Lynchstock: good music, better people-watching

This past Saturday marked the fifth anniversary of the Lynchstock music festival, named for our burgeoning city of Lynchburg, Virginia, as well as the event’s Woodstock-level aspirations (reflected in the bizzare costumes of some of the festival-goers).  This year, the festival moved from the small backyard of a restaurant in the neighboring town of Forest to a large-ish park in downtown Lynchburg proper, which accommodated more attendees, vendors, and food trucks, as well as two additional stages (the number increased from three to five) housed in two of the new venues that have recently sprung up along the formerly eerily empty, now trendy Jefferson Street.

I attended the festival along with my parents, who are in their late fifties and early sixties, and my two twenty-something siblings, all of whom came from out of town.  We were attracted to the event by the headline band, Dawes, who play rock that skews toward Americana and has sometimes funny, sometimes incredibly sad, and always memorable lyrics.  I warned my parents that the festival would probably be populated by hipster college students wearing their wannabe-Coachella best, but as it turned out, there was a diverse range of ages and styles at the event.  Yes, there was the shirtless guy in dreadlocks and the girls painting henna tattoos on each other’s backs, but there was also the average Joe-looking dad of one of the local band’s lead singers, as well as the little boy in a guitar t-shirt jumping through puddles in his Crocs.

And about those puddles.  We had all been casting a dire eye at the weather forecast all week, watching the rain likelihood percentages change slightly but never go away.  When  we arrived at the park Saturday morning, the ground was already wet and the sky overcast, but the rain held off long enough for us to enjoy several bands in the muggy air.  My sister enjoyed Strong Water, a Harrisonburg band with bluegrass instrumentation; my brother liked an angsty three-piece outfit called Quick on My Feet, and my mom favored the performance of a band called Fin, whom I don’t feel qualified to describe because I missed most of their set standing in line for an apple butter-slathered grilled cheese at Cheesy Rider (totally worth it).  My favorite performance of the morning/early afternoon was by the Will Overman Band–they didn’t really sound like Bruce Springsteen as claimed in their blurb in the app, but they had a fun sound.

Around 2:00, the floodgates of heaven were opened, and the fountains of the deep burst forth.  Well anyway, there was a thunderstorm, which led to the decision to shut down the festival until further notice.  When a few hours went by and nothing seemed to be changing, we had sadly resigned ourselves to missing the big performance of the day–until my mom saw on Facebook that Dawes would be playing a stripped-down, shortened set at 9:00 in the Glass House, one of the indoor venues along Jefferson Street.  Even though it was chilly outside by this time and nearly dark, my mom, my sister, and I decided we’d regret not going back to hear Dawes, so we headed downtown and joined the teeming mass of humanity packed into the Glass House.  I don’t like crowds, booze, or annoying people, so the situation was not ideal, but I’m glad I went.  There were a lot of tall people in front of me, but I could occasionally see various band members, and, more importantly, I could hear.  Dawes played a number of songs from their latest album, We’re All Gonna Die, including the party anthem “When the Tequila Runs Out” and the title track–which, as you might be able to guess, is not a party anthem.  One of the highlights of the night was hearing the entire audience sing along to the early hit “When My Time Comes.”  As I predicted, Dawes closed with their beautiful and nostalgic (yet just a little tongue-in-cheek) song “All Your Favorite Bands.”  Lead singer Taylor Goldsmith said he hoped we wouldn’t count this as their real performance and that we’d let them come back sometime to show us what they could really do.  I hope that promise comes to fruition.

More Beauty and the Beast thoughts: Be my guest

Sorry, I just really wanted to use one of those cheesy thematic post titles that I told you last week I wasn’t going to use.  Before I move on to other topics (such as, possibly, another Fantastic Beasts post next week, since the Blu-Ray is coming out tomorrow!), I want to share a few more observations about Beauty and the Beast  (the live-action Disney adaptation released earlier this month, as if I needed to clarify that).

  1. Last week I wrote about literacy, which crops up a number of times in the film, and I later posted on Facebook that the literacy issue is also an issue of wealth and poverty.  Many of Belle’s fellow townspeople would probably argue that they are too busy working to have time to read or even learn to read, and there’s also an access issue: clearly the town has a shortage of books and of educators (and the limited resources that do exist are allocated almost exclusively to boys).  Meanwhile, the Beast in his castle can afford a magnificent library and, as a member of the leisured class, has plenty of time to read the books it contains.  Maybe I’ve just read A Tale of Two Cities too many times, but the castle storming scene in this film had definite French Revolution overtones for me, especially when I remembered the Prince’s pre-curse ball we witnessed at the beginning of the film– lavish and luxurious almost to the point of being laughable, and very Marie Antoinette-style.  I don’t think the filmmakers were trying to make a political point necessarily–after all, the Beast isn’t really the bad guy, and it’s hard to pin down the exact time period (as it should be in a fairy tale)–but the contrast is definitely there.  Two more things to consider on this topic: a. The Enchantress is portrayed as an impoverished outcast.  b. On the other hand, it does appear that the Prince’s castle was a source of steady work for some people in the village.  We learn at the end of the film that both Mrs. Potts and Cogsworth were married to townspeople.
  2. If you’ve read my review of the Walt Disney World restaurant Be Our Guest, you know it really bothers me that in the original animated film, Belle doesn’t get to eat during that iconic song.  I argued that this results from the misguided idea that a fairytale princess could never be seen to eat because eating is somehow a coarse, unfeminine, embarrassing activity.  So I was happy to see that in the new film, Belle at least appears to be hungry (she frantically reaches for several dishes as they dance by), but disappointed that, in the end, she still doesn’t get to eat anything–and that she walks away from the table seemingly okay with that.
  3. Before the film was released, someone told me she’d heard that Belle has to save the Beast in the wolf attack scene.  This is not true.  The scene plays out almost identically to the parallel scene in the animated movie.  The Beast is perfectly capable of saving himself (he is a beast, after all), but Belle does have to help him get back to the castle.  So rather than an in-your-face attempt to make Belle a proper 21st-century feminist, this scene is actually a lovely example of two people caring for each other in a budding relationship (well, a relationship that’s about to bud).  Because Belle was already such a strong character in the animated version, there was really no need to update her to make her extra tough, so I’m glad there was no attempt to do so.  The reason Disney’s Belle is still one of my fictional role models is that she’s both brave and kind (like Disney’s 2015 Cinderella), capable and feminine.

Please continue to send me your thoughts about the movie!

The Witches and Italian nachos

This past weekend I set myself a new goal: to read one children’s book every weekend.  This will not only make a dent in the growing pile of books that, until yesterday, was on the floor of my home office (yesterday I bought and assembled a cheap but serviceable Target bookcase), but also, more importantly, it will help build my expertise in the ever-growing field of children’s literature, which I claim to know enough about to teach.

On Saturday and Sunday, I read The Witches by Roald Dahl.  This is only the third Roald Dahl book I’ve ever read, which I realize makes me a total children’s lit poser (a lot of things make me a children’s lit poser, but I’m working on that).  I am, however, familiar with the plots and themes of many of his other books, in some cases through movies (like Steven Spielberg’s recent The BFG).  The Witches is different from many of the books because it’s written in first person, and although nobody would mistake this for a realistic novel, I think Dahl draws a bit from his own upbringing as a person of Norwegian ancestry growing up in the UK.  I hope Grandmamma, a delightful character, is based on one of his real grandmothers.  Like many of Dahl’s books, this one makes you laugh at things that should probably terrify you (though some of Quentin Blake’s illustrations, which are usually just wacky, are genuinely frightening in this book), and it also contains elements of the classic morality tale–e.g., the boy who tortures small animals and gets turned into a mouse himself (though the kind protagonist also gets turned into a mouse, of course).  I think what struck me most about this book is how much it reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, which I read recently.  Gaiman’s work in general is often Dahl-esque, but I really see a resemblance between these two books.  Though The Witches  is sillier, both mingle humor and terror, both have curious and seemingly dauntless children as protagonists (well, that’s true of 75% of children’s literature), and both include female antagonists who seem sweet and polite on the surface but quickly reveal themselves to be malevolent, specifically to children.  There’s probably something psychoanalytic here–I’ll leave that to someone else to explore.

I briefly toyed with the idea of turning this into a themed blog and writing each week about the children’s book I had read the previous weekend.  I know that themed blogs tend to be more successful because readers know what to expect.  But I also know that I would miss writing those wonderful gut-spilling confessional pieces I like to post every few months, as well as writing about movies, events, academia, and Christian life.  So I’m not going to fundamentally change the nature of this blog, but I probably will include a short update most weeks about the children’s book I’ve read most recently.

Another regular feature I’d like to include is a brief spot about some food I’ve prepared recently, whether from a recipe or from my own invention–usually the former, since I’m not a particularly imaginative cook.  But I did come up with this one all by myself: Italian nachos.  I’m sure I’m not the only person to have invented something similar, but it was a new idea to me.  The story is this: I had some Tostitos and nothing to dip them in.  So I started dragging things out of my refrigerator and pantry.  My nachos ended up with the following toppings: shredded mozzarella, crumbled goat cheese, a spice blend left over from a recipe (it was actually more Indian, but Italian nachos are, by definition, multicultural anyway), oregano, cilantro, parsley, lime juice (this was a nod to traditional nachos; I could have used lemon juice to be more thematic), olive bruschetta, and sliced cherry tomatoes.  I microwaved it all for a minute, and the result was delicious.  Obviously, there are endless possible variations depending on what you have on hand, but I have one piece of advice: if you don’t have olive bruschetta, use a little bit of olive oil.  You need some oil to bind everything together.

So there you have it.  I recommend getting a copy of The Witches and making yourself some Italian nachos immediately.  I would not recommend enjoying both at once, however.  The Witches is a little gross.  (It’s Roald Dahl; what did you expect?)

things that made me happy this week

I couldn’t settle on a single topic for this post, so I’m just going to make a list of things that brought me a bit of delight over the past week, in hopes that it may be interesting and useful to others as well.  I guess you could call this my T(t)hanksgiving post, since next week you better believe I’ll be blogging about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

  1. Finding the soundtrack to Fantastic Beasts on Spotify today–there’s nothing like listening to the score to get you excited about a movie (not that I needed it in this case)
  2. The full trailer for Beauty and the Beast, released yesterday.  Besides the fact that this is a remake of one of my very favorite Disney movies, I also love that the anticipation is giving me a way to bond with other fans, including my children’s lit students and some of the women in my family.
  3. Speaking of my students (in all of my classes), they’ve been making me happy all semester.  These groups of students are fun and smart, they seem to like me (teachers, let’s not act like that doesn’t make a huge difference in our personal morale), and they seem to actually be interested in what we’re reading.  And those things aren’t necessarily true every semester.
  4. Finding three Christmas tree ornaments over the weekend: a wooden “Peace on Earth” ornament from The Funky Junk Shop in Forest, VA (where I also found a cozy and flattering shirt that I’m now in love with) and a felt baby chick and a vintage Shiny Brite brand bulb with the solar system on it, from The White Brick House, also in Forest (where I also found a vintage Virginia state bird and state flower glass to replace one from my set that I had broken).
  5. Cooking and baking, for myself and for others.  For myself, I’ve been making some chard-based recipes featured in the December Better Homes and Gardens, and they’ve been delicious so far.  Last night I baked an apple pie for a Thanksgiving dinner being hosted by a friend’s local ministry (and the crust actually looked presentable, which is definitely something to be thankful for), and tonight I’ll be making some treacle fudge for the International Candy Tasting at work tomorrow.  And I’m already looking forward to making sweet potato souffle this weekend for my friends and next week for my family.  (I also made some last week just for me–I’d like to keep up this “one sweet potato souffle a week” trend as long as I can stand it.)
  6. The cardio funk class I attended last night at the YMCA.  When people think of my good qualities, rhythm is not normally near the top of the list (or on it at all), but I think that’s part of the reason why I enjoyed this class so much–I knew I wasn’t going to get the moves exactly right, so I just focused more on the cardio than on the funk and had fun laughing at myself.  Tonight…Zumba.
  7. Volunteering with Safe Families for Children, an organization I’m excited to be involved with as it gets off the ground in Central Virginia.  Saturday morning I got to help with registration for a conference for foster and adoptive families where SFFC had a big presence, and it was so much fun to see all these hospitable, compassionate people showing up eager to learn and be encouraged.  Yesterday and today, I’ve provided transportation for some young single moms, and I’ve enjoyed talking with them and playing with their cute kids.  I know they say that helping other people is a big mood-booster, but more than that, I love getting to know all the many different people that I encounter through these opportunities (and this is coming from an introvert).
  8. The beauty right outside my house as winter approaches.  This week, highlights have included a flock of blue jays in the backyard; a huge and colorful woodpecker that landed on my feeder a few days ago, looked bewildered, and then flew away; the incredibly bright supermoon on Sunday and Monday nights, and the hard frost Saturday night/Sunday morning (the coolest part was in the morning when the sun started melting the frost where there weren’t any shadows–my lawn was half white and half green).

I could keep going, but it’s time to go make a chard stir-fry.  You should seriously consider taking half an hour to write down things that have made you happy this week.  It isn’t hard at all.

Be Our Guest

As you know if you read my May post entitled Disney Memories, Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorite Disney animated movies. In that post, I wrote about what an excellent role model I think Belle is. (I don’t agree with the assessment that she’s a victim of Stockholm syndrome; I think she makes an independent and well-considered decision to pursue a relationship with the Beast.) But there’s one thing that bothers me about the portrayal of Belle, and that is that during the classic song “Be Our Guest,” practically a hymn to fine dining, she doesn’t actually eat anything. Sure, she takes a little sample of the grey stuff (and apparently finds it, as advertised, delicious), but after all the song’s fanfare about how she’s going to be sated with food as well as with music, she walks away from the table having eaten essentially nothing.
This post is not going to be a diatribe about the unspoken assumption that a Disney princess couldn’t possibly have a physical body that needs to eat, drink, rest, etc., although I think it’s important to discuss that assumption. Instead, I’m going to tell you about a recent way in which Disney has gone some way toward correcting the missed opportunity for somebody to actually eat all that food that Lumiere and co. prepared with such gusto.
Earlier this year, Walt Disney World added a new section to Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom. Aside from the fun roller-coaster called the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a throwback to the first Disney movie, the new section pays homage to two animated features from the early 1990s, now a nostalgic time for people in their 20s and 30s: The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. The visual focal point of the area is the Beast’s castle, which, unlike the iconic Cinderella’s Castle, is merely a cluster of decorative turrets on top of a huge faux rock formation, giving the impression of a large castle viewed from a distance.
Inside the “rocks” is where the culinary magic happens at Be Our Guest, a full-service restaurant with a French-inflected menu and majestic decor that should please young (and older) princesses looking to step inside their favorite movie, as well as adults who prefer a grown-up atmosphere. Guests can eat in the West Wing, an authentic (if better-lit) re-creation of the Beast’s gloomy Byronic bachelor pad, the Rose Gallery, where the centerpiece is a larger-than-life music box featuring a dancing Belle and Beast, or–where my family was seated–the Ballroom, with a breathtaking high ceiling and tall windows looking out on a dim “French countryside,” where it’s perpetually snowing. Guests are allowed to tour all of the dining rooms, as well as the vestibule with its beautiful tapestries and stained-glass depictions of scenes from the movie. Periodically, the Beast (announced by a striking selection from the film’s musical score) sweeps through the dining room and enters his study, where (as a commanding voice from above informs us) he will be receiving guests.

I ordered hot tea because I often do in restaurants and because I had a cold (alas) and thought it would feel good on my throat. I wasn’t thinking about Mrs. Potts and Chip, but I was delighted when my little teapot and cup arrived (plain white, no faces) and my sister reminded me of the connection. Everything on the menu looked good; I chose the braised pork, coq a vin style, served with creamed cauliflower and asparagus. It was excellent, and I can only imagine how much more excellent it would have been if all my senses had been working properly. Others in my party ordered ratatouille, sautéed shrimp and lobster in a pastry crust, and lamb with a side of buttered celery root, and everyone really enjoyed their meal.
For dessert, we were invited to try the grey stuff (a dessert featuring grey frosting atop a chocolate shell), and everyone else in my family did, but I chose, mainly on the basis of visual appeal (we were shown the desserts table side), a beautiful triple chocolate cupcake topped with a raspberry and a chocolate square embossed with the restaurant name. It also happened to be delicious.
Although we didn’t end up going into the study to meet our host, we felt royally welcomed and thoroughly enjoyed our meal. I tried to enjoy it for Belle, too.

Opportunity for you to laugh at my expense

I’m taking a break from grading papers to share a brief funny story with you about something dumb I did tonight.

So tonight I made some coconut chicken soup, kind of an Asian-fusion thing.  You might have seen the recipe in the latest Real Simple.  My first mistake was that I bought an unidentified chili pepper.  This is a terrible idea for anyone except the most heat-tolerant folks.  I saw these little orange chilies at Kroger; they were in the jalapeno bin, but the sign said that the jalapenos were temporarily out of stock.  I sniffed one of the chilies and thought “It doesn’t smell spicy.”  I bought it, but I was actually worried that I had bought some wimpy mini bell pepper (is there such a thing?) and that my soup wouldn’t be spicy enough.  Irony alert.

Tonight I cut the pepper in half as the recipe instructed, and I noted that it did smell spicy after being cut.  I briefly considered seeding it, since the seeds are supposed to be the spiciest part, but the recipe didn’t say to seed it, so I didn’t.  I have a bad habit of slavishly following recipes, mainly because I’m afraid to deviate.

So I threw the halved pepper in the hot pot where I was cooking the onions.  Almost immediately I started coughing, just from inhaling the steam.  I mean really coughing.  My neighbors probably thought I was in the last stages of tuberculosis.  This should have been a warning sign.

The coughing continued throughout the entire cook time of the soup (including the part where I had to stick the chicken in longer because it was still pink).  Still, I never took the chili out.  I took the lemongrass out, because the recipe told me to, but I didn’t take the chili out.  This is called legalism.

When I finally sat down to eat the finished product, you can imagine what happened.  My taste buds were singed.  My nose ran.  I cried.  But doggone it, I was going to power through it.  I grabbed a Cherry Coke Zero to cool off my mouth.  And I worked on that soup for about ten minutes.  (Incidentally, I came up with a good nickname for a sexy redhead while I was eating.  I got a big hunk of ginger in one bite, and I said, “That’s a big hunk of ginger.”)

I finally had to give up.  I was suffering.  I ate all the chicken out of my bowl, but I ended up dumping out a lot of the broth.  I hated to throw away all the leftovers, so I put the rest of the soup in a large container.  AND I TOOK THE CHILI OUT.  That’s an important detail.  Later, when I was packing my lunch, I hesitantly tried a spoonful of soup.  It was still really spicy, but it didn’t make me weep.  So I’m going to save it and try again tomorrow.  I also put a big handful of croutons in the container, hoping they would counteract some of the heat.  I don’t know if croutons actually have that power, but I’m trying anyway.  I do a lot of magical thinking when I’m cooking.

Back to grading papers.

Goat cheese biscuits

This post doesn’t have a clever title, partly because I couldn’t think of one, and partly because I figured the phrase “goat cheese biscuits” would sell itself.  This is a follow-up to my review of Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life around the Table by Shauna Niequist.  Last Saturday morning, a small contingent of our book club (only four of us could make it) gathered at the lovely home of one of our members, the same one who got us the free copies of the book, to share brunch and our thoughts on the book.  Maybe because what we were doing (eating) was for once related to the book topic, and maybe because we’d all read the book, we actually managed to carry on a sustained discussion about the book for, like, at least ten minutes.  (What normally happens in our book club is that somebody introduces a discussion, it peters out quickly, and we talk about other things until somebody awkwardly revives the topic of the book.  All this is fine with me; it’s a club, not a literature class.)

Each of us chose a recipe from the book and brought the result to share.  Although we didn’t know ahead of time what the others were bringing (well, I did; I got to cheat because I was the person who sent out all the emails about this particular meeting), the four dishes turned out to constitute a perfect, (mostly) healthy yet comforting meal for a quiet, overcast Saturday morning in the summer.  We ate Bacon-Wrapped Dates, Robin’s Super-Healthy Lentil Soup (I forget who Robin is, but she’s probably one of Shauna Niequist’s many friends), Goat Cheese Biscuits, and Gaia Cookies (named for a cafe, though you are perfectly free to imagine yourself as an earth goddess when you eat them).  The consensus was that all of these recipes were delicious, relatively simple to make, and versatile–for example, the dates would perform equally well as an appetizer at a fancy dinner, and the cookies could function as either a dessert or a breakfast.  You can see pictures of the food in this post by another book club member, whose blog is a lot more fun than mine.

I made the biscuits.  I think it would be ungracious of me to post the recipe here after receiving the book for free from the publisher, but you may be able to recreate it, or something like it, on your own, especially when I tell you that you’re basically taking biscuits and putting goat cheese in them.  I mean, it’s a little more complicated than that, but those are the essentials.  I thoroughly enjoyed preparing, eating, and sharing these biscuits.  My whole apartment smelled like butter while I was baking them (that’s another hint), which usually means something good is underway.  I do want to give you one modification and one piece of advice in order to enhance your goat cheese biscuit experience.

The modification: Niequist says that if you make golf-ball sized balls of dough, you’ll get about 12 biscuits.  I’m thinking Niequist isn’t a golfer (which surprises me; see my review), because I got 17.  Maybe she meant to say “baseballs.”  My point here is that you don’t need to skimp; make your biscuits a size that you would actually want to eat, and you won’t run out of dough.

The advice: Please reheat your biscuits before enjoying them.  They are okay at room temperature, but they are best when the cheeses (hint!) are melting.