Tag Archives: family

Happy New Year!

My parents moved into a retirement community last summer and that’s where I’ve been spending my Christmas vacation. Much more on that later. Suffice it to say that things are rather quiet around here. Mostly we have been watching a lot of old movies. And sleeping. There was a New Year’s Eve Party the other day (from 4:30-6 pm — woo hoo!) to which I was not invited because it was residents only. Dad wasn’t feeling up to the party so we dispatched Mom down there with a discreet tote bag (discreet in the sense that it matched her outfit) into which she stuffed as much shrimp as she could when no one was looking. I really wish I could have seen that.

Lest you think that my NYE was a sad and lonely night without purpose, my sister asked me to babysit their dog while they were whooping it up in Maryland with some old college pals. Snickers and I saw in the new year watching the original Ocean’s 11 on the world’s largest television set.

Snickers, the world's soppiest pit bull

Snickers, the world’s soppiest pit bull, hunkers down for some ultimate Vegas heist action. Helllooo Dean Martin!

My father’s approach to dealing with recalcitrant TVs, computers and other electronic mysteries has always been to push all the buttons until something happens, hopefully (but rarely) something positive. While I have been somewhat dubious of this practice in the past, after giving up on making sense of the three remote gizmos responsible for controlling the world’s largest TV (don’t you go thinking that pushing ‘turn TV on’ will do anything of the sort), I just pushed all the buttons and that turned out just fine. By the way, the sweater that Frank Sinatra wears in his first scene in the movie? That sweater had me completely rethinking my life-long investment in Frank’s oeuvre. Orange mohair, Frank? Really?

But before all that happened, I went out to dinner with my brother and his family and boy was it swell (as I said, I’ve been watching lots of old movies). We went a Mexican-Spanish tapas place in Wayne — a very pretty and newly gentrified town outside of Philly — called the Matador. I love tapas: you can have lots of different tastes but you don’t get too full since you only get a bite or two of each plate (especially if you are dining with my family). Here’s some of what we ate.

The first thing that happened was that the waiter made guacamole at our table. Avocado, sea salt and cilantro. That was it.


We made pretty short work of it.


Wild mushrooms with truffle oil


Skewered grilled chorizo sausage


Grilled chicken on a stick with parsley garlic aioli


Octopus, potatoes, hot paprika and loads of garlic. I loved this.


Lamb chops with red pepper jam (and hungry niece)


Melted cheese with sausage and tortillas. Melted cheese, yay!


Patatas bravas: spicy potatoes with pimento aioli


Pulled pork tortillas with smoked jalapeño cream


Not quite sure what this is. Some sort of shrimp pizza thing. It wasn’t on the menu and we probably didn’t order it (but we ate it anyway).


Fried goat cheese balls in honey


Churros: deep fried pastry strips rolled in sugar and cinnamon and dipped in chocolate sauce

The Matador. 110 N. Wayne Avenue, Wayne, PA 19087. Tel: 610 688 6282

Long Beach Island

Long Beach Island (known to its many friends, which by the way includes one Jon Stewart, as LBI) is 18 miles long (of which 3 miles at the southern end are nature reserve) and one-half mile wide at its widest point (300 m at its narrowest). LBI is off the Jersey Shore, about 55 miles southeast of Philly. There are about 10 000 off-season residents and about ten times that many during the summer months. My grandmother once had a house on LBI and I spent vacations there when I was growing up, including a very memorable two months after high school graduation when I worked in the kitchen at Marvel’s Market making deli salads.

An old map of LBI, which my mother found among Grandma's things after she died.

An old map of LBI, which my mother found among Grandma’s things after she died.

There were three of us in the Marvel’s kitchen: one old lady (probably about my age now) and another girl of my vintage and we made 150 pounds of cole slaw and potato salad every day, plus other delicacies such as fruit delight (canned fruit and marshmallows mixed with Cool Whip©) and chopped chicken livers. I always had to leave the kitchen when they chopped up the livers.

We peeled the potatoes while they were still boiling hot — I still don’t have much feeling in my forefingers — and we used to have peeling contests while the deli crew cheered us on. I once lost a slice of finger in the potato salad. Can’t remember if we served that or not. Marvel’s was famous for its fresh donuts with cinnamon sugar. People lined up in the morning to wait for them. The owner, Tommy Marvel, was a very fine fellow. He used to fry up slices of eggplant for the kitchen crew as a treat. My brother Doug was there as well, working behind the counter at the deli and living with lifeguards (I stayed with my grandmother). We generally worked in the mornings and had the rest of the day on the beach. That might have been my best job ever.

The Interwebs are not very forthcoming about when and why it happened, but at some point Marvel’s Market closed down, which must have been a sad sad day for the island indeed. It subsequently opened up across the street as Marvel’s Bakery, a smaller place with (I believe) a different owner. By all accounts, the donuts are still the island’s best. My sister and I went to find Marvel’s and it was closed and flooded. In fact, lots of things were closed and flooded the day we drove down to check on her beach house, bought about 30 seconds before Superstorm Sandy hit. But more on that anon.

Marvel's Bakery

Marvel’s Bakery

Long Beach Island has claims to fame besides Marvel’s donuts of course. The first of the New Jersey shark attacks of 1916 occurred in Beach Haven, resulting in the early and toothy demise of Philadelphian  Charles Vansant and partly inspiring the novel Jaws. The Big Storm — the one people always talk about in hushed tones — took place on Ash Wednesday in 1962. The storm, which lasted three days, literally cut the island into three, sweeping away scores of houses and creating two channels from ocean to bay. The 1962 storm, which affected the whole mid-Atlantic region, did hundreds of millions of damage in six states. In a detail that will appeal to all women of a certain age, Misty of Chincoteague spent the storm in her family’s kitchen then had a foal named Stormy. (Everyone I know devoured the Marguerite Henry books about Misty the pony and her pals). BTW, Misty’s body and that of Stormy have been preserved via taxidermy and can be seen at the Beebe Ranch in Virginia. Stupid Interwebs. Like I needed to know that.

Sandy hit Long Beach Island very hard. Residents were evacuated and the island flooded, with the ocean joining up to the bay in certain areas. The streets were covered with up to four feet of sand in some places.This used to be my grandmother's house. It was green then, with no lavander shutters nonsense. I loved that house so much!

This used to be my grandmother’s house. It was green then, with no lavender shutter silliness. I loved that house so much! I wonder if there is still a stain on the kitchen ceiling where I threw the spaghetti that time to see if it was done?
There are piles of trash -- like this one outside of Grandma's old place -- in front of many houses on the island.

There are piles of trash — like this one outside of Grandma’s old place — in front of many houses on the island.

Many homes along the ocean and bay front communities were destroyed by the 18-foot waves that pounded the island. Fortunately, my sister’s house got off nearly scot-free. The evacuation order was lifted on 10 November. Two months later and people are still clearing up, although most of the hundreds of tons of sand have been bulldozed back where they belong. This Facebook site is for people to post photos of detritus they find that might be someone’s beloved possessions swept away by the storm. The site has already reunited one lady with her father’s WWII medals. Cool, eh?

There was a big storm the night before we went down and many of the streets were flooded.

LBI, 27 December 2012

LBI, 27 December 2012

Quite a lot of work is underway to bring the island back to what constitutes normal before the start of the summer season. There are still some pretty amazing sights to be seen, like this house that flew off its foundations to smash into the place next door. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Oh Dorothy! You dropped another house? What a cruel world!

Oh Dorothy! You dropped another house? What a cruel world!

Someone has apparently already scored the ruby slippers.

Someone already nabbed the ruby slippers.

Although most things were closed, we did manage to score a tasty sandwich at How you brewin’ (Shout out to Joey!). I had a roadhouse roast beef with BBQ sauce, cheddar, romaine and French’s fried onions with romaine.

Note the ingredient is French's fried onions, not French fried onions. So much for my foodie cred!

Note the ingredient is French’s fried onions, not French fried onions. So much for my foodie cred!

My sister had a turkey sandwich with Asiago cheese, cranberry mayo and romaine.

Turkey, yum.

Turkey, yum.

On the way off the island, we stopped by the Gateway Lounge to take away some of their justly famous, award winning clam chowder. All in all, a very nice day. Sad and nostalgic all at once. I can’t wait to come back. Jersey Strong!



How You Brewin’? 8 North Long Beach Boulevard, Surf City, New Jersey.

Gateway Lounge and Liquors. 227 West 8th Street, Ship Bottom New Jersey

Looking back and moving on

Last week I was in the States helping my parents get ready to move house. They are moving to a smaller place so significant downsizing was required. Cleaning out the closets was not so problematic: the bridesmaid dress I wore in my sister’s wedding and the beautiful red silk mandarin gown that neither Mom nor I will ever fit into again went off to the thrift shop; my cap and gown, the little dress Mom wore to tap class when she was six and Dad’s pea coat from the navy all got a reprieve. Books and photos? Not so easy. It’s a family thing to have tons of photos adorning all available wall space (we call this the Rogue’s Gallery).

Rogues Gallery, Rome edition.

The notion of decimating the Gallery (fewer walls in the new place) was highly troubling to the parents: how to choose which photos to jettison? Would their subjects be upset? It was decided that a slight reduction in the number of grandkid pix was acceptable and this cut back the photos by about 50%. Finding a similar formula for the books was less straightforward. Me: Dad, you’ve had this 600 page book on Oliver Cromwell for 30 years and you’ve never read it. You never will. Can we give it to the library? Dad: I might read it. Me: Mom, you’ve had this 600 page book on gardening for 30 years and you’ve never read it. You never will, especially since your new apartment doesn’t have a garden. Can we give it away? Mom: But your sister gave it to me for Christmas. She signed it and everything. I can’t give that away. As if this wasn’t hectic enough (and don’t even get me started on the three ribs Dad broke while carrying a box out to the garage. I don’t know how many of you have experience with cracked ribs — I have plenty but never more than one at a time. I cannot even conceive of the pain of having three broken at the same time), my parents also decided to sell their house in the mountains at the same time. I understand why — the house no longer gets enough use to justify its expense, what with taxes and trees falling onto the roof when it snows — but it’s still very sad. I have a lot of great memories of that place. So, to say goodbye, I invited my college roommates to the house for the weekend.

My parents’ house on Lake Naomi in the Pocono Mountains (known to its friends as the Pokes).

Joanne (in DC), Andy (in Anne Arbor), Anne (in Clarksville, TN) and I (in Rome) don’t get together often enough (the last time was in Mexico about 3 1/2 years ago), but when we do it’s as if no time has passed. Or rather, it’s as if lots of time has passed — and we’ve all been through ups and downs, heartache and jubilation in the meantime — but we’ve pretty much stayed the same. Still goofballs and still (in our minds) 18. We had a fantastic time reminiscing (thanks to Andy who remembers everything) and catching up with each other.

Ruth, Andy, Anne and Joanne do some catching up. © Joanne.

Oh yeah.

Sadly, my beloved Jubilee Diner was closed all weekend due to a massive power outage that occurred when a truck crashed into a nearby utility pole.

I’m going to miss Rib Night at the Jubilee.

But we made do. Any Martians searching for an explanation as to why over a third of Americans are obese need look no further than the Poconoes, where pretty much every available eating spot is of the hoagie/pizza/ice cream variety. This perfectly suited our plan to spend the entire weekend eating just like we did when we were in college.

Note the broccoli: this passes for health food in the Pokes.

We did draw the line this time at cold pizza, a common breakfast item our senior year when I worked at the campus pizza agency and brought home the leftovers. We also walked around the lake, an activity that may have burned off 1% of the calories we consumed at any given meal.

A stormy day on Lake Naomi

On Sunday, we found our way to the Hickory Valley Restaurant in Swiftwater, which dates back to 1949 and started out as an actual farm specializing in hickory-smoked ham, sausage, turkey and bacon, done the Pennsylvania Dutch way.

The Hickory Valley Restaurant, Swiftwater, PA

The homemade corned beef hash is apparently world famous (I think that’s world defined as in the World Series).

Barbecued pulled pork sandwich (are they sure that’s Pennsylvania Dutch?).

Remember that diet I was going on some time back? I think that needs revisiting, and pronto.

Christmas in Philly

A few days ago, I went downtown with Brother David and family to check out the Christmas lights. We started at Wanamaker’s, one of the first department stores in the US. The store was founded by John Wanamaker in 1861; poor guy was at a loose end having been rejected by the Union Army due to a niggling cough. John was quite the innovator: he invented the price tag and Wanamaker’s was the first US department store to feature a restaurant, electric lights, telephones and those pneumatic tube things that department stores once used (and still do in many parts of Asia) to move around money and documents. At one stage, Wanamaker’s Crystal Tea Room could serve 1 200 people and roast 75 turkeys at a time. Other fun facts about John Wanamaker: he financed the campaign to have Mother’s Day recognized as an official holiday, a contribution that is recognized by a plaque across the street from the store. And during World War I, he publicly proposed that the United States buy Belgium from Germany for the sum of one-hundred billion dollars as an alternative to continuing the war. Hee.

The mighty Wanamaker's eagle ©rakeman.

On December 30, 1911, John Wanamaker & Co. opened its flagship store just around the corner from Philly’s flamboyant City Hall. The 12 story, 1.89 million square foot building was dedicated by then-president William Howard Taft, an indication of what a big deal it was. Wanamaker’s was built in the “Florentine style” with galleries and murals and a 2 500 lb bronze eagle acquired from the St Louis World’s Fair. For years, “Meet me at the Eagle” was the social equivalent of “Let’s do lunch.” Wanamaker’s also installed the pipe organ from the World’s Fair, at the time one of the world’s largest. But it wasn’t grand enough so the store hired some organ builders and expanded it until it was the largest operational pipe organ in the world with 28 000 pipes. The stories-high atrium display of Christmas lights was first unveiled in 1957 and it’s been running every year since then. We used to go every year when I was little and it hasn’t changed much. The Sugar Plum Fairy and Frosty always make an appearance as does Santa in his toy train. The whole show, which lasts maybe 15 minutes, ends up with some rousing Christmas music courtesy of the world’s largest pipe organ. For decades, the narrator was well-known Philly newscaster John Facenda. He was supplanted by Julie Andrews in 2005, the upstart.

Santa's Christmas train

Frosty before the meltdown

Wanamaker’s closed in the 1990s and was replaced by various other stores — Hecht’s Strawbridges, Lord and Taylor’s and, finally, by Macy’s in 2006.

Our next stop was Dickens’ Village on the third floor of Wanamaker’s. This set piece, which tells the story of the Christmas Carol, dates to 1985 and originally belonged to Wanamaker’s archrival Strawbridge & Clothier’s. Like Wanamaker’s, Strawbridge’s was taken over by NYC interloper Macy’s in the mid-2000s. Boo.

No one loved poor little Ebenezer and he had nowhere to go at Christmas. No wonder he was such a holiday-hating grouch.

The Ghost of Christmas Present, Ho Ho Ho.

The meager holiday repast of those goody-goody Cratchitts

Scrooge decides to make a change, starting with the man in the mirror.

The Comcast Holiday Spectacular dates to 2008. It’s shown on the largest 4mm-LED screen to be found in the world. I have no idea what that means. I just know that it takes up a whole wall of the Comcast Center’s atrium at 1701 JFK and it looks to be in 3-D. The 15 minute show runs from Thanksgiving until New Year’s and includes bits from the Nutcracker, performed by the Pennsylvania Ballet, a dizzying sleigh ride through the snow, some boogie woogie tap dancing and a bunch of cute kids singing. And then it snows inside.

The Mural Arts Project started in 1984 as a part of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network. The purpose was to get graffiti gangs to use their talents for good instead of stupid. Mural Arts offers programmes for prison inmates who receive a stipend to create murals for schools and community centres around Philadelphia. It also offers opportunities for individuals recently released from prison through a re-entry programme. Mural Arts has produced 3 000 murals so far. We saw a handful and they are marvelous. Topics are pretty wide-ranging as you can see below. They do a trolley tour of the highlights in the warmer months and I plan to do that the next time I’m here.

This dramatic mural is located in the parking lot behind a Subway sandwich shop.

Christmas traditions

It’s Christmastime and I’m back in Philadelphia. It’s the first time the whole family has been together since we rented a place together in Umbria a couple of summers ago. Seven of us are staying in my parent’s little townhouse, two of whom are over 80 and two of whom are under 9. The circumstances lend themselves to sitcom levels of Christmas chaos and we have surely experienced that but not, surprisingly, on account of the widely diverging ages and interests of the temporary and permanent occupants of my parent’s condo. We’ve all been napping a lot and that seems to work.

About 10 days ago, some guy ran a stop sign and slammed into my father’s car. No one was hurt but the passenger side of Dad’s car was heavily squidged. The car still drives but the passenger door is apt to pop open without warning. For various reasons, we weren’t able to take it into the shop until today. Then, on Christmas Eve, Mom’s cat Mordie began to show worrying symptoms of gastric distress and needed to be hospitalized. While Mom and Dad were off delivering Mordie to the animal hospital in the broken car, Brother David took the other car out to buy almond milk and wheat grass cupcakes and whatever other bird seed nonsense people from California eat. That car broke down in the Whole Foods parking lot. Meanwhile, my sister-in-law Renee and I were due to leave for the church any moment to help out with the Christmas pageant my sister was directing. We were on makeup duty and, for a moment, it seemed as if the angels would be forced to go onstage without rouge and blue eye shadow and the prepubescent shepherd boys would have to forgo their eye-linered whiskers. Surrounded as we were by a couple of bored little girls and with no apparent way to get to our pageant gig, tensions ran high. Luckily, Other Brother Doug roared in to the rescue, carting Renee and I off to our make up duties. Mordie is going to be fine and the car stuff will get sorted out eventually. OK, well; it all seemed more dramatic at the time.

My little sister tells the angels what to do.

Like most families, mine has Christmas traditions. Some of these have been tossed by the wayside but others persist, like cheese fondue on Christmas Eve and hanging the stockings in birth order after Dad’s dramatic reading of The Night Before Christmas. Our Christmas commentary is highly predictable as well. Someone always claims that this year’s is “the best tree ever!”; we all shout out the last few lines of The Night Before Christmas together; everyone always complains that brother-in-law Joe’s stocking — knitted, as were all the others, by Mom– is waaaayyy bigger than anyone else’s (it is); David starts threatening us with painted rocks if our Christmas lists are late. I like the predictability. When family relationships are discontinuous because parents and siblings are scattered hither and yon — me in Rome, David in LA, the rest in Philly — and only see each other once a year or less, the traditions, the predictability, that familiar, remembered thing we always do and always have done, seems to make it easier to pick up without missing too many beats. Or at least that’s how it seems to me.

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care (especially Joe's, which dips dangerously close to the fire)

Niece Stella and creepy singing snowman friend

As an extra special treat, I share with you the illustrations from the programme for the little kid's pageant last week.

Philly bites

People who hail from Philadelphia or its environs–as I do–have much to be proud of. There’s the whole cradle of Liberty thing. Betsy Ross. Benjamin Franklin. The oldest zoo in the country. A reputation as the city with the most unruly sports fansScrapple. Soft Pretzels. My beloved Mummers. David Boreanaz. (Side note: cream cheese is really made in New York and has been since 1872. In 1880, Philadelphia was adopted as the brand name because the city was considered at the time to be the home of top quality food).
But all of those claims to fame (except for David Boreanaz) pale by comparison to the thing that really makes Philly special: the sandwich. In particular, two sandwiches: the hoagie and the cheesesteak.

The hoagie, which is known in its lesser forms in other parts of the country as a submarine sandwich, hero or grinder, may have gotten its name from the Italians who worked at the Hog Island shipyard during World War I. The overstuffed rolls they brought for their lunches were filled with different meats and cheeses, spices, oil, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and peppers. That’s pretty much how they are still made today. The sandwiches were known as ‘hoggies’–like the workers themselves–and, eventually that morphed into ‘hoagies’. Another story has it that  a Philadelphian named Al DePalma went to Hog Island to find work. When he saw the workers eating their giant sandwiches, his first thought was, “Those fellas look like a bunch of hogs.” Instead of applying for a job at the shipyard, he opened a diner that served those big sandwiches. He listed them on the menu as “hoggies” named for the piggy sandwich eaters. I don’t know how many cities have official sandwiches (although apparently the state of Massachusetts has adopted the Fluffernutter as its own), but Philly does and it’s the hoagie.

Recipe for an Italian hoagie. Split a long roll from D’Ambrosio or Amoroso’s. Add provolone, Genoa salami, cooked salami, peperoni, Capicola ham, lettuce, tomato, onion, salt, pepper, and oregano, oil and vinegar, sweet peppers or hot peppers. Mangia!

And then there’s the cheesesteak. Invented by Pat Olivieri in 1930, this marvel consists of  thinly sliced steak, frizzled on a griddle, piled onto a long bun and covered in melted cheese. You can add fried onions, roasted peppers, mushrooms, ketchup, mayo and hot sauce. You can also throw on some pizza sauce and mozzarella and heat it up and it becomes a pizza steak.

The Cheez Whiz issue is highly controversial, with many purists considering it de rigeur (both Pat’s and Geno’s–arch rivals and the most famous cheesesteak purveyors in Philly–both use the Whiz uniquely), while others just think that it’s gross. It should be noted that John Kerry was widely ridiculed for ordering his cheesesteak with Swiss when he passed through during his presidential campaign. I grew up on those things and sure do wish I had one right now.

Cheesesteak wit' Whiz © Barbara L. Hanson

Before I sign off, I just want to give a big old shout out to my brother-in law Joe. Saveur did a special issue on sandwiches recently–which was awesome–and it included an article on Philly’s best sandwich shops.  Joe had eaten at every single last one of them, an accomplishment that impressed me incredibly and that has given me a goal for my next visit home.

The Christmas pageant

My sister was put in charge of directing the Christmas pageant at church this year and asked if I would help out with makeup and shooing the kings and shepherds down the aisle at the proper time. So last Friday afternoon I found myself drawing rosy cheeks on page boys (all of whom were girls) and whiskers on the hairless cheeks of 14 year old shepherds.

My family has had a long relationship with this particular pageant. All of us–including the relatively new generation of nieces and nephews–played shepherds, angels, pages and Joseph over the years, although for some reason never attaining the coveted Mary spot. I myself played an angel with loads of blue eyeshadow in about 8th grade. I had to stand with my arms up in a position of supplication for what seemed like hours. I started feeling woozy and was fortunately rescued by one of the three kings who whipped out a bottle of smelling salts from his box of myrrh.

Back in the days of yore, the shepherds had glue-on beards, which made the pageant a very attractive gig for prepubescent boys. I fear that for all of my dab-handedness with the eyeliner, today’s drawn on beards simply pale by comparison. Back then, the trick was to leave the beard on for as long as possible after the pageant ended. I remember taking my 12 year old nephew–replete with beard–to the supermarket for some last minute Christmas Eve food purchases. No one said a word.

I used to do a bit of acting once upon a time and the pageant brought to mind the high school show biz adage, ‘what can go wrong, will go wrong’ and its close associate, ‘but at the end of the day, it will all come out right in the wash.’  What happened on Friday was that the guy who was supposed to do the lighting pulled out at the last moment, one of the shepherds still hadn’t arrived 10 minutes before curtain, and–the worst of all possible worsts–someone walked off with the frankincense. But it all came out right in the wash. They found a guy who managed to get the lights sorted out, the missing shepherd showed up in the nick of time, and a member of the pageant team roared off to the local Catholic Church where he managed to borrow enough frankincense to do the pageant proud for the next 5 years. Given that ours was an Episcopalian pageant, that was pretty cool.

Everybody was excited about having a 'real' baby Jesus this year. Our guy was a year old and weighed over 20 pounds. We joked that he was going to jump off Mary's lap mid-pageant and wander off in search of his Game Boy.