Robots and British Nosh

Having used the Franklin Institute as an indoor playground for a couple of years, last year we took a break from our membership so that we could return with renewed enthusiasm.  In retrospect, President’s Day was not the smartest choice for becoming members again and reintroducing the kids to the joys of science museums.  The place was absolutely jam-packed and every gallery and area was heaving with people. I do not do well in crowds at all – it’s like an instant recipe for stress and anxiety – but I also feel harassed by the behaviour of other people when places are so busy.  For example, there were way too many children pushing and shoving there way into taking turns with interactive exhibits.  My kids have a tendency to hang back and are too polite to challenge others who queue jump but they still get irked and frazzled by the rudeness of others and, of course, we then get the pleasure of dealing with our annoyed kids.  While the parents of the pushy-shovey kids seemed to be nowhere in the vicinity whenever their kids were misbehaving, conversely there were other parents who were attached like limpets to their kids which also made it nigh impossible to manoeuvre in some areas.  Imagine experiencing epic levels of irritation while trying to cheerfully engage children in science even though you are completely an Arts and Humanities person.  That was the experience I had in the Franklin Institute on Monday.

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While we stopped by our favourite sections and did what activities we could, we also visited a special exhibition called Robot Revolution.  It was, strangely enough, all about how modern robotic engineering is being applied to different aspects of life.  For instance, there was a large surgical apparatus and the woman standing next to me explained that her father had actually been operated on recently by just such a machine.  There were also robotic prosthetic limbs and robots designed to assess dangers in conflict zones.  There were, however, also robots playing soccer and one that could unicycle.  A big hit with my youngest son was a robotic seal pup, designed to provide therapeutic comfort to people who can’t interact with real animals.  They also enjoyed an area where they got to clip together various cubes, each of which served a different function, in order to construct their own robots.

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We did not stay at the Franklin Institute for an extended period simply because the crowds were unbearable.  It was good to be back after our year long break, however, and we were reminded about all it has to offer.  We look forward to more trips there this coming year but hopefully with much smaller numbers of people crammed into the space.

We decided to treat ourselves to a little luxury by dining out in the city.  Mr Pict selected The Dandelion, which he has eaten in several times with colleagues.  We were actually supposed to go there for my birthday celebration but there was a stuff up with the booking so it did not happen.  I think, therefore, that it was my Unbirthday dinner.  The Dandelion serves British cuisine.  For many decades, people scoffed at the idea of British cuisine, regarding it was an oxymoron, but British food can actually be really very good.  The restaurant is housed in what looked to have been a residential building and was decorated in a very eclectic way, a sort of ramshackle chic.  It reminded me of a mixture of junk shops and cafes from my childhood.  Of course, we loved the tastebud nostalgia of the whole experience too.  Our children immediately ordered glasses of Ribena – a blackcurrant squash from the UK – and I had a Pimm’s Cup.  There were several things I could have ordered but I plumped for the fish and chips as I was eager to see if they could make chips the way they do in Britain, crisp on the outside and fluffy in the middle, and I am happy to report that they were a very tasty success, as was the beer battered fish.  I usually only manage one course of food but I pushed my limits because there was Sticky Toffee Pudding on the menu.  I have not had a Sticky Toffee Pudding since we emigrated (I really ought to make it but never do) so I just could not resist the temptation.  Not only was the cake delicious and light and deliciously treacly, but it was also served with date ice cream.  Mr Pict and the Pictlings all loved every morsel of their two courses of food too.  Indeed, Mr Pict declared that the short rib was the best he had ever consumed.  The luxury of delectable food in a pleasant setting with great service went a long way to mitigate against the stress of an overcrowded museum and ensured that our President’s Day trip to Philly was a success.

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Peddler’s Village

We had other plans for this weekend but between the murk and cold and my aches and pains, we decided at last minute to jettison them for something else.  We decided to go and explore Peddler’s Village because it afforded us a comfortable balance between fresh air and bursts of time spent indoors.

Peddler’s Village is essentially a shopping centre but one laid out like a small village rather than a strip mall.  The architecture is interesting and harks back to a bygone era and rural idyll but is, of course, completely faux.  I found it to be quaint and quiet and certainly preferable to the atmosphere of the average shopping mall.  It also presented us with the opportunity to pootle around in some independent retail stores as opposed to the same old chains.

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The first of these we visited was a cheese shop which tells you a lot about our family’s priorities.  I may be lactose intolerant but I am also an unrepentant cheesaholic.  I have given up all other forms of dairy except for cheese and clotted cream.  I take the hit of physical pain over the emotional pain of a life without cheese.  The cheese shop offered a wonderful array of delicious cheeses.  We all nibbled on samples and pressed our noses against the glass of the display case.  Imported and artisan cheeses aren’t cheap here in the US so we had to exercise self-restraint and limit ourselves to two wedges of cheese.  In the end we chose some Port Salut for reasons of nostalgia and a wonderfully tangy, mature cheddar that had been marinated and aged in balsamic vinegar.  On the subject of vinegars, the shop also sold bottles of infused olive oils and balsamic vinegars.  I absolutely adored an orange and cranberry vinegar and even more so an amazing pomegranate infused one but I managed to leave the store without making a further purchase.

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The boys particularly enjoyed a store filled with geeky t-shirts and accessories and a toy store.  They spent ages in the toy store because it contained lots of items they had never seen in a chain toy store, despite the fact that most of those items were for a younger age group than them.  We also took them into an arcade where they enjoyed clambering on pieces of equipment and watching graphics.  Two of them decided to spend some money on playing a game but otherwise they weren’t really into it.  I have always hated arcades but Mr Pict has many happy childhood memories of playing in them.  Our sons seem to fall somewhere between our attitudes.

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There were lots of stores selling ceramics, housewares, a very tempting glassware shop, purveyors of jewellery and clothes.  I am not much of a shopper but I probably would have had more of a nose around in more stores had I not had the boys in tow.  Since there was nothing I needed or was looking for, I opted out of the stress and worry of taking kids into stores or listening to their whines as they were forced to wait outside for me, especially since by this juncture the boys were growing “hangry”.

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We left Peddler’s Village and crossed the river into New Jersey.  It had been ages since we had visited New Hope and Lambertville and we had never eaten there – discounting doughnuts and ice cream.  We choose to eat in the Lambertville Station and happily, despite being a party of six, there was only a brief wait for a table despite the place being very busy.  As its name suggests, the restaurant is a converted train station.  It’s interior was lovely with lots of wood and brass.  The Maitre’ d’s desk was what looked to be the old ticket booth.  We were seated in the area that had once been the platform which gave us a view over the canal and the streets outside.  The atmosphere was lovely, the staff were attentive, and the food was delicious.

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Since we were all stuffed full, we decided to get a spot of fresh air before getting back into the car and heading home.  We thought the boys would just have a bit of a wander on the shore line, watching the ducks and geese, but in the end they were there for ages, making up some game to entertain themselves, and we had to drag them into the car.  So the day might not have been remotely what we had planned but it was still a success.

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Having Wonka Fun

My kids have now returned to school after the long (ever so long) summer break but we managed to squeeze in a couple more activities in the final days of summer.  One of these was making chocolate bars.  It is something we have done in the past but I don’t think we have done it since we emigrated to America so they were excited to get to do it again.

I have four silicone moulds for just this purpose.  I think they were designed for making bars of soap but they work perfectly for making big, fat, chunky confectionery.  The boys had picked out their added ingredients so, once we had melted the chocolate on the hob (stove top), it was just a case of each kid pouring some chocolate into the mould and then building up their personalised Wonka bar using whatever ingredients they selected.  There were things like M&Ms and mini-marshmallows and dried cranberries and my oldest son even added prunes.  It was simple, quick, easy, and fun and the best part was, of course, that they got to have a chunking chocolate bar for dessert that evening.

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Road Trip #7 – Zingerman’s Roadhouse

On the morning of our fourth day of road tripping I experienced a Starbucks for the first time.  I know it must be a bit mystifying that someone my age can never have had a Starbucks product when the chain is so ubiquitous but it was in fact the case.  I don’t drink coffee so had no motivation to patronise the place.  After our late evening watching a drive-in movie, Mr Pict felt he could do with a caffeine jolt so we stopped in at a Starbucks on the fringes of Toledo.  He decided I should finally try something from Starbucks and ordered me this green tea cappuccino thing.  I regularly enjoy green tea but this incarnation of the drink was horrid.  It had the taste and texture of hot pond scum.  I could not abide it and could not drink it.  This road trip might well, therefore, be my first and last Starbucks experience.

Never mind because we had a much more appealing and successful edible experience for lunch that day.  Having had a quick tootle around Ann Arbor to see the University of Michigan buildings, we stopped in for lunch at Zingerman’s Roadhouse.  Although we had gone there on a whim and with no prior research, it was one of the highlights of our trip.

We had a fantastic waiter who not only explained the restaurant’s specialties but also let us sample some of their most famous dishes – a luxuriously creamy and rich macaroni cheese and pulled pork served with a vinegary barbecue sauce and a sweet mustard sauce.  I don’t eat pork but I loved dipping bread into the mustard sauce.  I could have consumed vats of that stuff.

Our two youngest ordered cheeseburgers with a fruit platter, my oldest had a burger that he rated as a 4.5 out of 5, my 10 year old had the mac ‘n’ cheese, I had pulled chicken, and Mr Pict had pulled pork with mash and collared greens.  All were absolutely and perfectly delicious.  The twice cooked fries were also incredible but we were all too stuffed to eat them.

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My oldest two kids decided to be adventurous and challenge themselves to eating oysters.  The waiter explained some of the options to them and they settled on some Beausoleil oysters from New Brunswick, just one each to give it a try.  Slightly disturbed by the slime in a shell they were presented with, they decided to do a countdown and knock them back at the same time.  My 13 year old guzzled his without difficulty and declared that he really liked it; my 10 year old gagged on his a little and decided oysters were perhaps not for him.  I have kids who have happily eaten snails and have now consumed oysters but who dry heave if they find a courgette on their plates.  Weirdos.  Good on them for trying oysters though.

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Dining in Ann Arbor meant that I got to claim Michigan as my 27th state by lunch time.  Yipee!

We then headed on to Grand Haven, on the shore of Lake Michigan, for three days spent in a vacation house we had rented.  The house proved to be quaintly shabby, clean and tidy enough but with a few annoying quirks like having no door on the master bedroom despite it leading off from the living room and kitchen.  Another issue was that the bathroom was accessed via two other bedrooms which meant lots of tip-toeing so as to not wake sleeping children.  The idiosyncratic layout was the result of the property being chopped in half as the upstairs level was being rented out as a separate property.  Another oddity was that the owner knocked on the door to introduce himself after 11pm, making me nearly jump out of my skin.  This road trip was definitely proving to be “interesting” when it came to accommodation.  We were all glad of the opportunity to stay put somewhere for a few days though.

 

Scoffing Shane’s Confectionery

I have lived in Pennsylvania for just over two and a half years now and in that time I have sampled a few state foods.

Despite the fact that Mr Pict and the Pictlings love them and I go into school every two weeks to deliver them to the kids, I do not like pretzels.  I know I should be drummed out of the state for such an admission but I just don’t like them.  I can eat one if I have to but it is not something that I enjoy.  I did like Tomato Pie but I prefer more traditional Italian pizza than this twist on the theme.  I tried Tastykakes and was disappointed – as I had been by my first ever Girl Scout Cookie.  I do like Rita’s Water Ice and frozen custard and like that I can deploy it as a bribe / reward for my kids ever so often in the summer months.  I have mentioned several times on the blog now that I do not like American chocolate, despite visiting Hershey twice now.  The Pictlings have had no such difficulties adjusting their palates to American chocolate but the taste and especially the texture remains alien to my Scottish mouth.  In addition to visiting Hershey, we also did the Turkey Hill Experience to learn how this local ice cream is manufactured.  Ice cream I love; it just doesn’t love me as I am lactose intolerant.

Recently I tried a new local food in the form of some sweet treats from Shane’s Confectionary.  Having started operations in 1863, Shane’s claims to be America’s oldest continuously running candy shop.  It’s store on Market Street, Philadelphia, opened in 1911, when the business moved into retail from wholesale.  Having fallen on hard times in the post-war period, the candy shop was recently lovingly restored.  We will have to take a trip there with the kids some time.

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We actually received some Shane’s candies as a New Year gift and, knowing they were special, I saved them for a rainy day.  We had some cherries that had been soaked in brandy and covered in chocolate.  These tasted divine and the crunch through the chocolate into the chewy, fruity centre was pleasing.  They also had a lilac metallic lustre to the chocolate coating which made them extra magical.  There were also some chocolate caramels.  The kids all loved those but, given American chocolate does nothing for me, I was not bowled over by those.

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The boys also had a moulded sugar steam locomotive.  Apparently these clear candy toys  – brought to PA by the Amish – are a holiday tradition at Shane’s, with parents buying them up for their children’s Easter and Christmas gifts.  I have happy memories of going to an Edwardian style sweet shop with my Gran and picking out a variety of boilings which were plopped into a paper poke and treasured and savoured during shopping expeditions.  I completely understand the tradition and the element of nostalgia.  The train was literally just boiled sugar though and, therefore, would have been too bland for my liking.  Give me Kola Kubes and Soor Plooms any day.  There were no complaints from the younger sweet-toothed Picts, however.

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So that is Shane’s Confectionery ticked off the list.  I wonder what my next experience of edible Pennsylvania will be.

History of Art #26 – Magritte

We moved on from Chagall’s symbolic dreamscapes to Magritte’s surrealism.  We started off by looking at a few of his paintings and having a chat about them, sharing ideas as to possible interpretations.  We looked at “The Treachery of Images” and discussed the idea that the representational nature of art (the pipe is not a pipe but a painting of a pipe) immediately detaches the art work from reality.  The other painting we discussed at length was “The Son of Man” and had lots of ideas about why their is an apple in front of the face: gravity and scientific discovery, original sin, spherical shape like the globe, and an apple being the artist’s favourite fruit.  We also observed recurring themes in Magritte’s work: obscured faces, cloudy skies, birds, and bowler hats.

The it was time to start creating works inspired by Magritte’s art.  As I suspected would be the case, the boys all chose to work on drawings inspired by “The Son of Man”.  My 12 year old continued with his penguin series and gave his penguin a bowler hat and a face partly obscured by a fish.  My 8 year old drew a self-portrait with the face obscured by a slice of pizza, his favourite food.  My 6 year old drew a tiny drawing of a figure with his face covered in chocolate cake.  My 10 year old drew his favourite food – my homemade chicken curry – descending from a cloudy sky but he’s not happy with his drawing so I agreed not to share it on the blog.

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Since I already did a version of “The Son of Man” for my Magritte inspired Bunny, I decided to take my inspiration from another painting, “Sky Bird”.  I decided to play around with masks on my gelli plate again, as I had done with Hokusai’s Wave, with a bird shape in a day time sky and the negative space as a night sky.  I then embellished the bird using paint pen.

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Rita’s Ice

We participated in a local Summer tradition yesterday evening thanks to a thunderstorm and torrential rain.  The storms and the related flood warning meant that Mr Pict arrived home from working in the city early enough to eat dinner with us.  He then suggested that we go out to Rita’s for dessert.  The male Picts have all munched at Rita’s before – last summer when we went to the Jersey shore – but this was a first for me.

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Rita’s was founded thirty years ago in a nearby town.  It has expanded nationally since then but going to Rita’s in the summer months remains very much a local edible tradition – such as favouring Geno’s or Pat’s cheesesteaks and eating pretzels whenever the opportunity arises.  It only operates in the summer months but it feels like there are Rita’s shacks on most roads around Philly.  I learned this year that on the first day of Spring they give away free water ice but that was irrelevant to us this year as the first day of Spring involved a heavy dumping of snow and digging out the driveway.  Not really water ice weather let alone joining a long queue for water ice weather.

Water ice always strikes me as a tautology but it refers to a particular style of sorbet, fruit puree frozen as if it was ice cream.  It is definitely not like shaved ice or slushy.  Rita’s also serves frozen custard and gelati, which is a mixture of the custard and water ice.   The Rita’s shack had a menu listing all the day’s available flavours and toppings so we perused the board and made our choices.  Some of us kept things simple – I had a tropical water ice – while others went big style and had the gelati concoction with sauce, multiple toppings, whipped cream and a cherry.

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This was an edible local tradition I could get on board with.  I have been past but never into either Geno’s or Pat’s because I don’t eat red meat so I am never going to eat a cheesesteak.  I also do not like pretzels.  I am not very taken with tomato pie either, much preferring traditional pizza.  My stomach might be deported from Pennsylvania.  Water ice, however, has saved the day.  I rather enjoyed it.  It was refreshing and light and flavourful.  Our evening trip to Rita’s was the perfect antidote to a muggy, steamy evening.