Cousins, part 2

Sunday, September 28, 2014
On my mom's side of the family, the Bustins, we had three sets of cousins. Today - because of space considerations - I'll be writing about two of them, with the third set to follow next Sunday.

If you live in California, and drive to Canada to visit your relatives in an orange van called "The Great Pumpkin", then you are the cool cousin.

Wendy first visited us in Canada when she was eleven months old. Although I don't remember this visit, it was our first indication of how sociable she was. They came by plane, and she was naturally jet-lagged. When our parents put the three of us to bed, two of us stayed asleep, but Wendy was up a few hours later. My mom and dad had invited a few other couple over to meet Aunt Barbara and Uncle Don, and Wendy cheerfully kept them all entertained!

Wendy is the same age as my sister Gwen, and we always wished we could see her more often. But given that we lived in different countries, with Wendy in the west and us in the east, we did well, since they usually came every second year.

Remarkably, my sister remembers me teaching Wendy the American national anthem. (Not my country's anthem, but hers. Was I really that bossy?) As children, we went swimming together, played make-believe in the corn crib, and took turns in my grandparents' hammock. As we grew older, our relationships turned into real friendships. We travelled back and forth on our own for visits, and Wendy was a bridesmaid in Gwen's wedding. When she came to Canada in 2012, she and I drove to the Stratford Festival to see 42nd Street. We didn't stop talking for a minute on the way there, and still had lots to talk about before and after the show. Wendy is that friend who you haven't seen in a while, but when you do, it feels like you've never been apart.

If Wendy was our cool cousin, then Shawn and Erin were the cute ones. Ten and twelve years younger than me, they were adorable when the rest of us were going through our awkward stages. Here they are at one of our annual family Christmas get-togethers, pictured behind the cookie house my mom always made for those occasions. Nearly every Christmas photo taken around that time shows one of them inching their way out of the chair, if not reaching an arm toward the cookie house to claim their favourite treat.

Another year, we dressed them up as Santa and Mrs. Claus to deliver gifts. Erin's big smile and Shawn's cheerful acceptance of a cloth beard tell you everything you need to know about how much fun it was to have little ones in the family.

That's their dad, my Uncle Alan, smiling in the background. He died much too young at the age of 45, when Erin and Shawn were teenagers. His friendly and gentle nature helped make them the people they are today.

Shawn read scripture at Gwen's wedding, and Erin read scripture at mine. By that time, they had grown into kind, thoughtful young people, and I will always be proud of them.

Next week, I'll be writing about my third set of cousins on the Bustin side - Heather and Michael, the ones I grew up with.

And yes, there's a recipe this week, at least sort of. This seven layer dip barely needs a recipe, but I made it with my youngest daughter yesterday and thought it would be a great appendix to a post about my family.

Seven Layer Dip

1 can refried beans
1/2 tsp ground cumin - or more or less to suit your taste
3/4 cup grated sharp cheddar
Pico de gallo, or strained salsa
1 cup guacamole
Shredded lettuce (or olives, or green onions, or whatever you like)
1 cup sour cream
3/4 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
Tortilla chips to serve

Put the dip in two small dishes rather than one large one. (Once people start helping themselves, it gets messy - two smaller dishes are definitely more attractive!)

Gently heat the refried beans in a skillet, breaking it up and adding a little cumin. Spread it on the bottom layer of the dishes. Sprinkle cheddar on top, followed by pico de gallo, guacamole, lettuce and sour cream. Finish with cheddar cheese on top. Serve with chips.

Thursday's Child: Destination Potsdam

Thursday, September 25, 2014
Destination: Potsdam, Germany

When we visited: August 2014

Why to go:

Potsdam is probably best known for hosting the Potsdam Conference, where Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, and Joseph Stalin met to determine the fate of Germany following its defeat in the Second World War. However, Potsdam’s earlier fame, and the reason we visited, was because of Sanssouci Palace and Park, the summer home of Frederick the Great.

What to see:

Frederick the Great was King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786. Like many Europeans at the time, he admired everything about France. He spoke French better than German, he often hosted French guests (including one of his favourites, the philosopher Voltaire), and he modeled his summer home, Sanssouci (French for “without care”) after Versailles.

He planted the vineyard first, then began planning the park. Sanssouci eventually became home to flower gardens, fruit trees, greenhouses and long stretches of grass connected by a 1 1/2 mile-long path. It also displays a number of sculptures and fountains, although the fountains were never functional during Frederick’s lifetime. 

It was a beautiful day when we visited, and we walked the full length of the avenue, from the obelisk at the eastern entrance to the New Palace at the west, and back. We enjoyed watching the now-functional fountains and the immaculately maintained grounds.

Frederick loved Potsdam and his garden so much that he chose to build a palace in the area of the park with the best sightlines. A terrace leads from the central Lustgarten (translated as Pleasure Garden) to Sanssouci Palace, whose elevated position commands a lovely view of the entire park. Built in rococo style, the palace was very small by royal standards, a mere ten rooms. An artist at heart, Frederick loved to entertain friends like Voltaire and other great thinkers, and they spent many evenings debating philosophy, art and literature well into the night.

For some reason, I only took photos of the ceilings inside the palace. Hence, I present the ceilings of Sanssouci:
The Picture Gallery
The Voltaire room
The Music room
 The town of Potsdam was itself worth a visit:

Berlin is famous for the Brandenburg Gate, but Potsdam has a Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor) of its own. Potsdam’s gate was designed by a different architect on each side, and is entrance to the pedestrian-only Brandenburgerstrasse. The Church of St. Peter and Paul lies a few blocks away, at the other end of the street.

Where to eat:

After a very warm afternoon in the park, we could tell the weather was about to change. Concerned by the dark clouds, we chose a restaurant that was a short walk from our hotel. The food at Adriatic was great, but our most memorable moment had nothing to do with the food. 

We decided to eat outside under a sturdy awning, and when the inevitable rain came down, we remained outside, while all the other diners went in. It was kind of romantic, listening to the sound of rain pelting on the awning above our heads while we stayed dry. Romantic, that was, until we heard a whirring sound and saw the awning beginning to retract. Panicked, we began gathering our things to make a run inside – until we looked through the window and saw the bartender, doubled over in laughter, with a remote control in his hand. Having had his joke, he returned the awning to its original location and we enjoyed the rest of our meal in dry clothes.

Cousins, part 1

Sunday, September 21, 2014
Ruth Anne, me, Carol and Gwen
“What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.”
 - Mother Teresa

I’ve been meaning to go through my mom’s slides for a long time. It’s always been easy to look at the pictures in her albums, but she also has several thousand photos in slide format that no one ever looks at, because it’s a bit of work to get out the slide projector.

When I visited her this summer, we finally had the opportunity to sit down and spend time going through the slides. We made it through about two dozen of her well-organized carousels, most of which held 140 images. (Yes indeed, that's over 3000 slides.) In some ways, I was reliving my childhood – the pictures span about thirty years, and cover family reunions, trips, birthdays, school concerts, and graduations, to name just a few events. 

I came back with 400 slides that I wanted to put on a disk for easier access. While I promise I won’t share all of them, I can’t resist sharing a few.

They say your cousins are your first friends, and it is true for me. My sister and I were fortunate to have wonderful cousins on both sides of our family, and they were all a big part of our childhood. Today I’m going to share a few photos of the cousins on my dad’s side.

Beauties in bathing caps!
With my dad, at the campground
When we were growing up, my dad’s sister Lois (Woolner) and her family lived on a farm about 20 minutes away from us. She had three daughters, Carol (two years older than me), Ruth Anne (a year older), and Judy (eight years younger). Because we lived close to each other, by rural standards, we all went to the same schools, and Ruth Anne and I had a few classes together in high school.

And then there were five! Baby Judy is the newest cousin.
We're pictured here with our Baker grandparents.
I have many wonderful memories of time spent with the Woolner girls. When we were young, my grandparents lived on our farm, and they often hosted the holiday meals. I remember watching through our living room window with excitement, waiting to see the Woolners’ car pull in the lane so we could run and meet them. Our family had a tent trailer; sometimes we rented a spot in a local campground and took Carol and Ruth Anne out for an overnight stay full of swimming, walks, and playing in the campground.

Judy was the first baby I remember playing with. She was unbelievably darling, and all of us wanted to hold her at the same time! Ruth Anne was the first of the cousins to get married, and Carol was the first to have a baby, and they both stand out as being momentous family events. Although we live further away now, we always treasure the time we spend together.

And yes, there’s a recipe this week too. This chicken stir-fry was quick to make and a pleasure to serve. I made it one night after I got back from my mom’s place and was organizing the slides to be converted. It was delicious enough to bring my mind out of the past.

Stir-Fried Chicken with Leeks, Oyster Mushrooms, and Peanuts
(from Cook This Now, by Melissa Clark)

2 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp rice wine vinegar
1 1/2 Tbsp Asian sesame oil
2 tsp brown sugar
3/4 pound boneless, skinless chicken meat (either breast or thigh) cut crosswise into 1/2” strips
2 Tbsp finely chopped fresh gingerroot
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 Tbsp canola oil or peanut oil
1/2 pound oyster mushrooms, sliced 1/2” thick
1 zucchini, thinly sliced and cut into half moons
2 to 3 leeks, white and light green parts only, cleaned and thinly sliced
pinch kosher salt
3 Tbsp finely chopped peanuts, for serving
Steamed rice, for serving

In a small bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, and brown sugar. In a large bowl, combine the chicken with half the marinade (reserve the other half for stir-frying) and half the chopped ginger and garlic. Cover the chicken with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours (longer than that and the chicken will get mushy).

Heat a large 12-inch or so skillet over the highest heat until the pan is very hot. Add 1 Tbsp canola or peanut oil, and tilt the skillet so the bottom is evenly coated. Lift the chicken from the marinade (shaking off any excess liquid) and add to the hot skillet. Cook stirring constantly and quickly, until the chicken is just cooked through, about 2 minutes for breasts and 3 to 4 minutes for thigh meat. Transfer the chicken to a plate.

Add the remaining oil to the skillet. Add the mushrooms and zucchini, and cook, stirring constantly, until the vegetables are browned and soft, 3 to 4 minutes. Add leeks and cook until wilted, about 1 minute.  Stir in the reserved marinade. Push the vegetables to the border of the pan, leaving an open space in the middle. Add the remaining chopped ginger and garlic to the open space. Stir until tender and fragrant, about 30 seconds. Return the chicken to the pan and quickly toss it with the ginger, garlic, and vegetables. Taste and add a pinch of salt, if you like.

Remove the pan from the heat and toss in the peanuts. Mound the stir-fry over steamed rice and serve.

Back to school, the prequel

Sunday, September 14, 2014
Last Sunday, I shared back-to-school photos of my daughters. This week I thought I'd show you one of my mom's school pictures. It was taken in the school year 1945-46, in her one-room schoolhouse. My mom, Joyce Bustin (now Joyce Baker) is wearing a white bow in her hair, and sitting three from the back ahead of the teacher. Her sister, my aunt Barbara, is directly ahead of her, and their best friend Frances is at the back of the row.

I'm not the only one in my family who loves to write. My mom has written a history of her life for my daughters and their cousin Lexy. Here are a few memories of school and friendship:

"At Croton school we played Ante-I-Over (throwing the ball over the woodshed roof and then running around to the other side before the ball could be caught and we could be tagged out). We played baseball at noon and recess. A school window was often broken and we all had to chip in to pay for a new one. There were woods beside the school. In the fall, we'd rake many leaves to a corner of the fenced-in yard. The girls would build a leaf hut in one corner and the boys would build one in another corner against the fence."

"The first morning [at their new school, after they moved]: Our clocks at the house were slow and we had arrived late. We sort of slunk into the classroom with everyone staring at us. We had about a two-mile walk to Croton School."

"Barbara and I often played with Frances Morgan from next door. The Anne of Green Gables books were a big hit with us. Morgans didn't have electricity. We were intrigued by the idea that Anne and Diana signalled messages to each other's homes. Barbara and I would go upstairs to one of the bedrooms that faced Morgans'. We would pull the cord on the ceiling light to turn it on and off. Frances signalled by walking into or out of her bedroom carrying a lamp. Our signalling was rather limited for meanings and this procedure didn't last long."

"Our school, like others, grew a Victory Garden. We planted, hoed and watered these vegetables and they went to the war effort. Mother would give us each 25 cents a week to buy a stamp to go into a war savings certificate which was kept at school. This was a piece of paper with squares where we licked the stamps and stuck them on. When 20 stamps had been affixed, another $5.00 had been saved to help with war expenses."

In the Second World War, Victory Gardens were common all over North America. Transporting food was expensive, and commercial canned goods were being set aside for the troops. Rationing often meant there wasn't enough food to go around. Victory Gardens solved those problems in several ways. They were a source of both food for local communities and money for the troops. They also helped civilians, especially schoolchildren, feel like they were contributing to the war effort.

I'm sure some of the carrots grown in these gardens were tossed into soups, since that would have been an economical way to feed a family. This soup recipe might be a bit fancier than those served in wartime and post-wartime households, but it was delicious - and filling enough to power a game or two of Ante-I-Over.

Carrot Soup with Crisped Chickpeas and Pita Wedges
(adapted from Smitten Kitchen)


2 Tbsp olive oil
2 pounds carrots, peeled and diced or thinly sliced
1 large onion, finely chopped
5 regular or 6 small garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1/4 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp kosher salt or sea salt
Pinch red pepper flakes
4 cups vegetable broth

Heat olive oil in large pot over medium heat. Add carrots, onion, garlic, coriander, cumin, salt and pepper flakes, and sauté until they begin to brown, about 15 minutes.

Once vegetables have begun to brown, add broth, using it to scrape up any bits stuck to the bottom of the pot. Cover with lid and simmer until carrots are tender, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes.

Puree soup with an immersion blender until smooth. Ladle into bowls. Sprinkle with crisped chickpeas and serve with pita wedges.

Crisped chickpeas

1 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained and patted dry on paper towels
1 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp kosher salt or sea salt
1/4 tsp ground cumin

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Toss chickpeas with olive oil, salt and cumin until they’re all coated. Spread them on a baking sheet and roast until they’re browned and crisp, approximately 15 to 20 minutes. Toss them occasionally to make sure they’re toasting evenly.

Pita wedges

A few large pitas, cut into 8 wedges each
Olive oil, to brush pitas
Za’atar (a Middle Eastern spice-herb blend) or sesame seeds and sea salt, to sprinkle

Spread pita wedges on a second baking sheet and brush lightly with olive oil. Sprinkle with za’atar or a combination or sea salt and sesame seeds. Toast in the oven with chickpeas until brown at edges, about 5 minutes. 

Serve soup with chickpeas on top, and pita wedges on the side.

Thursday's Child: Destination Montreal

Thursday, September 11, 2014

“All the kids have always known
That the emperor wears no clothes
But they bow down to him anyway
Cause it’s better than being alone.”
- from "Ready to Start", Arcade Fire

Destination: Montreal, Quebec

When we visited: August, 2014

Why to go:

There are many great reasons to visit Montreal. It's one of the most European cities in North America, the architecture is lovely, and the food is terrific. Our reason for visiting was perhaps less common - we had tickets to see one of our favourite bands, Arcade Fire, play the last concert on their Reflektor tour. 

What to see: 

Given how close we live to Montreal (five hours by train), I’m embarrassed at how long it’s been since I was last there. (To give you an idea, the second-last time I was in Montreal was for the 1976 Olympics. Ouch.)

Although we were in town only one night, we packed a lot into our visit. We admired the lovely Notre-Dame Basilica and the adjacent Place d’Armes. We walked the cobblestoned streets of Vieux-Montreal and basked in the energy of pedestrian-only Place Jacques Cartier with its restaurants, boutiques and buskers.

If you like to shop, visiting Marche Bonsecours is a must. This beautiful heritage building is home to about a dozen boutiques that specialize in products made and designed by Quebecois artisans. Whether you’re looking for art, fashion, jewelry or souvenirs, you’ll find it all here, at every price level – and you won’t find anything else like it. I’m not usually an avid shopper, but walking through the Marche Bonsecours was like walking through an art gallery.
Pre-concert family selfie
And, yes, we attended an Arcade Fire concert in Parc Jean-Drapeau. With the girls working at camp all summer, this trip was their only summer holiday, and a fun way to spend family time together. The concert was brilliant, one of the best I've been to. 

I asked my youngest daughter what her favourite song at the concert was, and she answered, aghast, “Picking just one would be sacrilegious.” As for my favourite? Probably “Normal Person”, with strong consideration to “Rebellion”, “Afterlife”, “Wake Up”, “The Suburbs” … never mind, picking just one would be sacrilegious.

Where to stay: 

Because we were in Montreal such a short time, we wanted to stay in a hotel that was close to everything. Auberge Bonaparte was a perfect choice – it was a short commute to the concert, and its location in the old city meant we could walk almost everywhere.

Where to eat: 

Montreal is known for its fine dining, but because of the nature of our visit, we only had the chance to eat casual meals. (A good reason for us to go back!) We enjoyed our meals at Café Veritas and Jardin Nelson, both in the old city, and had a wonderful three-course breakfast at our inn, included in the price.

And if I can recommend a restaurant that we didn’t eat at, Burritoville (owned by our friend Steve and two business partners) is a fabulous Mexican restaurant that’s unfortunately closed on Sundays – another good reason to go back.

I do not cheer for this hockey team

“Is anything as strange as a normal person?
Is anyone as cruel as a normal person?
Waiting after school for you
They want to know if you
If you’re normal too.
Well, are you?”

-       “Normal Person”, Arcade Fire

The Last of the Firsts

Sunday, September 7, 2014
September, 2001. The girls were on their way to the first day of school, in grade 2 and junior Kindergarten. It was the first time they'd gone to the same school and they (especially my youngest) couldn't wait. She'd been pretending to read for years, and now she was finally one of the big kids. Their first day of school was just a few days before an event that would make us all hold our kids a little closer, but on the day this was taken, the world still felt like a pretty safe place to be.

September, 2014. The same front yard, but they're both a little taller. This is probably the last time we'll have a traditional "first day of school" photo. My youngest is in twelfth grade this year, and we'll find out in due course what school she'll attend next fall. Because my oldest daughter hadn't started classes at her university yet, we were able to get one last photo of them on the first day of school. I'm still holding them as close as they'll let me. Whenever they're around, the world still feels like a pretty good place to be.

Spring, 2014. I made these bars to universal acclaim from my family, then set them aside to post later. That time has arrived. I hope everyone had a happy and safe journey back to school, whether it's your first time or your last. And if you serve these bars, you'll make your world a little sweeter place to be!

Peanut Butter Crispy Bars
(adapted slightly from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking, by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito)

Note: the original recipe makes 9 bars. Because they’re so rich, I cut them much smaller (I got 20 bars from mine).

For the Crispy Crust

1 3/4 cups Rice Krispies
1/4 cup sugar
3 Tbsp light corn syrup
3 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted

For the Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter layer

1/2 cup milk chocolate chips – 2/3 cup
2/3 cup creamy peanut butter – 1 cup

For the chocolate icing

3 ounces dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/2 tsp light corn syrup
4 Tbsp (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

1. To make the Crispy Crust:

Line an 8” square baking pan with parchment paper. Put the cereal in a large bowl and set aside.

Pour 1/4 cup water into a small saucepan. Add the sugar and corn syrup and use a small wooden spoon to stir the mixture until just combined. (Do not let any sugar or syrup get on the sides of the pan.) Put a candy thermometer in the saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat and bring to a boil; cook until the mixture reaches the soft ball stage, 235 degrees F.

Remove from the heat, stir in the butter, and pour the mixture over the cereal. Working quickly, stir until the cereal is thoroughly coated, then pour it in the prepared pan. Use a little butter to grease your hands, then press the mixture into the bottom of the pan. Let crust cool to room temperature while you make the next layer.

2. To make the Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter layer:

In a large nonreactive metal bowl, stir together the chocolate and the peanut butter.

Set the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water and cook, stirring with a rubber spatula, until the mixture is smooth. Remove the bowl from the pan and stir for about 30 seconds to cool slightly. Pour mixture over the cooled crust. Put the pan in the refrigerator for 1 hour, or until the top layer hardens.

3. To make the Chocolate Icing:

In a large nonreactive metal bowl, combine the chocolate, corn syrup, and butter.

Set the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water and cook, stirring with a rubber spatula, until the mixture is completely smooth. Remove the bowl from the pan and stir for 30 seconds to cool slightly. Pour the mixture over the chilled milk chocolate peanut butter layer and spread until even. Put the pan in the refrigerator for 1 hour or until the topping hardens. Slice into bars while cold.

Thursday's Child: Neues Museum, Berlin

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Last week I wrote about the first destination Andrew and I visited on Museum Island, the Pergamon. I was almost as excited about visiting the Neues Museum, a wonderfully rebuilt structure that's home to a fabulous collection, starring the most beautiful woman in Berlin.

The wonderfully preserved bust of Queen Nefertiti still bears the bright colours it was designed with. For the purposes of protecting those colours, we weren’t permitted to photograph it, so I’ve included a picture of the postcard featuring the bust. As way of contrast, the bust of her husband Akhenaten is shown below, in much worse condition.

The best estimate is that Nefertiti’s bust was made around 1340 BCE. And it's stunning, not just because its colours were preserved, but because it’s a finely rendered depiction of a mature woman. Royalty or not, no attempt was made to hide the signs of her age (such as small folds under her chin and bags under her eyes). Nefertiti is thought to have assumed an equal role to her husband, as they ruled the country together.

This stunning piece of art is at the centre of a debate over whether it belongs in Egypt or Germany. I won’t weigh in on this argument, other than to say I’m lucky to have seen it.

The Berlin Gold Hat is one of the most mysterious items in the Neues collection. One of four golden hats that have been found in Europe, this one was part of a private collection that was sold to the museum with no background information. No one knows where the Gold Hat was found, whether other artifacts were found nearby, or who discovered it.

Equally mysterious is why a tribe of Bronze Age people, who likely lived at a subsistence level, would have had the aptitude or the time to create such a stunning artifact. And although the purpose of the hat is unknown, it’s believed to have been designed for more than its beauty. The intricate markings along the sides would have helped the people of the time (approximately 1400 – 800 BCE) measure solar and lunar cycles.

In other words, while the Gold Hat reminded us of Harry Potter’s Sorting Hat, its true purpose was probably equally magical.

Neues’ collection of papyrus documents and ancient manuscripts looked for all the world like a series of secret codes to be deciphered. This room is referred to as a library of the ancient world, and its amazing collection is even more impressive than it sounds. Imagine seeing Egyptian fairy tales from 1700 BCE, a scrap from Homer’s Iliad, and a selection from an ancient funerary book (Book of the Dead). Although many of the pieces are written on papyrus, the collection also includes manuscripts written on leather, textiles and parchment. And in addition to hieroglyphs, languages ranged from Persian to Greek, from Ethiopian to Latin.

Neues was almost completely destroyed by bombing in the second world war, and sat in ruins for decades. An extensive rebuilding project led to it being reopened in 2009.

The Egyptian courtyard pictured above is a restoration of the original that was destroyed in the war. While this fresco and others like it aren’t original, they evoke a feeling of grandeur as they perch above the collection of Egyptian sarcophagi. This sense of grandeur is unmistakable throughout the wonderfully reimagined Neues Museum.