I went to DC a few weeks ago and visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It is an excellent pair of museums, I strongly recommend anyone visiting DC make it a priority. It’s still free and still a hot ticket but easier to get in to than before. If you’re going in summer reserve tickets three months in advance for your best experience. But you can also get same-day tickets and walkups, particularly outside of peak season.

The museum is clearly designed as two separate sections. Downstairs is history, upstairs is culture. The bottom half of the museum is a fantastic history of African Americans from the earliest days of slavery, through slave uprisings, emancipation, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights era. It’s ambitious. It will leave you exhausted at the end with no energy for the other half of the museum, the cultural museum. Which is also fantastic, a celebration of African American cultures. Food, textiles, sports, music, TV. I mean, they have the goddamn P-Funk mothership! It’s a lot of fun. Definitely also worth a visit, but plan a break for lunch or something in the middle.

I approached this museum from the background of having visited a lot of German museums about Nazi history. I was wondering how the Smithsonian would deal with America’s enormous crime against humanity. Thoroughly and honestly, but very differently from the German museums. The Nazi memorials tend to a direct documentation of how the genocide and other crimes were conducted. They are focussed on a recent history in living memory, and one that is meticulously documented in precise bureaucratic detail. By contrast formal American slavery is 150+ years old and there’s precious few direct records of, say, individual slaveholders and their daily abuses. The historical distance demands a different telling. Also the Smithsonian has made a decision to tell as uplifting a history as possible; in every room details of African American resistance, strength, and heroism are highlighted. I think that’s admirable but it doesn’t leave a lot of room for documenting the horrible abuses. Those are documented, but only as one facet of the whole museum.

So I was a little conflicted. Honestly I think America needs a fully uncomfortable museum about slavery where the abuses are the focus. How American people and government worked to subjugate other Americans, to keep them and their children in slavery. Far too many people still think that slavery wasn’t really that bad, or wasn’t really Americans’ faults, or that slavery is over so what’s the big deal now? The German museums exist to ensure that no German can be at all confused about what happened in the Nazi regime and could never consider even slightly lionizing that era. Plenty of Americans still celebrate Confederate "heroes" and do not admit to the horrible abuses of slavery, not just in its time but the echoes of it today. I fear in softening the message the Smithsonian does not do enough to communicate how horrible American slavery was. There are a couple of museums that are more focussed on the mechanisms of abuse which I need to visit; the Whitney Plantation near New Orleans and the Lynching Memorial in Montgomery.

One other thing I can’t let go… Nazi memorials in Germany are in no way museums of Jewish culture. They are museums of German history. The Smithsonian has chosen to put museums of both Culture and History together in one place. I think they’ve done an excellent job of it. The separation of floors makes for a separation of concerns. And I like the uplifting message in the history section, the story of how African Americans shall overcome. So the combination works, but it still makes me uneasy.

culturetravel
  2019-06-14 17:40 Z

Mexico City is famous right now for its food culture. From the temples of fine dining like Pujol to casual street tacos people love to eat well in CDMX. I made thorough notes on all the places we ate on a short trip. My favorite places were Carmela y Sal, Corazón de Maguey, and Taqueria Califa.

Cafe Tacuba for lunch. Our tour guide suggested this as something near the Cathedral. I really liked it, a funky throwback cafe with a nearly ossified traditional Mexican menu. Honestly the service was a bit off and slow, but that was offset by the place being so retro and comfortable. I liked my chile rellenos quite a bit although I would have traded one of the two enormous chiles for a more complex sauce. Ken’s enchiladas tapatías were good.

Carmela y Sal for dinner. We told some of the hotel staff we were going here and they were all very excited; apparently chef Gabriela Lugo has made quite an impression in town. Us too, this felt like the exciting, trendy, yet comfortable kind of place that everyone says Mexico City is great for. The highlight dish for us was the "liar’s tostadas", a vegan preparation of coconut doctored up to taste like crab pork. Delicious on their own merits even without the hilarious cooking trick. My Poc Chuc was also fantastic, as was Ken’s creamy canneloni. Great wine list too. This restaurant was where we figured out Mexican portions are huge, we ordered way too much food. As dining mistakes go that’s not so bad.

Corazón de Maguey. Our tour guide took us here for a mezcal tasting; they are serious about mezcal here. Which was great, it’s interesting to taste a bunch of mezcals against each other. Nice restaurant too, good basic Mexican vibe with a leaning towards Oaxacan cuisine. I loved the Coyoacán neighborhood this is located in, the restaurant is right on the lively main park / square that defines the neighborhood.

Capital Grille. We decided we might want some familiar American food one night, and who doesn’t like a good steak? They delivered well here, although other than a couple of Mexican cocktails we could just as easily have been in Duluth or Miami or Toronto. Was nearly empty on Saturday night other than a lunch party that’d started 7 hours before; I suspect this is a businessman’s dinner kind of place. If you want a US steak at US prices go here, otherwise go somewhere Mexican!

Taqueria Califa. Casual and fast tacos but in a nice well lit place with table service. Certainly a good choice for gringos who want street food but are nervous about it. My favorite here was the classic tacos al pastor; with fresh onion, cilantro, and pineapple setting off the roast pork so well. Great place for a quick snack or casual full meal.

Porfirios. Dinner at a hilariously trendy / fancy restaurant. I think every single table had at least one tableside preparation, whether molcajete or something set on fire or the lady wheeling around a street corn sign. Great looking grilled steaks and shrimp, but we stuck with simpler chiles rellenos (good) and enchiladas mole (too sweet). This seems to be a place wealthy locals go to celebrate. The lighting in the restaurant is tragic though; so dark all the waiters have flashlights handy for reading menus but then also a super bright TV in the bar annoying everyone having dinner. On the balance I think the theater of it overcame the quality of the food. It was fine, but I wouldn’t go back.

Restaurante Meztli. Not in CDMX but rather right next to the pyramids at Teotihuacán, a good spot for thirsty tourists. Margaritas, micheladas, good guacamole and enchiladas. I can’t say it’s anything special but for the middle of a tourist zone it was quite good. The owner was super friendly, too.

Zanaya restaurant at the Four Seasons. Traditional Mexican, not great. Dinner felt more like an obligatory hotel restaurant than a place someone was running with love. Absolutely beautiful outdoor patio in the hotel’s magnificent garden courtyard. Sadly we had to sit inside which is not nearly as nice, despite the cool retro tile. Good cocktail list but the food seemed a bit ordinary, certainly not elevated. Definitely would not make a trip to dine here. (Breakfast here was good, but is a whole different thing.)

So those are all the places we dined. In addition I polled friends for places to go, here’s a list sorted by popularity: Pujol, Azul, Lardo, Tetetlan, La Clandestina, Alba in Roma Norte, Quintonil, Casa Hevia, Brassi, Dulce Patria, Casa Virginia, La Docena, Chureria El Moros, Rokai, Elilsito, La Capital, Lucerna Comedor, Rosetta, Masala y Maiz, Contramar, Maximo Bistro.

culturetravel
  2019-03-09 01:44 Z

For my birthday this year we visited Mexico City in early March. It was great! I enthusiastically recommend it to anyone who’s interested in going to a big city that’s vibrant and has a long great cultural history. Also relatively inexpensive for American wallets. We went for four days and that was a good taste of the city. But there’s so much to do and enjoy I could see spending much longer, particularly if you start getting into neighborhoods and enjoying daily life.

There’s some photos here on Twitter. I didn’t do as good a job taking pictures this trip as I usually do.

I have to confess this trip was a bit of an education for me. I grew up in Houston with severe prejudice, so much that "Mexican" sounds like a slur to me, not a description of nationality. I think I’ve grown past the outright bigotry but my brief tourist jaunts across the border and on the coast didn’t really cure me of the idea that Mexico was somehow lesser. Mexico City is a whole different thing, a sophisticated international city bustling with life and excitement. Sure some taxis will rip you off and as a visitor you probably shouldn’t drink the tap water. But it’s a home to 21M people, fully modern, and full of excitement and modern culture and history and great food. Also people seemed very friendly, relaxed, and welcoming. I’m looking forward to going back.

We stayed at the Four Seasons which treated us very well. This hotel’s rooms all front on an enormous central courtyard so it’s quiet and beautiful. Service was excellent. Didn’t love their casual Mexican restaurant for dinner although breakfasts were great.

We booked this trip with a tour guide and driver via Journey Mexico for four full days. It was great; we saw a lot more than we would have on our own and understood more about what we saw. It was also exhausting and I think next time we’ll probably plan half days, stop at lunch. It’s an expensive way to travel but you can get a lot of the same value by hiring tour guides day by day and taking Uber everywhere. Here’s what we did:

Day 1: City Centre. The Templo Mayor museum, the Diego Garcia mural at the National Palace, and a quick visit to the San Juan Market. (We were supposed to see the Cathedral and the Palacio de Bellas Artes too, but skipped them). The museum offered us a remarkable view of historical Mexico City, the way the new city was built right on top of the old Aztec temple center. And the Diego Garcia mural is phenomenal, you can get something of a view of it here. I wish we’d spent more time just walking around the streets and less at the Templo Mayor, but we were moving slow. Fun retro lunch at Cafe Tacuba.

Day 2: Rivera/Kahlo/Trotsky and Coyoacán. The highlight here was visiting the Casa Azul, a privately run museum about Frida Kahlo at her home. The exhibitions were quite good and personal. Huge line to get in, even with advance tickets. We also visited the Rivera and Kahlo studio which was interesting architecturally but the exhibits are not so exciting. OTOH the Trotsky museum was fascinating; I had no idea Trotsky lived in exile in Mexico City and met a dismal end with an ice axe stuck in his head by a Soviet assassin. All these sites are near each other in the southern part of the city in the absolutely charming Coyoacán neighborhood where we had a great lunch and mezcal tasting at the Corazón de Maguey.

Day 3: Chapultepec Castle and the Anthropology Museum. The castle is a walk up a big hill but the views and exhibits are worth the effort. A preserved vestige of Hapsburg and French meddling in Mexican politics, the brief-lived Emperor of Mexico. Unfortunately that left us without enough energy for the anthropology museum, one of the best in the world and the very best for Mesoamerican history. I want to go back to Mexico City just to spend a couple of days slowly working through its treasures. For lunch I had the best tacos al pastor of my life at Taqueria Califa.

Day 4: Teotihuacan. An hour drive NE of the city, Teotihuacan is an enormous archaeological site of a city that lived from 150 BC to 600 AD. At its height it had some 200,000 residents, making it one of the largest cities in the world. It’s totally worth the drive to visit, particularly to see the reconstruction of the 2.5 mile long Avenue of the Dead and the scale of the Pyramids and Temples built alongside it. There’s also a lot of beautifully preserved original carving and painting on-site to see and a small museum of artifacts. If you want some companion reading this recent museum exhibition catalog is very up to date and has both great text and photographs. Lunch was nearby at the surprisingly good Restaurante Meztli.

In the evenings we went out mostly to fancy restaurants. See my companion blog post for more, but our favorite was Carmela y Sal. Our trip was a nice mix of ancient history and recent. If I had to pick three highlights off the list, I’d say the Diego Garcia mural, the Casa Azul, and the anthropology museum. What I wish we’d done more of was just getting into the town, walking around and enjoying neighborhoods and cafes. But that takes more time and local knowledge (not to mention language) than we had this first visit. But I’m sure Mexico City is a place I will happily return to, enjoy and experience more.

culturetravel
  2019-03-09 01:43 Z

I had a nice two week visit to Portland. I have fantasies about moving back there so I indulged that for a couple of weeks renting a house like I dreamed about when I was in college right near Hawthorne & 39th (now Cesar Chavez). My Wanderings app captured where I went.

Mostly a lot of hanging out in SE, with a couple of trips to downtown and once out to NE. A lot of the activity is dining. Some of the best places I went were Teote for beer in the back garden, Pok Pok for fantastic Thai, and Coquine for fine dining out by Mt Tabor. Also nice experiences at Xico, Afuri, Tasty ‘n’ Alder, Han Oak, The Imperial, and of course the Rum Club. The food and beverage situation in Portland is really great and has been for a few years now. The economics are such that restaurants can do interesting things without having to charge outrageous amounts for it. Lower risk for everyone = more interesting food and drink.

It's great fun to visit Portland and see all my old and new friends. I'm amazed how many people have moved there; only about ⅓ of the folks I know in Portland were from my college days. I still can’t really move back to Portland, too many roots in California. But I like the idea of visiting and staying in AirBnBs in SE more frequently. Particularly in the four months of the year the weather doesn’t suck.

culturetravel
  2018-05-19 16:37 Z

Ken and I went to Europe a couple of months ago. I spent a few days alone in London, then we spent a couple of weeks together in Portugal. So really two trips, but here in one blog post. As always Twitter has my memories and photos: here’s a Storify collection from London and another from Portugal.

My first time in London and I enjoyed it, would love to go back. I spent two full days at the British Museum. The part I remember best is the Enlightenment Room, a collection of miscellany presented as if you were in an 18th century library. It perfectly captures the optimistic spirit of the Enlightenment. The best part of Empire, when British scientists felt they could understand everything but collecting objects from all over the world and studying them. A good place to start a visit before seeing the grander “transported” treasures in the galleries. (My favorites of those: the Assyrian galleries and the Aztec masks.)

Portugal was great. We spent a week in Lisbon and Porto and another week poking around the countryside. Porto was my favorite place; a small city with beautiful topography and a lot of youthful optimism. I becamse fascinated with azulejo, the painted tile that’s a centuries-long tradition. Our visit to the smaller towns wasn’t as successful; Portugal still is a relatively poor country and the vernacular of food and accomodation is variable. But I’m glad we go to see some of the more remote monuments and the countryside was quite pleasant.

culturetravel
  2017-07-29 14:20 Z

Ken and I took a lovely tourist trip to Scotland. Here’s a Storify of photos and comments; I tend to use Twitter like postcards while travelling, it works great for that. Scotland is a nice mix of modern European city and remote coastal landscapes. And so green! (And rainy.) Our trip broke down into two kinds of experiences: cities on either end, and lots of driving around the west in the middle.

We started in Edinburgh, a wonderful city. Highly recommend 3+ days in that city, it’s just beautiful and lots to enjoy. We ended the trip in Glasgow, which was also great. They say Edinburgh is the pretty sister. But Glasgow is the sister you’d want to hang out with in the pub. More of a regular city but a vibrant one with lots to offer. Also a city on the upswing.

Our countryside trip started with a couple of nights in Inverness. There’s not much to the town but it’s a convenient base for travelling to Speyside in the east and Loch Ness and the Great Glen to the southwest. Culloden made a big impression on us, the historical monument there is very well done. Loch Ness was a bit of a letdown, it’s just like all the other beautiful lakes in Scotland only this one is full of tourists so you can’t park to see anything.

The Isle of Skye is primary recommendation if you want some remote countryside tourism in Scotland. It’s beautiful and the northern parts feel very remote and sparse, the landscape reminded me a bit of the Faroes. Only there’s lots of hotels and restaurants and decent enough roads. The Clan Donald visitor center made a good impression too, much smarter than you’d expect a family-funded history museum to be. Most of the western part of the trip was just driving around remote roads from beautiful site to site. Lots to enjoy.

We stayed in some fantastic hotels along the way, see the map link above for details. Also ate at some great restaurants. The finest meal of all was at Martin Wishart in Loch Lomond, excellent Michelin star level food and service that executed perfectly. For less demanding dining we very much liked the Scran & Scallie in Edinburgh and the Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow.

culturetravel
  2016-08-10 23:04 Z

Just got back from vacation in Hawaiʻi. Last time was the Big Island, this time was Maui and Oʻahu. Here’s some photos and tweets.

Maui is rural and full of natural beauty but with some upscale tourist hotels as well. We stayed down in Wailea which has nice resorts, restaurants, and beaches. We also drove all over. The famous Road to Hana made much better with this audio guide, although I regret not planning more time to stop and go swimming in the waterfall pools. Also Lāhainā which is interesting for its 19th century history. The helicopter tour of Molokaʻi was also phenomenal.

Oʻahu is much more urban. The North Shore has some nature but we never left Honolulu. Waikiki is remarkably convenient for a simple carless visit, I totally understand why people go just there for short vacations, but then Hawaiʻi has so much more to offer than one tourist mall! One highlight of Oʻahu was the Heart of the USS Missouri tour at Pearl Harbor, crawling around the engineering rooms of a 1940s battleship. The other was the Bishop Museum’s phenomenal collection of Hawaiian cultural artifacts, made more special by visiting with a friend who is an anthropology professor. We’re not really relax-on-the-beach tourists so it was nice to have some more organized activities in Honolulu.

We are food tourists though! Got some great advice from folks. On Maui my favorite meals were at Monkeypod and Mama’s Fish House. Spago was also very good although not particularly Hawaiian. On Oʻahu the most interesting local meals we had were at The Pig and the Lady and Mud Hen Water. We also really enjoyed Hy’s for wood-fired steaks and La Mer offers an excellent fine French dining meal.

culturetravel
  2016-03-07 22:19 Z

There’s two kinds of cucumber pickle in the world: fermented and vinegar. Vinegar pickles are what you generally see in the grocery store, the Claussens and Vlasics. They’re not bad but they are awfully salty and the industrial vinegar is not a very good flavor. Fermented pickles are made without vinegar. Instead the vegetable is salted and then fermented to encourage lactic acid bacteria, which makes the pickles sour.

Sonoma Brinery makes an exceptionally good fermented pickle. They’re available in grocery stores in the US west, sold refrigerated. And while they’re not cheap at about $1 a large pickle they are delicious. Great flavor and good snap. They call them “half-sour”. They have a pleasant sour taste but it’s subdued, also the salt level is quite low. The result is a mild, fresh tasting pickle, something I much prefer to Bubbie’s intensely sour and salty fermented pickles. Sonoma Brinery’s fresh sauerkraut is also delicious.

Fermented foods are newly trendy thanks to the probiotic food fad (move over, gluten free). I could care less about the fake food science but I am glad that fermented flavors are more widely available in grocery stores. I’m not a fan of kombucha, too expensive and too sweet. But sauerkraut, kimchi, etc are delicious. I’ve started trying to ferment my own things now with Sandor Katz’s excellent book.

culturefood
  2015-08-19 17:38 Z

Ken and I went to India in February, a three week wealthy tourist’s trip. Absolutely loved it, would like to go back, enthusiastically recommended it. I documented most of the trip on Twitter as I went. I collected all the tweets in a Storify page; quite readable with lots of photos.

Our trip started in Delhi. From there we took a luxury tourist train through Rajastan for seven days to Mumbai. Then flew to Kolkata, then to Varanasi, then back through Delhi to home. So many amazing experiences. Some tourist sites that stuck with me most are the Qutb Minar in Delhi, the Jantar Mantar observatory in Jaipur, the Elephanta Caves in Mumbai, the Marble Palace in Kolkata, and offerings to Shiva in Varanasi.

But what really struck with me is newfound respect for the sophistication of India. I had no idea what to expect. India is an enormous place. With a very rich and complex cultural history and a colonial period that was not entirely rapacious. Modern India is a dynamic, exciting, upwardly mobile place. With nearly 1.3 billion people. We all know China is the up-and-coming economic story but India is close behind it. I met a lot of Indians with pride, pride in their cultural history, in their intellectual history, in their new prime minister.

On a more mundane level I also came away with excitement for the diversity of Indian cuisine. The Indian food we get in the US is one specific type of cuisine: Mughlai, butter and cream and earthy rich flavors. But there’s a huge variety of other foods. Coconut milk in South Indian cuisine, sour fruits and shellfish in Kerala cuisine, strong mustard sauces in Bengali food. A particularly great day was cooking lessons in Delhi with the author of a Chettinad cookbook. There’s a lifetime of technique to learn just in the art of tadka, the way spices are precisely roasted or fried at various moments in preparation.

culturetravel
  2015-07-04 15:49 Z

I’ve gotten competent at making pizza at home. It’s an easy versatile meal, 15 minutes prep time once you have the dough. I tend to make a sort of puttanesca pizza: capers, olives, anchovies, sauce from a jar (the shame) and some salami. Today was turkey leftover pizza with white sauce, I regret being too timid to try cranberry sauce after baking.

My go-to cookbook is American Pie, specifically the “neo-Neapolitan” dough variant. I’ll make a batch of 5 servings of dough and freeze 4. A stand mixer is a huge help, the dough is very glutenous. I recently learned slicing the mozzerella works better than grating, and so much easier. The dough takes time to ferment, thaw, etc but not much active work.

The challenge of home pizza is our ovens don’t go over 550°F. I get decent results in a home oven on a pizza stone, but Ken just got a Baking Steel from Sur la Table so I gave that a shot. It definitely cooks faster and chars the crust more; too much so, the bottom was about to burn before the edge was fully baked. The steel is heavy, rusts, and needs seasoning like a cast iron skillet. I’m not sure it’s a huge improvement over a clay tile.

Neapolitan-style pizza dough is pretty tempermental. For something different and foolproof this pan pizza recipe works pretty well. A no-knead dough sort of fried up in a cast iron skillet in the oven. It’s not elegant, more of a fast-food style pizza, but it’s delicious and fresh and that is its own reward.

culturefood
  2014-11-29 21:48 Z