Saturday, September 26, 2009

Introducing Flyover America

I've been following this blog for several weeks now and have added it to my blog list. "Flyover America" is a term used derisively by snobbish folks to describe everything between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans that they deem unworthy of attention. But Flyover America nurtures the seeds that often blossom into a myriad of mad and unique indigenous flora that feed America's creativity and culture. Those creative geniuses you meet in New York or L.A. often have humble roots in the Midwest. Of course, the humble towns and villages from which they come often spawn a desperate yearning to move on. But, as the saying goes, you can take the boy out of Peoria, but you can't take Peoria out of the boy, or somesuch. I always ask interesting Americans whom I meet on the coasts and in other large cities where they come from and am never surprised if they come from a modest town in Flyover America.  Bloggerboy himself, in spite of his urbane and international veneer, is a product of midwestern stock.  I urge any foreign readers (non-US) who have spent time in America's great coastal cities to venture further inland, and not just Route 66. You'll never understand America if you limit yourselves to the coastal areas and major tourist attractions, as nice as they are. You gotta get off the beaten track. The Blog Flyover America also includes posts about coastal towns, but it is dedicated primarily to taking a closer look at things between the coasts that even most Americans overlook. I'm eternally grateful to the blog for introducing me to The International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame & Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  I have taken the liberty of downloading a recent press release from the museum's website.  Click to enlarge.


Three cheers for weird America.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Village Airport

I jokingly refer to Frankfurt as a Dorf [village] with skyscrapers at the end of a runway. No blog about Frankfurt would be complete without due attention being paid to the Frankfurt Airport. According to the airport owner, Fraport AG, the Frankfurt Airport was the third-busiest passenger airport in Europe behind Heathrow and Charles de Gaul, with over 50 Million passengers in 2008, and the number one freight airport in Europe for the same period. What also surprises visitors is just how close the airport is to downtown Frankfurt. As the crow flies, the airport is only about six or seven miles from the cathedral hill. I live in town and can leave my front door and take a cab or ride the train and be at the departure terminal in about 15 to 20 minutes. This of course has advantages and disadvantages. Noise pollution is a big issue for people who live in the direct vicinity of the airport. We live in the western side of town, and, depending on the wind direction and time of year, there is regular take-off traffic just to the west of us that often seems to skirt the top of the Messeturm. I'm exaggerating, but the planes certainly are still in the early part of their ascent. Fortunately, we live inside the outer perimeter of towers, so the planes keep enough distance from them to reduce the noise level substantially. Modern planes also are much quieter than older ones. The airport more or less shuts down at night after ca. 11:30 p.m., with only irregular flights until ca. 5 a.m. Currently, there is a legal dispute going on over the expansion of the airport and night flights. An additional landing strip is being built, and the airlines, particularly the freight firms, have been pressuring the state government to allow a certain number of flights at night. The firms, including Lufthansa's freight subsidiary, have even threatened to go elsewhere, threatening the area with the loss of numerous jobs. A recent court decision made it clear, however, that a central part of the compromise to allow additional construction so close to town involved strict limitation on night flights. I hope that decision holds, less for my sake than for the general quality of life around the airport.

What got me posting today was a news report about the San Francisco airport unveiling "Carbon Offset Kiosks" for guilt-ridden passengers to make donations at the airport to offset the carbon emissions from their flights. I think this is a neat idea, even if I am not an environmental activist by any stretch of the imagination. There is a related webpage and calculator at the SFO website. Given that livestock appear to be even worse polluters than airports, maybe they need kiosks like those at the butcher section of every grocery store. (Now I'm starting to feel guilty about my hamburger recipe below.)

I think, however, that the more effective way to reduce emissions at airports is to focus on the entire airport and immediate surroundings and to include sustainability in the mission statement of the airport as a business entity. What initially got me started on this thread was a documentary that I watched a few weeks ago about the biotope around the Frankfurt airport. Interesting scientific planning has gone into shaping the structure of the biotope around and at the airport to, on the one hand, naturally limit the risk of bird strikes (as opposed to trying to scare them off), while on the other hand promoting shelter for a wide variety of plant and animal species, including endangered species, in the fields and woods that belong to the airport complex and surrounding area. Just as an example, foxes appear to adapt well to the air traffic and are allowed to live in the direct vicinity of the runways. They are intelligent enough to stay off the runways during operation hours. Some birds such as ravens also know how to avoid getting in the way of the planes. In natural areas that might provide shelter for other types of birds that pose a problem for air traffic, the biotopes have been shaped in the direction of a heath, but attention has been paid to creating moist biotopes for amphibians and certain plants.

I rode my bike to the airport recently through the city forest. The mere fact that you can do this is encouraging. I understand that there is now a walking / bike path around the entire perimeter of the airport. In the immediate vicinity of the airport is the busiest highway intersection in Germany, the Frankfurter Kreuz, where the Autobahn 5 and Autobahn 3 cross paths. The bike trail zigzagged through this complex area, weaving through the huge cloverleaves and feeder road system, and eventually crossing a bridge over the A5 where a couple of dozen visitors were watching the planes land and take off. I was in a wooded area almost the entire stretch of my ride. Rarely did I feel like I was in an area so polluted by noise or traffic that I could not enjoy the ride. Even when I was immediately next to the highways, the woods provided a substantial amount of cushion from noise so that one had the sense of being in nature and not in a wasteland. This is not a ride that I will repeat frequently. There are prettier stretches to explore. Nevertheless, the ability of nature to flourish in the immediate vicinity of such a huge convergence of air and road traffic should encourage further efforts at sustainability to minimize the impact of such infrastructure while also integrating it fully in the life of the city so that dead spaces where neither nature nor man flourish can be avoided. Fraport AG is now advertising the Frankfurt Airport as Airport City, a complex of offices, hotels, shops, restaurants, and even a university, with good rail and other public transportation connections, and they are engaged in a large-scale effort to analyze and improve sustainability of the entire complex. At the risk of simply reproducing Fraport propaganda, I was impressed by the efforts that they describe at their website:  Frankfurt Airport's expansion is supposed to be solved in a carbon-neutral way. The additional energy consumption associated with expansion and the ensuing higher carbon dioxide emissions are to be offset by savings in other areas such as improvements in the energy efficiency of office and service buildings, the use of state-of-the-art information and communications technology to reduce fuel consumption, reorganization of ground power supply for aircraft by eliminating diesel-powered mobile ground-power units, as well as energy-efficient heating and lighting.  By using "green electricity" – certified electricity stemming mainly from hydroelectric power production – Fraport will reduce CO2 emissions at FRA in the years 2008 and 2009 to 65,000 metric tons, down from 250,000 metric tons in 2006, a 75 percent reduction.


The Airport with the Frankfurter Kreuz (bottom right) from the Air (Wikimedia Commons)
The airport's footprint is relatively small compared to US airports with similar traffic levels.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

My Monitor Background




This picture greets me every morning after I start my computer.  Fond memories of a fall afternoon in 2005 when I first visited the Canyon and snapped the picture.  I sometimes have to suppress feelings of envy towards the squirrel, and that trail heading off into the canyon, what can I say?

For full appreciation, might I recommend listening to Ferde Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite while looking at the picture?  The clouds in the picture hint of a cloudburst on the horizon.  The programmatic music is truly in the spirit of the Grand Canyon, at least the happy spirit of the Canyon.  The real Canyon is simply overwhelming, a healthy reminder of man's insignificance in the great scheme of things.

Finally, I'd like to recommend an excellent book about the Grand Canyon by Colin Fletcher, of The Complete Walker fame,  The Man who Walked Through Time.

Friday, September 11, 2009

My First Film Review Cop-Out: Gran Torino

We recently rented Gran Torino, a film with and by Clint Eastwood.  I planned to do a review on it, but I just could not bring myself to start my career as a "published" film critic with such a mixed review.  Then I stumbled on a review that captures precisely my thoughts on the film.  Thanks Candy.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Great American Cheeseburger

One of the rituals at Bloggerboy headquarters is preparing classic American dishes at irregular intervals.  Things like French Toast with maple syrup, Spare Ribs, and Cheeseburgers are not only tasty, they bring back fond memories of family trips to the US and reinforce family traditions.  When Fräulein Bloggerboy has overnight guests, I regularly am called on to prepare French Toast the next morning to help spread the gospel of unhealthy but delicious American breakfasts.  Food takes on an iconic role.

I have been working for almost a year to perfect my Custom Bloggerboy Gourmet American Cheeseburger. About once every quarter-year, Bloggerboy Junior pesters me repeatedly to make my cheeseburgers, and I eagerly agree to break down and do so. Disclaimer: I like my hamburgers medium-rare and hereby release myself from any and all liability for the consequences of some reader getting sick from eating undercooked meat. If you want to play it safe, add two minutes to the cooking time and, if you're still not sure, then squash the burgers a few times on each side with your spatula and leave them in the pan until no juices are left, say thirty or forty minutes or until charcoal black on both sides, whichever takes longer. What? You're worried about carcinogens from overcooked food? Then just skip this post. OK, where was I? Gourmet? Naw, this is about as simple as a burger comes. The only trick for me has been finding the perfect cooking time. Last night I finally succeeded after having subjected myself and Bloggerboy Junior to god knows how many dangerous bacteria from undercooked burgers. Here is my secret recipe converted to grams for my European readers. If you need to convert back to ounces, there are about 28 grams to an ounce.

Buy 240 to 250 grams of fresh ground beef (Rinderhackfleisch) per burger to be cooked the same day. We're talking half-pounders boys and girls. In Germany, Rinderhackfleisch is not supposed to have more than 20% fat. I think that's about the same as ground chuck in the US. I am under strict orders from Frau Bloggerboy never, ever to buy ground beef for cooking the next day, only the same day, and I stick to that rule.  I believe that German butchers are required to dispose of any ground beef not sold the same day.

Take the meat out of the fridge for thirty minutes before you put it in the pan. If that scares you, stop reading here. Generously salt and pepper the beef and form it into equal-sized patties with your (clean) hands. Here's a trick that works to keep your burgers from bulging in the middle: as you form the patties, make an indent in the middle of each patty with your thumbs. As the beef cooks, it draws in towards the middle. The indent minimizes the bulge.

Take a good, stainless-steel frying pan, preferably one with a sandwich bottom. I use a high-end Fissler pan that is so heavy that Frau Bloggerboy refuses to clean it for fear of developing carpal tunnel syndrome. Heat the pan over a medium to medium-high heat for about four minutes. (Our gas stove has a 3000 watt wok burner that I keep at medium, so I think that translates to medium-high on a normal burner.) Add a teaspoon of vegetable oil and spread it with a paper towel and let the oil heat up, too, for one more minute.  A fundamental rule for cooking with stainless steel pans is heat the pan, heat the oil and then add the meat.

Add the patties and let them cook for seven minutes on one side. Just leave them sit there so that the meat sears and stops sticking to the pan.  I generally turn the heat down a bit once the meat is in the pan, because the sandwich bottom retains the heat well and there is a risk of burning the outer crust. Turn the patties and cook for six minutes more, for a total of thirteen minutes. I try to turn the burgers in such a way that the portion that was towards the outside of the pan is towards the inside after the flip.  That helps avoid uneven cooking.  If the burgers stick to the pan when you turn them, that is a sign that you did not heat the pan and oil sufficiently.  If desired, put one or two slices of cheddar or other cheese on the patties about two to three minutes before removing them from the heat. These are German instructions for American hamburgers. If you are American and trying this recipe, please keep your eye on the second hand of your watch and adhere strictly to the time instructions. (Sorry, Germans, for repeating the obvious.)

I also made a burger for Fräulein Bloggerboy, who is still at a tender age. I cooked her burger for a total of 15 minutes, and it was medium-on-its-way-to-fully-done, hardly a trace of pink. Sixteen minutes should produce a burger with little or no pink in the middle.  I have now settled on 13 minutes for a heavenly, medium-rare burger. If you find the burger close but not quite right, try adjusting the cooking time in 30-second intervals leaving your heat settings unchanged. Depending on the stove and the pan, my times may produce different results in other pans.  My 12-minute burgers were still pretty rare in the middle.  When I've done everything right, the juices start to rise to the top of the burger shortly after 11 minutes.  It does not hurt to let the burgers sit for a couple of minutes after you take them from the heat to allow the juices to be absorbed in the burger.

I do not serve my burgers on hamburger buns. Instead, I use toasted English muffins. (I'm sure that clearly dates me back to the age of the fern bar.) They're called "Toasties" here in Germany. I generally have to toast them twice in our toaster on medium to get them crispy.

I put a bit of ketchup on one side of the muffin and mustard on the other, and maybe a bit more on the top of the burger. But these burgers are so big and juicy that you really don't need to worry about putting a bunch of extra toppings on them. I can barely get my mouth around the burger anyway, so adding more layers is out of the question. Last night, I served the burgers with my first attempt at a gourmet (this time truly gourmet) macaroni and cheese. I need to refine the recipe a bit and will post it here later.  You can tell the food is good when no one makes a peep while eating.

Follow-up:  I just revised my instructions a bit after coming up with slightly undercooked results for the more done burgers.  On my second try since posting I forgot to heat the pan sufficiently (only three minutes on a lowish medium heat), resulting in the meat sticking and not being done enough after thirteen minutes.  I take notes on my results so that I can try to improve on them the next time.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Museumsuferfest


Last weekend was the annual Museumsuferfest (Museum Embarkment Festival), used to showcase, among other things, numerous Frankfurt museums located near or along the Main River.  The festival takes place along both sides of the river, but the Sachsenhausen side is considered the primary  side for museums.  We did not spend a lot of time at the festival this year, but I did manage to take a few pictures and listen to some jazz on a Saturday afternoon.

The Frankfurt side of the river

The Sachsenhausen side with the German Film Museum
and the German Architecture Museum on the left

A sign for the Jazz Garten located behind one of the museums

Afternoon jazz concert with beer garden atmosphere

I really liked these punch bowls with their brightly-colored punches.

Although the booths along both sides of the river supposedly offer an interesting display of arts & crafts, what they really emphasize is eating and drinking every imaginable kind of food and drink.  Multiculti everywhere you look.  The best deal is that for four Euros you can by a button that allows you into just about every museum along the Main.  I used the opportunity to see an exhibit at the Architecture Museum about The White City in Tel Aviv.  More on that later. 

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Stumbling Blocks (Stolpersteine)

There is an interesting art project that has been going on in Germany since the late Nineties entitled Stolpersteine, which is German for "stumbling blocks". It is intended as a way to commemorate the victims of the Third Reich. The project involves embedding commemorative brass plates along the sidewalks and streets throughout the country, primarily near where the victims once lived.  The plates are supplemented by a brief documentation about the victims, with photos if available, that can be accessed online.  According to the project's website, the artist Gunter Demnig initially embedded illegal stumbling blocks in Berlin in the late Nineties that later were legalized.   Here is a sample of what a stumbling block looks like:

"Here lived
Dr. Edith Stein
 Born 1891
Fled 1938 [to] Holland
[Concentration] Camp Westerbork 1942
Murdered 1942 in
Auschwitz"
 
There are two stumbling blocks on the sidewalk across the street from where I live.  I find this to be a really effective reminder of just how pervasive -- and nearby -- the persecution was.  The Jewish Museum in Frankfurt also used  to have an interactive display map of the city that allowed you to locate where Jewish victims lived by pressing a button next to their names, causing a light to go on.

You can sponsor a stumbling block, currently for EUR 95.

The only related websites that I could find are in German:

-- Artist's website for the Stolperstein project with interesting pictures showing how the blocks are embedded.
--  Website of the Frankfurt Stolperstein project with links to documentation.
--  City of Frankfurt Website listing the stumbling blocks that are located in Frankfurt by neighorhood with links to the exact street addresses, victims names and stories, together with photos of the buildings.
--  Website of the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Mirabelle Plum (Prunus x domestica var. Syriaca)


The family garden has a mirabelle plum tree. Last year the tree yielded zero kilos of mirabelles. This year the same tree yielded somewhere between twenty and thirty kilos of the golden fruit. I do not recall ever seeing or eating mirabelles in the US. Indeed, many Germans also are not familiar with the mirabelle even though it grows in several German regions. Mrs. Bloggerboy loves mirabelles. I have to admit that it took me a while to appreciate the fruit. The Mirabelle does not interest me that much as a fresh fruit, but it has a high sugar content that allows it to caramelize wonderfully in the oven. I had my first slice of Mirabellenkuchen (picture above -- a Blechkuchen) with whipped cream today during my afternoon coffee break. I could not believe that no sugar had been added to the fruit. Our Mirabellenkuchen was made with a yeast dough (Hefeteig). Otherwise, it resembles the tarte aux mirabelles from France, a "long" version of which is shown in this picture:



The French tarte above most probably uses a pâte brisée dough with no yeast. I notice they sprinkled sugar on the tarte and that the fruit looks larger than our mirabelles.  I understand that there are two major types of mirabelle, and that one type is not as sweet.  Perhaps the tarte shown above used the other, less sweet mirabelle.  Lorraine is the French region most famous for its mirabelles, constituting the lion's share of global commercial production. The French make a lot of mirabelle preserves and eau-de-vie. We don't have a license to make schnapps, but there certainly will be a few new jars of Mirabellenkonfitüre in the pantry after this week.
Finally, here is what a mirabelle plum tree and blossom look like:

Photo Sources:
1 & 2:  Bloggerboy FFM
Rest:  Wikimedia Commons