Posts from the “Culture” Category

The French

Posted on January 17, 2014

Pictured above: A framed franc note from 1944. I got it in the mail yesterday from my mother, who sent it to me as a belated birthday present. Now it’s among the really French-y stuff that surrounds me in my office as I write or work on the very first class I’ll teach in a couple of weeks.

Yes: teaching. I’ll be teaching a class called “The French” for LSU Continuing Education. The class begins February 17 and it will explore French history through the lives of the people who shaped it and were shaped by it. As a profile writer, this is an ideal way for me to approach it because each class will have a theme (i.e. Saints and Saviors) and consist of a series of related profiles about prominent French people from all walks of life.

Getting this class down on paper has been one thing. The ideas have been flowing. Things have been fitting together like perfect little puzzle pieces. It’s all making sense and (most importantly) feeling like it’s going to be a lot of fun.

Delivering the class to a crowd may be something else. Last week, I wrote about my need to work on my public speaking skills. I did that, knowing that I would be speaking this morning to a room full of potential students, and, after that, presumably a class full of people I’d convince to listen to me speak for six more weeks. I’ve been getting a little whipped up about this and when I got my first class list earlier this week, I have to say I was a little nervous to see those first names there.

I got some good redirection from people who suggested I view this not as public speaking, but as talking about something I like and being myself when I do it.

So that’s what I did this morning. I behaved like myself, which is a very dangerous thing, indeed. Why? Because after explaining what the class was be about, I told a packed house that there would be no better way to spend Monday mornings than with a weird magazine writer lady who talks about French people behind their backs. A friend of mine quipped: “With lines like that, you could go into marketing.”

By next week, I should have an updated class list that indicates just how effective this more Paige-like approach was. In the meantime, the morning was good fun and for once I felt at ease speaking in front of a large group. Perhaps there’s hope for me yet. We shall see. All I know is that I met some wonderful people this morning and can’t wait to captivate them with stories about a country and people who have so thoroughly captivated me!

That Suit

Posted on November 15, 2013

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

Next week is the fiftieth anniversary of President John F. Kennedy Jr’s assassination. Networks are airing retrospectives and publishers are releasing new books that look at this pivotal national event. Today, The New York Times writes about one of the signature artifacts of that day: Jacqueline Kennedy’s Chanel-inspired pink suit.

Having done archival research and having touched everything from letters signed by Napoleon III to journals written by grieving widows eager to preserve their husband’s place in history, I have a sincere appreciation for historical preservation, as it helps future generations gain a better understanding of their past, hopefully so they can enrich their future in some sort of way. Having said that, Jackie’s neatly tailored suit (still caked with her husband’s blood) has been out of view since that fateful day in November 1963 and the Kennedy family wants it to stay that way until 2103.

The pillbox hat and white kid gloves were lost that day and when presidential aides asked Jackie if she wanted to change into something else, she reportedly told them no, “let them see what they’ve done.”

As Cathy Horyn writes: “Curators cannot think of another historical garment imbued with more meaning, and also deemed too sensitive to be shown. Among items of apparel with similar resonance are garments worn in concentration camps and the tatters that remained after the atomic blasts in Japan. But these objects, while deeply affecting, are displayed in museums. Other examples mentioned by curators include Napoleon’s death coat, a shoe dropped by Marie Antoinette on the way to the guillotine and the suit and cloak Abraham Lincoln was wearing when he was assassinated.”

Displaying Jackie’s suit in a similar fashion would produce “hysteria,” it was believed, so it will sit in a climate-controlled vault for at least another century. In the meantime, pictures and video clips remain.

What does Jackie’s pink suit signify for you? Or, can you think of another historical artifact that has as much resonance? If so, what is it and why do you find it significant? Leave your answers in comments below.

World War I and Veterans Day

Posted on November 11, 2013



World War I ended on November 11, 1918 and a year later President Woodrow Wilson honored the nation’s veterans with the first Armistice Day. Wilson said that the holiday, now known as Veterans Day, would give people cause to reflect on “the heroism of those who died in the country’s service . . . because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.”

As we pause to reflect on the sacrifices of American service men and women, Europe prepares for the centennial of “the war to end all wars.” Yesterday, The New York Times featured a travel piece about the “rich tapestry of events” planned at museums and battlefields such as Verdun. The BBC reported that war buffs will lead to big business in places like Ypres, Belgium, which is seeing a boom in hotel construction and memorabilia. And, various groups have begun collecting and digitizing pictures, letters, postcards and other souvenirs from the conflict in order to explain its long-term impact on the modern world.

Curious about World War I? There has been a library’s worth of books written on the subject. But here are ten tomes to get you started:

1. The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before The War by Barbara Tuchman: Tuchman explores the quarter-century before the war’s outbreak, tackling the haves and the have-nots, the decline of the Edwardian aristocracy, the music of Richard Strauss and Igor Stravinsky, the Dreyfus Affair and more.

2. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark: Clark looks at the events and relationships that led Europe and the world into a brutal conflict.

3. The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 by Margaret MacMillan: MacMillan’s recently published history is another exploration of the march toward war, exploring how a continent awash in peace and prosperity could wind up in a fight that transformed the modern world.

4. The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman: This beautifully written, Pulitzer Prize-winning classic recounts in vivid detail the very first month of fighting, showing how it shaped the course of the entire war.

5. Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by Max Hastings: Hastings blames Germany for the war’s outbreak and argues that the country’s defeat was vital to the freedom of Europe.

6. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque: Billed as “the greatest war novel of all time,” it is the fictional account of a German soldier who faces the war’s horrors and vows to fight against the hate that has meaninglessly pit him against other young men of his generation.

7. To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild: Hochschild’s New York Times-bestseller asks why so many nations got swept up into the violence of the war, why cooler heads couldn’t prevail, and whether we can avoid repeating history.

8. The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 by Alistair Horne: Horne looks at the ten-month battle that claimed the lives of 700,000 men, showing how the fight was less about defeating the enemy and more about bleeding him to death.

9. The Great War: July 1, 1916. The First Day of the Battle of the Somme by Joe Sacco: Sacco, a cartoonist, depicts one of the most infamous days in the war wordlessly with this 24-foot-long panoramic drawing.

10. Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed The World by Margaret MacMillan: MacMillan looks at the men and women who converged on Paris after the war in order to shape the peace.

Again, this is by no means a comprehensive list of the World War I-related titles out there. Anything I missed that you love? If so, what is it and what makes it great? Please let me know in comments. Or, share your thoughts about what Veterans Day means to you.


Posted on November 8, 2013

blackfish This week, a group of San Diego high schoolers filmed a video called “Dear Sea World” where they thanked the tourist attraction for all the memories and stuffed animals, before taking it to task for cheapening those memories by its now well-documented poor treatment of killer whales, as captured in the critically acclaimed Gabriela Cowperthwaite documentary “Blackfish.” For more about the backlash, see this David Kirby article at

But the film’s impact is being felt beyond a group of camera-savvy youngsters on the West Coast. Sea World went public in April, just three months after “Blackfish” debuted at Sundance and memories of senior trainer Dawn Brancheau’s death in a killer whale attack were still fresh in the public’s minds. After the company’s stock debuted at $27 a share, it has since dipped by 25 percent, according to recent reports, leading some to believe that the eye-opening documentary may be to blame for that. Sea World says poor weather is behind the dip, and has written off the film as mere animal rights propaganda.

“Blackfish” or not, the theme park is facing a lot of “headwinds,” according to MarketWatch columnist Al Lewis. It is heavily leveraged. It is selling expensive tickets (adult single-day tickets are $82, while youth tickets are $74) in a down economy, and it is still facing legal and regulatory problems in the wake of Brancheau’s death. Throw the film into the mix and, as Lewis told The Wall Street Journal, you have a lot of people out there who think “it’s not so cool keeping these whales in a fish tank for their whole life.” Still, Lewis admits that America is a country that could see “Blackfish and be outraged by the treatment of killer whales and still visit Sea World.

I finally saw the movie this week and thought it was well-done overall. But I did have a small issue with how the filmmaker used some of the sources at her disposal. Although she interviewed whale experts, whale behavioral experts and a variety of workers from OSHA, the bulk of the interviews she used were with former Sea World trainers, who admitted you didn’t really have to be a whale expert to get the job. Although I understand the need to turn to people who have first-hand experience with these whales, and first-hand knowledge of the way they were kept and treated at the park, I would have liked more explanation in the film about why they were former Sea World trainers. Were they fired, or did they leave because they realized the ethical problems in capturing these large, sensitive, and highly intelligent creatures? That sort of context was never made clear, and having it in the film would have enhanced what was already a good story.

It will be interesting to see how Sea World continues to deal with the fallout the film and with its own struggles to weather a bad economy as a newly public company. If you’ve seen “Blackfish,” what did you think about it? Please let me know in comments below.



There’s Something About Lola

Posted on November 5, 2013

Photo: Michael Price

Photo: Michael Price

I profiled Russian-American piano virtuoso Lola Astanova for the November issue of Palm Beach Illustrated. By age 8, Astanova was giving performances alone and with orchestras throughout Europe. By age 13, she was featured in a UNESCO documentary about twentieth-century child prodigies. But her childhood was normal, she says, adding that she even played with friends and Barbie dolls.

Now, Astanova is bringing classical music to a new generation of listeners, thanks in no small part to her penchant for hard work and her social media savvy. She became a YouTube sensation (1.5 million page views and counting) after she infused Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music” with a heavy dose of Rachmaninoff-style drama. She has also graced some of the world’s great concert venues, among them Carnegie Hall in New York City. Next week, she’ll perform in Charleston, West Virginia with the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra.

You can find my story about Astanova here, or on newsstands in South Florida. In the meantime, here are a few highlights from our interview:

* Astanova’s mother was a piano teacher and didn’t want her child to pursue a musical career because it was too difficult.
* She studied at the V. Uspensky Specialized School of Music for Gifted Children and enjoyed the competition and rigor that came with learning at such an elite school. To this day, she says “I’m very critical of myself and wish I could change that, but I don’t think I can so it doesn’t make life easier for me.”
* Having said that, it’s worth noting Lola loves reading the philosophical works of Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer wrote that the world was driven by a continually dissatisfied will and was always seeking satisfaction, a belief that must speak to the perfectionist Astanova.
* Astanova moved to Houston in 2000 and studied music at Rice University. But she maintained her ties with her Russian teachers.
* She is a fashionista known for wearing Chanel and Tom Ford. She’s also a self-proclaimed “beauty product junkie.” She justifies her passion for fashion by sharing an anecdote about the time Chopin lamented a pair of fabulous gloves he couldn’t afford. “He was into fashion,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with that. I think it’s a sign of respect for the audience.”

Lola Astanova was a really fun interview. I really enjoyed meeting her and learning about how someone has followed their passion successfully and on on their own terms. Definitely catch her in action if she comes to your town. For a taste of what she’s like live, here she is in an exclusive performance for PBI’s YouTube channel:

She also maintains a pretty sassy Twitter feed at @followlola, where she shares her global exploits, hair color changes, fashion adventures and on-stage triumphs with her fans.

Mastering the Art of French Eating

Posted on October 25, 2013



I just finished Ann Mah‘s recently published memoir Mastering the Art of French EatingIt’s a lovely account of the year that Mah, a food writer and diplomat’s wife, spent alone in Paris as her husband was called away to serve in Iraq for a year. Some may not view a year alone in the City of Light as some sort of punishment. There are pastel-hued sunsets, the city’s storied rooftops and Pierre Herme macarons, after all. But for all its beauty and luxury, for all its decadent pleasures in every patisserie and multi-starred restaurant, the French capital can be a lonely and confounding place, especially if you’re not from around there.

Like me, Mah is a Francophile and foodie, so when I read her book, I was immediately transported into a country and subjects that I love. In the year she spent apart from her husband, she sought ways to create a new life and friends for herself. One of the ways she did it was by traveling the country in search of the history, techniques and people behind some of France’s signature dishes, from boeuf bourguignon to delicate buckwheat crepes smeared with creamy Breton butter.

“I was intoxicated and my drug was Paris,” she writes. Quite frankly, I was intoxicated and my drug was Mah’s memoir, which made me crave steak frites, red wine and a cozy cafe from page one. If you love engaging memoirs, smart food writing and a dash of history, Mah’s book is just the recipe for your interests. I gave it five stars on Goodreads this week.


Speaking of steak frites…sometimes I dream about this dish, from the well-seared piece of meat that runs red when your knife slices into it, to the slightly tangy (and sort of buttery) shallot sauce that is served with it, to the crisp frites that soak up some of the juices on the plate. Let’s not forget the big glass (or glasses) of red wine to wash it down. You have to do this right, after all.

Last Sunday, the New York Times Magazine ran a story about steak frites at Balthazar. The next day, I picked up Ann Mah’s book and went from thinking about steak frites to craving them. This meant I had to make them. So I did that last night, using Mah’s recipe for the steak and shallot sauce and my recipe for fresh, handcut frites. My wine choice: Chateau Coutet Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. It worked for me.

I’m not sure why this is, but one of the secrets to making really good frites is soaking the Idaho potatoes you’ve cut in cold water. It has something to do with getting rid of some of the starches, but I’m not sure what that has to do with flavor or texture. All the same, I do it, and last night I was in such a manic must-have-frites state that I did it three times. When I was done, I put those babies in hot oil until they were golden brown:

Next, I took a skirt steak, patted it dry and then seasoned it with sea salt and freshly-ground pepper. I seared it for a couple of minutes on one side, then flipped it over to cook it for a few more minutes on the opposite side (the Mah recipe calls for about 50 seconds, but my husband doesn’t like his steak as red as I, or the French, do):

When the steak was done, I covered it in foil and then cooked some sliced shallots in the pan drippings with butter until they were tender. I added thyme, red wine vinegar and some beef stock and cooked it down until there was barely any liquid. Then I added more butter to the sauce. Here is the end result:

One of my Instagram followers said that I was “really killing it in the kitchen” last night. But honestly? I love cooking and do it frequently, even though I may not always post about it. This week I’m just feeling lonesome for Paris and wanted a way to connect myself with a food and a people that I adore. This got me there, if only for a moment. Judging from Ann Mah’s memoir, she probably understands the sentiment all too well.

A Drop in the Bucket for Austerity

Posted on May 2, 2013

Photo: Paige Bowers

Photo: Paige Bowers

This week the Elysee Palace announced it would be auctioning off 1,200 bottles of wine from its cellars, which are known for stocking the best of the best vintages France has to offer. The state plans to pay down some of its debt with the proceeds from this auction, but, as The New York Times writes, the move amounts to little more than “highly exclusive drops” in the bucket.

The Times provided a taste of the bottles up for bidding:

Among the wines to be auctioned at the end of the month at the Hôtel Drouot, through the Paris auction house Kapandji Morhange, are three bottles of 1990 Château Petrus, estimated to be worth $3,000 to $3,400 a bottle, and a 1998 Meursault Premier Cru, a fine white burgundy. There will also be bottles of 1975 Château Lafite Rothschild, estimated at more than $1,000 each, and 1985 Krug Champagne, as well as Champagne from Salon, some of the world’s rarest and most expensive.

In general, the best bottles are served to heads of state and monarchs. When President George W. Bush made his last visit to France in 2008, Mr. Sarkozy, who like Mr. Bush does not drink alcohol, served Château Mouton Rothschild to his guests.

The chief sommelier of the Élysée, Virginie Routis, who was appointed in 2007, selected the bottles to be sold. They make up just a tenth of the presidential cellars, which were established in 1947. Lesser bottles will be sold, too, with some expected to start at as little as $20 and many available for less austere prices of under $130.

President Francois Hollande plans to serve more modestly priced wines to his guests. No word yet on what those are, but the Times offered an interesting glimpse of past presidential favorites. According to the article, Francois Mitterand, a fellow Socialist, loved Burgundy, one of the world’s most expensive wines. Georges Pompidou loved Chasse-Spleen, a red Medoc whose name means “to chase away the blues.” And Jacques Chirac drank beer in public, but Dom Perignon in private, an interesting fact, given his history.

Mad Men: The Italian Dish

Posted on April 24, 2013

donandsylviaOh good grief, Don Draper. Not only do you head back down the philandering path, but you take up with your doctor buddy’s wife, an Italian dish who seems just as practiced at cheating as you are. She lives downstairs! She’s friends with your wife! You’re pulling the whole love-in-an-elevator thing waaay before the rock band Aerosmith made it cool in the 1980s. Yes, that makes you ahead of your time, but just how desperate are you to be caught and ruined?

After the season premiere, I thought you had turned a corner because of all your guilty pillow talk. Now? Two more episodes into the season and I just don’t know about you. Didn’t you go through enough personal hell in seasons 3 and 4 to learn your lesson? How many more layers of hell must you face in order to see the light and be redeemed? So far, you seem to be caught in limbo between lust and greed, although I have to say that tormenting Megan for having a love scene on her soap opera smacks of a hell of a lot of treachery.

You bastard.

Don Draper, as a woman, I should hate you. I really should, you insufferable lady killer, you. But honestly…you’re a handsome fella, who is self-made and smart. Sometimes, you even mean well. Given your rich story line and all the trouble you’ve seen, I’m pulling for you, in spite of you. But I think that maybe you and Roger Sterling need to trade places on a psychiatrist’s couch.

Which brings me to Roger: I’m not worried he’s going to kill himself anymore. He’s back to being the silver-haired fox with the screamingly hilarious one-liners. Maybe the therapy is working. Or maybe he’s doing LSD again. The tweeting masses made much of Don and Stan’s secret meeting about the ketchup account on Sunday night, but smug-faced Sterling’s line about firing Harry Crane before he could cash his commission check was comedic gold.

Dear Matthew Weiner: More Roger, please.

Back to Italian Dishes: I made lasagna Sunday night. Part of the reason I did that was to honor Don’s Italian Dish, Sylvia. The other reason was to silence my seven-year-old, who has become as obsessed with lasagna as Garfield the cat. To make lasagna, you start with either marinara or bolognese sauce as the bottom layer. I chose bolognese…



Top the layer of bolognese with a layer of cooked lasagna noodles. Then, top the noodles with a thin layer of ricotta cheese, followed by a layer of shredded mozzarella, followed by a layer of shredded parmesan. I added another layer of bolognese and noodles and wound up here:

IMAG1218I added ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan again, covered it with foil,  popped it in the oven for 50 minutes and then got this:


Now that you’ve feasted on that, what about Don’s wife Megan? Now that her star is rising on daytime television, now that she’s being roped into these love scenes, now that Don is flipping out about it (all the while slipping downstairs for a quickie), what’s going to happen with her? Granted, Megan aggressively went after Don when she was his secretary, was promoted to copywriter (and the second Mrs. Draper) and then quit to pursue an acting career (helped along by Don, who cast her in a commercial). Let’s say she finds out about Don and Sylvia. Then what? When I ponder this question, I can’t help but think of the Gillian Flynn book Gone Girl, which involves a wife who vanishes on her fifth wedding anniversary. Megan might want to take a page from that book if things continue to go further south.

Although I’m wondering whether the secret ketchup account storyline could provide some clues about where this season is headed. Don and company were warned by their client Heinz Baked Beans not to go after the Heinz ketchup account, which they did anyway. They pitched ketchup, they lost ketchup, and then they lost baked beans too. Don said you have to dance with the girl who brung ya, but he didn’t in more ways than one. Since he can’t have it both ways at the office, is he about to find out he can’t have it both ways at home too?

Other notes:

* My inner Francophile loved that the show included “Bonnie and Clyde” by Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot. Here’s a clip.

* “Mad Men” has always gotten kudos for its costumes. New York Magazine has a great slideshow of some of this season’s late-1960s-inspired looks, from fringed suede jackets to white go-go boots.

New York Magazine also interviewed Matthew Weiner’s son, Marten, who plays creepy Glen on the show.

The Hollywood Reporter lists its five worries about the show.

Florida Today and Wired  report that the show’s creators are pitching a new show about the space program in the 1960s, as seen through the eyes of the journalists who covered it. 

Happy Halloween

Posted on October 31, 2012


There will probably be a few vampires cruising for candy tonight. That’s fine with me as long as they don’t pull any of that “I want to suck your blood” business. Blood sucking threats are creepy, after all.

For the ghoulish among you, here are a few Halloween-related links: “The Truth About Nepal’s Blood-Drinking Festivals

Los Angeles Times: “Sandy Takes Toll on Halloween Events, Could Disrupt Candy Sales “Halloween Pumpkin Art: Carving the Zombie Apocalypse

Baltimore Sun’s Darkroom: “Retro Halloween Photos Taken in Maryland Through The Years “Too Scary, Too Sexy: Adults Are Hijacking Halloween “Killing Sexy Halloween: The Ethical and Practical Complications “Halloween Costume Trends for 2012

Georges Melies

Posted on October 25, 2012

Last night I finally got around to watching “Hugo”, the Martin Scorsese film based on the Brian Selznick novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.” Hugo is a 12-year-old orphan boy who lives in the Montparnasse train station, where he keeps all its clocks running smoothly. In the urchin’s spare time, he repairs a broken wind-up man that his father found. Stealing odds and ends that could mend this mechanical person, Hugo is nabbed by a toy store owner in the train station who asks him to empty his pockets and hand over the contents. Outside of the wheels and gears and springs Hugo has collected, there is a notebook that used to belong to his father. In the notebook are sketches of the wind-up man and ideas on how to fix him. The toy store owner leafs through the pages and becomes disturbed by what he sees, taking the notebook and threatening to burn it.

Why the fuss? Turns out the toy store owner is the real-life filmmaker Georges Melies, who had been forgotten by the French by the time this movie takes place. Melies, the son of a shoemaker, was known as an innovator in his prime, using special effects, hand-colored frames and dream-like sequences in his work. But as his works got more ambitious, the French got preoccupied with other things — like World War I — and so he went bankrupt and faded into obscurity. Hugo’s efforts to fix the wind-up man heal Melies too and the film ends with a moving retrospective of his work.

Filmed in 3D and gorgeous, the movie won 5 Academy Awards. Here’s a scene from the film:

The Alliance Francaise d’Atlanta is honoring Melies with a showing of some of his films. For more information, or to donate, please visit Power To Give for a more detailed description of this very special project.