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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Chantey Singing at the Rowayton Arts Center

For the last two months, I've been taking part in a chantey sing held at the Rowayton Arts Center from 4:00-6:00pm on the third Sunday of the month, and have been enjoying it immensely.  The program is hosted by Deirdre Murtha, of The Johnson Girls, and her husband Sean, who also sings and plays banjo, fiddle and bones.

Each afternoon, different people take turns leading chanteys and other maritime-related songs.  The guy on the left, whose name I should remember, but don't, sings a lot of Scottish and Irish songs.  [Editor's Note 4/14/12: His name is Cliff Abrans and he's a heck of a great guy.  Also, for the record, I figured that out right after I made the original post, but only just got around to making this note.  Oops.]  Other folks are more general-purpose chantey singers, while others just come and sing along -- or even just listen.

When I went last month, it was a spur-of-the-moment decision and I didn't have anything prepared, but ended up leading Adieu, Sweet Lovely Nancy, The Mary Ellen Carter, and Fair Maid Walking.  This last time, since I had a chance to plan, I took along my guitar and banjo and led The Loss of the Bay Rupert, Battleship of Maine [Here's a video of me playing it in Havana.], Christmas in the Trenches, and The Storms are on the Ocean.

The Chantey Blast at Mystic Seaport is January 7 and I'm looking forward to going up for that.  I feel like I need to have a policy of not repeating songs at the Rowayton Chantey Sing, so I'll be on the lookout for catchy tunes with interesting lyrics.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Ship Sighting: Hudson River Sloop CLEARWATER

Earlier this week, the Norwalk Hour ran a brief piece letting the world know that the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater would be at the Norwalk Cove Marina for a few days for maintenance.  Having crewed on Clearwater for part of a single day, back in the fall of 2006 when Amistad and Clearwater were tied up at the same dock on the Hudson, I was interested in seeing what Clearwater looked like out of the water.  On Thursday afternoon, Kimberly and I took Ian to Cove after we picked him up from school.

Unlike Amistad, which draws 10.5 feet of water, Clearwater is a shallow-draft vessel, with a centerboard that can be raised and lowered to accommodate the waters of the Hudson.  Similarly, the areas below decks are rather scant on headroom and the crew's quarters have the feel of a child's play area, with stringed instruments hanging on bulkheads for easy access by the crew.  Steering is with a large tiller, carved in the shape of an arm with a fist on the end of it, rather than with a wheel.

Clearwater's crew, who are usually busy teaching lessons about the Hudson River's ecosystem, were hard at work replacing planking and caulking seams, so I didn't want to bother them, but here are a couple photos from the afternoon.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Bless!: A Retrospective

Rev. Quinn Caldwell speaks
about blessings.  Note the
spiffy tweed vest, similar to
the one I was wearing.  We
were extremely stylish together.

The last couple days in Boston have been fantastic, with several great worship experiences, informative workshops, and shop-talk with fellow pastors and worship leaders, including several that I had gotten to know well in my days back in the Central Atlantic Conference.  Not to give too much away, but I'm coming back with a couple interesting ideas for different celebrations in the life of the church.

The pastoral staff at Old South Church, Revs. Nancy Taylor (Sr. Minister) and Quinn Caldwell (Associate Minister), along with Ron Buford (Minister for Discipleship), and Harry Huff (Minister of Music) encouraged attendees to make the practice of blessing things, people, and pets a regular part of their congregation's worship lives.  At Old South, they bless "anything that moves and many things that don't," including stewardship pledges, animals (from hamsters to police horses), backpacks, hammers, and marathon runners.  They are also extremely intentional in their worship planning, having weekly meetings with the worship leaders to critique the previous week's service and to fully plan out the logistics of the coming week's service.  Often, they try out new ways of doing things at the early service ("First Worship") before incorporating them in the main service ("Festival Worship").

At the conclusion of the conference, there was a live webcast of a blessing service for the fruits of the Mission:1 offerings.  (Video archived here.)  With preaching from Ben Guess and music featuring Old South's magnificent pipe organ, 'cello, and a quartet, we praised God for the ability to share in blessing others.  We dedicated all of the items that had been received and those still outstanding.  At the time of my writing this, the UCC has collected:

  • 1,190,533 items of food collected (Goal of 1,000,000 exceeded 11/10.)
  • 33,792 letters to congress (Goal of 11,111 exceeded 11/6.)
  • $91,802 donated to Neighbors in Need for US hunger relief (Goal of $11,111 met in pledges.)
  • $93,930 donated for famine relief in East Africa (Goal of $11,111 met in pledges.)

A sign along the green line of the MTBA
somewhere between Boston and Riverside.
Click on the picture and read about Charlie.
In other news, it turns out that the distance from Old South Church and the Walker Center, where I stayed, is longer than I had anticipated, with each trip taking 45 minutes or so, which gave me lots of time to read and people-watch.  At one point, as we were sitting at a station, I heard some start humming the MTA song, "Let me tell you a story 'bout a man named Charlie..."  I was amused, as it had been running through my brain ever since getting on my first T train, but I was surprised to see that my fellow traveler had been inspired to sing not by the mere fact that we had used our "Charlie Cards" to pay our fares, but that the song -- and my friend Jackie Steiner -- had been immortalized by a sign along the tracks.  Go ahead.  Click on the picture and read all about Walter O'Brien and the true story of "the man who never returned."

I managed to eat two meals in Boston's Chinatown, one at Xinh Xinh, a Vietnamese restaurant where I got a fantastic bowl of pho, and Winsor Dim Sum Cafe, where Eric Anderson and I gorged ourselves on many varieties of dumplings after the conference ended.

Today, I wandered around the Boston area, with a dead cell phone battery, so I couldn't take pictures of anything or even check in on Facebook, Twitter or Foursquare until I managed to plug in late in the day.  I stuck my head in at Andover Newton Theological School, since you never know when there might be a D.Min. in the cards, though Saturday may not have been the best possible time for a visit.  I also stopped by the Occupy Boston encampment in Dewey Square, where I chatted with some of the folks who were in residence and prayed with some of them  in the Sacred Space Tent.

So here I am, making use of Amtrak's WiFi and 120 Volt outlets, posting even before getting home from my trip.  Isn't technology grand?!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

"Bless!" Conference in Boston

I haven't taken a train trip in a while, not since the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race back in 2008.  Today, I'm riding Amtrak on my way to Boston for "bless!", a national conference for worship leaders, sponsored by the UCC's Local Church Ministries and hosted at the historic Old South Church.  Tomorrow afternoon, the bless! conference will include a blessing for all of the food and financial gifts that have been raised by all of the congregations of the United Church of Christ as part of the Mission: 1 project, with the blessing service being webcast at 4:00pm here.  If you look carefully, you might even see me in the congregation.

While at the conference, I'll be staying at the Walker Center, which was originally started by a Congregationalist missionary who had returned from Turkey when her husband died.  Her new mission was to start a home for the children of missionaries who needed to stay in the US for either safety concerns or so they could pursue their education.  Over time, the Walker Center shifted from hosting Missionaries' Kids, becoming first a center where students from abroad can stay while pursuing studying at Boston area schools, and then a retreat center.

Over the next couple days, I'll be posting reflections from the conference, mostly via Facebook (friend me) and Twitter (follow me).  I'll post a big-picture reflection here, as well.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Fall Hiking and Paddling at Huntington State Park

It may seem that four months without a blog post is a bit excessive.  Of course, on the other hand, I'm not really sure how many folks were sitting at home and checking my blog every couple of hours in the hopes that I'd written something.  For those of you who have been doing so, please accept my apologies.  The rest of you can just read this and murmur something about how time flies.

Since Ian and I returned from General Synod, the big family adventure was our family vacation in the Canadian Maritimes, where we stayed with friends on Prince Edward Island and then camped for the rest of the trip as we visited Cape Breton Island, Halifax, Lunenberg and Cape Chignecto on the Bay of Fundy. These places would probably have made great blog posts, except that we didn't have much going in the way of internet access. Upon returning home to Connecticut, things have been work-work-work, all the time, with a bunch of funerals and meetings. Oh well....
So today, which was a genuine day off for EVERYONE in the family, Kimberly, Ian and I loaded up our canoe and kayak and headed up to Collis P. Huntington State Park, located on the borders of Bethel, Newtown and Redding, Ct.  On this October day, the drive was beautiful, with the autumn leaves providing just a hint of color.

Starting Down the First Stretch
When we reached the park, we popped the boats in the water right next to the parking area and paddled down the first bit of water toward the main pond, passing down the West Lagoon, an area a couple hundred yards long that had the feel of a lazy river, rather than a pond.  In spots, the tree branches from both sides of the pond met and formed an arch down which we paddled.  At the end of this first stretch, we paddled under a foot bridge and entered a somewhat larger pond, the East Lagoon.

Mallards Ignoring Us
As we entered the East Lagoon, the feature that first caught our attention was a spillway on the far side.  After paddling over to it, went to the north end of the pond, where we encountered a flock of mallards who seemed completely unconcerned with our presence.

Returning to the south end of the pond, we paddled under another foot bridge into Lake Hopewell.  We paddled past a small stone "lighthouse" into the channel between an island and the west shore of the lake and found ourselves in wonderfully clear water, where we could easily see the bottom, along with fish and a huge turtle that was probably 16" or so across.  Other turtles sunned themselves on a log, plopping into the water in a most undignified way as we neared them.

Turtles, Prior to Their Retreat
 After circling the island, looking for a landing spot, we went ashore and climbed to the top of the hill for lunch, There were lots of trees that had been chewed by beavers, but we never did see a dam or a lodge anywhere in our trip.  After lunch, we made a fairly quick circuit of Lake Hopewell, watching a couple throwing sticks into the water for their black lab to retrieve and seeing a couple of anglers casting, but nobody catching anything.  With a quick duck back under the two foot bridges, we paddled back to the end of the East Lagoon, with maybe an hour and a half's actual paddling time elapsed.  After we loaded the boats back on top of the car, we switched from Tevas to hiking boots for a ramble around the park's trail system.

Horses Graze as Their Riders Picnic
Much of the trail that we hiked had a lot of what Ian called "PUD," Pointless Up and Down, going over several ridges that run across the park (though the park map gives absolutely no sense of terrain).  A surprise for us was that we ended up sharing the trail with mountain bikers and horseback riders, who must have stayed on the somewhat gentler trails.  The park website says that they also offer cross-country skiing in the winter, so I expect that we'll have to venture back in a few months to see which trails are designated for that.

It was a fantastic day, just warm enough for great paddling and just cool enough for comfortable hiking.  This is what fall in New England is supposed to be!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Tampa: Days 3-5

In a perfect world, there's time to blog.  In mine, there isn't.

Since General Synod 28 started on Friday, I've been getting up early, working hard, staying up late (either with old friends or debriefing with the Youth and Young Adult Delegates from the Connecticut Conference, for whom I'm a "shepherd"), and collapsing into bed.  That isn't to say that I haven't been blasting out lots of tweets and/or Facebook posts, trying to capture the essence of what is going on around here.

Worship has been fantastic!  See below.  Really, take the time to watch this video!

Yesterday was the day that all of the resolutions went to committees and were hammered into shape so that they can come to the synod floor today.  As always, there were lots of people who were all trying to have their say, even though they didn't have anything new to add to the discussion.  My group, which was REALLY well led by Dr. John Ramos, who is a member of my congregation and also serves as the moderator of the Connecticut Conference, discussed a resolution "On Actions of Hostility against Islam and the Muslim Community" and managed to move fairly briskly through the process, though the business, though I understand that my son's group not only took up the allotted three hours, but ran an hour over because folks were arguing over commas v. semicolons or some other such minutiae.

Today, we entered plenary session and have covered a few issues.  This being Florida, we have had some difficulty with the new electronic voting system, as some of the delegates have had trouble with the new technology.  We seem to have gotten it squared away, but not without some anxiety.

In our voting so far, we have approved the ecumenical agreement between the Roman Catholic church and several churches out of the Reformed tradition, whereby we will now officially recognize one-another's baptisms.

So far, I've attended meals sponsored by the Pacific Islander and Asian American Ministries and one by the Pacific School of Religion.  I've still got a Wider Church Ministries dinner tonight and a "Seven Secrets" lunch tomorrow.  What's "Seven Secrets?"  I have no idea,  I expect that it's a secret.

We're starting our next plenary now, getting ready to deal with amendments to the UCC Constitution and Bylaws, dealing with the Unified Governance proposal.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Tampa: Days 1 & 2

Yesterday, Ian and I flew to Tampa for the UCC's General Synod XXVIII.  We settled into a motel just outside of the city and took a short drive to Ybor City, a section of Tampa started by a Cuban cigar manufacturer by the name of Ybor a little over a century ago.  Over time, Ybor City became the center of cigar manufacturing in the US, though that industry has all but died out, with only small shops offering hand-rolled cigars instead of industrial scale operations.  These days, Ybor City  has become a tourist area featuring lots of tattoo parlors and nightclubs, and is served by a streetcar that runs into center city and has three other connecting lines.  After dinner of Cuban sandwiches at Carmines, we returned to the hotel and turned in.

This morning, Ian and I picked up some sandwiches and headed up to Canoe Escape, where we loaded into an old school bus and headed out to for a paddle trip on the Hillsborough River.  We put in at Sargeant Park and spent about an hour paddling upstream of the put-in, where we saw and photographed several alligators, snowy egrets, herons, and other interesting wildlife.  Shortly after we turned around and went downstream from the put-in, we heard thunder rumble and the rain soon followed.  Undaunted – well, slightly daunted – we kept paddling, making our way down the beautiful little river, passing palm trees and live oaks hung with Spanish moss, passing a school group huddled under umbrellas and complaining about how they were tired and wet, and finally reaching what would have been the half-way point of our trip, Morris Bridge Park.  Given the thunder, we decided to cut the trip short and arranged a pick up by the Canoe Escape shuttle.  

Since we finished the canoe trip earlier than we had planned, Ian and I had to improvise plans for the afternoon.   We crossed the 4.8 mile long Howard Frankland Bridge across old Tampa Bay and went to Haslam’s Bookstore  in St. Petersburg, not planning on buying anything, but with the hope that we just MIGHT come across a hard-to-find book or two that needed to come live chez Bryant-Smith.  Though Haslam’s is, according to one brochure, the “destination bookstore” for new and used books, we still didn’t find anything that we simply couldn’t live without.  It is, however, still a place where, if I lived in the area, I’d end up spending an inordinate amount of time and money.

Haslam’s isn’t far from Gulfport, so Ian and I made a quick trip to that town’s municipal beach, which opened onto a bay separated from the Gulf of Mexico by a series of barrier islands, Ian and I decided to head over to the beach at 130th Avenue in Treasure Island, which was on the Gulf itself.  We parked and made our way to the beach, taking off our shoes and socks before stepping onto the soft, white sand.  On the drive over, we had seen several rain squalls blowing across the area and one of them was making its way down the beach toward us, so we dipped our toes in the water, took a couple pictures, grabbed a few seashells and hightailed it back to the car, accompanied by a stream of folks who had hastily hauled down their umbrellas before the rain hit.

Back in the car, Ian announced that he wanted barbecue for dinner.  We checked Yelp! and found Smokin’ J’s Real Texas Barbeque, for which I’ll write a separate post.  Ian was amused that I was the first Facebook check-in and had to create a listing for the restaurant.  My commentary, which turned out to be the new description for the restaurant was, “Great pulled pork, ribs & brisket.  LIFE CHANGING wings.” 
After dinner, we returned to the hotel, where we were treated to a gorgeous rainbow before settling in to watch TV and blog.  Tomorrow will be an early start.  I’ve got to return the rental car and we’ve both got to get checked into the Marriott and attend the first events of Synod in the afternoon.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Church Newsletter Column: Heading off to Synod in Tampa

By the time you read this, my son and I will be in Tampa, Florida, where we will be attending the United Church of Christ’s General Synod XXIII as delegates from the Fairfield West Association of the UCC.  I attended GS XVI in Hartford back in 2007, as a visitor, when we celebrated the 50th anniversary of our United Church of Christ, but this will be the first Synod that I have attended as a delegate.  I’ll also be serving as a “Shepherd” for our youth and young adult delegates from the Connecticut Conference.
Every two years, members from all of the associations of the United Church of Christ gather for General Synod.  In the UCC, we work hard to have the folks representing us be a mirror of God’s people, so the delegates are comprised of every conceivable race and ethnicity, a wide range of ages, sexual orientations and gender identities, physical abilities and disabilities, as well as a good mix of clergy and laity.  Much like our congregation’s annual meeting General Synod takes care of the business of the church, electing officers, passing budgets, and passing resolutions that speak to our congregations and to the world. 
This year, a major issue that is facing the delegates to General Synod is the question of restructuring the governance of our denomination so that all of the four covenanted ministries (Justice & Witness Ministries, Wider Church Ministries, Local Church Ministries, and the Office of General Ministries) would be governed by single board of directors that would make decisions for all of them instead of four separate boards (each with as many as 150 members!) that operate independently, as is now the case.  I believe that this proposal for unified governance will not only be good stewardship of our OCWM dollars, but will also make it easier for our denomination to respond to the needs of our churches.
A second issue that will be discussed at Synod is an agreement between the US College of Catholic Bishops and several denominations from the Reformed tradition by which we will formally recognize each other’s baptisms.  While this may seem like a no-brainer (and I think it IS a no-brainer) the agreement formalizes several decades of improved relations between Catholic and Protestant churches and settles one of the issues that have divided us since the Reformation.
Of course, Synod is also a chance for a UCC family reunion.  I’m looking forward to catching up with colleagues from the other conferences in which I have worked as well as seeing old friends from my days serving on the board of Justice and Witness Ministries.  During the lulls in the business, fun will be had!
You can follow all of the events that will take place at Synod by visiting the Synod page of the UCC website at where you’ll find live streaming video as well as archives of each day’s events.  I’ll also be keeping in touch personally by Twitter (Follow revpaulucc) and on Facebook (   Friend me!!).  As time allows, I’ll also be blogging about what I see and do in Tampa, at
Have a blessed summer!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Restaurant Review: Pho Vietnam, Danbury, CT

I love pho, the wonderful Vietnamese beef soup that, in recent years, has become one of my food cravings.  There are several  pho-only restaurants in Beltsville, MD, where my family likes to stop when we drive home to Virginia.  When we lived in New Jersey, we'd often go to a Vietnamese restaurant in Tenafly.  For a while, there was a pho restarurant in Westport that served "adequate"  pho , but it has recently closed, no doubt due to the marginal quality of its food.  Kimberly and I went to Pho Saigon in Bridgeport a while back and the pho was very good, but the restaurant itself was dirty, with a layer of grease on the tables, and the service was nonexistant and, while I might go back, It was definitely not the kind of place to take a Kimberly.

Today, we were going to have Greek food for lunch, but the plan changed when I received an offer for a foosball table for the youth room we're putting together at church.  The only catch was that it was in Ridgefield, about a half hour's drive from home.  For some time, though, I'd been plotting a trip to Pho Vietnam in Danbury, only an extra 20 minutes or so further along than the foosball table, so when Ian finished his finals at school today, he, Kimberly, and I took a road trip for lunch, figuring to kill two birds with one stone.

Pho Vietnam restaurant in Danbury

We found Pho Vietnam in a small strip mall on Padanaram Ave. and were pleased to see how full it was when we entered.  We were shown to the one available table and given our menus, which proved to be delightful, as we enjoyed the puns that were incorporated into the names of a couple of the dishes: the seafood pho called "Pho Shore" and the pho served with steak on top called "Pho Sizzle."  Clearly, there was a native English speaker with a sense of humor involved!
A moment later, our server arrived and she began telling us about the day's specials, including a dish billed as "Pho King," which included a poached egg which, she told us, should be eaten as the last bite.  She chuckled about how her Vietnamese grandmother would think that putting an egg in pho was a crime and would ask, "What are you?  American?"  Something tells me that we found the menu's chief author.
Sampler Platter, missing two pieces of spring roll.
Why is it so hard to remember to take pictures BEFORE eating the food?
As we got ready to order egg rolls, our waitress suggested that, since there were three of us, we should consider getting the sampler platter, with spring rolls, egg rolls (with ground pork, crabmeat, and woodear mushrooms), and fried wontons stuffed with pork, rather than just getting  the Vietnamese egg rolls that had planned on.  It was, of course, a stellar suggestion.   Kimberly and I enjoyed the spring rolls (since Ian doesn't like shrimp) and everyone liked the egg rolls, but the real surprise was how good the fried wontons (which I've never much liked other places) were.  These were filled with ground pork, carrots, scallions, woodear mushrooms and sesame and tasted like heaven with any of the three sauces provided (peanut sauce, nuoc cham, and a sweet, spicy sauce that I don't believe I've had elsewhere.)
It didn't take long for the entrees to arrive.  As it was a warm day, Kimberly didn't feel like ordering pho, so she got bun, grilled pork with shredded lettuce, bean sprouts, cilantro, mints, carrots, cucumber, pickled leeks, shallots, and peanuts, served with nuoc mam.  This is one of the dishes I make at home, and one that I prefer to serve as do-it-yourself spring rolls, served with rice paper noodles, which changes the character of the dish slightly and makes it a fun finger food for serving at parties.  Kimberly's bun - she gave me exactly one bite - was very good, with nicely seared pork that had obviously had a very productive relationship with some hoisin sauce, onions, and fish sauce in the marinade.
Ian and I both opted for the pho.  He got a "large" (which is the smaller size) pho tai, that has rare beef slices added to the broth, where they finish cooking.  (Notice how pink the beef is, as this photo was taken seconds after the pho arrived.)  Ian is a bit of a purist when it comes to pho in that he doesn't like to make use of any of the wonderful garnishes that the rest of the world puts in their pho: bean sprouts, lime, hoisin sauce and pepper sauce.  Instead, he prefers the simplicity of the broth, rich with bone marrow and traditionally flavored with cinnamon, cardamom, star anise, cloves, coriander, and fennel.
I opted for the "extra large" combination pho, which included not only rare beef slices, and well-done brisket, but also beef tripe and beef tendon.  It was a festival of beefy goodness, with the tripe's chewy texture and the unctuousness of the tendon adding a lot to the dish.  [Really, if you get a chance, you need to set your squeamishness and cultural biases aside and try some of these less-than-common-in-the-United-States animal parts.  They're quite good.]  I rounded out the dish with all of the garnishes that Ian had opted against and enjoyed the pho thoroughly.
The only drawback to the restaurant is its location, which I'm sure is fine for people in Danbury, but it is just a bit too far for us to make this a regular place to eat.  Even so, we have the location stored in our GPS, and I'm sure that we'll create a new tradition of stopping here on the way either to or from Silver Lake Conference Center -- or whenever we can create an important reason to drive through Danbury.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Ship Sighting: STV UNICORN

STV UNICORN anchored in front of the Sheffield Island Light, Norwalk, CT
Tonight, as the Scotch Flyer crew was motoring out to the Norwalk Yacht Club race, we noticed a tall ship anchored out near the Sheffield Island light.  As the angle opened, we could make out the rig: a topsail schooner.

We were still too far aft of the schooner to make out the rake of the masts, but I knew that this couldn't be Amistad, as she's still tied up to a dock in Mystic.  Pride of Baltimore II was just in NYC recently, but was supposed to be in Boston.  Lynx is somewhere on the Saint Lawrence after being in our neighborhood last summer.  I had no idea what vessel this could be.

She turned out to be the STV UNICORN, a fine looking vessel of which I was not previously aware, apparently homeported in Clinton, NJ.  When I got home, I did the Google and found out that this steel-hulled schooner was originally built in the Netherlands in 1947 as a fishing boat, using steel taken from German U-Boats, facts which impressed me.  Unicorn  purports to be the world's only all-female-crewed tall ship and does sail training exclusively for women and girls.  I've sailed with plenty women over the years and have found almost all of them to be extremely capable officers and sailors, so I began to mentally crew Unicorn with the ladies with whom I've sailed.  Then I checked out their website and started looking at the below deck photos.

I quickly had to reassess my idea, as Unicorn's "staterooms" (cough, cough) are paneled in maple and teak, with cabin soles made of holly.  There are queen sized beds, a shower, and a head in every cabin.  The galley has lovely kitchen cabinets and there are upholstered settees in the salon.  There appear to be throw pillows everywhere.  This looks to be one "girly" boat that caters to female business executives from New York City who want to learn to sail but who also want to have fresh flowers on their nightstand while they do it.  I couldn't imagine the captains, mates, engineers and deckhands that I know - hard working women, sweaty, three days unshowered, with grease under their closely-trimmed fingernails and a smear of paint or mast slush on their faces - dropping down through the hatchway, hanging their grubby, salt-caked foulies on a hook, and being welcome to sit on the settee.

But, maybe, that's okay.  Maybe there's value in doing sail training on a schooner that is more of a yacht than a working vessel.  After all, yachts have their place.  The lessons of sailing and the sea, of teamwork and planning, of learning to climbing aloft and handle sail despite your fear of heights, are valuable ones, even if they are learned on a boat that probably smells a lot more of lavender than it does of bilgewater.  Maybe, but my taste runs to vessels that work hard, look like they work hard, and that provide a comfortable and functional home for people who work hard.

Still, here's to STV UNICORN.  It was good to see you in my home waters.  Fair winds and following seas.  And try not to get any grease from the diesels on your settee; the stain would be really hard to get out of the upholstery.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Restaurant Review: Layla's Falafel, Stamford, CT

A few months back, Kimberly and I were devastated to find out that our local falafelry had closed.  Since then, Kimberly has been pining for deep-fried chickpea goo and I've been longing for lamb shewarma.  There just wasn't anywhere to go that replaced our beloved Falafel Inn, at least not in Norwalk.

We had heard rumors of a Middle Eastern place in Stamford, so we decided to check it on Thursday, May 19, driving down the Merritt, getting off at the High Ridge Road exit and pulling in to Layla's Falafel, located in a small strip-mall about a mile south of the exit, on the west side of the road.  When we arrived, the small dining room was completely full, with half of the tables pushed together to accommodate a large group, so Kimberly and I went next door and wandered the aisles of Mrs. Green's Natural Market.  Mrs. Green's was crunchy and groovy, with what looked to be a rather nice lunch counter in the back of the store, but we had our hearts set on Layla's, so we kept our attention on the Granddad's Pine Tar Soap (which Ian and I love and Kimberly loathes) and the cereal aisle, where there were oat hulls and wheat chaff in abundance.  Kimberly decided to get some really good chocolate, but we were disappointed that good chocolate doesn't seem to be sufficiently "alternative" to have made it onto Mrs. Green's shelves.

My Chicken and Lamb Shawerma Platter with
Kimberly's Falafel Sandwich at Layla's in Stamford
When we returned to Layla's the dining room was being cleaned up and we were seated quickly.  Kimberly ordered the longed-for falafel sandwich and I ordered the chicken and lamb shawerma platter.  Our server brought the food out much faster than seemed possible and we started in happily.  Kimberly's falafel was very good, flavorful with a nice contrast between the crispness on the outside and the softness of the inside. The falafel was wrapped in a beautifully textured flatbread.  My shawerma was a bit of a surprise, as I was expecting a shawerma composed of both chicken and lamb, but received a plate containing chicken shawerma and lamb shawerma, served over mujadara (rice and lentils), with hummus, delicious and eye-wateringly garlicky tahini dip, and a green salad.  There was a basket of warm pita bread for Kimberly and me to share.  Other than the inconvenience of showing up during what must have been a crazier than usual lunch rush, we had nothing to complain about.  The server was very friendly.  The food was fantastic and the price was moderate.  Layla's also has another location in Fairfield, so we'll stop by there sometime soon, I'm sure.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Bye bye, Boojum.

It is said that the two happiest days in a boat owner's life are when he buys his boat and when he sells it. Or "she," of course, if the boat owner happens to be female.

Several years ago, when I was living in New Jersey, I bought a used sailboat off of my fencing buddy, Ryan Alfonso. The boat was a Lockley Sea Witch 12, a small 1970s vintage, ABS plastic over foam construction sailboat that was easy to trailer and was a fairly decent day sailer, though it definitely had some limitations. [For you boat geeks out there, Lockley sold out to Snark in the 1980s and the Sea Witch became the "Sunchaser II." FULL SPECS HERE.] It looked to be a good choice for taking Ian out for an afternoon on the water and teaching him to sail.

Ryan was, to put it gently, "not a sailor" and the boat he sold me had definitely seen both better days and a lot of "creative" repairs. I took the boat home and flipped it over on some sawhorses in the garage and started to take stock of what needed to be done, which was quite a lot. The plastic was cracked in a number of places and I had to learn how to lay fiberglass to repair it. The bow was crushed from some sort of misadventure and I ended up recreating it with foam and then re-glassing it. One day, after I had the boat repaired and repainted, I went sailing in the afternoon and then, with the boat and trailer still behind the car, went to my fencing class. When Ryan saw the boat, he didn't recognize it as the same one that he had sold me, which definitely made me happy.

Over the next few years, I took the boat, which we named Boojum in honor of Lewis Carroll's poem "The Hunting of the Snark," to a variety of places, sailing on the pond at the Al-Genna, the Eddy family camp in the Adirondacks where my family has spent many fourth-of-july weeks, sailing on Willsboro Bay on Lake Champlain, puttering around a bunch of different lakes and reservoirs in New Jersey and New York.

When we moved to Connecticut, though, Boojum's liabilities started to be problematic. She was really too small and light for me to feel comfortable taking her out on Long Island Sound. With no motor, I couldn't launch her from the city boat ramp and she was too big and heavy to launch from the kayak launching area at the beach. Sadly, Boojum sat on her sawhorses while Ian and I started sailing with our friend, Bob McGregor in weekly races during the summer. In March of 2010, a huge wind-storm picked Boojum up, turned her over and slammed her back down on the ground, re-breaking the fiberglass-repaired seams and causing lots of other cracks. Without a good bit more work, Boojum wasn't going to go sailing, but I didn't have the time to fix her and there wasn't really anywhere suitable to take her, anyway. I knew that Boojum and I were bound to part ways, but wasn't ready to deal with it quite yet.

Over the course of the past winter, I decided that it was time to find Boojum a new home. This past Monday, as I was checking my email, I found one from Ed, a fellow Freecycle member, asking if anyone had a boat that he could use with his seven-year-old grandson. I emailed back, telling about Boojum's need of repair, but he wasn't daunted. He came to the house, looked the boat over, and decided that he was up to the challenge, so I trailered Boojum over to his place a couple towns away, leaving Ed (pictured at left) with the boat, all the rigging, some PFDs, and some of the fiberglassing materials and paint that he'd need to repair Boojum back to sailing trim. I hope that he and his grandson have a lot of fun with her, rowing and sailing for years to come. Now, though, it is time for me to start fantasizing about my next boat.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Barbecued Lamb Shanks

Passover is coming.  So is Holy Week, for that matter, so I'm working on plans for a Maundy Thursday Passover Seder and Last Supper Service at church.   Over the years, I've been to seders hosted by a variety of organizations:  Hillel societies, synagogues, interfaith associations, and churches and I've seen what can go right when people come together to celebrate the ancient story of the journey from slavery to freedom.  I've also seen what can go wrong when allegedly well-meaning Christians appropriate the rituals of Judaism and try to Christianize them, saying things like, "When Jews celebrate the Passover, they think that the lamb shank represents the lambs whose blood was sprinkled on the doorposts of their homes so that the Angel of Death would pass over, but we Christians know that the real Lamb of God is Jesus, who died on the cross so that we can have eternal life."  Our service, therefore, will be a Passover seder, celebrating the Jewishness of the story of the Exodus and celebrating how this was a regular part of Jesus' life.  We'll also explore how Jesus took the elements of the seder and reinterpreted them when he broke the bread and shared the cup with his disciples in what we now understand to be the sacrament of Communion. 

So, we're getting ready for the event, a full-bore family-style sit-down meal with candles on the tables and I'm working on the logistics of figuring out how many people will be there, how many matzot we'll need, and how much charoset we'll have to make. The food items, though, are easy, compared to the one inedible item on the seder plate: a lamb shank bone.

Several years ago, when I was in Pennsylvania, my church held a similar event for Maundy Thursday. I made braised lamb shanks for my family's dinner a week or so earlier and then took the bones and boiled them until anything objectionable had detached from them. The only problem was that it took a long time to boil all the connective tissue from the bones and I accidentally left them on the stove when we all went to church one evening. We returned to find the fire department in our apartment, with ventilation fans clearing the smoke.

This year, I'm opted for barbecued lamb shanks. I did a quick check on the internet and found that almost everyone says that it can't be done, that the meat will burn or dry out before all of the tough and chewy bits soften up. Steve Raichlen, in Barbecue USA, has a rather Byzantine method of cooking shanks, involving a combination of traditional low-and-slow barbecuing techniques for an hour and change and, then, wrapping the shanks in foil for an additional hour while they finish cooking.

I'm nothing if not hopeful and ambitious, so I decided that I could make barbecued lamb shanks for dinner tonight. Around 2:00, I started a bunch of shanks brining. By 4:30, I had them coated in olive oil, garlic, rosemary, salt and pepper, and put them on the cool side of the grill, with a pan of water with onions and garlic beneath the meat, next to the bank of coals. For the next two hours, I kept basting the shanks with a mixture of orange, lemon & lime juice, as they cooked slowly, then I added honey to the mixture for the final baste at 6:30. I took the meat off the grill and served dinner -- the lamb shanks, with raisin and toasted almond couscous and grilled zucchini. Unfortunately, though the meat was done, the connective tissue was still very connective and, while I don't mind gnawing on a bone to get the meat off, neither Kimberly nor Ian is particularly happy with doing so.

While the meat wasn't exactly a failure, it was far from a success. I'd try again, using Raichlen's technique, except that I'm not actually that big a fan of lamb shanks. (Remember, I was really doing this to produced shank bones for the seder plates at church.) I expect that the next lamb that hits my grill will be a boneless leg of lamb, with lots of cumin and cilantro. Oh well...

So, now, I've got a freezer bag of cubed lamb and a pot of lamb shank-bones simmering on the stove, making some lamb stock for a future recipe. I see a lamb stew in the future.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Playing Catch-up

It may look like I haven't blogged for three months, but that isn't really true. The simple reality is that I've got a couple half-written blog posts about things that have happened since the first of the year, they just haven't managed to progress beyond the half-written stage. "So, then," you may ask, "what's been going on that has kept you from writing?" The answer: "Nothing but the ironic reality that, when there's plenty of time to write, it means that there's nothing happening and, when there's plenty happening, there's no time to write." Here, then is a precis.écis of what's been going on.

On January 8, Kimberly, Ian and I went to Mystic Seaport for the annual Pub Sing and Chantey Blast. Before the music began, we wandered around the seaport, seeing Amistad looking quite forlorn, with her topmasts and yards struck, her jibboom gone, and her deck covered with a shelter made of plastic sheeting. Conversely, the Charles W. Morgan is coming along nicely in her restoration. The pub sing was held across the street from the seaport in Frobisher Hall and featured a motley assortment of Seaport musicians, including Don Sineti, Geoff Kauffman, and several others, as well as other chantey singers from a variety of other venues.

My church hosted a performance by the "God Show" conference from Silver Lake on January 9 and Kimberly and I ended up hosting a bunch of teenage boys who stayed overnight in our home. The following Saturday, Kimberly and I took Ian and his girlfriend, Emma, to NYC, where we saw the Henrik Ibsen play John Gabriel Borkman at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Prior to going the the play, we stopped in at the Greenlight Bookstore for a bit, then had lunch at Deniz, a Turkish restaurant on Fulton Street, notfar from the Harvey Theater.

Then the snow came. From the middle of January until the beginning of March, there was snow on the ground. Mountains of it. Fortunately, after the snowplow had plowed several snowfalls of the white stuff into six-foot-high mountains that prevented me from being able to turn the car around in the driveway, help arrived in the form of Eric and Pusnoch, two Chinese homestay students from Beijing. According to the official instructions from the Center for Global Studies, we were to make the kids feel like they were part of the family and to include them in all family activities, so I handed them snow shovels and set them to pitching the plow piles into the back yard. Kimberly, Ian and I shoveled, too, of course. That was only fair. But it was very nice to have three teenagers shoveling instead of only one. Even with all that snow, there was only one ski trip this winter, a day trip to Fahnestock Winter Park with our friend Eric. Our usual multi-day X-C ski trip didn't happen at all because the schools lost their spring break due to all of the days they were closed because of the snow we received here. How ironic that we couldn't go skiing because of all of the snow.

The big event in March was going to the Quick Center at Fairfield University to see a broadcast of the Danny Boyle's production of Frankenstein from the British National Theater, starring Lee Miller as Dr. Frankenstein and Benedict Cumberbatch as the monster, roles that they trade off every other performance. It was astonishingly good and provided a perspective on the play that we'd never have gotten by seeing it live on stage. It was so good that Kimberly is going back tomorrow to see it again, with the actors in the opposite roles.

On a sad note, one of our favorite restaurants, Falafel House, recently closed, so Kimberly has been seriously jonesing for some deep-fried chickpeas. We have, however, discovered a new place, Masas, a Peruvian arepa restaurant, which is directly across the street from where Falafel house used to be. We've been there twice in the last week, so I expect that I'll have to devote a post to it at some point in the near future. So that brings us pretty much up to the present, at least well enough that I don't have to hang my head in shame every time I think about my blog.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Restaurant Review: Eating at Edo, Norwalk, CT

Today was the first day in a long time that things have been quiet in the Bryant-Smith household. Since Thanksgiving, really, things have been running flat out, with additional programs at church for Advent, then having house guests for the entire week between Christmas and New Year's. Yesterday, when I was making the announcements at church, I realized that the office was going to be closed today, which is a clear sign of just how abuzz my brain has been in recent weeks.

Anyhow, with today being a day off, Kimberly and I went out to lunch at our favorite Japanese/Korean restaurant, Edo, at 666 Main Ave. in Norwalk, in an easily-missed strip mall, just north of Walmart and south of Borders.

When I was in college at Virginia Commonwealth University, I discovered Korean food at a restaurant in the 900 block of Grace Street, just down the street from two of my favorite Vietnamese restaurants, "Saigon," and the now-defunct "Asian Gourmet" which was originally an icecream parlor that was bought by Tien "Timmy" Vu and his wife and turned into quite a respectable place to get Vietnamese style teriyaki sandwiches. The Korean restaurant was several steps down to a basement with an unimpressive sign that simply said "Korean Restaurant." That restaurant seems to have closed but, for those of you in the Richmond area, there appears to be a similar one in the same block, called "Mama's Kitchen," possibly run by the same folks.

At that Korean restaurant on Grace Street, I fell in love with Kimchi Jigae, a hot and spicy soup with pork, kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage) and other vegetables, served in a heated stone bowl. What I didn't learn about there were the ponchon (side dishes) traditionally served with Korean meals. For that bit of knowledge, I had to move to New Jersey and the many Korean restaurants in Fort Lee.

But back to today's lunch. Kimberly and I have been eating at Edo since one of my deacons, Joseph Deruvo Jr., recommended the place to us shortly after we moved to Norwalk. Edo, named after the ancient name for Tokyo, features a mix of Japanese and Korean food, but the Korean is the reason Kimberly and I go there. Walking into the restaurant is a warm and welcoming experience, with wood paneling and bamboo beams. Cloth banners hang as accents.

The lunch menu leans toward Japanese bento boxes, with sushi, sashima, tempura, and teriyaki, but Kimberly and I typically ignore these and head straight for the pages of Korean food. Each time I eat at Edo, I disappoint myself by ordering the same thing: jaeyook kimchi gobdol, spicy pork and kimchi with greens, seaweed, sprouts, and other vegetables, served with rice in a heated stone bowl. The magic of the gobdol is that the food continues to cook in it and the rice browns up and caramelizes into a layer of crunchy goodness.

First, though, the ponchon arrive. Today was kimchi, bean sprouts, pickled daikon, lightly pickled cucumber slices and some quickly sauteed leafy greens (napa cabbage?), along with bowls of miso soup. The ponchon are always a great beginning and it is always part of the fun to see what arrives at the table. Frequently, at Edo, there's an apple salad and, sometimes, there's sliced rice cake with barbecue sauce. At other restaurants, I've enjoyed whole broiled or fried fish, sweet black beans, dried anchovies, potato salad, fish cakes and scallion pancakes.

When the entrees arrived, Kimberly was immediately glad for the ponchon vegetables, as her mandoo gui (dumpling soup) had plenty of beef in it, but no vegetables to speak of and, before the meal was done, she had requested additional kimchi. She finished the meal feeling that she had made a mistake ordering it and I ended up sampling a bit of what was left in her bowl, which was good, but definitely lacked the variety that would have improved the soup quite a lot.

My gobdol was -- not surprisingly -- everything I had hoped it would be. The pork was porky, the kimchi (though not particularly spicy today) was flavorful, the vegetables tasty, the barbecue sauce (served on the side in a plastic squeeze bottle) was zingy, and the rice was so good that I chiseled the last of it off the bowl, where it had cooked on.

The only drawbacks to Edo are the 1980s pop music that is piped through the house speakers and the service. While Barry Manilow and Air Supply take me back to my glory days in high school, I rather enjoy it when the music matches what I'm eating and I'm sure it can't be that hard to get Japanese or Korean CDs. The service is never really thorough but is always cheerful and, when you can get your server's attention to ask for what you need, is always prompt.

Kimberly and I will, of course, be going back. I'll see if I can bring myself to order something other than one of the gobdol dishes and I'm certain that Kimberly will be making a different entree selection.