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A classic diner returns (I hope)

From the 1950s

If you’re like me, as things reopen after a year of staying in, you’ve been thinking about how much you’ve missed eating out. I’ve even been thinking about where to go for an eating-out celebration. Until yesterday, my plan was to go to Bernadin’s in Winston-Salem. But I learned yesterday that a classic diner on the Blue Ridge Parkway, long closed, will reopen on May 27.

The restaurant is The Bluffs. It first opened in 1949. It was in operation for 61 years until it closed in 2010. The National Park Service could not find anyone to operate it. A great many people remember the place fondly, and the Park Service was under pressure to reopen it. Lots of people donated money to a campaign organized by the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation. The Appalachian Regional Commission contributed, as did the stingy state of North Carolina. You can read about this at the restaurant’s web site, here.

Those outside the eastern United States may not know that the Blue Ridge Parkway is a national park. The Bluffs is at Doughton Park. That’s at Laurel Springs, at Milepost 241. Part of what’s exciting about this reopening is that it’s a public-private project worth supporting.

I’ll have a report soon after The Bluffs reopens. I’m just hoping that they get it right. Judging from the photos, authenticity was priority 1 for the renovation. I hope the same is true of the cuisine, though I suppose that heavy porcelain dinnerware, and glasses and cups that aren’t supersized, would be too much to hope for.

The renovation


Source: Hubble telescope, NASA, Jesœs Maz Apellÿniz, and Davide De Martin via Wikimedia Commons

An Introduction to Modern Astrophysics. Bradley W. Carroll and Dale A. Ostlie. Cambridge University Press, 2017. 1,342 pages.

Quick now: How old is the universe? Answer: About 13.8 billion years.

If you were to walk out under the night sky this evening, photons of light would reach you that are billions of years old. You wouldn’t be able to detect those photons with your unaided eyes, but the photons came from the far edges of the observable universe. That light is very, very old and was generated by a star that was among the first to form after the Big Bang. When you look out into the far reaches of the universe, you are looking into the distant past. Even the light from our sun, of course, is about eight minutes old. What’s happening at the edges of the universe right now? We can’t possibly know for billions of years, when the light reaches us.

It is almost criminal that light pollution and modern living have robbed us of a relationship with the stars. Our ancestors must have felt that relationship very keenly, given some of the artefacts they left — the clay tablets of the Babylonian astrologers and astronomers, for example, or the prehistoric henges.

One of my favorite bedside books is an astronomy textbook last revised in 1964. There’s very little in that textbook that is actually wrong; astronomers then knew what they didn’t know and what needed to be figured out. But in the 55 years or so between the two textbooks, our knowledge of astrophysics has exploded. There are very few equations in the 1964 textbook, but the 2017 textbook is full of them. We now have mathematical models for (and therefore substantial understanding of) all sorts of phenomena, including what happens in the interior of stars, how elements heavier than hydrogen are formed inside of stars, how gravity works its magic in the gas and dust of the interstellar medium to form galaxies, etc. Astrophysicists love their equations.

I cannot follow the math of all those equations. However, not being able to follow the math should not stand in the way of reading books like this. I frequently read books that I can’t completely understand. There is still much that can be learned. The processes that are modeled by equations can also be described in text, and this book is lucid in its descriptions of astrophysical phenomena.

But, as is often the case with nerds, it’s not just about the science. The wonders of the universe also are food for the imagination. I can almost imagine that stars have personalities. Though stars can be classified according to type, size, age, temperature, and many other factors, each star is different. There are even not-exactly-fringy theories that stars are conscious. Stars, like life, have the almost magical ability to create order in a chaotic universe. Stars can do amazing things, such as make oxygen or iron or gold out of hydrogen. Stars furnish the chemicals out of which life is made and the energy that sustains life. Like stars, each galaxy also is different. Both stars and galaxies cluster, almost as though they have social needs. Stars (and galaxies) are very frequently found in pairs like friends or lovers, orbiting each other around their mutual center of gravity. Like us, stars are born. Some live longer lives than others, but eventually all stars die. The earth, of course, is made from the bodies of long-deceased stars, which is why scientists like to point out that we are all stardust.

The table of contents of this book is an excellent outline of what we know so far about the universe.

Cambridge University Press. Click on images for high-resolution version.

Leaves for Lily and me

This is Lily’s first catnip bouquet of the 2021 season. I already have huge quantities of catnip. I also have quite a lot of mint coming along.

I’ve mentioned that one of my resolutions for this year is to eat more leaves, including, and especially, raw leaves as pesto. Apparently mint pesto is a thing, so I will soon try that. Catnip pesto is not unheard of. But I think I would like to read and think a little more before trying that.

Oh no. I hear the hum.

I first noticed the hum many weeks ago. When I first became conscious of it, I gave it little thought. Though this area is very quiet, engine noises can carry a long way. When I heard it in the middle of the night, it became more puzzling, because I couldn’t think of any reason why a large diesel engine would be idling a mile or two away in the middle of the night. Now that I’m aware of it, I hear the hum almost every day — or night.

Before I had read about the hum, I had described it to a neighbor the same way many others have described it. It sounds like a large diesel engine idling — a train engine, for example — about a mile or more away. It does not change pitch or volume. The sound is either there or not there. Eventually I Googled for something like “low pitched rumbling sound” and discovered that it is called the hum. It has been reported all over the world. Here is a link to the Wikipedia article. If you Google for “the hum,” you’ll find many articles about it. It has been reported that only 2 percent of people can hear it. Why me? My hearing is pretty good, especially for someone my age. Also it’s usually very quiet here.

At first I dismissed the sound as a form of tinnitus, or as some sort of pneumatic phenomenon having to do with how the outside air flows around the roof of my house. But after a few weeks, I became increasingly confident that the sound is real. Then it dawned on me to see if I could measure the sound with a sound-measuring app on my iPhone.

I have not yet done enough measuring to feel highly confident of what I’m seeing in the “Decibel X” app. But so far I think the app is confirming what I hear. When I don’t hear the hum, the background noise level averages around 30 decibels, at the whisper level. When I do hear the hum, the noise level averages about 37 decibels. The background noise here always seems to be concentrated at frequencies below 90Hz. But if I had to guess at the frequency of the hum, I’d put it as around 50 Hz.

Assuming that the hum is real, I have no theory about what is causing it. But I’m now 99 percent convinced that it’s real.

Does anyone else hear the hum?

Diet pesto

Pesto with roasted turnip

My belt having given up a notch and warned me of imminent danger, this morning I finally forced myself to go stand on the scales. The time for denial came to an end. I was 10 pounds over my ideal weight. To me, that’s the red-alert stage, meaning that a diet must begin this very day. The previous diet was three years ago. This is my usual pattern, up and down within a 10-pound range.

I had already planned to have pesto for supper. Fine. It would have to be as austere a pesto as I could make.

My usual pesto is anything but austere. I’ve always been generous with the nuts and parmesan, so an indecent amount of olive oil is necessary to liquefy everything. Today’s pesto was about five parts spinach, five parts parsley, and one part basil. The season of all-basil pesto is at least a couple of months away if not longer. I used only a couple of walnuts and a couple of teaspoons of parmesan (as well as a teaspoon of vinegar) to keep the requirement for olive oil low. (Though I had a few walnuts and a sprinkling of parmesan on the side.) I ground the basil in the mortar and pestle, but I used the food processor for everything else.

Roasted turnips are surprising satisfying on a low-carb diet. The pesto wasn’t terrible.

One of my resolutions for this year is to eat more leaves — lots more leaves. Chard, parsley, spinach, kale, and romaine are already under way in the garden. I’ll have more posts this spring about eating more leaves, and why I think that’s so important (hat trip Michael Pollan).

Moravian baking

I don’t know enough about German cooking or the history of the Moravian Church to accurately trace the pedigree of these thin lemon cookies, though I can provide some hints. But I need to digress for a few paragraphs before I get back to the lemon cookies.

First of all, the Moravian Church is one of the oldest Protestant denominations, with roots in the 15th Century. In 1753, German-speaking Moravians established a planned — communal, really — community at Bethabara, North Carolina. Their largest community in North Carolina was Salem, established in 1766. In 1913, Salem merged with the town of Winston to become Winston-Salem.

The Moravian levels of education and technology were much higher than that of other settlers in the area. They were well financed and were able to buy prime land for their settlements. Elements of their German culture and traditions persist today in the areas they settled. But at this point, because I don’t know enough to be able to follow the historical thread, I must skip ahead to, say, 1955. I have a clear memory of waiting in the car in front of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts while my father went into the shop to buy a box of doughnuts. This was at the first Krispy Kreme store in North Carolina (1937), on South Main Street in Winston-Salem, in Old Salem. Krispy Kreme has now gone international.

I cannot say to what degree Krispy Kreme might have been influenced by Moravian baking — probably very little, since the recipe for the doughnut dough came from New Orleans, according to Wikipedia. But I do know that the 1937 Krispy Kreme store was only a few doors away from the Moravian Winkler Bakery in Old Salem.

But another bakery got its start in Winston-Salem, in 1930. That’s Dewey’s Bakery. Dewey’s business was largely based on traditional Moravian favorites. Dewey’s certainly has not grown the way Krispy Kreme did, but clearly they’re expanding and shipping their products farther and farther. As far as I can tell, Dewey’s is now shipping nationwide.

Dewey’s makes a wide range of Moravian cookies. There’s a chocolate version of these thin cookies. The most traditional version, though, is a thin ginger cookie. There is a huge demand in this area for Moravian sugar cake and ginger cookies at Christmas.

What I don’t know (though I wish I did) is whether the pedigree of these cookies goes all the way back to the Old World. It’s probably safe to assume that it does. The Moravian homeland, Bohemia and Moravia, is now in the Czech Republic.

Dewey’s products, I’d have to say, don’t necessarily use the best of all possible ingredients. No doubt that’s to keep prices down. I don’t know if it’s still true, but it used to be that they made their Moravian sugar cake in two versions — one with butter and a less expensive version with margarine. The lemon cookies’ list of ingredients include palm oil and “butter flavor.”

I love the concept of small, thin cookies, though. It’s a little easier not to eat too many. Like shortbread, they’re perfect with tea.

A Moravian lovefeast, Bethania, North Carolina. Wikipedia photo by Will and Deni McIntyre.

Born into the wrong world

“Gentleman Jack,” season 1, episode 2. Copyright, HBO, BBC: Fair use, not monetized.

The second episode of “Gentleman Jack” contains one of the most brilliant, beautiful and touching scenes I can remember. Other than the recitation of the priest, there is not even any dialogue. The scene’s entire meaning is conveyed by the sequence of expressions on Anne Lister’s face. (Anne Lister is played by Suranne Jones.) Anne, with a broken heart, has changed her mind at the last moment and has decided to go down to London for the wedding of her former lover.

I know very little about Anne Lister. One probably would have to read her diaries (as the producers certainly did) to guess what might be going through her mind. But what I see in this scene is an acute awareness of being born into the wrong world; the knowledge that celebrations always will be for someone else, never for her; a stoic attitude and a resolve not to be crushed; and a determination to seize as much from life as she can from a world that isn’t ready for her. Every word of the priest is like being shot with an arrow.

“Gentleman Jack” is available for streaming at HBO Max.

Can we have some nice things now?

Pete Buttigieg at Washington Union Station. Source: Wikipedia.

With “Amtrak Joe” in the White House, and the new U.S. secretary of transportation wanting to lead the world in high-speed rail (we’re now 19th) can we Americans now have some nice things?

To people like me, who have ridden thousands of miles on trains (President Biden has ridden 770,000 miles on trains), it amazes me how many people have never ridden a train. How could they not be curious? I admit that I love cars, too. But where is their spirit of adventure? Certain images inspire awe and imagination: A Concorde in flight (a sight not seen since 2003), a square-rigged sailing ship under full sail in a white-capped sea, a Saturn 5 rocket lifting off, a Boeing 747 descending above the Golden Gate Bridge, a steam train working its way across Scotland’s Glenfinnan Viaduct on its way to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Some of those things are not doable. But anyone, even an American, can ride a train.

We don’t have a lot of details so far, but we do know that the Biden administration and the new Congress will push for a major investment in high-speed rail. We also know that Republicans will fight tooth and claw to resist, though Republicans don’t seem to mind the billions of dollars that this country spends each year on roads and gasoline.

Why do conservatives hate trains? The pompous and dull-witted George Will is infamous for claiming to know why we progressives love trains: “[T]he real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.” Does that make any sense at all when a few million Americans fly each day on packed airplanes, with about as much room left for their individualism as for their legs? I’m not the first to suspect that the real reason that conservatives hate trains is racism.

Trains for America — fast ones — make more sense now than ever. Our interstate highways are overloaded, dangerous, and miserable. To me, one of the most exciting things about this change in the American government is that trains are back on the agenda. New York City has made a nice start with the new train hall at Pennsylvania Station.

One more thing. The kind of people who hate trains also are the kind of people who would try to sabotage the U.S. Postal Service. The first order of business is to fire Louis DeJoy, a Trump appointee. Then we can start talking about new services, new revenues, and a new prosperity for the Postal Service.

I took this photo in Paddington Station in August 2019, on my way from London Heathrow to Edinburgh.

Catching the train from Uig to Inverness, August 2019

New York City’s new train hall. Source: Wikipedia, photo by Jim Henderson

The Jacobite steam train crossing the Glenfinnan Viaduct. Source: Wikipedia photo by Nicholas Benutzer.

Almost April

The gate from the garden into the orchard

It’s a bit of a tradition to post this poem each year.

The Goose Girl

Spring rides no horses down the hill,
But comes on foot, a goose-girl still.
And all the loveliest things there be
Come simply, so, it seems to me.
If ever I said, in grief or pride,
I tired of honest things, I lied:
And should be cursed forevermore
With Love in laces, like a whore,
And neighbours cold, and friends unsteady,
And Spring on horseback, like a lady!

— Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1892-1950

A neighbor gave me the eggs

Gentleman Jack

Once again I need to express exasperation at how difficult it is to find good material for streaming. Finding it is like finding a needle in a haystack. Brute force seining through rivers of dreck is the only method I know. I found “Gentleman Jack” while seining through dreck on HBO Max.

The series is not exactly new. According to the Wikipedia article, it was a joint production of HBO and BBC 1 and premiered in the spring of 2019. There are eight episodes in the first season. A second season is now in production.

The story is based on the life of Anne Lister, 1791-1840, a member of the Yorkshire gentry who has been called “the first modern lesbian.” She kept diaries, written in code, that were not deciphered until years after her death.

I’ve watched only one episode so far, but this promises to be one of the best period pieces I’ve seen in a long time. It is excellently cast. The settings in and out of doors are visually rich. Each scene is beautifully conceived. The characters are much more multi-dimensional than what one usually gets in then-and-there social dramas. Anne Lister by all accounts was a highly intelligent and complex woman. The intelligence of the script and the complexity of the characters and situations seem to be doing justice to that.