States seeking asylum from the Communist government of Poland during the Cold War. The smaller dome over the alter depicts significant events from the history of the St. Louis Archdiocese. The mosaic work in the nave was completed by largely local firms.

Tiffany Studios was responsible for the mosaics in the side chapels and sanctuary walls. Here, you can see the ceiling of the All Saints Chapel, which bears a stylistic similarity to the geometric design on the ceiling completed by Tiffany for the Marshall Field Building in Chicago.

You can also see some similarities between this Tiffany mosaic in the ambulatory and the work they did in the former Chicago Public Library, now the Chicago Cultural Center

Even though I had been to the church before, I was excited this time to see the Mosaic Museum, located in the crypt. Although I thought I knew a lot about the mosaic process, even I learned a lot from their informative displays. For instance, I was under the mistaken impression that the tesserae, or tiles, were painstakingly applied to the walls and ceilings one at a time. In reality, however, the artists create a reverse image of the desired finished product, and temporarily adhere the tiles face down to it. Then, they apply the cement to the drawing's final destination, press the design onto the surface, and allow it to dry. Then the temporary backing is peeled off, leaving the tiles in place to be grouted later. In this manner, the mosaics are completed in chunks.

I was also interested to know that the large swaths of gold tesserae are more complicated than meets the eye. They are actually composed of several different shades and textures of gold leaf-covered glass, as the imperfections and differences cause the light to reflect off the individual tiles differently. This creates the glittering effect that we think of when we imagine glass mosaics.

The baldacchino, or canopy over the altar, is designed to mimic the shape and appearance of the church's exterior dome.
The narthex of the church is decorated with gold mosaics featuring scenes from the life of King Louis IX of France, the saint to whom the Cathedral is dedicated, and the namesake of the city of St. Louis. 

Though the size of the St. Louis Archdiocese is shrinking as a result of decreasing church attendance nationwide, and the flight of many parishioners to the increasingly distant suburbs of the city, it was granted Basilica status by the Vatican in 1997. Pope John Paul II visited there during his 1999 visit to the United States, and many artifacts from that visit can be found in the museum located beneath the church.

Still, even if its congregation is shrinking, it was good to see the church looking every bit as splendid as I remembered it. Plus, I was glad to share such a thing of beauty with the man I love. My only regret is that we didn't get to spend more time there, as we arrived about five minutes before mass was about to start and we were quickly shooed away by a priest. Hopefully, Justin and I will be back someday so he can get a better look at the building, and get a better appreciation of the beauty I've been raving about for so long.


Meet Me In St. Louis - Part Four

Finally, since few things went according to the original plan this weekend (though on balance, our trip still went well), fate had one more wrench to toss into our schedule for our last day on vacation. Whereas we had wanted to get up early and squeeze in a quick trip to the Zoo while the weather was nice and my sense of smell was still out of commission, we ended up leaving town early to make a detour on our way home. As it turned out, Grandma Betsy was hospitalized earlier in the week with a wicked case of diverticulitis, so we wanted to stop in Carrollton to visit her. She seemed to be in good spirits, despite wanting to go home as soon as possible, and she actually looked healthier than I remember seeing her in a while. My aunt Lisa was also there, and we ran into my cousins Danielle and Trista in the hospital parking lot, so it was nice to unexpectedly see so much of the family. Unintentionally, we ended our summer where we began it -- in Greene County.

Even if our trip didn't live up to the rosy expectations I had built up for it (i.e. sickness, inclement weather, and unanticipated family obligations), I'm still glad I got an opportunity to get away and spend some quality time with the man I love. It would be nice if our next trip went a little more smoothly, but I'm satisfied with our St. Louis journey as a jumping off point for a lifetime of adventures together. I can't wait to see the world with Justin, experience new things together, and create beautiful memories. I'm already excitedly thinking about where we should go next. Stay tuned to find out!


Meet Me In St. Louis - Part Three

Since the first two days of our trip hadn't exactly worked out according to plan, we had to cram all of our sightseeing into our third day in town. Because I was concerned about the availability of visitor parking (though that concern was perhaps unwarranted given the fact that it was Sunday on a holiday weekend not long after the start of the school year), we started off our day with a walking tour of Washington University, in which I pointed out all of my favorite spots and old stomping grounds. I think Justin was surprised by the beauty of the campus; after all the renovations they've conducted in the past four years, much of it was a surprise to me as well. I have to say though, the place looks expensive these days. The $50,000 tuition price tag makes a little more sense now.

After four years of avoiding taking the cliched photo on the Brookings steps, I was actually sad that I didn't have one, so I gave in and took one with Justin.
Justin and the Bunny.

Mostly, I was relieved that in the flurry of construction that has the South 40 looking like an Epcot recreation of Europe, the powers that be have not yet gotten around to tearing down my old freshman dorm, Beaumont. Sure, it was kind of crappy, and it's definitely an eyesore now compared to the buildings that surround it, but some of the happiest memories I have were created in those dingy halls. I made friends there who are some of the most important people in my life, and somehow, I didn't have a single photo of me with the building. I made sure to rectify that situation before the building exists as nothing more than a fond memory for those who lived there.

After reliving my college days, we tried to squeeze in a quick visit to the St. Louis Zoo, which is widely regarded as one of the best zoos in the country. Normally, I'm not a fan of zoos, largely due to the smell, but seeing as how my sinuses were still blocked, that obstacle was not an issue. In fact, because of my delicate sense of smell, I'd never gone to the zoo in the time that I spent living in St. Louis, and I was looking to finally scratch it off my to-do list. However, given the beautiful weather that had finally taken hold, it seemed that most of St. Louis had the same idea as we did. There was no parking to be found in Forest Park within a reasonable walk of the zoo, so we decided to move on and visit the Cathedral Basilica instead.

The Cathedral Basilica is one of my favorite spots in St. Louis, and I think it's a shame that more people don't visit there. A poll among my relatives yesterday revealed that none of them had ever been to see it, and all of them are long-time residents of the city. Built at the turn of the last century to replace the riverfront cathedral that had formerly served as the seat of the St. Louis archdiocese, the Cathedral Basilica is now home to one of the largest mosaic installations in the world. Much of this work was designed by the famous Tiffany Studios, and the results are breathtaking. Sadly, we were only there for a few minutes, as it was a Sunday and a mass was scheduled to start shortly after we arrived. Still, I was happy to share such a beautiful hidden gem with Justin, however briefly.

Next we were on our way to the Gateway Arch, St. Louis' defining landmark. Though I'd been up to the top of it when I was in college and didn't exactly relish the idea of riding the rickety, claustrophobic capsule elevator to the top once more, Justin was keen to experience the Arch to the fullest, so I sucked it up and did it once more. That is love, folks.

The Arch was designed by Eero Saarinen, the famous Finnish-American architect known for the TWA terminal at JFK Airport in New York City, Washington Dulles Airport, and some very mod furniture designs. He submitted his design in response to a contest being held for a memorial to westward expansion, one of the first major design competitions of the post-war era. Saarinen recognized that the world's great monuments all employed relatively simple, timeless shapes (like the Washington Monument's obelisk), so he went with the basic form of the catenary arch.  Construction began in 1963 and was completed two years later in 1965. Ever since I can remember, Dad has told the story of how the Arch's construction fascinated his civil engineer father, who would often drive the family past the construction site so they could watch its progress.

I really feel that the top of the Arch experience is overrated. It's exceptionally crowded, and St. Louis isn't exactly a particularly scenic city of which to obtain a sweeping view. The vista over the dessicated industrial landscape on the Illinois side of the river is even worse. Still, I guess at least Justin can say he's been to the top of the Arch, so that's something.

Justin and I at the top of the Arch.

The Arch also overlooks Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals. If you wanted to park yourself at a window all afternoon, you could probably watch the whole game, though I think you'd be at a loss for what was happening most of the time.

Since we'd already braved the security line to get into the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial complex, we decided to make the most of our experience there and peruse the Museum of Westward Expansion, which I had previously avoided because it looked hopelessly cheesy and offensively self-aggrandizing. Both of those assessments proved to be correct, so we made a quick tour of the paltry selection of artifacts before making a hasty exit. The only redeeming item in the entire exhibit was the awesome plaque pictured above, which gave us both a good laugh.

When we had finished at the Arch, we headed west ourselves in search of the new Citygarden, an interactive sculpture garden built as part of the effort to renew the downtown area. We paused to get the iconic photo of the St. Louis courthouse in front of the Arch, before trekking an additional block west to find it. Although it had looked much bigger online, there was a nice collection of pieces, and the overall effect of the installation reminded me a bit of Millennium Park, though on a much smaller scale.

Adults and children alike were frolicking and splashing in the numerous fountains, which I think would be truly refreshing during the brutal St. Louis summer. Kids were climbing all over the art pieces, which may not have been the artists' original intent, but it was nice to see the public really engaging with the sculptures.

Justin with a electronic panel featuring people in motion.

Goodness knows St. Louis needs more activity in the downtown area, and it was good to see a positive change taking place there. From my perspective, it was also nice to be able to do something I'd never done in the city I once called home, and to share an experience with Justin that was novel for both of us.

On the way back to the car, we made a quick stop to see the Old Cathedral, officially designated the Basilica of St. Louis, King of France. Built in 1831, it was the first Catholic church constructed west of the Mississippi River, and was the seat of the first Catholic diocese established in the Louisiana Purchase territory. Because of its historic significance, it was spared when all the surrounding buildings were razed to allow for the construction of the Arch, but due to the flight of residents from the downtown area, it has some of the lowest attendance of any Catholic church in the area. It was deserted when we were there, and compared to the splendor of the Cathedral Basilica, it was a bit of a letdown.

From the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial area, we braved out way through the post-Cardinals game traffic to make it to dinner at Aya Sofia, a Turkish restaurant owned and operated by my cousin Alicia and her husband Mehmet. They have amazing food there, and it was always somewhat of a special occasion restaurant when I was living in St. Louis. I wanted to take Justin there since it's not only connected to the family, but also because we've never taken the time to locate a Turkish restaurant in Chicago. Plus, it's across the street from the ever-popular frozen custard emporium Ted Drewe's, which would allow us to squeeze in one more quintessential St. Louis experience for the day.

Dinner was, as expected, amazing, and the romantic atmosphere was a perfect capstone to our weekend getaway. I think Justin enjoyed his Ted Drewe's experience as well, even though we were unanimous in our assessment that their frozen custard isn't exactly mind-blowing. It's really the experience of waiting in the line and standing around the parking lot eating it surrounded by locals who have been doing the same thing for generations that makes the experience.

For our last evening, we checked into the lovely Moonrise Hotel on the Delmar Loop, the Groupon for which had inspired our vacation in the first place. If you're heading to St. Louis, I can't recommend this hotel enough: it is by far the nicest hotel I've stayed at in the city in all my years of attending weddings and Thanksgivings in the area, and that includes the Ritz Carlton. There is a bit of street noise, since the building is located in a popular nightlife district, but the room was beautifully appointed and very comfortable. Also, the staff seemed keen to please and was very service-oriented. 

Though Justin was feeling a bit under the weather and was definitely running a fever, it didn't spoil our night; we managed to find The Empire Strikes Back on television, which provided a perfect, very "us" ending to our long day of tourism.