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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 ucc.org/synod 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 (facebook.com/revpaulucc.   Friend me!!).  As time allows, I’ll also be blogging about what I see and do in Tampa, at www.paulbryant-smith.blogspot.com.
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.