Saturday, October 31, 2009

Hallow'd Eve

I don't know how October 31 managed to sneak up on me so stealthily this year, but all of the sudden, that great day for costumes, candy and mischief is upon us.

I don't have any big plans this year - except to provide back-up support at my parents' house which is always in the red zone of trick-or-treater onslaught, and I suspect particularly so this as Eagle River has canceled their Halloween party for community kids due to H1N1. So, I'm sure plenty of those children will be making their way to neighboring parties and communities for candy night.

But as I look back, I realize that I've been quite amiss in blogging about my Halloween experiences overseas, particularly in Vietnam and Thailand.

My first and only Halloween in Vietnam was in 2007. Vietnamese have a traditional mid-autumn festival on the full moon in September/October (though with temptures still well into the 90s, it hardly feels like autumn). This day is full of moon cakes and treats for the kids, folklore, and, apparently, even costumes, although I suspect that's more of a recent addition thanks to the exporting of western culture.

But of course, my team wanted to celebrate a "real" Halloween.

Ali, my predecessor, had already done a good job introducing the Cao Bang staff to the bare essentials of Halloween costumes and party games...except for carving pumpkins! I decided it was my task to remedy this, and so, I went to the market and bought four of their largest pumpkins.

When my staff, their families and a few friends arrived, I divided them up into teams. Each team got one pumpkin - and I showed them one that I had done as an example. Then I sent them off to far flung corners of the office to do what they would with whatever they could find.

Vietnamese are first, competitive, and second, creative. I patrolled the halls to keeps the spying to a minumum. And without our cultural baggage, they didn't dream of stopping at a hollowed-out, carved jack-o-lantern. Rather, they found paper and ribbons and streamers and boxes and soon had entire dioramas produced to house their creations.

There was no way I could choose a winner, so I distracted them by lighting candles and demonstrating how you make the jack-o-lantern faces glow in the dark.

Then it was time for the trick-or-treating. We hearded everybody to the bottom floor while I distributed the jack-o-lanterns on all four floors in front of closed office doors. Then off went all the lights - and the screaming hoards of candy-chasers came flying up the stairs! I'm sure I'd never get away with something like that in the US, but when they reached the top floor where I was barricaded behind the gate to the roof top, I was pretty glad for the protection!

Halloween 2007 could have been no more different than Halloween 2008. Last year on this date I was in Thailand. Our friend was determined to go as Captain Jack Sparrow, and we were determined to make him look as Johnny Depp-esque as possible.

So, we prepped by watching all three Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and hunting the markets for daubles and doodads (and a plastic sword) that would make the outfit. Then the sewing and stitching began - and finally, make-up:

Unfortunately the lighting was horrendous and so my photographic evidence of the work is a bit shoddy, but I it came off pretty well in the end...

Well, we tried, anyway.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Monster Mushrooms

Ooooh, here's a post I never got around to finishing. Shame on me!

Another event from the last weeks was the discovery of a giant puffball mushroom in our yard. We didn't manage to get any pictures of the beast in situ, but you can imagine this is what it must've looked like. (Okay, ours was a little smaller.)

Anyway, we picked it, brought it home, and sliced it. It was so big that we called a neighbor and offered him half of it.

Now, just what do you do with a giant puffball mushroom, you ask?

Well, you fry it up and eat it, of course!


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Change of staples

I just realized this week that six years of eating rice more or less on a daily basis has finally lead to a major shift in dietary perspective for me: now when I'm stuck and staring around the kitchen with no idea of what to eat, my default reaction is to reach for the rice.

Not potatoes. Not pasta. Not even bread.


Now when I cook, I make extra rice just so I can have leftovers in the refrigerator. It only took me nine months, but I have finally perfected the Asian version of PBJ: fried rice. So, when I'm hard up for a meal, I fry up some rice.

I'll also confess that a major enabler in my default eating habits has been the acquisition of a rice cooker.

Now there is absolutely no excuse for me to not cook rice - all I have to do is dump in the rice, twice the amount in water, and press cook. Then, when it's done, the cooker keeps the perfectly cooked rice warm for me until I'm ready to eat. I can even steam fresh vegetables in it. Really, how much simpler can it get? Okay, it still takes about 20 minutes to cook the rice, so sliced bread still wins for speed, but as far as a hot meal goes, this is downright brainless.

And now rice is available in amazing quantities for cheap at Sam's Club.

Really. I'm in love with rice all over again.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The More You Know...about cranberries

So, as of yesterday, I know more about cranberries than any relatively mentally healthy person with only a night of crash course web surfing and not in any way connected to the industry, should know.
I spent six hours of my Saturday leading bus tours from the Eagle River Cranberry Fest to Three Lakes to visit a cranberry marsh and the Three Lakes Winery. Considering I haven't actually been on a marsh since a second grade field trip and haven't been on a Winery tour since before I could drink and before they had an automated bottling machine, I had a bit of catch-up to do.

But thanks to an informative guide script and a bit of coaching from the pros (and a bit of Googling on Friday night), I think I did pretty well. And I now know a heck of a lot more about cranberries.

For example:

  • Wisconsin is the leading producer of cranberries in the US. Our state alone produces over half of all cranberries consumed here in the US. Good thing cranberries go well with cheese...and cranberry wine ever better.

  • Cranberries don't grow in water (actually, I already knew this, but here are the specifics). As with rice, water is a cultivation tool: after the harvest, the cranberry beds are flooded to cover the evergreen vines in ice. This protects the vines from freezing in our Wisconsin subzero temperatures.

    Also, every three to five years, drive trucks out on the ice and dump several inches of sand. As the ice melts in the spring, the sand settles on top of the vines. This keeps an individual vine from growing too long by encouraging the vine to take root and branch into new vines.

    The major pest for the cranberry is the Blackheaded Fireworm (mmm, doesn't that sound yummy?). Fortunately for cranberry growers - the Blackheaded Fireworms can't swim, but cranberry vines can. So they flood the bed just as the Fireworm is maturing and drown them out.

    Then during the spring and summer the growers spray down the cranberry beds on nights that threaten to freeze. As ice forms, it released a small amount of heat (remember high school physics?), and this heat protects the blossoms from freezing.

    Finally, in the fall, the beds are flooded because the ripe cranberries float. They use a machine to "beat" the berries off of the vines, and then all the berries float to one end of the bed where they are collected.

  • Cranberries are one of three fruits native to Wisconsin. The other two are blueberries (in the same scientific Order as cranberries) and Concord grapes.

  • Cranberries and blueberries are in the same scientific order with a third commonly enjoyed berry, the Lingonberry.

  • Cranberry vines take 3-4 years to begin producing berries, but once they produce, a single vine can continue producing for decades. Some have been known to continuously produce berries for 100 years.

  • White cranberry juice comes from using cranberries that haven't fully ripened (the color hasn't "snapped," and the seeds inside the berry are still white instead of brown). The commercial variety of cranberries doesn't fully ripen until after a hard freeze. White cranberries are commonly harvested around Labor Day (or the producers selected unripened berries from the regular cranberry harvest). Another species of cranberry does ripen in mid-September, without the aid of a frost.

  • Much research continues to be done on the health benefits of the berry, but really, you can't go wrong eating those little things (just watch the sugar).

Wisconsin growers estimate this year's harvest will be about 4 million barrels (in the industry, one barrel = 100 lbs of berries). That's down from 2008's harvest of 4.3 million barrels, but 2008 was a record year, and even with an 11% decrease 2009 will be the second biggest harvest on record. That is, assuming that after this strange summer and early fall, the color finally does "snap" with enough time for growers to get the berries harvested before it begins to snow and the flooded cranberry beds turn into a gigantic cranberry slushy.

I'll confess I was actually a lot more intimidated by the idea of guiding tours at the Winery. Fortunately I didn't wind up with anybody in my tour groups that were actually wine-makers (or, I did so poorly they knew better than to attempt to ask me any questions). I'm impressed with how much the facility has grown since I was last in the back of it. There were boxes of wine in every nook and cranny and stacked high to the ceiling. Seems like they're doing pretty well, and they've added a whole line of new wines (including some new grape varieties). We tried the new pomegranate and a red Zinfandel grape and cranberry wine blend that was very good.

Also new this year are cheese spreads that are blended with the cranberry, blackberry or blueberry wines. I snuck back into the parking lot today to get my fresh cranberries, but now that cranberry fest is over, I'm going to have to go back to the Winery tomorrow to stock up on my own cranberry supplies. I hope there's something left to be bought!!