the other tastiest place in the world

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Arts & Crafts gallery, Victoria & Albert Museum

Back in 2010 we named the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna as the tastiest place in a very, very tasty city, but must report that its crown is challenged by one single room in London.  (Surely a topic of such weight merits the esteemed position of this post, which is our 100th, thank you very much & you are welcome!)

During our most recent jaunt through Dear Old Blighty, which was awash with Artsy-Craftsy wonderfulness, we swooned in the Arts and Crafts galleries of the Victoria and Albert.  The museum presents, as one might expect, a singular collection of this great movement that we’ve been increasingly obsessed about (and that we’ve talked with you about before, like here, here, here, and here).  Any reasonable gallery with a reasonable nineteenth-century design collection will have a bit of Morris, maybe some Voysey; perhaps something shiny by Archibald Knox if they’re really fancy.  Well howzabout all of that, and then some, gathered up in one place at one time.

That image at the top is a veritable family picture: Burne-Jones glass, Liberty & Co. washstand, Voysey owls & clock, Farnham pottery, Knox pewter, Webb candlesticks & chair, De Morgan pottery, Ashbee decanter, Townsend fabric, a Morris cabinet and carpet and, of course, the movement’s unofficial mascot, the Strawberry Thief.

Seriously, just look at this stuff:

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in the Medieval Gallery

And because it’s the V & A once you’re finished swooning here, you can walk yourself down to the medieval stuff and see their inspiration. Or over to an adjacent room for Pugin and the Crystal Palace.  It’s almost too much for nineteenth-century people to bear.

Just one downside to the V & A.  Unlike the KM in Vienna, the environment of its wonderfully-designed cafes trumps the nosh.  Such a pity.  Then again, and while there are probably scones to be had in Kensington, why not make your way two miles to Conduit Street, where you can have the cream tea at the Sketch cafe and commune with other tasty ghosts at this former home to the RIBA?

why not, indeed

why not, indeed

 

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a walk on Brick Lane

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Brick Lane is not unique among the streets of the world in the fact that it bears the evidence of shifting demographics, but it is certainly a fantastically diverse and colorful example of the phenomenon.  Even a short walk along part of this long street, which runs mostly north-south-ish in London’s East End, passes through divergent communities and multiple layers of cultural archaeology.  And while it might be short in distance (say, 1/3 of a mile), this walk is long in experience and deep in delight.

Our walk began at Fournier Street, on the corner of which stands an appropriately bricky eighteenth-century building whose tenant list already reveals part of the history of the district.  The Brick Lane Mosque has been used as such since 1976, but was formerly a synagogue (from 1898), before that a church (used by Methodists since 1819), before that serving for a decade at a time as the headquarters of the “London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews” and a Wesleyan chapel; originally it was built as La Neuve Eglise for French Huguenots in 1743.  To further complicate (and/or enrich) matters, its minaret (which lights up at night) was added in 2010, paid for by the Bishops Square development near Liverpool Street Station.

This section of the street is pretty much free of architectural monuments after the mosque, leaving one tempted to fall back on the old chestnut of describing the 3- and 4-story structures that line Brick Lane as “nondescript buildings.”  Maybe once upon a time these (mostly) 18th- and 19th- century blocks were unremarkable, but by 2014 they have achieved an impressive patina through use by layers of use through the centuries.  Not much reflects the earliest history of this road that is really, really old and gets its name from a brick factory that was built before the first Queen Elizabeth took the throne.  Successive groups of immigrants have moved to this part of the city, oftentimes to take over the silk and weaving shops that were prevalent through the nineteenth century, when the business dried up.  In the 1970s Bangladeshis became the predominant ethnic group in Brick Lane.  Their presence is evident in the street signs written in Bengali and lamp posts painted in the colors of the flag of Bangladesh, as well as the preponderance of curry shops along the street.

Perhaps like pizza being taken over by Americans from its Italian immigrants, curry rose in popularity along with the multiplication of Bangladeshi restaurants in Brick Lane, through the rest of London and wider in the country.  So popular did the immigrant cuisine–admittedly with some alterations–become, in 2001 British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, in a speech to “celebrate Britishness” and its longtime multicultural character, claimed that “Chicken Tikka Massala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences.”  The acknowledgement of Bangladeshi culture as an integrated part of Britishness was made official by the renaming of the district as “Spitalfields and Banglatown,” also in 2001.

Recently, Brick Lane has continued to show signs of change as its character (and relatively cheap rents) have drawn the attention of artsy types.  Just off the path of our walk, the Rag Factory, a repurposed building housing studios, performance and exhibition spaces, is not far from the intersection of Brick Lane and Fashion Street (originally the Hugeuenot name “Fossan” Street, the word was later corrupted into “Fashion,” and recently became a magnet for designers).  Walking north, such establishments as the Cafe Mumbai, Mango Masala, Eastern Eye Balti, Bengal Village, the Curry Bazaar, and Cafe Bangla cede way to the Vibe Bar, the Laden Showroom, Rockit, Vintage, the Brick Lane Gallery, the venerable Beigel Bake.  What might seem like a rather abrupt transition between the Bangladeshis and the more recent settlers, around Woodseer Street, is visually bridged by a new scrim on many of those old buildings.  The once-plain walls along the path have been turned into a fantastic open-air street art gallery. The big crane by Belgian artist Roa is probably the most notable work in the gallery above, but we are partial to the portrait of local hero Charlie Burns (d. 2012) by Londoner Ben Slow–it’s beautiful, and painted to look like its fading away, along with Charlie’s Brick Lane.

Having started at the church-synagogue-mosque at the intersection with Fournier Street, the walk ends at a rather different, and rather new, cultural icon just below Bethnal Green Road.  Fika, named after the tradition of Swedish coffee break and opened some five or six years ago, is a bar and restaurant that is pretty serious about its Nordicness, featuring kladdkaka and gravadlax on the menu.  We might be just a few blocks north of the mosque, but it feels farther away.  Not as far as Stockholm is from Dhaka, the difference between the ends of this short walk is better measured in messier terms than mere miles.  The self-consciousness of cultural construction to the north is palpable, but maybe that’s been the case whenever a new wave has flowed down Brick Lane, going back to the Huguenots.  Regrettable neighborhood gentrification?  Maybe.  Expected urban evolution?  Undoubtedly.  It’s the natural way in these unnatural things that we call cities and that are, afterall, the artifacts of everyone who passes through them and takes the time to leave part of their story behind.

stop the madness: enough with the pumpkin spice everything already

we feel your pain, Mermaid Lady

we feel your pain, Mermaid Lady

Once upon a time we welcomed the change of season, especially the advent of autumn, for the sudden chill in the air that was still warmed by a golden sun, the easing of leaves from green to gold against a brilliant blue sky, and the joy of bundling up with opaque tights, great jackets, and fabulous scarves–the suggestions that we are ready to stave off winter’s blast without yet actually having to face nasty weather.

And then there is the food.  The passage of each season brings a new menu: clementines are a bright note in sleepy winter akin to the flash of a cardinal on a snowy tree branch; as the world wakes in spring we look for the buds on the trees and sunny asparagus on our plates; in summer we anticipate the huge bounty of garden goodness that culminates in the arrival of Queen Tomato; then with fall we look forward to an orchard outing to enjoy that crisp air, play farmer, and pick so many apples that, once home, we are forced to condescend into baking crisps and cobblers until the kitchen moans under the weight of all the oatmeal-ensconced goodness.

Welcoming those seasonal treats–fruits of the earth still very much tied to the earth–represent more innocent times before a relatively recent development that flavors our autumn in a much different, even sinister, character.  Having already co-opted every conceivable holiday as a festival of consumption, Big Business has conspired to marketize the very change of seasons.  Building on historic traditions of identifying favorite foods at particular holidays–cranberries at Christmas, latkes for Hanukkah, green bean casserole whenever two or three Lutherans gather–, the scourge of Pumpkinspiceitis is now foisted upon us.

Pumpkinspiceitis derives from a regrettable, but historic, inclusion of pumpkin pie on the Thanksgiving table.  It is a curious phenomenon: pumpkin pie.  As a pie, it’s an inferior dessert; as a pumpkin product, just a clever way to get rid of something easy to grow but which no one really wants to eat.  (Like most of the Thanksgiving table, it’s also just bad history.)  Even if you think you like pumpkin, be honest: it’s just taking the place of something else that you know you’d rather have.  To make this horrid squash edible, all kinds of stuff is stirred in and gooped on top to actually cover the taste of the pumpkin.   More desperate than any other garden spawn (slightly worse than zucchini, but maybe not as hopeless as rhubarb), this homely orange orb demands not just special treatment to hide its natural flavor but the particular concoction conjured up by some set of Weird Sisters, probably in the nineteenth century.  Their brew of ordinary spices–cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg,  allspice, and cloves–has achieved iconic status due to the ubiquity with which it is used to mask the natural grossness of this “dessert.”

trouble maker

trouble maker

With a name as creative as its inspiration is delicious, “Pumpkin Pie Spice” represents all that’s bad about home cooking, and by extension, food consumption, in America–which makes it especially sad and ironic to bring to the table on a holiday that is so completely American.  The blind ease with which the home cook grabs for the inevitable plastic jar, purchased years before, used annually but never between December and October, is likewise exemplary of the oh-you-shouldn’t-have-bothered ideal that is rampant across the country.  The idea of a pre-mixed spice blend is not so bad in and of itself, as we see from a very, very long tradition of Indian garam masala and Chinese Five Spice.  Traditionally, among those cultures each household will have its own version, ground to suit the family’s custom and taste.  The ‘merkan equivalent is only home-made by DIY-types with obsessive Pinterest habits.  Pre-packaged and sold at the grocery store, Pumpkin Pie Spice is the Hamburger Helper of baking–except that Hamburger Helper is consumed year-round, and Pumpkin Pie spice had a very narrow window of relevance, confined to Thanksgiving weekend, and therefore is even dumber.

At least that was the case before the rise of  Big Pumpkin (not to be confused with the Great Pumpkin).  At least ten years ago, some genius at some mega spice dealer (we’re guessing a certain Fortune 1000 company with a penchant for red lids) figured out a way to foist their product on the American public and increase their market share by popularizing a product that was irrelevant for  fifty-one weeks of the year.  Their target?  A product of great popularity among Americans, and which many Americans are more than happy to crap up with flavor additions rather than enjoy the actual flavor of what they’re consuming: coffee.  With the help of some genius at some mega coffee dealer (we’re guessing a certain Fortune 500 company with a penchant for a nippleless, two-tailed mermaid), they found their opportunity, and convinced the masses that their lattes were not good enough as lattes, but ought to be made to taste like dessert, and not just dessert but the lowliest of desserts, pie; and not just any old pie, but a pie so stupid it is made out of mushy vegetables.  And so it was, and so it is, that Pumpkin Pie Spice lattes, introduced in 2003, are now welcomed by crazed Starbuckians the way the solstice must have been greeted by the ancients at Stonehenge: with religious reverence and enthralled enthusiasm, evidence that the gods have not yet abandoned the world (although to the rest of us, this flakey excuse for a coffee drink is just one more proof of our fallen state).

Pumpkin Pie lattes might not have been such a problem if the silliness around them had remained cloistered in Starbuckses.  But their mind-boggling popularity has launched a whole new ridiculous enthusiasm for the “flavors of fall,” and this is really where we need to draw the line.  Food should taste like itself.  Spices and herbs are meant to draw out and complement the natural flavor of a thing, not disguise it–especially if the base flavor is something quite respectable.  In the name of Taste, you must avoid, ignore, renounce and repudiate the following products, all of them evidence of the overreach of Big Pumpkin and foul offspring, the sinister seasoning:

macarons

The divine macaron is not a place to play fast and loose with intercultural fusions.  Non!

and pumpkin salsa is just wrong

Likewise:  salsa is a tomato product.  People who eat pumpkin salsa probably think that pineapple is an acceptable pizza topping too, and we have nothing to say to them.

pop

Since toaster pastries are already skimming the bottom of the barrel, maybe this is ok, except for the pumpkin part.  Pumpkin for breakfast? No.  You meant to bake a cinnamon muffin.

PP marshmallow

Whether you mash your marshmallows in s’mores or float them in hot drinks, no; this just won’t work.

This also raises the quation of judgemnt at TJ's, which only gets worse . . .

This is all kinds of wrong, and is one of a dozen bizarre missteps by Trader Joe, whose judgement we call into question due to the store’s amazing variety of bizarre pumpkin-themed products.

no

Let us guess: we are supposed to pair this with nutmeg hummus, right?

ew

Please!  Yogurt is for fruit, not squash.

this would be bad enough on its own, but then yu see just a few aisles over . . .

This would be bad enough on its own, but then you see just a few aisles over . . .

seasonal foodstuffs are silly enough, do NOT start seasonally moisturizing

. . . this.  Seasonal foodstuffs are silly enough, do NOT start a seasonal skin-care regimen!

spieces associated with warm baked goods stirred into frozen food?

Spices associated with warm baked goods stirred into frozen food?  The horror!

c

Culver’s is currently offering Pumpkin Pie Spice shakes as well as “Salted Caramel Pumpkin Concrete Mixers,” with actual pumpkin stirred in, which MoT junior staffers can attest is a very, very bad idea.

et vos, Ben & Jerry?

Et vos, Ben & Jerry?

If you’re not yet swooning from the madness, read on for our candidates for Worst Spawn of Big Pumpkin’s Evil:

third runner-up for Nopest of Nope

Third runner-up for Nopest of Nope

Vice President of Nyet

Vice President of Nyet

King of No

King of No

Although Pumpkinspiceitis has caught the CDC unawares, wise men saw this nonsense coming a mile away–indeed centuries ago.  Founding Father and Culinary Connoisseur Thomas Jefferson (a much more reliable T.J.) worried what would become of his nation, and left the following in manuscript form:

It is self-evident that not all flavor profiles are created equal; not all are endowed by their creators with honesty of expression and decency of marketing.  Sadly, all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer sketchy food products and egregious marketing, while evils are sufferable in their cheapness and trendiness, than to right themselves by abolishing goofball flavors as they ought to, and just drink coffee that tastes like, you know, COFFEE.

This is not a tirade against the spices in Pumpkin Pie Spice.  We, like Mr. Jefferson, want you to enjoy cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves and nutmeg (the last of which ought to be ground the moment before use, but you knew that, right?).  But enjoy them where they belong: coffee cakes, cinnamon rolls, snickerdoodles, and stupid fruit desserts. (If you really, really feel compelled to eat trendily in October, you may have an apple cider donut but then, for Heaven’s sakes, pull yourself together.)

This does not address the matter of the pumpkin itself, which still has little use in the world.  The following is the best we can do to offer semi-legitimate, but still pretty sketchy, uses for citrouille (French for “yukky apple of the dirty vine”):

pie

You may as well buy this as go through the motions of “baking a pie.”  If no one in the house has any real baking skills, or can be bothered to make a cheesecake, why not.  Mrs. Smith’s it is.

xxx

Pumpkin soup: at least this comes in a cute bowl. But we’d still prefer a decent shrimp bisque or French onion, thx, and you know you would too.

And then there’s this, maybe the reason pumpkins exist at all:

we feel your pain, Mr Pumpkin

we feel your pain, Mr Pumpkin

how to celebrate a royal event at home, all proper-like

party like the Queen, yo

this one made us delirious

2012 is shaping up to be one of the merriest of years in merrie olde England.  For the engineers in MoT‘s Celebratoria, which is housed in the Department of Festive Studies and Fun-Time Rituals, that means overtime.  Significant projects have bene undertaken (supported by funds from a MacArthur Fellowship . . . that we’re still waiting for) to celebrate, albeit long-distance, all manner of Britophilia.  In addition to a whole new year of hat-wearing by the Kate The Nearly Impeccable (any new hat day is reason enough for the full MoT staff to drop everything and pop open the clotted cream with a shout of huzzah!), a few specific big events are posted on the calendar: the Royal First Anniversary (29 April), C. F. A. Voysey’s 155th Birthday (28 May), the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee (2-5 June) and the Olympics open in London (27 July).  If for some reason you have not received your invitation or secured your tickets for these big events, never fear.  MoT can help you turn your living room into a wee colony of Little Britain in three easy steps and at varying levels of economic investment (to which we are sensitive; times are tough!) and relative interest in the Royal Family (for which we have no sympathy; get with the program, mate!).

the MoT staff's Royal Anniversary Tea

the MoT staff’s Royal Anniversary Tea

Step 1: Prepare your feast.  British food gets a bad rap but, while it’s not cuisine française, you can navigate your way away from murky fields of kidney pie and eel grossness to the juicy and carboriffic heights of a roasted meat and baked pudding wonderland.  High end:  Eat the kind of thing the Queen and her Jubilee guests will enjoy: roast lamb, Beef Wellington.  A bit less so:  Toad in the Hole with long-simmered onion gravy.  That’s still too much work:  Lay out a proper afternoon tea with scones, clotted cream, jam, sandwiches, cakes (and if you go to the Italian Bakery down the street because your staff pastry chefs threw the whole pan of cakes–pan included–into the rubbish bin in frustration, we won’t tell).  Don’t know a Chelsea Bun from an Eccles Cake:  Cut the crusts off your kids’ PB&J, butter up some English muffins, and call it good.

one lump or two?

Step 2: Plan your attire.  High end: Bring out the gloves, gems and regalia, if you have them.  I’ve Got a Hot Glue Gun and I’m Not Afraid to Use It: Spend $10 at Hobby Lobby and become your neighborhood Philip Treacy.  Make fascinators for yourself, your friends, your children, your dog.  You must be kidding: Please, at least wear something that needs ironing.  Iron it.  Not allowed: Scorn your droll guests who wear their Sex Pistols t-shirts from college; it’s neither ironic nor clever.

Step 3: After taking gratuitous picture of Dog In Fascinator and dealing with the resultant canine thrashing, blot spilled tea with paper towel, spritz with a solution of water and vinegar.  If carpet stain persists, gently rub with dish detergent or salt, alternate with more cold-water dabbing.  Tune in BBC, turn up volume loud enough to drown out complaints of husband.  Proceed with festivities.

There you have it: the MoT Geek Guide to Britophilia in three easy steps.  Cheerio!

cats may also celebrate, even if they defy any monarchy they don’t control

how to go to Prague

Jan Hus Memorial, Staroměstské náměstí (Old Town Square), Prague

Not the UNESCO part

Not part of the UNESCO tour

Prague is a mystical fairy-land that is a little too successful in covering up its muddy past with a gleaming veneer of tourist-friendly and heavily-edited history.  It’s really easy to go there, have a marvelous time, and have absolutely no sense of its difficult past (or present).  (For instance, while admiring the lovely window details of the Castle, you might want to know why the term defenestration is connected with the site.)   Prague is heavy on charm and light on reality.  S’pose that’s why something like visitors outnumber residents at a ratio of four to one each year.  But that’s why MoT‘s Eastern European Bureau (EEB) feels unsatisfied with Prague.  This is, afterall, the city of Jan Svankmajer, Franz Kafka, and the Golem; of treacherous political action and religious persecution.  Why does a visit here feel like a stroll through a marionette show?

For those of you who like your history clean and easy, this is a great place–just don’t wander off the beaten tourist trails, and stay away from the outer rings of housing that still smack of Communist-era efficiency as well as the inner rings of fine houses that are abandoned and/or routinely struck by vandals.  Stay in the center, and don’t miss:

near the Old Town Square

1. Just walking around

Prague is a great, beautiful, centuries-old European town that is made for walking.  There’s the Old Town on the east side of the Vltava River and the Castle on the west; you can waste a lot of time well by just wandering back and forth and poking around in the squares and little streets and enjoying how one century rubs up against another. You have to eat goulash and dumplings, just do it, even if it’s mid-July, you have to do it.  At least once or twice, splurge and eat on one of the great squares, but keep in mind that cafe owners are savvy and we’ve seen (on the Old Town Square in particular), up to three different menu prices in one restaurant: one price for being outside on the square, another for being at a window seat inside, and a third price for being deep in the building.  So, if you don’t want to splurge on the scenery, you may as well go around the corner and pay, like, $2 for your cream asparagus soup instead of $12 (yes, you also have to eat creamed soups in July).

The Raising of the Dead (The Golden Gate, St. Vitus)

2. Gothic Prague & thereabouts

St. Vitus is a brooding mass visible from many points around the city.  The Bohemians had a weird way about them when they would build a church: you’ll see here (and down in the Old Town Square at the Church of Mother of God before Týn) that lesser buildings crowd around and obscure the front of the church; there is no piazza or square immediately in front of it.  Also, the character of Gothic is different across Europe, and here it is a kind of desperate, striving architecture, with claw-like spires on roofs that seem to scratch the sky. The Cathedral is pretty remarkable, but even better than the interior is the Golden Gate on the exterior, with a brilliant multi-part mosaic that shows Prague’s trade connections with the east–a little shot of Byzantium here in Eastern Europe.  Deeper layers of history are evident nearby: if you venture behind the jolly facade of St. George you will find a stark and striking Romanesque church lurking in silence, mostly overlooked by tourists swarming in the area.

Powder Tower

Powder Tower

In addition to the obvious Gothic of the Cathedral side, with all of its interesting surrounding buildings (some cool defensive structures remain, check them out), several of the main bridges and points of entry to the medieval city have amazing towers associated with them.  The fifteenth-century Powder Tower is on the site of one of the original city gates; its dour facade is animated with crazy mouldings, all of very dark (or stained?) stone, and again the aggressively severe roof forms.

Finally, the Jewish history in Prague is deep and sad; its remains are rich.  If you can beat the busses (and you should try; it’s worth getting up before your hotel lays out breakfast and just this once foregoing the the morning spread of cold-cuts and aspic . . . yum!) go see the Jewish cemetery and the Old Synagogue, which is remarkable in many ways. But after about 10 AM, this place is packed and no fun at all.

St. Barbara

If you are really into the Gothic thing, figure out a way to get to the nearby town of Kutná Hora.  It’s historically a very wealthy silver mining town, about 60-90 minutes away, depending on your mode of travel and degree of courage to deal with people speaking Czech at you.  There you will find a marvelous, broad five-aisled church dedicated to St. Barbara.  Curvy-pointy tent-like roofs cover a brilliant vaulted ceiling with ribs in the patterns of flower petals.  As pretty as that is, there’s a nearby chapel that is just as freaky as St. Barbara is pretty: the crypt of the cemetery chapel houses the Sedlec Ossuary, where the bones of tens of thousands of people have been arranged in artistic patterns–swags, coats of arms, lamp stands, it is a sight to behold (get a taste by following the Svankmajer link above).

Obecní dům

3. Prague Nouveau

Here’s one place that Prague really shines.  The Art Nouveau movement swept across Europe in the two or three decades leading up to World War 1; it’s best where the cities (Art Nouveau is an urban movement) was associated with strong politics.  In Prague, avant garde designers fused the new forms and approaches to design that were emanating from France and Belgium with their gusto for the Czech Nationalist Revival, and developed a style of architecture that is in part based on Baroque heritage of the Habsburgs and the rich stores of Bohemian traditions.   Go see the great buildings like the funky Viola building (Narodni No. 7; make sure to read the windows at the top) and the spanky Hotel Europa (on Wenceslas Square–Prague’s go at Beaux-Arts urban planning).  Great as these are, the real monument is the Obecní dům, or Municipal House.  (And when you go there, go to the cafe on the left, which is wonderful, with old-school waiters in tuxedos pushing around carts of cakes.  Order something with poppy seeds, and also an eiskaffe, and thank us later.)  In addition to being a fantastic building all on its own, its ornament is thrilling, especially the frescoes by hometown hero Alfons Mucha.  You know Mucha, and in addition to seeing his proud nationalistic images here, and in the stained glass window he completed at the cathedral, you can visit his museum, which is one of the best single-artist museums we’ve seen.

Cubist

Cubist apartment block, 1913 (Neklanova 30, Vysehrad)

4. Twentieth-Century Prague

After WW1 Prague continued with the Art Nouveau designers’ dream of being modern, but gave up on the folk traditions and elegant ornament.  Sadly, the effort to be inherently anti-historical has become a leitmotif in Prague to this day.  One of the most unique kinds of architecture in Prague is the short-lived Cubist movement.  After that, architecture tells the tale of a series of unfortunate events: German occupation, US Air Force bombings, the arrival of the Red Army and Communist takeover, Prague Spring and Soviet tanks, finally the Velvet Revolution of 1989.  Along the way, Praguers tended to expunge the record–maybe most dramatically by blowing up the giant stone sculpture of Stalin.  What remains from the tough twentieth century is a whole mess of Communist era architecture, from the uninspiring metro system, to dismal apartment buildings and intimidating office towers.  You can also visit the Museum of Communism, which has a startlingly winning attitude about this chapter in the country’s history; it is heavy on dark humor with a dash of snark.

Fred & Ginger

More recently, the leadership in Prague has wanted to impress upon the world that really, we’re just as up to date as you (although we want to lure you to spend your tourist korunas on our whitewashed history), with envelope-pushing architecture.  There’s this new octopus thing that’s been pretty contentious, but who knows: by the time you go, it might start oozing out of the ground.  Definitely worth the trip out to its neighborhood is the Frank Gehry building nicknamed after a famous dancing couple.  MoT‘s EEBs went out there, all set to hate on it, but you know what: it actually kind of works in the colorful Baroqueish neighborhood right on the riverfront.

So that’s what you do in Prague, if you go, although MoT‘s EEEs hope you go there in concert with, and not at the expense of, Prague’s more mature, interesting, darker sister, Budapest.  Especially if you can take them both in with their elegant mother, Vienna, who doesn’t look her age at all.  But really: Budapest.  Go there.

just some place to have coffee and cake . . . in BUDAPEST

the employment crisis in architecture: a modest proposal

architecture, anyone?  anyone???

A very tasteful associate of MoT passed along the following comment made in response to the New York Times article, “Want a Job?  Go to College, and Don’t Major in Architecture,” which appeared on January 5, 2012:

Im waiting for the matters of taste blog or the Onion to find a way to see humor in this grim topic circulating amongst architects….
Taste would never ignore our loyal fan base (although we would encourage our readers to take greater care with punctuation)–especially when they mention us in the same virtual breath as that paragon of journalistic virtue, the Onion.  (Not to mention, in the context of the Old Gray Lady–or at least her electronic counterpart–, which we believe, by extension, means that MoT has basically been published by the Times, so you may as well say it’s as if MoT has also won 106 Pulitzers.)
     Here’s the scoop.  The NYT article, based on a report published by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, cited dire statistics for the profession:
The unemployment rate for recent graduates was highest in architecture, at 13.9 percent. . . .  Even architecture majors who went on to receive graduate degrees, which usually safeguard workers from unemployment, are doing poorly in the job market. 
This news, and the cries of despondency and outage that it prompted from the realms of architectural education and practice, has circulated around MoT HQ for a few months now.  In response, the staff has fanned across the country to seek further evidence to understand the issue and build a strategy for recovery.
     One of our researchers completed a significant line of research at the annual conference of the American Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA), which met in Boston in early March.  As the professional organization of professionals who teach in the academy, the ACSA represents the people who are ultimately responsible for the numbers and quality of would-be architects being heaved into the world on an annual basis.  In response to the Georgetown Center’s report, ACSA invited Kermit Baker, chief economist for the AIA, to interpret the recent unemployment statistics.  Filled with data from the US Dept. of Labor, his presentation was sobering, instructive, and ultimately inspirational to MoT‘s representative who attended the meeting.
     According to Mr. Baker, although the precipitous rise in unemployment (over 60,000 payroll positions at US architecture firms lost since 2008, representing about a third of the workforce) cuts across all levels of experience, it is recent graduates and younger professionals who have borne the brunt of these layoffs.  Looking to the sunny side, Mr. Baker confirmed that, for those who hang on to jobs, compensation remains healthy–at least relative to landscape, graphic, and interior designers.  The average staff salary for architecture positions remains the highest among the design professions at $83,400–for those who can get their foot in the door.  What stands between the younger practitioner and a position in the field is in part driven by global economic circumstances, but not entirely so.  Mr. Baker stressed the point that younger professionals’ advance into practice was also the function of an employment bottleneck occasioned by baby boomitects, who are working more years than their forebears and thus simply not making room for the next generation.
     These turtlenecked and bespectacled creatures lurking in the corner offices and prime cubicles of drafting rooms are an immovable resistance against the aspirations of younger practitioners.  Having graduated from programs that did little to cultivate their ability to figure out any alternate employment, or even a hobby, they have nothing to do but wander the streets or take shelter in familiar environments.  It is a melancholy object to those who see Starbucks cafes, bookstores (especially in periodicals sections where Dwell is shelved), and Apple stores crowded with young, unemployed architects, while—potentially on upper levels of the same loft buildings—mature architects, aged 50+, run their hands through their graying hair, hoping that the new website designed by their nephew will be the one to get the phones ringing again.
     This deplorable state of the profession has spread throughout the architectural community and has been met by little meaningful response.  Academics and economists, profundity-spewing pundits and nattering nabobs have weighed in, offering a little hope for the future, a lot of hand-wringing, and the occasional NPR story about some architect who was able to turn the recession into an opportunity to strike out in some entrepreneurial way (like John Morefield, shown above).  But the fact is that architects tend to show less entrepreneurial capabilities than one might expect them to have; as a result, the main response to the problem has been to talk and wait, to hope and despair, to draw another interior view of the Starbucks where you hang out all day long soaking up the free Wi-Fi.  Until now.
     Based on Mr. Baker’s data, MoT’s Chief Economist and Crystal Ball Seer* poses a solution to the current crisis in employment among architects: a modest proposal for transforming the elder statesmen in the architecture profession from status as burden on the profession to multi-faceted benefit for younger practitioners.
     The fact is, even an older, but still healthy architect, is a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled; no doubt it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.  Years, perhaps decades, of surviving on Thai carry-out and Mocha Frappucchinos might not ensure the healthiest cuts of meat, but this regular feed contributes to an extensive marbling that ensures flavor and tenderness, especially when one considers the controlled, caged environment in which architects are farmed, with little natural exercise to stiffen the musculature.  (The only part to be wary of is the right arm, which is the one most likely made tough by a career of mouse-clicking, wall-punching, and gripping telephones with excessive force.)
     The advantages of this proposal are obvious and many.  It allows older architects to contribute to the professional (and nutritional) development of younger architects, instead of forcing their positions as a grievous encumbrance upon the community.  By greatly reducing the number of mature architects, with which the profession is overrun, not only will streams of employment open, but valuable caches of treasure (designer eyeglass frames, underused golf clubs, Mont Blanc pens, iPads, Lego kits of the Guggenheim) can be sold off to pay off student loans.  It makes the golden years of a worn-out architect’s life more golden; while their love of Brutalism and resistance to sustainability would indicate to their colleagues that it’s time for them to go, their peers will not shove them out the door as much as ply them with fattening foods to make their final days (and them, literally) delicious for that day when The End finally does come.  Like beef and pork, architect might be sold in markets as various cuts; the AIA–already so skilled at taking their cut of an architect’s livelihood–could probably skim a reasonable percentage by going into the butchering business and providing low-cost, nutritious food to its own aspiring membership (literally on the backs of its aging expiring membership), especially those who are so used to living close to the bone from ‘enrolling’ in those no-pay ‘internships’ we hear about from time to time.  Of course there is the dietary profit of a new dish introduced to the tables of all gentlemen of fortune who have any refinement in taste–some of whom, in a delightful twist of fate, may have once dined with the architect from whom they commissioned a stellar museum or office building and whom they now dine on!  This culinary potential will doubtless affect the fortunes of some would-be architects who had that “Cooking is just like architecture—I could be a chef!” moment during one of the post-graduation days they spent wandering the aisles of Best Buy, catching up on old episodes of Top Chef.  Recent graduates could adopt the job of the very architect that they digest; two or three could be employed at the salary of the deceased. Even earning just under $30,000 they would enjoy the benefit of knowing that they earn as much as shift supervisors at Starbucks and definitely more (maybe tenfold) than the adjunct professors who taught all those pro-practice and tech courses.  (Worth noting: of the three, it’s probably only the Starbucks manager who gets benefits.)
     While MoT expects wide support for this modest proposal to ease the present employment conundrum, it has one additional suggestion to offer.  MoT‘s Department of Wishful Thinking suggests the expansion of a highly successful yet woefully underfunded project founded in 1933 to assist the thousands of architects, draftsmen and photographers who were thrown out of work by the Great Depression.  The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), which has amassed a huge collection of material on every conceivable kind of building–perhaps an unparallaled national collection of resources on 38,600 structures nationwide.  That program was built on a powerful pair of realities: a government that could help its people (and not just its massive, too-big-to-fail businesses) without being denounced as “socialist,” and a professional corps that cared about national heritage as much as regular folk did.  But, since both are in as short supply as those gentlemen’s fedoras, MoT recommends to the profession a change of menu.

*Who also serves as MoT‘s Head of Eighteenth-Century Brit Lit Criticism; we tend to be interdisciplinary that way.

workin’ it: HABS architects at the Kentucky School for the Blind in Louisville (March 1934)

epigram 2: on black granite in the kitchen

no.

White, pink, beige or silver; just one to exclude:

Never choose black where you plan to fix food.

Black granite is a tough material.  In memorials or, maybe, CFO offices, yes.  Kitchens?  No.  White marble, yes (especially if you are fussy about pastry); pink formica, yes (if you can live up to it); other spotty granite, yes (if you are rollin in da scrilla); the beige family of Formica or Corian, oh I guess it’s practical (if you’re the rest of us); black granite: no, no, no.  It’s hard to keep clean and is not pretty or handsome at all, just kind of oppressive and creepy if you have to live with it, especially in the kitchen, where it will become an instant disaster if you so much as set a coffee spoon on it.  Really, really forget it if you have kids, unless you plan to keep them out of the kitchen until they leave for college.

Under only three conditions may you consider installing black granite in your kitchen: (1) you are bothered by having a mirror-less room that will not allow you to admire your reflection, (2) you have a house elf or other servant who will spend an hour after every use of the sink and/or range to clean up, or (3) you are a Grand Moff.

he prefers take-out, anyway

kitchen geek: “Order of the Phoenix” edition

what to make when you’re feeding an Army

With the final film in the series now in theatres, MoT‘s Literary Liason and Noshing Nutritionist feels the pressure to have done with this series (review Chomping in the Chamber of Secrets hereThe Not-Last Meal of the Prisoner of Azkaban here, and the Tri-Wizard Tri-Course Championship Banquet here).  As the series matures, an appropriate culinary approach favors layered elements that reflect the increasing complexity of the plot but also, especially, the multi-faceted complexities of the book’s not-clear-cut characters.  So, dear reader: review book five, warm up the dvd player, and join us for some rations good enough for Dumbledore’s Army–as well as those (as yet) unsung heroes who we can just tell were serious foodies, too.

Deleted scene: To ease the tension of a difficult occlumency lesson, Snape shows Harry around his well-stocked spice cabinet.  (“Of course they are not the same and one must always keep a variety of hot, sweet and smoked paprika on hand, Potter, you twat!”)

concentrate!

Behold: Occlumens salad with Legilimens chips

Preparation: The basic recipe for Sirius Black Bean Soup, adjusted to make it more dip-like, is the base, and really all you need.  But to elevate the bean dip into an appropriately complex analogy of a thinking-bean, load it up: guacamole, cheese, sour cream, tomatoes, and as much cilantro as Prof. Sprout can spare from her garden.

Note: Snape’s description of the mind as “a complex and many-layered thing” that can be “delved into” by masters of Legilimency is exactly like the snack that Muggles call a layered taco dip.  We like the idea that triangular salty chips are somehow like the sharp skill of the  Legilimens spooning into the goopy memories of an unshielded mind, but we also have our limits of pushing this analogy too far and fear we have overstepped even our own generous limits.

Service: Serve with Pure Blood Orange Juice Spritzer

rich in nargle-fighting antioxidants

Behold: Luna’s Tuna Spirals with Kreacher Peachers

Preparation: whirl curry, mayo, peaches, red pepper, red onion and basil; dash it across tortillas and roll them up.  Chill, slice, present.

Note: These little snacking rounds are curious: mildly fishy, with a bright fruitiness alongside the heat of a pepper–not quite searing, but surprisingly, and unexpectedly, purposeful none the less.  Overall sweet, and a nice accompaniment to the evening’s events, but not our favorite part, not by a long shot.

pink, sweet, and cold.  oh, so cold.

Behold: Umbridge Pie

Preparation: Mash layer upon layer of ice cream into a terrine mold (OK, OK, a meatloaf pan works too).  Ice creams should be in as many shades of pink as possible: cherry, raspberry, strawberry, etc. etc. etc.  Any flavor will do, as long as it’s pink.  But really mash it in there: force it under the pressure of ambition and racism and intolerance and other bad things that are hidden in the creamy sweetness of all that ice cream.  Finish with a top layer (which will, when it is unmolded, become the crust) of processed chocolate cookies, because you know there has to be something more bitter and darker underneath all that pink.

Service: Garnish with more super-sweetness.  Cherries dyed an unnatural shade of red? Perfect.  Manipulated to look like the magical eye of a defeated auror? More perfect.

use your napkin.

most American sweets

Sugar Daddy Sam Adams (J. S. Copley, 1772) "you put those tongs right down, or I'll show you some *lumps*!"

Up there with life and liberty, Americans cherish their right to the pursuit of sweets.  The national palate is conditioned by sucrose as surely as the Founders’ wigs were powdered (coincidentally, the way they preferred their doughnuts).  Benjamin Franklin wrote about the virtues of honey in Poor Richard Improved (1748).  Guests to Monticello often enjoyed pastry-wrapped ice-creams at the conclusion of dinner.  Two of the tax acts that got the revolutionary ball rolling were on molasses and sugar, for crying out loud!  Patriot-brewer Sam Adams led the opposition to the Sugar Act nine years before Bostonians started getting sassy with all that tea.  It’s no coincidence that the first sundae parlor opened in New York in 1776, a year that other important things happened in American history.

But the fancy-pants puddings, treacles and tarts served up on crystal, china and silver (check out  Jefferson’s pretty silver dessert spoons here) during the Colonial period are hardly the stuff for the twenty-first century American, who has about as much time and patience to prepare a crème anglaise as he does to tie a cravat.  America’s craving for sweets is no less strong than it was back in Ye Olden Times, but now it’s modified by the expectation that dessert, like life and liberty, be served up on demand.  The same way we like our Bruce Willis movies.

Thus the following list of Most American Sweets.  Their achievement as “most American” is judged by a complex matrix involving ease, comfort, immediate gratification, fat grams and carbs, all of them virtuous truthful things guaranteed in our Constitution or Declaration or something.  Behold:

fried pie

Fried Pies

Hailing from the Beautiful South (where those two words rhyme), this treat brings together three of the things that Americans love most: syrupy fruit, flaky pastry and frying.  It provides the summery delight of pie (for people who like that sort of thing) without the hassle of a pie–why bake something for an hour when you can flash-fry it for  a few minutes?  And, unlike (baked-) pie (and those other fruited American standbys: Bettys, Buckles, Crisps and Cobblers), the Fried Pie requires neither plate nor fork: clearly the superior way to deliver one (or more) daily serving of fruit and veg into the American’s welcoming gob.

cone on the go

Bowl-Free Ice Cream

During America’s founding, ice cream was available only to elite and privileged citizens due to its requirements for expensive ingredients, costly access to year-round ice, and significant expenditure of labor.  Because those days of the haves and have-nots are behind us, ice cream (just like health care, child care and a sound public education) is easily within reach of all tax-paying Americans.  So much easier than getting your servants to slave away over a few dishes of iced peach cream, now you can have a great assortment of flavors of different pre-packaged qualities and , the best part, to go, right there in the gas station.  Although ice cream bars and sandwiches, cherry dilly bars and orange pop-ups are in the ballpark, the factory-made ice cream cone is the winner here for its perfect simplicity.  Call it a Drumstick, King Cone, Cornetto or whatever, it’s the ideal delivery system of ice cream and cookie-like cone, leaving nothing left over once you’ve tossed the wrapper in the back seat or let it fly out the window as you speed down the highway.  This land is your land, this land is my land, and it’s ours to litter with Good Humor wrappers.

brownie

Brownies

The two-fold beauty of the brownie is found in both its preparation and consumption.  The latter, like all other treats on the list, is a matter of absolute ease.  It’s a one-handed matter, leaving the other free to grab milk out of the fridge and gulp straight out of the quart.  But in its preparation, too, the brownie shows its excellence.  A distant relative in the family of cakes, it is much easier, since there’s no leavening, and even if it’s made from scratch, everything happens in the same bowl.  (We don’t need to to go into the beauty of the box-mix here, one of America’s great gifts to the culinary world.)  But let’s say you get all high-falutin’ and make brownies without the assistance of Duncan Hines: you’re looking at unwrapping a stick of butter, a few squares of chocolate, stirring in flour and sugar and some eggs.  Boom.  Done.  That’s it.  And then, further brilliance: the brownie is totally adjustable and suit any taste, and by taste, we mean Americans’ right to have what they want, exactly how they want it.  Add marshmallows, nuts, chocolate chips, peanut butter, beef jerky: it doesn’t matter.  There’s no police coming to stand between you and the way you know God intended you to enjoy it.  Brownies are the official snack of the Bill of Rights.

whoopie

Whoopie Pies

The Whoopie Pie hails from southeastern Pennsylvania and is a monument of Amish baking, no matter what those lumberjacks in Maine say (and if you don’t believe us, believe the Wilkes-Bare Times Leader, man!).   Whoopie Pies are not pies at all, but rather discs of awesomeness that accomplish the same goal for cakes as Fry Pies do for, well, pies.  The best cakes are frosted cakes, but eating them requires first rooting around for a fork and plate (or a midnight trip to the kitchen, where only you and the dog know what happens).  And who wants to bother with that?  Whoopie pies conjoin the fluffy, spongy goodness of chocolate cake with a filling that is a beautiful marriage between sweet buttercream frosting with marshmallow for a little beefier structure, in a size perfectly suited for the American paw.  Really, they’re just about perfect.  Whoopie pies are the food world’s equivalent to Kate Smith’s rendition of God Bless America.

cookies

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Cookies bring together the strong points of many of the honorees on this list: they’re one-handed, wrapper-free, utensil-free, flexible and adaptable to personal preference.  One particular kind of cookie rises from the pantheon of ice box, cut-out, molded, rolled and pressed biscuits: the drop cookie.  This is the final, most-American sweet in its ease of mixing, flexibility for creativity (or forgiveness for sloppy kitchen technique) and especially the way the home citizen-cook just wallops a spoonful of dough at a baking sheet and calls it a day.  Among drop cookies, the chocolate chip cookie reigns supreme.  First, do not waste our time with gingerbread and lemon and snickerdoodles; chocolate is the superior sweet flavor above and beyond all sweet flavors.  Fact.  The cookie is a medium for delivering chunks of the good stuff with the greatest ease and simplicity.  On top of all that, these cookies come with a great history, too.  They were invented by some dame (she probably had a name like Suzannah Yankadoodle) who was looking to save some time, in particular by avoiding the tedious melting of the chocolate.  Instead, she just tossed those  chopped morsels in the batter and, faster than you can say “two if by sea,” an American treasure was born of Yankee innovation (which some might call general American laziness, but we won’t).  You can almost hear the Founders in their Founders Walhalla, making sweeping bows to ol’ Suzannah: our tricorne hats are off to you, madame, to which she would reply, in conjunction the first recorded use of the We’re-Number-One Foamhand, heck yeah!

too fussy to be a contender--but majestic, none the less