Baby On Board...

In my years at the History Museum, I've been blessed to make some really great friends. Even as people have moved on from the museum, I've kept in touch with many of them, and my current crew helps make every day go by faster and more pleasantly. We've been down a member lately as McNulty takes her maternity leave, but she came in today for a visit, accompanied by her beautiful new daughter, Kiera. 

My friends and I had been eagerly anticipating her arrival ever since we first heard that she might come in to the office. We were keeping an eye out for her all day, and were just heading out to lunch when she arrived. We spotted her at the end of the hall, and the whole group of us practically stampeded across the entire north-south distance of the building to get our first look at the baby. We're lucky we didn't terrify them both!

Both mommy and baby looked fantastic -- no small achievement for a new mother, and it was good to see both of them looking so happy. It was a bittersweet moment for me, as my time at CHM is drawing to a close soon with the end of my current project next month, and my last day will come before McNulty returns from her leave. I'm glad I got to be around to witness this time in her and her daughter's life, and that I could help welcome little Kiera into the world by co-hosting McNulty's baby shower. Congratulations on the new arrival; I'm so happy I got to meet her in person!


This Must Be Pop...

I feel like summer really got away from me this year. Perhaps this is what happens when you are a new homeowner -- not only are we fighting the nesting instinct to spend as much time in our new home, we are also too house poor to get get out and do much. Factor in the remote location of our new abode, and it's hardly surprising that we haven't exactly taken advantage of everything Chicago had to offer this summer.

We didn't make it to a single street festival, we went to zero movies in the park, we didn't dine al fresco at any of the city's ubiquitous restaurant patios, and I only went to one art festival and it wasn't even outdoors. Instead, our summer was spent learning how to grill and hosting so many cookouts that I actually can't even remember them all.

One thing I have been adamant about doing this summer is attending museums, mostly because warm weather will inevitably return to Chicago next year, but there is only one opportunity to see a temporary exhibit before it closes. Tonight, Justin and I finally made it to the Art Institute to see the Roy Lichtenstein retrospective that I've been eying all summer.

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the big, temporary exhibits put on by the Art Institute, from the audience-friendly Impressionist retrospectives of my youth, to last year's phenomenal, albeit challenging, exhibit on World War II-era Soviet propaganda posters. The only exception I can think of would be 2010's Matisse exhibit, and that's more due to my not being a fan of his work than any fault of the museum's. It's safe to say, however, that the Lichtenstein exhibit will go down in my memory banks as another one of the Art Institute's successes.

I went into the exhibit not knowing much about Lichtenstein, other than that he was an important figure in the Pop Art movement, and that his work drew from cartoons as source material. Not only did I learn a great deal about Lichtenstein's technique for creating the precise Ben-Day dots borrowed from the world of printing (he, or a member of his staff painted through a screen), but I learned that there were layers of complexity to his work that I never would have anticipated.

For his paintings that borrow from the language of the pulp comic books of the 1950s and 60s, Lichtenstein did not simply copy images outright, as I had thought. My assumption had always been that Lichtenstein appropriated the images from comic books, blowing  them up to an epic scale, and thereby turning objects of "low culture" into art, or "high culture," not unlike Marcel Duchamp's embrace of "readymades" as a part of Dadaism. However, while Lichtenstein drew inspiration from comic books, he would often change the composition of the images he drew from, emphasizing certain elements to enhance the message that he was trying to convey.

Since Lictenstein's comic book-inspired pieces are perhaps his best known, and are most represented in museums and galleries, I was surprised to discover that he explored a much larger variety of themes in his work. He was particularly drawn to the subject of art itself, and art history in particular. In the image depicted above, Lichtenstein poked fun at the Abstract Expressionist movement, the predominant style of painting when Lichtenstein was beginning his career. Here, he turns the splatters and energetic daubs of paint that were meant to capture the emotions and individuality of the artist under Abstract Expressionism, and turns them into something mechanical and easily reproduced.

Lichtenstein was also fond of giving his unique spin on the work of other artists. In this series, Lichtenstein reproduces Claude Monet's famous "Rouen Cathedral" series. Monet painted some thirty images of the facade of this cathedral in order to capture the effects of different types of light at different times of day, throughout the course of the year. Lichtenstein took things one step further, by employing different printing techniques to render the same image. 

The Lichtenstein retrospective not only taught me a great deal about the artist's work and gave me a greater appreciation for his creative genius, it was fun. Part of the appeal of Pop Art is that it is easily accessible, and it has a sense of whimsy about it. It was easy to breeze through this exhibit, taking in the information and enjoying the artwork. Although I generally disagree with the concept that all museum exhibits need to be constructed as a form of "edutainment," I felt that the Lichtenstein exhibit blended the two seamlessly enough to be truly memorable.


Lemon Head...

Now that we are headed into the back stretch of August, fall is coming up just around the corner. For us, that means that our days for grilling are numbered, so it is time to squeeze in a few more weeknight cookouts before it gets too chilly to cook outdoors. Considering that I didn't really enjoy grilled food when we bought our Weber two months ago, it's surprising how well I've taken to it. I think it helps to be in control of the grilling process, so that the food gets a nice smoky flavor without becoming charred and blackened, like so much grilled food seems to be.

My Pinterest board has filled up with recipes for the grill that I never thought I'd be drawn to, but for tonight, I opted for a citrus and rosemary flavored chicken dish, because there was a good deal on lemons at the grocery store this week.Though I've never been a fan of regular lemon chicken, or lemon in general, I thought that this dish might be a better option because it tempered the tartness of lemon with the addition of orange juice.

I turned out to be partially correct. While the orange blunted the sourness of the lemon, and added a pleasant complexity to the dish, the predominant flavor was still lemon. Still, it was different enough that I really rather enjoyed the meal. The thought of cooking and reducing the leftover marinade into a sauce was rather unnerving for me, as I was paranoid about all the bacteria from the raw chicken, despite the fact that I was to boil it for an extended period of time. Neither Justin or I have food poisoning yet, but it's hard to ignore all the years of food safety indoctrination telling one to dispose of anything that has touched raw chicken.

This meal will definitely be gracing our table again when grilling season rolls around once more, but with one exception. The original recipe called for grilling up two sliced oranges and two sliced lemons, with the intent of squeezing them over the chicken at mealtime. While the gently charred citrus wedges looked beautiful on the platter, the chicken already had a sauce, and squeezing more citrus over it was overkill that doused the plate and made everything else on it soggy. We ended up not using them beyond the first portion, and now we've got a ton of leftover grilled citrus for which we have no other use. I hate wasting food, so I'm going to omit that step in the future unless I want to wow some house guests with an impressive and beautiful food display.

Grilled Citrus Chicken Breasts
adapted from Bon Appétit

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil plus more for brushing
1 cup fresh orange juice
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary
2 teaspoons kosher salt plus more for seasoning
2 1/2–3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pounded gently to even thickness

Whisk 2 tablespoons oil and next 4 ingredients in a large bowl; stir in 2 teaspoons salt. Add chicken breasts; turn chicken to coat, cover, and chill overnight.

Build a medium-low fire in a charcoal grill, or heat a gas grill to medium. Remove chicken breasts from marinade; set marinade aside. Place chicken breasts on grill. Cover and grill, moving chicken to different spots on the rack for even cooking but without turning, until slightly charred and cooked through, about 165 degrees.

Meanwhile, bring marinade to a boil in a small saucepan and cook until reduced to glaze consistency (about 1/3 cup); season with salt. Transfer chicken to a platter and spoon glaze over chicken.


A Veggie Tale...

Considering my anti-vegetable stance, it shouldn't be surprising that we don't eat a lot of vegetarian meals around here. I wouldn't say that we eat a primarily meat-based diet either, it's just rare for us to have a meal that doesn't involve some animal protein, whether it be chicken, pork, fish, or beef. Justin, however, feels that we need to eat less meat on a daily basis (perhaps he has been reading Michael Pollan behind my back?), and because I love him, and like to take his eating preferences into account when I'm doing our meal planning, I've been trying to seek out more meatless recipes to try to fit into our dining rotation.

The first block of recipes to capture my attention featured quinoa, another request that Justin has made to be integrated into our diets. While quinoa is a grain, and carbs have always had a welcome spot on my plate, I'd never really gotten into quinoa before. I know, I know, it's a complete protein, it's full of fiber and essential nutrients, yada, yada, yada. The truth is, I had a disastrous experience the first time I ever tried making quinoa, and it managed to scare me off of making it again for years. 

Not long after I graduated college and became more interested in learning how to cook at home, I became enamored with 101 Cookbooks, a natural cooking blog by author Heidi Swanson. Though the vast majority of the recipes didn't appeal to me (all those vegetables and weird, whole-grain flours!), I loved her photography and the way she wrote about food. One day, I finally spotted a dish on her site that tempted me, for a cinnamon breakfast porridge made with quinoa. I had never made the grain before, but I was deep into an oatmeal obsession at the time, and decided to give it a try.

Being generally inexperienced at cooking at the time, and unaccustomed to cooking on a gas stove, when the recipe said to cover the pan and simmer the porridge, I made a fatal error by not leaving the lid open just a crack. The next thing I knew, the hot, milky quinoa had exploded over every surface of my kitchen, and I found myself scrubbing everything down for hours, lest some trace of milk be missed and start to go rancid. After that failure, I never wanted to make quinoa again.

Love, however, can move mountains, even one as stubborn as I. So when I saw a recipe in Food and Wine for pan-fried quinoa cakes with spinach, I decided to put it in my recipe queue, and I'm glad I did. It took some advanced planning, because the recipe had many components and needed to be chilled several hours before cooking, so we ended up making these over the course of two days. They were so delicious, however, that they were completely worth the effort. In fact, in the future, I think it would be simple to make a double batch of the quinoa/semolina/spinach mixture, chill it, form it into patties, and freeze them to have on hand for a quick meal in the future. 

The patties had a very pleasing texture, soft from the semolina but punctuated with chewy bits of quinoa. The spinach and shallots provided a nice, savory counterpoint, and the crispy panko coating was perfection. Since the flavors reminded me of Greek food, I would like to experiment with adding some crumbled feta to the mix, just to gild the lily a little. These were a perfect, vegetarian meal with a nice side salad, and I am already looking forward to having them again in the future. If all my vegetarian experiments turn out this well, I could see doing this meatless thing on a  more regular basis...

Golden Semolina Quinoa Spinach Cakes
adapted from Food and Wine

1/2 c. quinoa
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon minced shallot
10 oz. baby spinach
1 c. low-fat milk
3/4 c. finely ground semolina
1/4 c. grated Parmesan cheese
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 1/2 c. panko breadcrumbs
3 large egg whites

1. In a small saucepan, combine the quinoa with 1 cup of water and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat until the water has been absorbed, about 15 minutes. Lightly fluff the quinoa with a fork and cover it again.
2. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Add the shallot and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until softened, about 1 minute. Add the spinach and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer the spinach to a strainer and let cool slightly; press out any remaining liquid and finely chop the spinach.

3. In a large saucepan, combine the milk, 1 1/2 cups of water, 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and 2 teaspoons of salt and bring to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat and gradually whisk in the semolina until very smooth. Cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the semolina is thick enough to hold soft peaks when the spoon is lifted, about 7 minutes. Remove the semolina from the heat and stir in the quinoa and Parmigiano. Season with salt and pepper and let cool for 15 minutes.

4. Stir the beaten whole egg and spinach into the quinoa mixture and spread in an ungreased 7-by-11-inch pan; it will be about 2 inches thick. Let cool at room temperature, then cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.

5. Preheat the oven to 250°. Cut the chilled semolina mixture into 12 squares. Put the panko in a shallow dish and season with 1 teaspoon of salt. In another shallow dish, whisk the egg whites with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1 tablespoon of water. Dip the cakes into the whites and turn to coat, letting the excess drip off. Coat the cakes in the panko and shake off excess crumbs. Transfer to a clean baking sheet.

6. In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add half of the cakes and cook over moderately high heat until golden on both sides and on the edges, about 6 minutes; adjust the heat as necessary to prevent the cakes from burning. Drain the cakes on a paper towel–lined plate, then transfer to a baking sheet and keep warm in the oven. Wipe out the skillet and cook the remaining cakes in the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Serve hot.


And They're Off...

As I have mentioned time and time again here on "The State I Am In," I am a person who loves traditions. Holiday traditions, seasonal traditions, family traditions, food traditions -- you name it, and I probably have at least a couple. Seeing as how it is still currently summer, I was somewhat overdue for one of my family's relatively new customs: our annual trek to Arlington Park to catch a horse race. I am not, nor have I ever been an avid fan of racing, but I don't mind a bit of gambling now and again, and spending an afternoon betting on the ponies is actually pretty fun.

This year, Dad managed to score us tickets for the Arlington Million, the marquee event of the horse racing season here in Chicago. Now, I think all the radio ads that I heard this year proclaiming it, "Chicago's proudest sporting tradition," were exaggerating more than a little bit, considering the storied legacies of the Chicago Bulls and the Chicago Bears. In fact, I'm not sure that the Arlington Million is even a big deal in the world of horse racing, though it does offer a purse of a million dollars, so I could be wrong about that.

Either way, the atmosphere at the racetrack was undeniably more lively than when we've gone in previous years. There were substantially more people overall, and most of them were better dressed than we're accustomed to seeing at Arlington. Not only were people filling up the grandstand, families were camped out on blankets on the grass, and young people wearing wristbands were wandering through various adults-only booze tents and party zones.

We had outdoor seats this year, which I prefer for the improved visibility of the track, though we were in the sun for the first couple hours of the afternoon, and I could practically feel my skin burning, even with sunscreen. I did miss the air conditioning and slightly better food options inside, but the sacrifice was worth it in exchange for excellent seats.

It was fun to witness the extra pomp and pageantry associated with the Arlington Million compared to other race days I've attended there. There was a massive release of patriotic balloons, a singer performing between races, and even the horses were decked out in their finery, complete with ribbons and flowers woven into their manes and tails.

A horse named "Little Mike" won the big race, but every single person in our party left Arlington in the hole at the end of the day. It was, by far, the worst day of gambling we've had in our three years of visiting the race track. I ended up only a couple dollars behind, and I lost the least of anyone in our party. Thankfully, Dad covered everyone's losses for the day, so I didn't lose any of my own money, which probably would have seriously curtailed the afternoon's entertainment value. As it was, I had a great time, and I'm glad that I had the opportunity to experience Arlington's marquee event. I'm not sure I need to experience the crowds of the Arlington Million again, but I'm already looking forward to next summer's trip to the racetrack...


You Can Teach An Old Dog New Tricks...

I feel like I've always been pretty upfront about my disdain for vegetables. The list of produce that I'm willing to eat is woefully small: broccoli, lettuce, carrots (raw only), zucchini,  green beans, peas (though I prefer to be of the sugar snap or snow pea varieties), and occasionally spinach, but only if it's cooked in something, never alone. Sometimes, I can handle celery if it's cut very small. I also have a surprising love of Brussels sprouts that I have cultivated in recent years. By and large, however, this means that our options for side dishes are pretty limited on the average weeknight.

But bless his soul, as an avid veggie lover, Justin has been persistent. A few weeks back, we were standing in the produce department, while I tried to figure out a vegetable for us eat with one of our meals for the week. The usual suspects were getting tiresome, and I was uninspired. Justin reached for a head of cauliflower, and plaintively asked if we could get it. I vetoed the idea immediately, but he promised me that not only would he eat the entire thing himself, that he would cook it for himself as well, and I wouldn't have to lift a finger. I was sold.

I remembered reading an article somewhere that argued that roasting was the best method for cooking cauliflower, as it created a nearly transcendent final product, so I went online and did a search for roasted cauliflower instead of letting Justin steam the whole batch. The idea of a heaping bowl of steamed cauliflower seemed so bland and unappetizing to me that I couldn't bear the thought of even watching him eat it. I came a recipe from Emeril for which all the ingredients could be found in our kitchen, so I picked that for Justin to follow, even though I've had mixed results from Emeril's recipes in the past. 

Though I think he was slightly annoyed that the recipe I picked out required more time and effort than steaming, his doubts seemed to evaporate when the kitchen began to fill with the most delicious aroma. The smell wafting out of our oven was so delightful that even I, an avid cauliflower hater, was moved to sample a bite when it came out of the pan. Lo and behold, what I experienced was not the foul vegetable I'd experienced in the past, but something truly amazing. I wanted to eat more -- lots more.

With this garlic-heavy, lemon-accented recipe in my arsenal, I am prepared to make cauliflower a regular feature in our side-dish rotation. Justin won't even have to beg for it anymore; I might even go so far as to buy it of my own free will, and prepare it on my own. 

You win this round, boyfriend -- you have gotten me to accept a new vegetable into my life. You may not be so lucky next time...

Oven-Roasted Cauliflower with Garlic, Olive Oil, and Lemon Juice
adapted from Emeril Lagasse

1 medium cauliflower, cut into 1 1/2 inch florets (about 5-6 cups)
3-4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
5-6 cloves of garlic, minced
juice of half a lemon
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan

Preheat the oven to 500.

Place the cauliflower florets in a roasting pan. Drizzle the olive oil over the cauliflower, and season with the garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Place the roasting pan in the oven and cook for 15 minutes, stirring every five minutes to ensure even roasting. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with the Parmesan. Serve immediately.


The Dark Knight Rises...

Generally speaking, I wouldn't consider myself to be a Luddite. Even if I don't exactly keep up with the latest trends in technology, I have accepted its place in my life and I keep as up-to-date as my finances allow. One area in which I remain firmly dedicated to tradition, however, and that is the cinema. When it comes time to catch the latest box office release, I'm all for experiencing the most up-to-date special effects, but I want to do my watching on a standard size screen, in two dimensions.

I've long been opposed to the trend of releasing movies in 3-D, ever since it blossomed in popularity after Avatar came out in 2009. It fail to add much to the cinematic experience, in my opinion, because it is either treated like an afterthought (which in many cases it is, since the films are shot in 2-D and the 3-D effects are added in post-production), or the movie is too focused on it, creating lots of visual gags that draw attention away from the storyline and characters. Plus, I seem to be in the 12% of the population that gets a headache from watching it, so for me, it's definitely not worth the considerable added expense.

Today I discovered another cinematic upgrade of which I am apparently not fond -- IMAX. Ever since The Dark Knight Rises debuted in theaters this summer, Justin has been bugging me to see it in IMAX, with its bigger screen, better image resolution, and improved sound quality. Christopher Nolan actually filmed The Dark Knight Rises specifically to be shown in IMAX, so it was hard for me to argue with him, even though it would cost extra, so I acquiesced. Besides, I'd already vetoed seeing The Amazing Spiderman in 3-D earlier this summer, so I felt like I owed him one.

Within the first few seconds of the previews, I was already scrunched down in my seat with my fingers in my ears. The movie was LOUD. I briefly entertained the idea of going to the customer service desk and reporting that there was something wrong with the sound, but when I looked around at the other patrons in the theater, I realized that nobody else seemed bothered by the staggering volume. Maybe this is the consequence of a generation raised listening to their headphones turned up too high, but my ears were actually hurting not long into the actual film itself. I should have brought ear plugs.

The movie itself was good, if not quite as good as The Dark Knight. In that regard, the quality of the trilogy is distributed like the original Star Wars films: the first film was good, and exciting enough to make you want more; the middle film was the darkest, and the best by far; the third film was better than the first and provided a satisfying way to tie up loose ends, but couldn't really hold a candle to its immediate predecessor. 

Unsurprisingly, I liked Marion Cotillard, and I was thoroughly surprised by the conclusion of her story line. I was more surprised by how much I enjoyed Ann Hathaway's portrayal of Cat Woman, especially considering that I don't think of her as an archetypal sex kitten like previous actress to fill the role, such as Eartha Kitt and Michelle Pfeiffer. Joseph Gordon-Levitt was also a pleasant surprise -- though his involvement with the film didn't get much hype, I find him to be a pretty brilliant actor, and I kind of find myself hoping that there will be a spin-off of the franchise starring him. A girl can hope, right?

My only real problem with the film, aside from the insane volume, was Tom Hardy's Bane. Despite how loud the movie was in our theater, I couldn't make out what Bane was saying most of the time. The face mask that costumers elected for him to wear, combined with the accent that Hardy and Nolan chose to go with made him practically indecipherable. Which was unfortunate, because I enjoyed the overall storyline, even if it did have anti-Occupy overtones.

I'm not sure that The Dark Knight Rises was quite the summer blockbuster I was hoping for; despite its non-stop action and incredible special effects, it almost felt too dark and depressing for a summer movie. Still, it was a fitting conclusion to the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, and I'm a little sad that it has now concluded. I know Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan need to move on to other projects, and Batman will have to find a new direction for growth, but I'll still be mourning the loss of this particular franchise. At least there's always Blu-ray, which I can watch at home, as loud, or as quietly as I want.


Stop The Presses - Part Four

After a bit of a hiatus, I'm pleased to announce that the latest edition of "Dining Due Diligence," was published in today's edition of The Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. As it turns out, there are so many food columnists writing for them that my column has moved to more of a bi-monthly than a monthly schedule. Look for the next one sometime in October, but until then, enjoy my thoughts on Café des Architectes, in the Gold Coast:

Alfresco dining may be de rigueur for Chicagoans during summer, but if you wish to focus on conducting business, you may want to eschew the vibrant patio scene at Café des Architectes for the elegant, peaceful interior. In the Sofitel Hotel, it provides a atmosphere of European sophistication that is ideal for business entertaining.

No detail is overlooked on executive chef Greg Biggers' watch, from the intricate plating of food to the generous gifts from the kitchen that bookend a meal. Service is attentive without being obtrusive, though the need to choose between three types of bread whenever the bus boy comes around with the basket is a bit of a distraction. The unusual polenta bread, however, is the clear winner, as it provides a moist crumb and toothsome bite that provides a perfect platform for the sharp, tangy olive tapenade.

An amuse-bouche started the meal on a seasonal, but indulgent, note, featuring ripe summer cherries stuffed with rich foie gras. Stunning appetizers followed, including a glorious spray of razor-thin spring vegetables, dressed with a well-balanced combination of garlic aioli and acidic lemon vinaigrette. On the heavier end was a tender block of braised pork belly, lacquered in a salty-sweet glaze and accompanied by truffled potatoes.

The entrees were perhaps a bit too aggressively salted, but the surfeit of seasoning was the only blemish upon an otherwise outstanding meal. Halibut emerged from the kitchen with a deeply caramelized, shatteringly crisp crust and a flavorful Parmesan broth. The salmon, included in a special menu of health-conscious dinner choices, was topped in lemon foam that maintained its integrity throughout the meal instead of collapsing into a puddle on the plate. Though it was lukewarm, the pork tenderloin was juicy and perfectly cooked. The only thing that could have improved it would have been a more generous helping of the wild boar sausage that decorated the plate.

Dessert, as executed by pastry chef Patrick Fahy, was whimsical and provided an appropriate capstone to a wonderful evening. The standout, by far, was the playful assortment of Parisian mini-desserts, which included a petite Paris-brest, a miniature crème brulee, a wedge of opera cake and a few macarons and madeleines. A beautiful selection of mignardises was the last item to arrive from the kitchen, consisting of banana marshmallows, raspberry macarons and passion fruit pâte de fruits.

Café des Architectes also serves breakfast for early-risers wishing to squeeze in a productive meeting before work, as well as a $22 "executive lunch" served in 30 minutes — an offering that should appeal both to those without an expense account and those who are pressed for time.

Visit Café des Architectes at 20 E. Chestnut St., or


These Are The Days...

In the past nearly four years working as an oral historian, I have had the privilege of collecting some great stories. Through it all, I have learned more about my city, its past, and its place in history. My latest project has been particularly interesting to me, because it has given me the opportunity to investigate Chicago in relation to the Cold War, the historical era that interests me the most, and was the focus of my undergraduate studies. It is rare for people to be able to put to use the full range of what they learned in college for their work, but I have been fully utilizing my degree for the past year with this project.

Despite my general good fortune in landing this project, I have to say that today stands out, not only as the best day I've had working on the Cold War project, but as my best day at CHM. It may even go down as one of the most memorable days of my life.

Today, I drove out to Schaumburg in order to interview Martyl Langsdorf. She came to our project by way of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a Chicago-based publication that has been in existence since 1945, when the first atomic bombs were used against Japan. We were interested in telling the story of the Bulletin, and had written to them to see if they could suggest any "old-timers" from the journal's past with whom we could speak. Helpfully, they sent us an entire list, complete with the name of Martyl Langsdorf, the artist responsible for designing the famous "Doomsday clock" that has graced the cover of the Bulletin since its inception.

I was incredulous that we were able to secure an interview from someone who had been active during that time period, and was quick to volunteer to interview her myself, rather than delegating the task to an intern. In the weeks before the interview, I conducted quite a bit of research on Martyl, reading a lengthy oral history that she had conducted with the Art Institute, focusing mainly on her formidable artistic career and the historic home she owns in Schaumburg, designed by architect Paul Schweikher. I was amazed by the life she had led, and was eager to flush out some of the historic points that had been glossed over in the Art Institute interview.

When I arrived at Martyl's home, I was struck by her openness and generosity. I promptly received a tour of her unusual, mid-century home, and was encouraged to spend time playing with her friendly poodle, Xander. When we finally settled down for the interview, in her serene, light-filled studio, incredible stories began to pour forth.

Originally from St. Louis, Martyl and I bonded over our mutual alumni status at Washington University, though our tenures there had occurred some seventy years apart. Martyl's husband, Alexander, was a professor at Wash U when he was called to Chicago to join the Manhattan project, working on the development of the atomic bomb. Martyl shared anecdotes with me of such historical figures as Enrico Fermi, Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and Edward Teller, whose Hyde Park apartment the Langsdorfs rented when the Tellers moved to Los Alamos. To me, these men are icons only read about in books, but to her, they were friends and colleagues. Her stories personalized them on a level I never could have anticipated.

Martyl also shared her story of being marginalized during the McCarthy era, when her connections to the art world threw suspicions upon her husband's work. She and her husband were constantly followed by the FBI, and Martyl's career was impacted by gallery owners who declined to represent her because they didn't want to draw the attention of the federal government.

If you look carefully, to the right, behind the easel, are a couple mock-ups of the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
Truly, it was an amazing experience to meet someone who is a living, breathing link to a history that I've only experienced through academic study. After our interview, Martyl insisted on taking me out to lunch, where I got to hear more about her life, albeit off the record. I'm certainly never going to forget the day I spent with her. It validated my decision to pursue history in my life, even if it hasn't been the most lucrative career path. Maintaining a connection with the past is important for all of us, and I'm very lucky to have met Martyl today.


Out of the Blue...

I am an unapologetic planner.  I like to have my schedule locked down weeks in advance, if not a full month ahead of time. Spontaneity is a word that scarcely fits into my vocabulary. Still, I know how to recognize a good opportunity, and when to pounce on it if necessary. So when I was talking to my friend, Abel, on Friday morning about when he and his new wife, Sinead, might be able to squeeze in a visit to Chicago during the limited amount of time they'll be in the United States between stints living in Japan and Ireland, I knew I had to seize upon whatever might work.

What I wasn't expecting, however, was that the only time that would work for both of us would be yesterday and today. That's right, I agreed to have weekend house guests with less than 24 hours' notice. Even Justin, who has only gradually come to accept my need for structure and logistical clarity, was thrown for a loop.

It was important to me to see Abel, however. After all, Justin and I are traveling to Ireland for their official wedding ceremony in November, Justin had never met either of them. I hadn't seen Abel for over a year and a half myself. Last time we spoke face to face, he had only been dating Sinead for a couple months, and now they are married. Plus, I had never met her, and it felt odd to have a friend of mine be married to a complete stranger.

By the time they showed up early yesterday afternoon, I had put together a full agenda for our guests, in addition to whipping my house into guest-ready levels of cleanliness in near record time. For their first day in Chicago, I threw together a mini-Wash U reunion by inviting over Brad, the only other person in our circle of college friends that lives in the area. We had a cookout, featuring my new obsession, banh mi burgers, and the fruit salad that has become a staple of my summer entertaining.

Rain very nearly threatened to ruin our grilling session, but we managed to get the food cooked before the storm got too heavy, and we spent the remainder of the evening catching up and playing Cards Against Humanity, a card game similar to Apples to Apples (the game that more-or-less defined my college years), but for people with a very twisted sense of humor. I really need to look into scoring a copy for myself...

Obligatory photo in front of The Bean -- a total tourist move, I know.
Today we took Abel and Sinead into the city, for a day of traditional tourism. We started off the morning with brunch at Ann Sather, and by brunch, I mean a huge plate of delicious, delicious cinnamon rolls. I've gotten to the point where I don't even bother ordering other food besides a side-order of ham to provide a salty, savory counterpoint to the buns; the cinnamon rolls are a meal unto themselves, and they're really all I want to eat anyway.

I knew I wanted to take them to a museum (not only to showcase Chicago's considerable cultural assets, but because I can get people in for free as a museum employee), so I let them choose where they wanted to go. Secretly, I was hoping they would pick the Art Institute, because they have an exhibit there on Roy Lichtenstein that I've been wanting to see, but they opted for the Field Museum instead because Sinead had never seen a dinosaur skeleton before. Apparently, natural history museums in Ireland mostly contain the remains of ancient deer, because that was what was native to that region.

We did get to see the Field's temporary exhibit on Ghengis Khan, though I'm not really sure it was worth the extra money we had to pay for it. It mostly seemed like an lesson on Mongolian culture in general, though there were a few sections on Khan's specific contributions to the world, and his military strategy. Mostly, I was struck by the absolutely ridiculous video segments that punctuated the exhibit. Their production values were such that they could have been culled from a low-budget Chinese soap opera, and they probably would have offended any real Mongolians that saw them.

Even if the special exhibit was kind of a bust, Sinead did seem suitably impressed by the dinosaur remains, as well as the Field's considerable collection of Native American artifacts. Though anyone who's grown up in Illinois finds such artifacts a little tedious, it was refreshing to view them through the eyes of someone who is seeing them for the first time. There is some truly amazing craftsmanship to behold there.

After the museum, we made a quick pit stop to pick up some Garrett's popcorn on the way to Giordano's for deep dish, delivering a one-two punch in terms of classic Chicago foodstuffs. I think Sinead was taken aback by the unabashed American-style excess of the deep dish, but she was a good sport about it, even if it offended her European sensibilities. When in Chicago, do as the Chicagoans do, after all...

Making the most of the long days of summer, we stopped by Millennium Park on our way back to the car (which we had parked at my parents' condo building for free), for the mandatory visit to The Bean, the Gehry bandshell, and the Crown fountain. All too soon, it was time to return home to see our visitors off.

Even if their visit was totally unexpected and a bit of a whirlwind, I am so glad that I got to see Abel and Sinead while they were in town. Now both Justin and I are even more excited to travel to Ireland in a few months to celebrate their marriage. It will be our first time traveling internationally together, and there couldn't be a happier reason to embark upon such a grand adventure. I can't wait!