Family Photos

Two really sweet exhibits at Yale made me think about my family and family photos and family connections.  No, these shows aren’t at the Beineke or the Art Gallery or the art school.  One is at the Hillel and the other at a center for emeriti faculty.

My friend Julie grew up in a Yale family, her father a professor, her mother a Dean.  Now retired, her father still teaches the odd course here and there and engages with the Koerner Center, named for Henry Koerner, the artist, who after fleeing Europe and famously illustrating the Nuremberg Trials, taught in the Yale art department.

Now, Alan Trachtenberg has an exhibit of his black-and-white portrait photographs at the Koerner.  Each tells a story, not just of the sitter, but instead the relationship with the photographer, and in his absence, with us as viewers.  These are not easy conversations.  Who is the stern woman?  (Turns out, it’s his wife!)  The quizzical young man?  How has the photographer interrupted the couple, and does that explain why they look at us the way they do?

The exhibit at the Slivka Center, No One Remembers Alone, is surprisingly touching, telling the story of a love affair and the family that surrounds it.  It’s a Jewish story, of Abraham and Sophie, who are separated when she immigrates first, to Brooklyn.

They really fall in love through postcards–even the poor could afford the one penny stamp.  A portrait photograph was cheap enough, too.  Like a great love letter, these cards were saved over the decades.  Found in a suitcase and translated from Yiddish, the cards are displayed chronologically at Hillel on a round wheel-like display, where the back is visible, as well as the front.

7 sisters

Chava in 1910

Chava in 1910

While I loved that story, there were also the stories of their siblings.  Chava makes the trip to the U.S. in the place of Gitel, her sister, who fell in love with a young teacher Velvei Schapoachnik.  So much for going to the U.S.

So Chava travels under Gitel’s name, and the ship’s manifest is on display.  But then, in the U.S., she’s an illegal immigrant.  She was terrified of being deported, until she was finally able to naturalize as a citizen about thirty years later, in 1940.

Then there’s her brother Abram.  In 1899, when he was 13, he walked 3 kilometers to the farm school funded by the Jewish Colonization Association.  He wasn’t admitted because he was considered too weak and malnourished for the accompanying farm labor.  But this didn’t stop Abram.  He went again the next day and was turned away again.  He went every day for a month, until his tenacity got him a place in school.

Abram at school

Abram at school

Abram was the only member of his family to be educated, and his career came as a result, cultivating flowers and plants.

And so the love of learning moved through his world, as it does mine.  And I’m grateful to my family, who made similar choices as this family of strangers, who really don’t seem strange at all.

A slow look at speed

The snowy weather makes us slow down, but here are two films about speed you may want to keep on your weather radar.

speed-dating-flyer_aug1The Age of Love makes its point that the yearning for love doesn’t change at any age, but really doesn’t offer many other insights.  It’s a documentary about seniors speed dating in Rochester, NY.  Their event was only open to 70-90 year olds, so I had high hopes for age-appropriate, fresh fun.

Immediately striking is that the women looked a whole lot better than the men.  I expected the participants to revel in the freedom afforded by age.  But instead, I was mildly surprised that the women expressed the same longings they probably felt at 20–their lives didn’t have meaning without someone to share it with.  One woman had not married, so her sentiments were especially notable.  Does she dismiss her life to date as meaningless?

Both the women and men were either overly critical or not critical at all, in selecting people they’d like to see again.  Just as if they were 30.  They were needy, flippant, desperate, emotional, analytical.  Just as if they were 30.  The men and the women were hopelessly vain and as tied to cultural norms as no doubt they were at 30.

Okay, the point was well made, particularly to the Quinnipiac University undergraduate audience, who sighed and ah’d with each ‘cute’ thing a senior did or said and with the inevitable heartbreaks.  I couldn’t help but be silently critical of the youths for their superficial, unknowingly belittling ways.  Will they remember this film when they get a little age in them?

My friend and I did both laugh out loud at one point.  When one woman arrived for a first date after the speed dating event, she said, “you’re not the right man.  You’re not who I thought I was meeting.  No, forget it,” and turned to walk back to her car.

The gaggle of girls in the audience gasped.

Then the couple basically said, fooled you.  They had planned this prank on the filmmakers, and audience, in advance.  Imagine having a camera crew follow you on a date.  Well, with reality tv, maybe you can.  We saw one man, pulling his oxygen tank, almost get stood up.  Another said to the film crew, “time for you to go now,” as he waited to be fed dinner at his date’s apartment.

I’m devoting a lot of words to this movie, as the premise of seniors bothering with something as frustrating and frivolous as speed dating is intriguing.  But I was hoping for a joie de vivre that age can offer, a sense that the seniors were free to take risks, to dare to be different than their younger selves.  Instead, I left with a sadness that perhaps we never do change, let go of old insecurities, find a different kind of liberation as we lose the pleasures of a younger body.

Edouard Manet never had time to find out.  He died young, at 51, of syphilis, suggesting he’d done plenty of living up to that point.  But I digress.

Another form of documentaries gaining speed right now, and it’s worth a date, are the films profiling museum exhibitions.  Manet: Portraying Life does a pretty good job of looking at key works, and few lesser known paintings, by the intriguing Manet.  He was known as the master of the modern, showing us how the speed of modern life affected Paris in that 19th-century moment.

While some of the commentary is pretty light, following the speed dating phenomena of selling headlines to see if the buyer will want more, other moments are quite wonderful.  Each profiled painting is shown with musical accompaniment, no words, for about 90 seconds.  So we, as viewers, can simply look, or fall asleep, depending on how into it you are.  Risky, but worthwhile, in that slow-looking mode gaining in popularity in museum education these days.

Plus you get a tiny snapshot of what’s involved in putting a show together.  The series started with Rembrandt and continues with Vermeer, so take a slow look for these and speed up to get a ticket for a date with some art.  I bet you’ll find it more gratifying than dating with the seniors.


The best experience I’ve had with chocolate took place at Colonial Williamsburg.  I was attending a conference there in February (a Colonial brrrr) and signed up for a post-conference experience: making chocolate the Colonial way.

Ten of us met at a cooking cabin at 7 a.m., where the cows had already been milked, but the rest was up to us.  We divided labor.  Getting the dried beans into a huge fry pan to roast over the open fire (done by a staffer), cracking the beans (ah the aroma!), followed by hours and hours of grinding and pounding by us all.  No matter the cold, we had the door open, letting in the biting wind we all welcomed with our sweaty labor.

Only at the very end, maybe the last hour, we added some spices–we chose cayenne and cinnamon–and milk.  Sugar wasn’t readily available, but we were given a cone to scrape off for our mixture.

After twelve hours, yes really, we each got to taking home a sliver of this drinking chocolate.  Even mixing it with warm milk, the concoction was pretty chalky.

From the primitive to the sublime, I happily braved the Connecticut cold to go to my public library for a presentation by the self-taught ‘Chocolate Lady‘ Maria Brandriff, another Hamden resident.  She gave us an abbreviated history of chocolate, which comes from an Aztec word meaning “bitter water.”  They apparently made their drink much like we did at Williamsburg, and it was a beverage for the Kings, believed to be an aphrodisiac.

Not until the mid-1800s was chocolate used to make candy.  The discovery was conching–using huge mixing machines with slowly rotating blades to blend the heated chocolate and get rid of excess moisture.  It takes an Industrial Revolution to give us the really good stuff.

But candidly, the packed house was there for the goods.  And Maria didn’t disappoint.  First she had us taste decent grocery/drugstore chocolate, after deriding most of the readily available stuff, including Hersey and other mass-manufactured packaged chocolate.  Out of Lindt, Ghiradelli, and Trader Joe’s, I liked the latter’s 54% and 72% ‘Pound Plus’, made with chocolate from Belgium.

I couldn’t really tell all that much difference between the two levels of bitterness, which really references the amount of cacao to other ingredients, although generally, I like up to 80%.  I not a fan of sugar.  If you try the Trader Joe’s Pound Plus, let me know what you think.  It’s quite reasonably priced.

2015-01-29 19.48.42Then Maria showed us how to make truffles.  First you want to know that the word truffle really does reference the mushroom, because the best chocolates are irregular and gritty and earthy like the pig-discovered thing from the ground.

2015-01-29 19.40.11Anyway, you start with a ganache–an emulsion of heavy cream and chocolate, created by whisking.  You can used canned coconut milk instead of the cream, if for some reason, you’re being health conscious with your truffles.

Now, ganache is pretty tricky.   You need to temper your chocolate so that it will both have a snap when you bite into it and melt on your tongue.  Are you getting in the mood yet?

The problem is your ganache can curdle, called “broken ganache” just like a hollandaise or mayonnaise.  Maria says after many years of making the good stuff, it still happens to her.  Yep.  I’ve already written off trying this at home.  Still it was great fun watching Maria make truffles right in front of us, dipping the formed chocolate in cocoa powder (we each got to sample one.  Luscious.) 2015-01-29 19.52.03

If you get your ganache, you have to decide if you’re going to add flavor through addition or infusion.  Our goodie bag (this was unexpected for a free public program) included Maria’s tea-infused truffle, with its marinated tea leaves creating a juice that was infused into the ganache.  Adding coconut meat and lime juice to white chocolate made the piña colada truffle.  I don’t like these kinds of coconut candies in general, but Maria’s was pretty tasty.

So what you need to know is that the health benefits of chocolate start at 70%, the dark, dark stuff.  Different beans can make the chocolate taste totally different, even at the same percentage of cacao.  Your beans might be citrusy or smokey or fruity, depending on where they come from.  The best beans come from South and Central America, but most of what we get is from the Ivory Coast, where the beans are most prolific, cheapest, and least flavorful.  The price you pay will vary by all these determinants.

But really.  At this cold moment at the end of January, who cares?  Go have a nice piece of chocolate and let it melt on your tongue.  Life is good.