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A Trio of Tulips…and Some Tea

3 May

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to go on the White House’s Spring Garden Tour with a good friend. There were tulips everywhere, but these striking red ones caught my eye, probably because they were past the first flush of youth yet managed to look so elegant in their decay. I won’t dwell on the philosophical ramifications of that–but I will dub them ‘Norma Desmond’ tulips since I don’t know what type they actually are.


Aside from tulips , there are commemorative trees throughout the gardens, planted by various presidents and first ladies. The oldest are two huge Southern Magnolias that have been flanking the South Portico of the White House since 1830, when Andrew Jackson planted them (see glimpses of both trees, plus some wisteria, below):

WH4  WH3
The Rose Garden adjacent to the West Wing was in view, but was off limits–we were able to get a bit closer to Michelle Obama’s Kitchen Garden:


And of course, there is the spectacular view from the White House of the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial.


Could the day get any better? Why yes, it could. Because the Willard Hotel, renown for its afternoon tea, is right around the corner, and they seated us despite our not having any reservations. The Willard’s ‘Peacock Alley’ afternoon tea venue is below:

And here is the sandwich part of our tea–a very small part of the overall meal, which also included two kinds of scones, four types of pastries, and chocolate mousse. And a pot of tea.

Flowers, tea, and friendship. A great day all around.

The Eclectic Rock Creek Cemetery

12 Apr

Yesterday was a glorious spring day, so naturally I headed to a cemetery. I’d never been to Rock Creek Cemetery (which, while Washington DC’s oldest cemetery, is not actually in Rock Creek Park), but now I will certainly return. A number of local  and national luminaries are buried here–in cemetery speak, they are called “residents”: President Roosevelt’s daughter Alice, author Upton Sinclair, members of the Alexander Graham Bell family, Edgar Allen Poe’s sister Rosalie, Civil War generals and Cabinet members, newspaper founders and publishers, etc. The star attractions are all the monuments, memorials, and mausoleums, with classic and more modern sculptures (including the famous Adams Memorial sculpture in bronze by Augustus Saint-Gaudens) and beautiful decorative carvings and scrollwork. Here are some of the things that caught my eye (additional photos here):

The facade of the Cragin Mausoleum, with  lion-head door handles and an unusual offering at the bottom right of the door: an empty bottle of Patron tequila.

Paul Tully’s grave –with sculpted chair, newspaper, and coffee cups. Paul Tully was political director of the Democratic National Committee and a strategist for Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign–he died at age 48. The newspaper on the chair (New York Times) shows a major milestone for the Clinton campaign, and was published shortly after Tully’s death.

The Houser Monument, beautifully situated under a magnolia tree; Close-up of Adams Memorial sculpture.

One of the cemetery’s Star Magnolias in bloom.

Scrollwork on mausoleum windows and doors.

View of stained-glass window inside the Slater Mausoleum, shot through scroll work on glass door.

Thompson-Harding Monument; view of the Thompson side.

Postcard from Alcatraz: Part I

28 Mar

If you are like me, most of what you know about Alcatraz may have come from movies depicting the island when it was home to a federal penitentiary (1933-1963)–with prisoners such as Al “Scarface” Capone and Robert “Birdman” Stroud, and a couple daring escapes with escapees never seen again. In the famous 1962 escape, three prisoners chiseled through cell walls with spoons, made papier-mache heads to put in their beds, crawled up through vent shafts and across the island, and launched rafts made from rain coats. Did they make it to land, or did the cold waters of San Francisco Bay do them in?  No one knows–but the case remains open until the three escapees (Frank Morris–played by Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin) reach their 100th birthdays.

Though the island’s 30-year history as a federal penitentiary looms large, it was also home to a Civil War fortress and the first lighthouse on the West Coast, and was occupied very briefly in 1964 and then from 1969-1971 by a group of American Indians to bring Indian rights issues to the attention of the government and the public. Today, Alcatraz is run by the National Park Service and–as I will mention in Part II–has lovely gardens and is a favored nesting spot for sea birds. So if you like history, scenic views of San Francisco Bay, and lots of natural beauty, Alcatraz offers all three.

The Rock

(from l to r): Ruins of the Officers’ Club, Power House; Lighthouse

Standard-issue shaving supplies for prisoners

Cell toilet and sink; prison railing with many layers of paint

Sign, with painted additions from American Indian occupation

View of Golden Gate Bridge from Alcatraz Island


An Unexpected and (Re)Productive Study of the California Poppy

21 Mar

Sometimes, blown car tires lead to unexpected opportunities. While in California on our way to Monterey, our tire blew out on the freeway and very spectacularly separated itself from the rim. Our oldest son was driving and successfully steered the car to the side of the road, with the help of a kind truck driver, who stopped traffic in the right lane to let us over. While the spare tire was being put on, I noticed a cheery patch of poppies down a small hill, and headed there with my camera, whereupon I had an impromptu lesson in reproduction–of the floral kind.

The Golden State loves golden symbols, so it’s no surprise the California Poppy is the state flower. It’s a favorite of many gardeners, but also grows wild across California and elsewhere; masses of poppies make some Western mountains look as if they have been dusted with orange-yellow confetti. They also grow by the roadside, where I was lucky enough to get to study them for a little while. In that scraggly patch, there were poppies at all stages of development, from buds to full flowers, to seed pods.

The flower buds are encased in a calyx made up of two fused sepals; the papery cap slowly gets pushed off as the four overlapping poppy petals begin to unfurl.

Inside the cup-shaped flower itself are the stamens (pollen-tipped male reproductive organs) and the pistil (female organ), waiting for pollinators–usually bees, but also beetles and flies–to help ensure a new generation of Eschscholzia californica. This is the plant’s  very civilized (and somewhat passive) Plan A in terms of reproduction.

But, there’s a Plan B, too–and it’s a bit more lively. Once the poppy’s main flowering cycle comes to an end, the petals start dropping off, revealing an elongated seed pod (fruit) sitting on the disk-like torus. The pod gets longer and bigger, starts drying up in the sun, and finally bursts open, ejecting seeds as far as 6 feet away. This type of seed dispersal has a great name: explosive dehiscence.  Oh, how I wish I could have seen it in action.

So, what pollinators cannot achieve, the plant takes care of on its own, spreading its wealth just a bit further one seed pod at a time. Something to admire this April 6, which is California Poppy day.


Landscapes from a Moving Car, Part II: California

19 Mar

One nice thing about road trips is that along scenic stretches, a car is a mobile room with a view. But when a long day of driving is on the agenda, it’s hard to stop and admire every lovely landscape. So I put my camera on Sports/Action mode, aim it through the window as we are whizzing by, and hope some of the resulting photos turn out. (Of course, I only do this when I am a passenger, not the driver…).  Here are some shots from a recent road trip from Northern to Southern California, and back.

Old farm buildings near Gilroy

Foggy morning landscape near Gilroy

Mountain landscape with wildflowers near Gilroy

Plowed earth near Monterey                     Mountain and clouds near Grapevine

Red barn building near Castroville

Northern California sunset

Postcard from San Diego: Sunsets and Pelicans

3 Feb

What is it about watching the sun set? The jewel-like colors in the sky? The feeling of being witness to that day’s curtain call? Or is it that magical feeling that comes from watching that last flash of light as the sun dips below the horizon–that blink-and-you might-miss-it moment? For me, it’s all three.

A National Geographic article on the science of sunsets says the sun sometimes appears as if it is raging against the dying of the light, but for me, the sun’s final act of the day is a moment of utter silence and absolute peace. If I can capture even a fraction of that with my camera, I feel lucky. On a recent evening on the pier at Ocean Beach in San Diego, I felt doubly lucky when I came across two brown pelicans, who, like the sun, were also calling it a night.


Postcard from Old San Juan

27 Jan

It has been ages since I last wrote, due to a hectic few months. A dinner party this weekend will force me to cook something a little more interesting than the usual fare, and may result in a food-related blog post if the heavens align, granting me enough time and light to take a photo or two. In the meantime, here is a brief look at a brief stop in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a place that truly merits more time than we had. What we had was just enough of a taste to know we would like to go back for a fuller meal, if ever possible. These photos are from the historic, colonial part of town, and looking at them makes us wistful for sunnier, warmer climes….

Patriotic graffiti

Colorful buildings, and a gorgeous sea-side cemetery

View of El Campo del Morro

Cobblestone streets and colorful wall tiles

Street-side mofongo: mashed fried plantains, topped with a ground beef stew

Piraguas: delicious Puerto Rican snow cones

And a fine set of pigeon toes

Breakfast in Old Delhi

9 Nov

It has been said that  one of the best ways of getting to a culture’s heart  is through its stomach. Sweet words for travelers who go from meal to meal with at least as much joy as they have in going from sight to sight. What a treat to learn things about other cultures (and about ourselves), bite after bite. And so it was that during a recent work trip to New Delhi, India, I had the delightful opportunity to savor Old Delhi’s breakfast culture for a few hours, weaving through narrow streets, dodging people, cars, carts, bicycles, auto-rickshaws, motorcycles, dogs, and the occasional cattle, to find culinary gems–both Hindu and Muslim (the walled city being home to Jama Masjid, the best-known mosque in India)–as the neighborhood awoke. An Indian friend, who knows me so well, arranged this gastronomic tour via Delhi Food Walks. We placed our stomachs in the capable hands of our guide, and dug in.

First, some scenes to set the stage (l-r, top-bottom): a food vendor carrying his wares to a special spot (#1), a renowned Old Delhi chef stirring one of his pots (#2), spices and tea for sale (#3), a dented pitcher atop one of the ubiquitous water containers found throughout the neighborhood (#4), and the very first things we tried for breakfast (#5)–a classic savory-sweet combination: Aloo sabzi (potato curry) in the foreground, eaten with  Bedmi poori (hot and fresh in photo #6 below), and Nagori halwa in the background (small crispy semolina poori served with sweet porridge).



After a stop at Karim’s for Nahari Mutton (morning mutton), we then went in search of a famous chickpea dish redolent of coriander, ginger, and tamarind: Lotan ke Chole Kulche (#7). The vendor of this rich specialty had set up shop in a protected nook down a narrow street, where he doled out the dish to throngs of hopefuls waiting with packets of butter in hand. The salty Amul brand butter–available for purchase just up the street from another vendor–added a perfect salty silkiness to the chickpeas, all the better to dip the accompanying bread into. After a brief pit stop to sample some biryani (#8), and then some parathas (#9) at Pundit Gaya Prasad Shiv Charan, it was all about the sweets, starting with sev pak, or sev burfi at Chaina Ram (#10)-a golden treat made with vermicelli, milk cheese, and lots of sugar. I was so inspired by this particular sweet, that I am experimenting with recreating it at home (update on that to follow).

At this stage, it was definitely time to start expanding our stomachs to make room for the other sugary confections on the menu, a task I was more than willing to undertake since I have the world’s worst (or best?) sweet tooth. And judging by their sweets, so do most Indians–except, amazingly, for my Indian friend and breakfast partner, which meant I had to step up for both of us. Below is a vendor dishing up some pudding-like rabri (#11) at Hazari Lal Jain, which also sells delicious khurchan (#12), creamy layers of  “leftover” boiled sweet milk, scraped together and decorated with pistachios and silver foil (varakh). It was very hard to walk away from that khurchan, but even more delights awaited, including warm jalebi (#13 -15), which after going from a hot frying pan into a sugar-syrup bath, are about as sweet as it is possible to imagine. After that, we swore we could not ingest even the smallest morsel more, but we were wrong. One last taste awaited us: Daulat ki Chaat, or sweet milk foam from a cart (#16). Our guide assured it was like a light and airy meringue that would not take up any stomach space at all, and he was right. But after that, even I was done. But, oh, what a morning, and what a glorious taste of India.


Vibrating Whiskers, or Finding One’s Way

23 Aug

The pier in Santa Cruz, California is a favorite sunbathing spot for sea lions.  Up close, you can identify the marine mammals by their ear flaps, which seals lack. But, like seals, they have whiskers. The sea lion below has a particularly fine set; even Hercule Poirot would be envious. Sea lions use their smooth and rotating whiskers to sense what’s around them. The whiskers, called vibrissae, pick up vibrations in the water or air, and are immensely useful when the sea lion is looking for food or is trying to avoid being food. Essentially, whiskers help sea lions find their way through the undercurrents of life.

Our youngest child is now in college. Looking back on 24 years of child rearing and looking ahead to a new modus vivendi, I, too, am envious of a sea lion’s whiskers.


Landscapes from a Moving Car

17 Aug

It’s been a while since my last post, due to a wedding (our oldest son’s–we are delighted to welcome a lovely daughter-in-law to our family), a two-week road trip across the country, and some college prep (our youngest heads off next week to start her college adventure). So this post will be brief–just a glance at some of the sights we saw in Northern California, Oregon, Washington state, and Montana, which I shot through the car window while my husband was at the wheel.

Northern California                                                 Oregon, near Klamath






Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Montana