Still Cooking at the Cafe

Happy New Year to all. We’re still cooking here at the café, happy to leave behind a year that has been so devastating around the world.

Political turmoil, natural disasters, the struggle for justice –– and through it all, a pandemic disrupting our lives in numerous personal ways and making even simple things challenging.

We’ve all been through so much, and still the pandemic continues and surges, with many months predicted to go. We’ll still have to persevere, practice patience and resilience, and be vigilant in taking the precautions that stop the virus from spreading.

Yet arriving at this new year is still a celebration. A fresh start always brings inspiration and energy, and we can take hope in the progress we’ve made in the midst of crisis.

On today’s cafe menu: lentils, a food eaten in several countries on New Year’s Day, or the eve before, to bring good luck in the new year.

As we head into 2021, who couldn’t use a bit of luck in their efforts? Wherever you are, I imagine some lucky New Year’s food was on your table too. Our red lentils above are flavored with curry, lime juice and coconut milk, served over brown rice, and topped with a chopped fresh spinach salad. What was on your menu?

Fight on, Covid warriors. With perseverance and a little luck, we’ll get through this together. Wishing you good health, good food, and good fortune this year.

Copyright M. Vincent 2021. All photos copyright M. Vincent.

LA’s Landmark Phoenix Bakery, Chinatown

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Famous for its fresh strawberry whipped-cream cake, the Phoenix Bakery has been serving traditional Chinese pastries and an increasing variety of other sweets since 1938. We visited this venerable Los Angeles institution during last year’s Lunar New Year festivities and found that it has a fascinating history.

Earlier, I wrote about the Firecracker 5K/10K Run, an annual Chinatown New Year’s event. In 2019, we were spectators, not runners, cheering the participants, enjoying the entertainment and exploring the area at walking pace. That’s how we finally made it into the bakery.

We spotted the distinctive sign (above), a horde of customers headed for the door, and a crowd already inside. It was obviously the place to be, and we joined the happy throng.

An Abundance of Cakes and Pastries

When we got inside, the small storefront was bustling, with virtually every table taken and a steady line at the counter. The cases were filled with a variety of sweets as diverse as the Los Angeles community — from Chinese almond cookies and winter melon cakes to French croissants, eclairs, tres leches cake and other international selections.

In his pastry painting phase, Wayne Thiebaud would have loved this place. Regrettably, there was too much hustle and bustle for my food photography that day, but I did manage to snap these clever Year of the Pig cupcakes:

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The counter staff were friendly and patiently answered our questions as we investigated the offerings on display. Our mission was to try some traditional Chinese pastries, so we left the other sweets for another time.  The pretty winter melon cake (on the left below) had a pleasing filling and inspired this “home studio” photo composition.

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A Longstanding Family Enterprise

One of Chinatown’s few remaining original shops, the Phoenix Bakery celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2018. Chinese immigrants F.C. Chan and his wife, Wai Hing, founded the business in 1938 when the Central Plaza was just opening.

The Chan’s original idea was to create a community gathering place, producing traditional Chinese pastries and cookies not locally available at the time. Beginning with Chinese almond cookies, winter melon pastries and seasonal moon cakes, they branched into a variety of other, culture-spanning sweets.

In the 1940s, Mr. Chan’s brother joined the business and created its signature fresh strawberry whipped-cream cake.  The cake gained a reputation, and in the 1970s, the company website notes, the bakery became famous throughout LA for making this “not so Chinese” cake.

After more than 80 years, the bakery is still owned and operated by the Chan family, with second and third generation family members in various roles.  It continues to enjoy a loyal following,  from generation to generation,  and to be the traditional “go-to” place for that special cake for birthdays, weddings and other celebrations.

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That Timeless Logo

There’s a story behind the Phoenix Bakery logo and mascot as well. Celebrated Chinese-American artist, Tyrus Wong,  designed the charming, shyly smiling boy with the red-ribboned package behind his back.

A highly skilled and versatile artist Wong had a long and varied career. Perhaps best known for his role as lead production illustrator for Disney’s 1942 film, Bambi, he continued to work in a variety of media well into his 90s.

Happy Lunar New Year to all! May 4718 be a sweet year for you.

Copyright M. Vincent 2020. Photos copyright M. Vincent 2019–2020.

Bakery history sources: https://www.phoenixbakeryinc.com/ and 2018 LAist article by Liz Ohanesian on the 80th anniversary of the business.

The Phoenix Bakery is located at 969 N. Broadway, Los Angeles 90012, adjacent to Chinatown’s Central Plaza.

A Poem for Year’s End. Wishes for a New Year’s Beginning.

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About the Poem

I’d never heard of New Mexican writer, Pat Mora, until I came across her 2018 book –– Encantado: Desert Monologues –– a wonderful collection of poems inspired in part by Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. She had me at the first two poems, Señor Ortega and Encantado, the poem you’ll find below.

Encantado is a small, fictional city by a river in the southwestern United States. Its name means “enchanted” in Spanish, and its diverse inhabitants include many of Hispanic heritage. Their touching stories are told in first-person, with the themes of loss and departed loved ones running through the poems.

Part of the town’s enchantment is the spirit world, an integral part of the community. We learn about some of the spirits from those left behind, who mourn a wife, a husband, a grandmother, a beloved aunt. In the Day of the Dead poem, we hear their voices, as they return to Encantado — “in we drift …”

They speak of gathering annually at the river, and “later drifting again through familiar dusty streets and rooms … through sounds of the living, patting heads we love, comforting the attentive.”

A Visitation of Spirits

For many of us, the last days of the year are a time of feeling particularly close to special family members and friends, long ago or recently departed, who have influenced our lives in profound ways. While they’re always in our thoughts, we may feel their presence more keenly during the holidays because we have more opportunity for reflection.

My partner vividly remembers his English grandmother leading the assembled family and grandchildren in singing her traditional Christmas song. In her honor we sang it on Christmas morning. The evening before, multi-generational family members, gathered on the other side of the country, surprised us with a serenade by phone.

Whenever I’m happily immersed in cooking, my Italian grandmother, who taught me so much, is there. A favorite memory of growing up is spending time in her kitchen: learning to bake the fragrant anise biscotti she made every Christmas, stirring a risotto, absorbing the approach of a joyful, instinctively creative maker who lovingly transmitted her knowledge and passion to me.

These departed spirits, and several others, were very much with us during our quiet, contemplative holiday time. It kept me returning to this poem and Mora’s book, so fitting for a season of remembrance and reflection. 

Encantado

The last nights of the year,

kind, departed spirits return

to Encantado as stars,

meander

down dark streets and hallways,

peer into windows,

congregate around cribs,

again leave glowing glints

of themselves;

intertwine with our dreams,

shine on bare boughs,

pines, and cactus spines.

— Pat Mora

I hope that your own “kind, departed spirits” were with you at year’s end, bringing happy memories and inspiration.

New Year’s Wishes

Thank you readers, followers and friends for visiting My Eclectic Café last year and for your thoughtful comments and encouragement. I’ve enjoyed discovering and following your work and look forward to what you’ll create this year. Best wishes for all good spirits in the new year.

Copyright M. Vincent 2020. Photos copyright M. Vincent 2017-2020.

Encantado is from the poetry collection Encantado: Desert Monologues, copyright Pat Mora 2018, published by The University of Arizona Press.

 

Santiago Oaks Revisited: The Resurgence of Nature

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On New Year’s Day, my partner and I set out for a hike at one of our local Southern California parks. Nature lovers that we are, it’s our traditional way to start a new year, setting an uplifting tone for the days to come.  

It was a bright, beautiful morning, with a clarity and energy that beckoned, despite the blast of surprisingly icy air that hit me when I first opened the door. (Yes, it can get rather cold here.)

Our destination: Santiago Oaks Regional Park in the city of Orange, about a 40-minute drive from our coastal community.  We like its varied network of trails and the peaceful, removed feeling it maintains, although it borders a residential neighborhood not far from busy urban areas. 

We had last visited during California’s 2017 wildflower season “super bloom,” which I wrote about here.  On that early April day, Santiago’s verdant trails looked like this with a profusion of wildflowers everywhere, including scores of these bright yellow blossoms and the elegant mariposa lily: 

Several months later, in October 2017, a fire swept through four Orange County parks, damaging more than 7,000 acres. Santiago Oaks was one of them. In footage on the TV news, the lush landscape we’d hiked looked like a charred wasteland.

Happily, Santiago was able to reopen in December 2017, although several trails were closed for fire recovery. We were eager to see what it looked like now, more than a year after the reopening. How was the rehabilitation going? And what was the park like in winter?

An Impressive Renewal Underway

We enjoy Santiago’s hilly terrain, lush natural scenery and views, and our New Year’s Day visit was cheering. As we hiked familiar trails and explored some new ones, we saw many roped-off areas like this one where fire recovery continues:  

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In all of them, there was significant new green growth, side by side with the lingering signs of the fire’s destruction: trees crowned with blackened leaves, charred bushes and branches, the scorched remains of cactus plants.

We saw nothing resembling the burnt wasteland of months ago. Nature had made an impressive comeback, and everywhere we looked its work was ongoing. This abundant landscape is an example:   

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Even trees that bear the marks of fire have healthy green leaves or autumn color, and around them the ground is thick with green.

With their vibrant greenery, some parts of the park seemed virtually untouched by the fire.  Only the telltale signs of charred branches, or leaves blackened and crumpled from the intense heat testify to its passing. 

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About the Natural Recovery Process

Fire is a natural and essential component of Southern California ecosystems. Historically, natural and human-caused fires have helped to select types of vegetation that depend on periodic fires for their existence. Plants in these ecosystems have developed adaptions that allow them to survive and reestablish themselves after a fire.

As Santiago Oaks park information explains, periodic fires can provide the opportunity for native seeds and new plant growth to receive sun, water and nutrients.   

Though burned landscapes may appear lifeless, the information points out, natural recovery is already underway. By the time of our visit the strength of that recovery process was evident.

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Charred cactus pads and healthy new growth were juxtaposed along the trails, and those yellow blossoms, so prolific during the super bloom, were springing up in considerable masses amid the fire-blackened branches of other plants.

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The Park in Winter

Previously, we’d visited Santiago in the intense heat of summer or the temperate spring.  Hiking the park in winter we experienced that California phenomenon of living in multiple seasons at once.  Winter and Spring were dancing together in that quality of light that can be so challenging to describe.

California light always has a clarity like nowhere else, but in winter it seems to be more intense, with a hard edge, a glassy, diamond-like brilliance. The park looked wonderful in that light, with the sun making the trees sparkle, turning the leaves of fresh new plants translucent, enhancing the green of the hills, the blue of the sky.

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When we set out, the cold was piercing. As we walked the trails in the warmth of the sun, it felt pleasingly fresh and enlivening. I wanted to shed some of those layers I was wearing. I stuffed my useless gloves in my pockets – no more frozen fingers fumbling with the camera.

This was not the barren, dormant landscape that generally characterizes winter. The natural world was full of life. California sunflowers were beginning to appear as if it were early spring, and that red-tipped shrub that began this post stood out as a colorful symbol of renewal.

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For us, in this season of rain and rejuvenation, the signs of nature’s welcome resurgence were everywhere, the happy dance of Winter and Spring quickened by the ongoing effects of the fire.

Have you observed natural renewal after a fire or been part of the recovery effort? What is your favorite local or regional park? Please leave a comment.

Trip Planning

See the Santiago Oaks Regional Park website for more information.

Copyright M. Vincent 2019.  All photos copyright M. Vincent.

A New Year, a New Starting Line

Last New Year’s Day I launched My Eclectic Café with a post about toeing that starting line, wondering how things would go. I was excited about starting a new year with this new venture, but feeling a bit of trepidation as well.

Would I keep up my posts on a regular basis? Edit myself so vigorously I’d never get off the ground? One thing I wasn’t concerned about was topics. I’d been wanting to write about a variety of things for some time and finally found and seized the moment.  

In the end I didn’t write as much as I planned, but I was pleased to keep the virtual café open except for a few months’ hiatus. I didn’t write as much about certain topics (food, books, nature) as I thought I would, but true to my goal, the menu was an eclectic mix.  

I had fun combining my love of photography and travel in my Window Gazing Wednesday series, which kicked off with this startling night encounter in California’s Sierra Nevada region:M. Vincent 3694-LR_Night bear-680

Sharing the beauty, history and culture of my multifaceted state was another goal for the blog that I enjoyed pursuing in 2018. More California travels to come this year.

Best of all, this blog has been an inspiring experience, and I’m happy to stand at the starting line of another year. A lot of the inspiration has come from you, my readers, and I thank everyone who visited, contributed comments and followed My Eclectic Café at the outset.

I’ve found it stimulating to discover the writing, photography, art and creativity of other members of the international blogging community. To share travels, experiences, enthusiasms and insights across countries and cultures, connect with and learn from each other is a powerful and valuable thing. I look forward to a continuing exchange.

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For 2019, I’ll be focusing on those topics I intended to do more of in 2018 –– including the natural environment, one of my favorite places to be.

In honor of the world’s wilderness areas, I’ll close with a quote from John Muir, American naturalist, philosopher and early advocate of wilderness preservation in the United States: 

“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” 

Happy New Year and happy trails.

 

Copyright M. Vincent 2018

Bear photo copyright M. Vincent 2018. Trail photo copyright Brad Nixon 2018, used with permission.

Let Us Eat Cake: Recipe for a New Year’s Break

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For most of us, new year activities are gearing up, or perhaps already in full swing: back to work, back to school, kicking off personal goals or resolutions for the year.

Hefting some heavier weights at the gym? Juggling new work responsibilities and projects? A teacher with an exuberance of grade school students to wrangle? With all the frenetic activity underway, we all need some time to relax, reflect and recharge.

Take a break for coffee or tea with this fragrant, flavorful apple cake and one of those books on your new year’s booklist. (I wrote about 2018 booklists here.) Or, just savor the cake and the timeout, no activity required –– except for the baking, which can be a calming break in itself.

For weeks I’ve missed the opportunity to have my cake and bake it too, so I started looking for a simple, relatively quick, yet delectable recipe using apples. Melissa Clark’s “Easy-as-Pie Apple Cake” in The New York Times caught my eye. My recipe below is adapted from hers.

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Take a Break Apple Cake

Ingredients

  • 1 cup (125 grams) flour: ½ cup whole wheat, ½ cup unbleached all-purpose
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¼ teaspoon Himalayan pink salt (or kosher salt)
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened + 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • ½ cup (100 grams) sugar: ¼ cup granulated, ¼ cup brown
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon (heaping) ground cardamom
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 cups diced apples (about 2 apples), tossed with 1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
  •  ½ cup (57 grams) toasted pecans, coarsely chopped
  • ¼ cup (about 29 grams) rum-soaked golden raisins

Preparation

  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda and salt.
  2. In a mixer bowl fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and oil, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and cardamom. Add the egg and beat until smooth.
  3. With the mixer on low, beat in the dry ingredients until smooth. (The batter will be very thick.) Fold in the apples, raisins and nuts by hand. (Lightly wetting your hands with water beforehand helps to avoid sticking as you work these ingredients into the batter.) See batter and finished cake below.

4. Spread batter evenly into a greased and lightly floured 9-inch pie or cake pan with 1-inch sides. (I used a 9.5 in. glass pie plate. An 8” x 8” x  2” square pan would also work.)

5. Bake until cake is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean: 35 to 45 minutes, depending on your oven. (My cake was done at a bit over 35 minutes.) Let cool in pan 10 minutes before serving.

This recipe reduces the sugar in the NYT recipe, adds whole wheat flour, and replaces some of the butter with oil. I love cardamom and fresh lemon juice with apples, so used those in place of nutmeg and added the rum-soaked raisins for extra zest. The result was a not-too-sweet, warmly spicy cake with a pleasing chunky-with-apples texture –– and a wonderful aroma that filled the kitchen.

If you make this recipe, let me know how it turned out for you.  Please leave a comment.

Note: The My Eclectic Café kitchen is vegetarian, except for seafood, with fresh fruit and vegetables as primary staples, and a focus on healthy eating. Baked treats are much lower in sugar than most recipes specify, healthy oils are generally used instead of butter, and I’ve never met a recipe I didn’t adapt.

Copyright M. Vincent 2018

New Booklist Time! What Are You Reading in 2018?

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It’s that time again for avid readers to be working on their new year’s booklists, or at least seriously contemplating the direction they’ll take.

Maybe some of you have already composed your  complete list. Others may be just starting a draft, to finish or to use as the base for a work in progress, a list that develops as your interests develop in the coming months. While approaches vary, I’m sure the happy anticipation is the same.

My own approach is mostly freewheeling with a bit of structure. The list develops as I go along, but I start out with some titles and some objectives that will guide me. One continuing objective is to read more works from other countries with other cultural points of view. (My 2016–17 lists held authors from France, England, Scotland, Wales, Sweden, Canada, Italy, Japan and Tibet; also, several Native American authors, citizens of their own sovereign nations as well as of the United States.)

Other objectives for the year may be: reading more work by writers of long and amiable acquaintance (my 2016 list, for example, included a Graham Greene fest), exploring writers new to me, or pursuing specific topics, themes or historical periods. Positive works of humor, humanity, inspiration, and pure enjoyment are always among the choices.

As you might expect, I end up with an eclectic mix of fiction, nonfiction, “classic” and contemporary:  mysteries, memoirs, short story collections, poetry … Even cookbooks.

I find the books on my list in various ways. Sometimes, I just choose a shelf in a section of my local library and wander down it, running my fingers over the spines, looking for a title that leaps out; stopping in my tracks at those slender volumes with a patina of age that might hold something intriguing by a writer who can bundle impressive storytelling into a small package.

I found High Bonnet: a Novel of Epicurean Adventures by Idwal Jones on one of those library strolls. Written in 1945, the book follows Jean-Marie Gallois, the protagonist, on his journey to win the “high bonnet” of chefdom, with many madcap episodes along the way. It was fun to discover this engaging Welsh writer, adept at drawing characters and scenes.

Sometimes the books are gifts from two delightfully “bookish” friends who worked for years at Powell’s City of Books in Portland. My first book of 2018 – I Was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn – is an example. Other selections derive from discussions with my very well-read partner, who devours literature ravenously and thoughtfully.

Fellow bloggers who share their love of reading, their booklists and comments are also a welcome resource. I love to hear what others are reading. If you do too, here are a few books on my list for this year:

Paintings in Proust: A Visual Companion to “In Search of Lost Time” by Eric Karpeles.

Unbowed – A memoir, beginning with childhood, by Wangari Muta Maathai, Kenyan political activist, environmentalist and winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. (Reading in progress)

Frankenstein The classic tale by Mary Shelley. (This English major has never read it!)

Not Without Laughter – The debut novel of Langston Hughes. Perusing his poetry available at our library, I realized what a range of other writing he produced and put this novel on my list. By coincidence, I found this New York Times review the next day.

My Brilliant Friend – My first novel by Elena Ferrante. It chronicles the decades-long friendship of two girls who grow up in a poor Naples neighborhood during the sweeping changes of post-WWII Italy.

What’s on your 2018 list so far? Please share a few of your choices.

Note: High Bonnet (1945) was reprinted in 2001 as part of the Modern Library Food Series edited by Ruth Reichl. That’s the edition I found at the library.

Copyright M. Vincent 2018

A New Year: The Starting Line

The first day of a new year… What better time to start a new adventure? So here I begin my blog, the personal ramblings of a writer-editor embarking on her own topics after years spent tackling those of her clients.

The offerings will be a mix, reflecting my varied tastes and interests, relentless curiosity and love for exploration. Hence the name, My Eclectic Café. I hope that in the months ahead readers will find some enjoyment, diversion and inspiration on the menu. Perhaps some energizing food for thought.

For me, the turn of the year is always an exciting time: a blank slate, a fresh start, an open road with seen and unseen possibilities stretching ahead. It’s also a time for reflection as we each begin anew to pursue our individual dreams and goals.

Setting out with hopes and plans to be better, stronger, more adventurous in our lives, our work, our creative efforts, we’re likely to feel some trepidation as well. It’s universally human as we stand on the starting line of a new year, or any new undertaking within it.

When the trepidation appears, I like to revisit the words of Amby Burfoot, writer, lifelong runner and 1968 Boston Marathon winner. While his philosophy derives from running, he applies it to all new beginnings in life:

“A starting line is the best, most exciting place I can imagine. When I stand on one, I feel fully alive – scared, yes, but also energized, focused, and prepared for the big challenge ahead. … I can’t wait to get going.”

To continue developing, we need to actively seek out starting lines, he says, not avoid them, and I agree, although sometimes we can, or must, wait to get going.

The exigencies of life, plus a bit of stage fright, kept me from launching this blog for over a year: “Will I write as well when not on assignment? Can I keep this up on a regular basis? What’s my personal style? Will I edit myself into oblivion?” Today I knew it was time to begin, and I’m excited to be up and running. 

For 2018, I hope you’ll find inspiring opportunities for new beginnings. Take a leap you’ve been considering. Follow your creative spirit. As Burfoot says, “if you don’t go to the starting line, you’ll never view the whole course with all its possibilities.”

What is your “starting line” for 2018? 

© Copyright M. Vincent 2018

Quoted text from The Runner’s Guide to the Meaning of Life, Chapter 2, “Starting Lines,” copyright Amby Burfoot 2000.