Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Autumn ant season

Many of my blogging friends who live in more temperate climates are feeling the onset of autumn, and it's lovely to hear of turning leaves, a crispness in the air, and anticipation of warm and cozy meals inside a fall-decorated home.

But here in Southern California, October is often hotter and drier than the summer months. Yesterday evening we arrived home to a sweltering house, and the heat lingered all night long. This morning, at 7:00 a.m. the kitchen was still hot, and the sun blazed on the hills across the canyon. The thermometer in the carport read 78 degrees.

As we go into October, Californians know it means heat, brushfires, and - ants.

I've written before about the fact that living in Topanga means co-existing with critters. But it's not just rural parts of L.A. that have critter problems. Our friend Roger recently wrote about his troubles with ants in the city.

Coincidentally, we just spent a lovely Sunday afternoon at Roger's home, and returned to discover an infestation of ants in our kitchen - a million-fold caravan stretching the length of the room. It started at our kitchen window, and then travelled twenty feet across the room to ascend the kitchen trash-bin and target some delicacy within.

Mind you - our kitchen window is a floor above ground-level, so to get in the window in the first place they had to climb up the side of the house!

These are Argentine Ants, native to South America, but humans have introduced them to all the continents of the world. They are tiny, smaller than a quarter inch, yet extraordinarily successful creatures.

They are attracted to protein, like dead bugs, or whatever's in your kitchen garbage can. They also like water. A scout ant will leave scent signals to guide the other ants to the food source. You can kill an ant, but unless you wipe out the scent trail, other ants will keep coming.

Some people swear that a quick spritz of Formula 409 eliminates the pheromones they leave to mark their trail. Others use an orange-peel based natural cleanser. It's said that powdery substances irritate or even injure the little ants' bodies - Some people advocate using talc, like baby powder. Another natural solution is cinnamon - sprinkle ground cinnamon on them.

You can lay boric acid bait for them - they take it back to the nest and it dessicates them and their fellow ants.

But talk to anyone in Los Angeles about ants, and sooner or later you're going to have someone pull you aside, and in a conspiratorial voice, tell you to try Chinese Chalk.

Chinese Chalk is insecticide in chalk form. You draw a barrier around something you want to protect from ants, or you draw a line through an ant trail to disrupt it. In five minutes, the ants that touch it are dead.

It's illegal to market Chinese Chalk in the US. It is untested and doesn't conform to US packaging standards for insecticides and toxins. The package contains no list of ingredients, and no consumer warnings.

My very own Brother One, who has lived in China for over 20 years, visited us once, and I asked him to translate the Chinese text on the box. It said "Best Insecticide" - the same thing as the English text - no list of ingredients, no warnings that it might be toxic to humans. It's also possible that the box itself may contain lead-based ink - so eating the box is as ill-advised as eating the chalk itself.

Wikipedia says that Chinese insecticidal chalk contains two toxins, deltamethrin and cypramethrin.

Both of these toxins kill by attacking the nervous system. They are among the most common insecticides, and member of a groups of insecticides known as synthetic pyrethroids - Pyrethrin is a natural insecticide derived from the common flowering plant pyrethrum, which is related to chrysanthemum. Although pyrethrins are supposed to be safe for mammals, they are extremely toxic to fish and bees.

Synthetic pyrethroids are based on pyrethrin, but are chemically enhanced, making them stronger and more deadly.

Still want to get some Chinese Chalk? Go down to Chinatown. Make it part of a fun trip - Hit Empress Pavilion for dim sum, or Phillipes for french dip sandwiches (get the lamb with bleu cheese - my favorite!) Walk up Broadway, and cast an eye on the sidewalk displays at the gift shops. Depending on the County's enforcement efforts, you may see a display of Chinese Chalk out front. Or it may be near the cashier. Or you may need to ask.

You can always find it if you go into the crowded merchandise markets that branch off Broadway, where vendors of toys, underwear, fake designer handbags and electronics have their stalls. Here the chalk is more visiblly displayed, the crowds and chaos making it harder for officials to spot.

Buy at least a half-dozen boxes - they cost about a dollar each. Quality standards for Chinese Chalk seem on par with other products from that nation - Some chalk works and some chalk doesn't seem to do anything.

Everyone in Los Angeles hates Argentine ants, and everyone has an opinion about Chinese Chalk. Some people say its dangerously toxic. Others assert that the amount of toxin is so low it's really the talcy chalk that's doing the job.

Others - and I think I'm in this camp - say, well, it works better than anything else, so I'll just make sure not to use it around food and wash my hands after using.

Roger offers one up-side to these armies of tiny, voracious creatures that most people probably don't think of.

They eat dead rats. Hey! there's always good in something!

What do you do about ants?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Three Things to check out - September 29 - October 5, 2008

Here are three things happening this week in the Los Angeles region you should check out!

1) Los Angeles is truly a diverse community, isn't it? This coming weekend, celebrate Lithuanian heritage at the Los Angeles Lithuanian Fair at St. Casimir's church in Los Feliz. There'll be folk dancing, music, art - and don't forget food!

2) The Theodore Payne Foundation holds its annual Fall Festival and plant sale in October. If you're a member, you can go to the plant sale early October 3 and 4. If you don't join the Foundation, you can still go to the sale on October 11 and 12. The Foundation promotes, preserves, and educates the community about the native plants of Southern California.

3) The Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga holds a fundraiser for its Americana Museum project with a celebration of Woody Guthrie on October 4. Theatricum founder Will Geer was a friend of Guthrie's and the singer often stayed in a wooden shed on the property here when he came to Los Angeles. The event includes readings and music, and a buffet dinner in the garden.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Oysters on the Half Shell

On our August vacation, we traveled though Apalachicola, Florida. Outrunning Tropical Storm Fay, we had one night and one day to spend here.

Apalachicola is located in the Florida panhandle, where the Apalachicola river drains into the Gulf of Mexico. It's part of a stretch of Alabama and Florida coast sometimes known as the Redneck Riviera, for its attraction as a vacation and retirement spot. The town of Apalachicola faces a wide bay protected from the Gulf waters by a series of barrier islands.

The historic downtown is charming and its streets are fun to stroll along and windowshop. The town was founded as a shipping port for cotton and cypress lumber brought down from upriver to be milled here. We stayed in a guesthouse whose building used to be the French consulate. It seems odd to have a French consulate in a small city like Apalachicola, but French business interests in cities on Gulf of Mexico needed support from their government in the early years, and the consulate continued well into the Twentieth Century. There are many charming inns, hotels, and B & B's.

The oyster and fishing industry developed, too, making Apalachicola oysters famous, and supporting generations of fishermen and oystermen - and women.

More than 90% of Florida's oyster production is harvested from Apalachicola Bay, and the bay supplies 10% of all oysters consumed nationally. Apalachicola oysters are known as among the finest oysters in the world. The bay, with its mixed flow of Gulf waters and waters from the Apalachicola River, is a perfect environment for oysters and other seafood.

We learned of a great waterfront oyster bar, Papa Joe's, so we checked it out. It's right on the marina.

As we sat in the glassed-in porch overlooking the water, we watched the storm clouds come in.

The oysters were as promised - big, delicious, and fresh! And cheap - a dozen cost only $5.95! In Los Angeles, you pay $15 for only a half dozen. We also ordered some cooked oysters - they had a trio of Oysters Rockefeller, Oysters baked in butter and parmesan, and Oysters baked with jalapenos and jack cheese. My favorite was the simplest one - butter and parmesan. Although, I must confess I like my oysters raw on the half-shell best.

Outside the window, the clouds continued to build. You could actually see the line of rain moving across the flat grassland.

Then suddenly it was right outside, dimpling the water's surface and lashing at the windows. There's something so cozy about being safe and warm inside while a storm rages. You could hear people murmur and exclaim at the fury of the rain, but everyone continued to eat and drink, and the waitresses moved around the room.

We were just trying to decide what to order next when suddenly the lights went out. Oh. It didn't feel quite so safe anymore.

This isn't the first time this has happened to [The Man I Love] and me. Would the power come back on? We asked the waitress for another dozen oysters.

But it was not to be. "Sorry, we can't take any more orders." The word spread around the dining room. People finished their meals, and fumbled for cash to pay their tabs. As the darkness deepened, the room emptied.

Outside in the parking lot, headlights shone on the heavy falling raindrops. We picked our way through the puddles in the gravel. The cars slowly inched out of the lot, defaulting to a "4-way stop" at the dark traffic light.

We only had one day in Apalachicola - so this was our only chance at Papa Joe's. If you go there, stop in and have a Seafood Platter for me!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Pink Saturday - A Green kind of Pink

Beverly at the blog How Sweet the Sound has a great idea! It's Pink Saturday. Post about something pink, on Saturday. Here are the rules if you want to Get Pink!

Here's something pretty and pink that helps the environment!

If you're in the Los Angeles area, you can spend this Pink Saturday at the 3rd Annual Altcar Expo and see this gorgeous pink electric scooter. You can also see all kinds of transportation options. The exhibits include electric and alternative energy vehicles that you can see, touch, and sit down in, and even includes a "Drive and Ride" in the parking lot so you can experience them first-hand.

I love the pink scooter, but I also really liked the cool electric pick-up truck and the weird little 3-wheeler commuter car! The show also has a great cafe with delicious vegan, organic food.

As for the scooter, you can visit the Skeuter Company here in the Los Angeles area, and find out more about it and their other products. The spokesperson told me that the base price of this lovely pink scooter is about $2,200.00, or $3,200.00 depending on the type of battery you choose. It charges in a couple of hours, goes up to 40 miles per charge, and has no problem with parallel parking! He took a picture of me and a new friend. Don't we look great?

Wouldn't you like a cool pink scooter to buzz around town on? I do!

Beep beep!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Cave Canem

On my morning walk, I pass this sign on a local resident's gate.

What's interesting is that this image is taken from a mosaic on the floor of a ruined house in Pompeii.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Private Road

There are a lot of "Private Roads" here in Topanga. What do you do when you encounter a sign like this?

Do you continue exploring the road? Or do you obey the sign?

If you obey, why? Fear of being confronted? Respect for privacy? Meek submission to authority? Not wanting to get in trouble?

If you continue, why? Defiance? Intense curiosity? Adventurousness?

Here's another question - do you feel different about it if you're walking instead of driving?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Join me for a cocktail

Sometimes there's just not much going on. Relax, sip a cool drink and have a nice afternoon. Are we sitting in a beachside lounge, looking out over the ocean, watching the dolphins leap in the surf?

Ahh.....Yes we are. Isn't it wonderful?

A pretty surprise

I went down to Culver City for an errand this weekend, and while there I stopped in at Surfas, the amazing restaurant supply and gourmet food emporium on the corner of Washington and National Boulevards.

You can buy any kind of cookware or barware there, from fluted pastry-bag tips to butcher block counters. You can buy specialty charcuterie, imported spices, varieties of sea salt, and French chocolate. You can buy icing sugar in over a dozen bright colors. You can buy nori, French lentils, English custard powder, and Hungarian pickles.

You can buy little plastic containers of demi-glace, in veal, duck, chicken, beef and seafood flavors. You can buy wine, margarita salt, bitters, and those little pink plastic monkeys that bartenders hook on the rims of cocktail glasses by their tails.

Look at what I found in the pasta section. These beautifully colored imported lasagna noodles. Can't you imagine making a casserole with these, with vegetable filling and a pink cream-and-tomato sauce?

And these, multicolored fettuccine, by the same pasta company. A plate of these with a pesto sauce - how pretty would that be?

If you live in Los Angeles and you haven't discovered Surfas - check it out.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Tarpon Springs - Whirled Peas

Tarpon Springs, Florida, is one of my favorite places. I have a soft spot for it. It's where [The Man I Love] proposed to me.

This small city on the Gulf Coast of Florida became a destination for Greek immigrants in the 1880's, when they were hired to work as sponge divers. During the first half of the 20th century, the sponge industry in Florida earned millions of dollars. When a devastating red tide occurred, wiping out the sponge fisheries, Tarpon Springs residents shifted into the shrimping and fishing industries.

The sponge boats still embark from the docks along the Anclote River, but they have to go farther out to harvest natural sponges.

Today Tarpon Springs is a tourist destination. People come here to go fishing on charter boats, tour the nearby harbor, or wander the streets, eat Greek food and visit the shops.

We came here on a grey day in August, when Tropical Storm Fay was swirling her tendrils of rainstorms down into Pinellas County.

We strolled down the main drag of the tourist area by the docks, Dodecanese Street. The shops had sidewalk displays of popular souvenir items.

Celebrate Florida's reptile heritage!

I'm not quite sure what to make of this. Is it a bank?

Here's a lovely ladies T-shirt - what do you think? Tasteful, huh?

When the weather is nice, it's fun to take a tour boat out in the harbor, see the homes along the shore and listen to stories about the old days of the sponge fleets. But on this particular day, we were cold, and rain threatened, and we decided to go to our favorite Greek restaurant for lunch.

Now that I think of it, Greek food has played a big role in our marriage and relationship. When [The Man I Love] and I first met, one of our first real dates was to have dinner at a Seattle Mediterranean restaurant that overlooked Lake Union - we nibbled taramasalata and drank Retsina while courting and thinking about going to Seattle Mariners games.

And of course - it was here in Tarpon Springs that he proposed to me - and I accepted.

There are a lot of Greek restaurants in Tarpon Springs, and many of them are famous and large. We stumbled on the Mykonos, a little family restaurant several years ago, and were so impressed we always go back. It's a small place, and the staff is homey and welcoming.

On this occasion, we had a selection of 3 dips - baba ganoush, taramasalata, and hummus. They were served in cups of iceberg lettuce - isn't this a nice presentation?

One of my favorite memories of meals at Mykonos was a dinner I had once of Marithes Tiganites, or crispy little pan-fried smelts. The crunchy skin crumbled at first bite, and the white flesh of the fish was sweet and tender beneath.

But this time, I was interested in the specials. Today they were serving stuffed peppers and tomatoes - one of each. That's what I ordered. The dinners came with a choice of soup or salad, rice, potatoes or vegetable of the day.

"What's the vegetable of the day?" I asked.

"Peas," said the waitress. Peas? I didn't expect that. It wasn't the right season for fresh peas.

"Are they fresh peas?" I asked.

"Oh, no," she said, but then added, "but they're really, really good! Everyone likes them!"

Huh. Now - about peas. I love snow peas, and snap peas. I love them raw, and I love them lightly blanched. I even like frozen baby peas, nuked just a minute or two. But - canned peas are nauseating! What kind of restaurant serves NOT FRESH peas as the vegetable of the day?

But she said they were really good. So - why not try them? What's the worst that can happen?

Here's my meal. The pepper and the tomato, as you can see, are stuffed with a mixture of rice and seasoned ground meat - it was very good. And here are the peas - yucky green.

I tried a bite.

It was incredible. Do you remember the first time you ate - if you have eaten - southern-style slow-cooked greens? Maybe cooked with a chunk of salt pork, or fatback? Rich tasting, with a little earthy bitterness on the tongue? That's what these peas were like. They were well-cooked, and complex, with the onion and a deep flavor in the cooking juices - yet they still had that sweet flavor of peas. I couldn't tell - Were they frozen peas? Canned peas? I don't know but I have to tell you, they were a revelation to me!

I did a little research and I found a recipe for Arakas Lathero, or Greek-style peas. Peas, chopped onions, chopped red pepper, dill, and a bit of tomato paste, cooked with olive oil and water for 30 minutes. Some recipes add chopped carrot or diced potato.

All I can say is - if you go to Mykonos and they're serving peas - try them!

After we ate, we took another stroll down Dodecanese Street. At the Hellas Bakery, we stopped in and bought some pastries to take back to family in Tampa.

There were wonderful offerings of baklava, cakes, rice pudding and cookies. All delicious and tempting to the sweet-tooth.

But I am still remembering those sweet Greek-style peas.

Three Things to check out - September 22 - 28, 2008

1) The weather is gorgeous and the view spectacular - when was the last time you visited the Getty Museum? Why not check it out this week? Open now and running through October 25 is an exhibit of the works of the Baroque artist Bernini. Bernini's portrait busts are breathtaking for the realistic detail captured in marble.

2) In Venice, check out the 24th Annual Abbot Kinney Festival. Dubbed the "ultimate block party", this festival showcases the great restaurants and eclectic merchants lining Abbot Kinney Blvd. Three stages feature live music.

3) Or go Downtown, for the Grand Avenue Festival celebrating the arts, music, dance, and culture. Enjoy gallery tours and performances by L.A.'s leading arts organizations.

And while we're at it - What's up with all the Lobster Festivals in the South Bay, anyway?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sleigh Ride

Last night for some unknown reason, while I was loading the dishwasher, I started singing the melody of the popular Holiday concert band piece, "Sleigh Ride."

I was not thinking about it, I just started singing it. [The Man I Love] came into the kitchen, and he started singing along. Also without thinking.

We both sang the syncopated melody absolutely perfectly, and suddenly started laughing. Of course we both knew it. We share a common American experience - we were both in high school band.

"Sleigh Ride" was written by American composer Leroy Anderson in 1946, and has been a popular holiday tune ever since.

Anderson was the son of Swedish immigrants, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1908, and attended the New England Conservatory of Music and Harvard. In the 1930's he began arranging music for Arthur Fiedler director of the famed Boston Pops Orchestra. Anderson had a long career as a composer, musical director, and teacher, but "Sleigh Ride" is among his best known works.

[The Man I Love] and I did not attend the same high school - he was in rural Florida, and I was in suburban Ohio. He played the string bass and tuba. I played percussion.

I played keyboard percussion instruments - xylophone, marimba, vibraphone and chimes. Musicologists group percussion instruments into two major classifications - membranophones and idiophones.

A membranophone is an instrument that makes sound by the vibration of a membrane, like a stretched skin on the top of a drum. Timpani, snare drums, bass drums - they're all membranophones.

Idiophones are instruments that make sounds by vibrating their entire body - when you hit a triangle, a bell, a wood block, or the aluminum key of a glockenspiel with a mallet, its entire body resonates.

I think glockenspiel players welcome the holiday season, because it marks the end of marching band season. Marching with a glockenspiel is a pain. You have to wear a harness to hold the lyre-mounted keyboard in front of you. Then there's the music. Not all marching band scores have written glockenspiel parts. The glockenspiel is tuned to middle C, so you can play Oboe parts. But often marching band arrangements don't have Oboe parts, either, so you end up with a Flute part - written so high above the bars its hard to read.

Another hazard is cold weather. In the cold, metal keys contract and go out of tune. I remember a November parade in freezing rain where the entire glockenspiel section mimed playing, because we were half a key sharp from the rest of the band.

So, after ten weeks of practicing pinwheels in the parking lot, a glockenspiel player looks forward to the holidays, when you can hang out with the drummers and count rests. And practice your mallet skills for "Sleigh Ride."

There are some challenges for players in "Sleigh Ride." I had a mad crush on the trumpet player who had to make the horse neigh sound - when he messed it up during one concert, you could see his ears blush pink, all the way from the percussion section at the back of the stage.

For percussionists, there are many critical moments. In the bridge, there's a whip-crack made by slapping a hinged wooden flapper. Many a high school percussionist chokes from the pressure, missing the beat. (Ask me how I know!) The glockenspiel is featured in one long, syncopated phrase at the end of the chorus that runs the length of the keyboard. If you screw it up everyone knows!

Years and years of playing - or hearing - a piece of music tends to imprint it into your brain and your body. Which is why two people of the same generation, educated in American schools of the 1960s and 70s, could spontaneously and unconsciously burst into tune with perfect harmony.

"Come on, it's lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you!"

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Counting Weenies

For those of you who work for an employer, like me, I'm sure there are times you have to account for things in a quantitative fashion. Like sales, or revenue, or expenditures, or inventory.

And no matter how fancy or elegant the products you sell might be, in the end it's just a widget that has to be counted. It's probably just as wearying for the office minions at Rolls Royce Ltd. to tote up the annual sales in limousines as it is for the folks down at the Hot Dog Hut to tote up the daily sales of weenies.

Sometimes you focus on the big picture. You count weenies in the aggregate - trends in weenie revenue, profit/loss analysis of weenies, and projections of future weenie sales.

Other times, you just have to count the actual weenies. Where I work, lately, I've just been counting the weenies. It's disheartening. It's boring. I can feel my horizon contracting to a world where only weenies matter.

I have to remind myself - don't let it be all about the weenies. Look beyond the weenies. Transcend the weenies.

Instead, think of.....the mustard.

Pink Saturday - Pink Peppercorns

Beverly at the blog How Sweet the Sound has a great idea! It's Pink Saturday. Post about something pink, on Saturday. Here are the rules if you want to Get Pink!

A common tree here in southern California is the pepper tree, or Schinus molle. It's a native of Perú. It's not a very attractive tree as a specimen; its shape is ungainly and its bark is rough and messy-looking. Yet it has a delicate beauty all the same - finely cut composite leaves, and cascading clusters of small pink berries.

The Peruvian pepper tree has a Brazilian cousin, Schinus terebinthifolius, from Brazil. Both trees' fruit are harvested and sold as pink peppercorns.

Most pink peppercorns sold as spice are grown from Schinus terebinthifolius grown on the island of Reunion - once known as Ile Bourbon, and imported through France. The French call them baies roses de Bourbon.

They are no relation to black peppercorns, which are the berries of a flowering vine native to South India, Piper nigrum. These are also harvested when unripe to sell as green or white peppercorns. Pink peppercorns have a delicate spicy scent and taste as well as a physical resemblance to black pepper, so it's a natural association. You often find all four colors of peppercorns blended together as an attractive spice mix.

The bright piquant flavor of pink peppercorns and its pretty color make it nice to use in dishes where you want to add a touch of elegance. A sprinkling of coarsely ground pink peppercorns on fish with a light cream-based sauce can be quite beautiful. Salmon filet is nice with a pink peppercorn accent. Rich foods like duck breast and steak go well with its assertive spicy flavor. You can grind a little pink peppercorn in a mortar and pestle and add it to a simple lemon vinaigrette, for a pretty and tasty touch for a green salad. You can sprinkle it on top of steamed vegetables - it looks pretty with asparagus.

A couple weeks ago, [The Man I Love] and I treated ourselves to dinner at our favorite local restaurant and I indulged myself with Filetto di Bue al Prosciutto e Pepe Rosa In Salsa di Porto, or Beef Filet Mignon Sautéed with Pink Peppercorn, Port and Parma Prosciutto. It was heavenly!
But pink peppercorns aren't just for entrees anymore - more and more people are starting to use them in desserts!

The flavor works well with dark chocolate. I saw a recipe for dark chocolate cupcakes with ground pink peppercorns sprinkled on top. There is a Belgian chocolatier that offers a dark chocolate bar flavored with pink peppercorns - or Chocolat Noir au Poivre Rose.

What about pink peppercorn ice cream? Pink peppercorn biscotti? Pink peppercorn French macarons? Wow!

I think I want to try those macarons!

Dozens of Peruvian pepper trees grow in my neighborhood. I walked up on the road above my house to take this picture. When you stand among the foliage, you can smell the delicate yet spicy scent in the air.

Why not try something with pink peppercorns for dinner, on a special Pink Saturday?

UPDATE: For us Californians and those Floridians who have both Schinus terebinthifolius and Schinus mollis in our neighborhoods - I do not advise harvesting berries from our local trees. Buy spices from real spice dealers.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Reaching for the stars

When we visited family in Florida, the carambola tree in the yard was covered with fruit. They glowed like little lanterns.

Carambolas are native to Indonesia, India, and Sri Lanka, and are popular in Asian countries. When you cut them cross-wise, the slices are shaped like stars. The Thai name is "Ma Fueng," which refers to gears - that's another perspective on the shape.

Photo of cut fruit from About.com
Because of this, they are marketed with the name "Starfruit." The flesh is crisp, and the flavor is mildly sweet. They can be pretty in salads, or floating in a bowl or pitcher of punch.

In Thai cuisine, it's important to balance flavors - the sweet with the salt, the hot with the cool, and food should be beautiful as well as tasty. Starfruit, with its pretty shape, is very popular in Thai cuisine. One treat is to dip the slices into a mixture of salt, sugar, and chile.

Another important principle of Thai cuisine is that food should be beautiful to the eye.

Kae Sa Luk is the name for the Thai art of carving fruits and vegetables into decorative shapes. This art originated in 1346, when a royal consort fashioned ordinary vegetables and fruits into flowers, animals, birds, rosettes and wondrous shapes to decorate a lamp or krathong set afloat on a lake on the night of the full moon. When the king saw her work, he decreed that henceforth such carving would be practiced by the royal ladies of the court.

In 1934, the Thai government established a school for carving, and the art spread to people of all classes. Certain carvers are known for their techniques and expertise. Special knives and tools were developed to achieve certain effects. Here in the US, books, videos, and classes by master carvers teach this ancient art.

Doesn't it make perfect sense that the Thai people love fruit that is shaped like stars? Wouldn't you like to reach for the stars?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Topanga Mermaid

If you're going south through Topanga, along Topanga Canyon Boulevard, just before the road to the elementary school is the former site of a plant nursery. At the driveway to the property is a huge, rambling and thorny rosebush, remarkably vigorous, with large single yellow flowers.

Like many old and species roses, it blooms only periodically throughout the year, in spring and early summer, and then perhaps again a flush of bloom in the fall.

The other day while commuting to work, I noticed it is in its fall bloom. I am not certain, but I believe that this is a specimen of the famed rose "Mermaid," beloved of English gardeners like Graham Stuart Thomas and Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville-West.

There's another Mermaid that makes her home in Topanga. In a quiet neighborhood, a house with an amazing history has become a welcoming gathering place for community events. Built in 1930 as a country club for a real estate development, it has been a brothel and casino, a school for boys, an American Legion Hall, and a gay nightclub.

The Topanga Historical Society has published a fantastic book - now out of print, but they're working on the new edition - that details the community's history and its tradition of bohemian lifestyles.

In the 1970's, the structure became the Mermaid Tavern, named after Shakespeare's Mermaid, and became a place for music, art, and legendary partying. Beatnik artist Wallace Berman exhibited there in 1973. Joni Mitchell sings about the Mermaid Tavern in her song "Carey,"
"Come on down to the Mermaid Cafe and I will
Buy you a bottle of wine
And we'll laugh and toast to nothing and smash our empty glasses down"

In 1989 the building was bought by someone who fell in love with it, who began a painstaking - and often heartbreaking - restoration. You can read about it at the owner's website - take heed, all who dream of restoring an historic building. But there is a happy ending. Today the Mermaid is a beautiful event and location venue, the owner often donating the space to local community fundraisers, celebrations, and memorial gatherings.

I'm relatively new to Topanga and Los Angeles. I was still in school when Topanga Canyon was the Mecca of hippie culture, when musicians like Neil Young built their studios among the oaks, and Charles Manson and his followers acted upon their dark impulses. As in many communities, the traces of the past fade and disappear over time - or knowledge and memory of them fade.

Also visible along Topanga Canyon Boulevard, but hidden so you have to look for it, is a trace of the past. Just north of the vintage shop Hidden Treasures, on the hillside among a tangle of shrubs, is an old wooden sign.

You can just see it when you come around the bend, or when you're pausing for our new traffic light to change.

A mermaid - with a lusty appetite for a hefty tankard of drink. She flips her tail in celebration. You can just imagine her, swimming topless in the Mermaid's pool while the music plays and the marijuana smoke rises.

Is this the old sign from the Mermaid Tavern? I don't know, but I suspect so. After all, how many mermaids do you suppose a place like Topanga might have?

Did any of you hang out in Topanga Canyon, at the Mermaid Tavern? If so, please share your stories.