Our Outing to Outhouse Orchards

20170922_104359Last Friday, my husband and I took our three kids and two additional munchkins apple and peach picking at Outhouse Orchards, located on Hardscrabble Road. Given that infelicitous pairing of names, I halfway expected to drive into a tunnel and come out on the other side to find the technicolor world of Westchester, NY had faded to a Depression-era black-and-white farmstead, complete with dust clouds and some gaunt looking cows – the reverse of Dorothy heading to Oz.

To be honest, we picked Outhouse in part because it seemed like a lower-key experience than some of its neighboring farms boasting McMansion-sized bouncy houses, pumpkin slinging, and draconian payment policies. (“No, parents may not watch their kids bounce unless they also have purchased tickets.” “Yes, you are required to buy all $108 dollars of apples you picked, even though you thought you were picking Galas, not Guccis.) With seven of us and a budget, it didn’t make sense to try to Disneyfy the experience. We just wanted some fruit and cider donuts.

Outhouse turned out to be an ideal place to get both. We arrived ahead of most of the crowd, so many times we were the only people in sight. Just us and the apple and peach trees.

For months, it’s felt like New York has been unable to pick a season, but Friday was a dream of an early fall day: Sunny, but not hot, with a light breeze and blue skies. Part of the orchard was nestled in a valley, so we hiked down over a green ocean of rolling tufts of grass.

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No dust-clouds in sight.

The kids took turns wielding apple picking poles or looking for low-hanging fruit in search of the most beautiful apple in the orchard. There was a lot of good-natured apple trash-talking before this one won by virtue of showing up with its own crown.

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After we’d filled half our bag, we hiked back up the hill and still further up (past the corn maze, past the raucous school groups getting tractor rides) to the peach orchard. From there, we could see rows of saplings below low-slung clouds in shades of lavender gray.

20170922_110605It was late enough in the season that the trees were surrounded by fallen fruit, meaning a lot of squishiness underfoot, but nobody minded. We unanimously agreed that while the apples were good, the peaches were divine: plump, rosy, and sweet.

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One tip for fellow harvesters: You can buy either a $10 bag or a $25 bag. We chose the latter, but short of a bodybuilder in your party or a wagon that can navigate bumpy terrain, I would not recommend going quite that big. We gathered more fruit than my husband – our designated pack mule – could carry comfortably – and more than our mesh bag could handle. It began splitting on the way down the hill from the peaches, and we barely made it back to our vehicle.

All that walking, reaching, and climbing was appetite-building! Fortunately, Outhouse sells what my sister (an apple picking connoisseur) calls the best cider donuts she’s ever eaten. She was right – they were piping hot and dusted with sugar. The pumpkin spice donuts were nothing to sneeze at either. We left with tired feet, sticky mouths, and happy taste buds. (Although we were still hungry enough to stop by Mama’s Empanadas on the way home.)

And yes, true to the orchard’s name, there was a row of porta-potties conveniently placed at the bottom of the hill.

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The Noguchi Museum, the Socrates Sculpture Park, and the Goat Days of Summer

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Every first Friday is free admission at the Noguchi Museum in Astoria, Queens, so last week I took my three kids with me to wander around. One of my friends joined us with her two-year old.

Isamu Noguchi was a Japanese-American of mixed ancestry. (His father was a Japanese poet; his mother an American writer.) He was a sculptor, designer, and activist on behalf of Japanese Americans interned during World War II. It’s a testament to his influence on modern design that his paper lantern designs look like something you might buy at Ikea.

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The museum looks like nothing much from the outside – gray brick, low-slung, industrial, flanked by power lines, the Southern Astoria waterfront, and Costco (which my family visits almost as religiously as church). Inside, it is minimalist and modern: long, spacious rooms with clean lines, white walls, polished wood floors, and impeccable lighting.

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As you enter, a mini-lobby leads immediately into the first exhibition space, an open-air high-ceilinged brick room that houses several monumental pieces carved from granite and other stones. It opens into the sculpture garden, a serene, Zen-like space. With its high walls, gentle landscaping, stone sculptures, an abundance of trees, and benches it would make a great place to bring a book or a sketchpad any time you needed to get away from it all without leaving the city. (Presuming that the things you could get away from included your young children, which was not the case on our visit.)

Since we had little ones in tow, the museum was not a leisurely experience — we careened through the museum at a break-neck pace suited to the first-grader and toddler — but it wasn’t stressful either. It’s a kid-friendly place, with family guides and pencils provided for children and small enough to be manageable in an hour or less, although it would absolutely reward several hours of your time and attention. Noguchi’s sculptures are varied and visually and texturally engaging, and they’re not roped off, so kids can get nose-to-nose with them. While I can’t say my brood came away with much intellectual knowledge gained, they had fun identifying sculptures (none of them have identifying plaques, so you have to match them with their photos and names in printed guides) as well as making up their own names based on what they thought each sculpture looked like.

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All things considered, I was pleased with their level of imaginative engagement. We also had a brief discussion on the way out about who decides what constitutes “art.” Is it the wealthy who control the art market and dictate taste to the unwashed masses, as my worldly-wise high-schooler asserted, or is there something more transcendent at work? What if you don’t enjoy looking at a painting by Picasso (as my son put it, “that guy who makes the weird faces”) but you have an understanding of what he was trying to do, or vice versa?

(Also: if you are six and you wear a scarf printed with Van Gogh’s “Night Cafe” wrapped around you like a sarong and tucked into your underwear, is that a sign of good taste to come or bad?)

This discussion proved prescient as we trooped over to the Socrates Sculpture Park, a free outdoor space just across the street from the Noguchi. Socrates is a hoot because you can never be sure what you’ll find there. On this day, it was goats. Lots and lots of goats. All life-size, except for one gargantuan head-on-a-stick that looked like the world’s most diabolical cake pop.

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(Fun fact: Goats and other mammals with hooves are called ungulates. You can read all about them and their unguises on my new favorite website, Ultimate Ungulate.)

The smaller goats all had bizarre appendages – sticks growing out of their back or a mangy coat of hair – and at least one was upside down. It was all quirky, eye-catching, and also vaguely disquieting. I immediately thought of pagan rituals like the Israelites worshipping a golden calf before God literally made them eat it. I was unsure what the exhibition was “about,” so I wandered around taking pictures and considering a few important questions, like a) whether the Billy Goats Gruff got royalties from the exhibition; b) if all the garden gnomes had fled in fear for their lives and sanity; c) whether the giant goat bell (not pictured) really did look suspiciously like gonads or if I had spent too much time reading Freud as a graduate student; and d) if all six us could split a Costco pizza for lunch.*

As we left the park, I picked up a guide that someone had helpfully discarded, and learned that

[Nari Ward’s “G.O.A.T., again”] examines how hubris creates misplaced expectations in American culture. Ward recasts tropes of outdoor structures – the monument, the playground, lawn ornaments, architectural barriers, and the advertising sign – into surreal and playful creations. This expands the artist’s ongoing exploration of cultural identity, social progress, material histories, and our sense of belonging . . . 

Before that day, I had not been familiar with Ward or his work. My ignorance didn’t prevent me from appreciating the exhibition in a bemused, visceral way, but I was glad for the framing and the opportunity to learn more later. (This piece in the New Yorker is a brief, light-hearted sketch of the exhibition and the installation process.)

While we were at the park, however, most of our focus was simply on enjoying the last Friday of summer. The kids, whose observational skills and brain power had already been depleted by the Noguchi, shared fig bars, cheese, and crackers and lounged on stadium seats plopped in the middle of the park. It was a beautiful, sunny morning punctuated by a sharp breeze coming off the water. The red and gold “Apollo” sign — several miles from the original in Harlem — stood out against the green grass and shrubs, the backdrop of the river and the Manhattan skyline, and the bright, blue sky.

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*For those keeping track, the answers to those questions are: a) no, and it’s a crying shame; b) wouldn’t you?; c) yes, and yes; and d) yes, but we ended up ordering other things too. My son is inexplicably a fan of the baked chicken cheese roll, even though it tastes like someone stuffed microwaved pasta Alfredo into a hot pocket made of cornstarch packing peanuts.

Image Credits:

Noguchi Museum Garden

Noguchi lantern

Noguchi Museum(external shot) tribecacitizen.com

Noguchi interior howcreativeswork.files.wordpress.com

Noguchi Museum Garden 1.bp.blogspot.com

Segmented “Worm” sculpture lostfoundremembered.files.wordpress.com

Wonderland in Bloom: Chihuly Sculptures at the New York Botanical Garden

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Two weekends ago, some friends took our family to the New York Botanical Garden to see the Dale Chihuly exhibition.

Chiluly’s name sounds like a portmanteau of a lily and a Chihuahua. The lily part seems appropriate for a man who sculpts flowers. I don’t know how to connect the Chihuahua part though.

Walking among his glass sculptures is like being in an enchanted world, where everything is uncannily close to what you know . . . but not. The giant lemon, chartreuse, and white bloom above, with its crazily twisting spirals and shells, looks simultaneously like an anemone dancing in the ocean currents; an ecosystem of corals, mollusks, and eels; or Medusa’s hair re-interpreted as a topiary or a joyfully vibrant dress-up party hat. In its excess of size and movement, there’s both beauty and a touch of the grotesque. As a flower, it looks just wild and untamed enough to be dangerous – the kind of bloom that might beckon an insect in before devouring it. (And that sentence sounds like Freud trying his hand at a romance novel. I already regret writing it.)

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Among the towering flora, I felt a little like Alice in Wonderland after she had shrunk to the size of a mouse. Even among the more “normal” sized sculptures, I half expected the flowers to insult me, the Mad Hatter to drag me to a tea party, and the Red Queen to stride in bellowing “Off with her head!” Maybe even a baby that turned into a pig.  (Fun fact: The word “portmanteau” was coined by Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, writer of the Alice books, and friend to the real Alice Liddell, who as far as I know did not actually babysit pigs.)

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Although we never encountered the White Rabbit and his pocket watch, we did spend many minutes observing the fuzzy honey bees, boisterous and laden with pollen.

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My kids and I were equally fascinated by super-sized koi fish, mouth agape, cruising for crumbs in the lotus pond. It reminded me of a baby plugged up with one of those see-through pacifiers.

 

My son gave the fish pieces of sandwich bread, which I am sure is not allowed. However, I am also sure someone has been feeding that monster more than just carp food. It looked one growth spurt away from starring in the next Godzilla sequel.

Someone definitely tried to feed it a cell phone. We saw groundskeepers dredging for it among the lotuses.

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Inside the greenhouse, the sculptures and their settings conjured up a paradisical jungle, with luminous white “belugas” (that looked like alien pods straight out of a horror movie), white and indigo flamingos, and perfectly constructed leaves, with the striations and variations in the glass mimicking a real leaf’s vein. Some leaves looked so like their real counterparts that only the informational placards called attention to them.

 

We left the Garden tired, content, and hungry, and our friends took us to SriPraPhai in Woodside, Queens for authentic Thai food. While everything was delicious, what I remember most is the dessert: salty, sweet, and warm sticky rice, served with a fresh cold mango in a swirl of coconut milk. It was the perfect combination of flavors, temperatures, and textures, and a fitting end to a day in Wonderland.

 

Image credit:Koi: http://www.japanshakuhachi.com

 

 

It was My Anniversary . . . and a Bird Pooped on My Head

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Not the guilty pigeon

There I was, minding my own business, walking with my husband to a restaurant to celebrate our 19th anniversary, and the next thing I knew, I had pigeon poop in my hair.

We were out the night before our anniversary, because, on our actual anniversary, my husband took our son, his best friend, and two other guys to Six Flags for the day.

As many of our friends and family members already know, this is not the least romantic thing my husband has done on our anniversary. That would be the year he planned to go to Mets game with 10 guys from church, found out the game was on the day of our anniversary, then bought the tickets anyway.

They got rained on though, so I feel like karma was on my side.

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Karma in action

This year, the kids jaunted off to Shake Shack with their godparents, and my husband and I drove to Jackson Heights, an area of Queens that makes understatements of the terms “urban density” and “diversity.” We parked and walked several blocks towards a small second-floor restaurant that serves Thai hotpot – all you can eat within ninety minutes (there are overage charges). It was while we were standing at a corner under the elevated 7 line tracks, waiting for a light to change, that a pigeon left me a present.

I can’t remember the last time I was pooped on. By a bird, anyway. I remember loads of times (pun intended) I was pooped on by a kid. Mostly by my own, although just last week the neighbors’ newborn leaked all over me.

I’m not really sure why, of all days, a pigeon singled me out on my 19th anniversary, but I am hopeful that was not a portent of things to come. Although, didn’t getting pooped on by birds get Diane Lane her own villa in Under the Tuscan Sun?

Please, can I have my own villa?

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No villa materialized, but we did have a great evening together, once I scraped and washed everything out of my hair and hands in the restaurant bathroom, then dolloped on some hand sanitizer for good measure.

The restaurant we chose, Jaew Hon NY, was eclectically and colorfully decorated with light fixtures made of umbrellas and colanders and a painting of the recently deceased, beloved Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

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It was a family-friendly spot, with several families with babies and young children crowded into the narrow space. (As the night progressed, the crowd shifted to adults.) Many of the babies and toddlers were vociferously not enjoying themselves, and no one seemed to mind. They were also sitting mystifyingly close to the in-table heating elements.

The heating elements turned out to be (mostly) child-safe inductive heating surfaces that stayed cool while keeping the broth inside the hotpots boiling at a consistent 390 degrees. From what my humanities-tilting brain can tell from a quick perusal of some diagrams on Google, induction heating works through magnets and, um . . . magic?

Regardless, I came away wanting an inductive cooker for our apartment, because turning on a stove during an NYC heat wave is akin to using a blowtorch in hell.

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If you’re not familiar with hotpot, it’s found in many Asian cultures. In Japan, it’s called shabu shabu, a name that Wikipedia informs me may be an onomatopoetic representation of the sounds made by cooking and stirring. It consists a variety of vegetables, meats, fish, dumplings, tofu products, and noodles that you cook in boiling broth right at your table. According to the Thai friend who recommended this restaurant, Thai hotpot is distinguished from Chinese hotpot by its dipping sauces and broths, all made with Thai spices like Thai basil (spicier than the Italian variety), lemongrass, and galangal (related to ginger).

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For our hotpot, we ordered marinated beef, thin-sliced beef, squid, and shrimp, then chose items from the fresh bar: several kinds of mushrooms, bok choy, Thai basil, squash slices, eggs, tofu, tofu skin, pork and shrimp dumplings.

The shrimp came with heads intact. I made my husband deal with them. I don’t like it when my food stares at me with its bulgy, beady, pleading eyes. Or with any eyes, for that matter.

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The face of nightmares

We finished off the evening in Astoria Park, looking out at the Manhattan skyline through the lattice of the 59th Street Bridge and eating Talenti Almond Coconut Chocolate Gelato with plastic spoons.

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For a night that started with getting pooped on, it wasn’t all that bad. I’d spend another 19 years like this.

 

 

Illustrations from Mo Willems’ Pigeon books. My family is also fond of Gerald and Piggie and Knuffle Bunny.

Sunset Over Manhattan

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It was a good friend’s birthday today, so she and her husband, and many of us who love her, celebrated at Anable, an outdoor bar and grill on the Long Island City waterfront. The drinks are simple – bottles of beer and cans of Perrier citrus sodas – and the furniture consists of polished wooden picnic tables and umbrellas, plus assorted metal and plastic chairs that look like they were filched from Generic High School USA. The view is undeniably beautiful, and by city standards, peaceful, with a few helicopters flying by and the occasional speedboat. It’s a good place to sit, watch the sun slip down between the skyscrapers, and, depending on your personality and tax bracket, either reflect on the beauty of the New York City water and skyline, or nurse a serious case of real estate envy.

Anable serves a variety of meats – cevapi, chorizo, kielbasa, bison – with pitas and the appropriate toppings (sauerkraut and mustard for the kielbasa, some kind of red pepper relish for the cevapi). I think they had salad on the menu, but no one in my party bothered with pesky details like balanced meals or fiber consumption. We had cake and cupcakes, after all!

The piped in music is lively and the crowd tended towards the young and pretty, although no one availed themselves of the ample space for dancing except a few of the kids. With the adjoining pier to walk or run on and the casual setting, it’s a very child-friendly place, although you will have to make sure yours don’t hurl themselves from a table bench over the railings into the East River. I was also afraid that mine were going to make themselves sick eating the green peaches from an overhanging tree, but no one has complained or puked (yet). In any case, this may be the closest they’ll come to eating the fruits of an urban garden, since I can’t seem to grow anything but weeds and poison ivy. (I even kill cacti. It’s a gift.)

Besides the need to keep your little ones from taking a swim, there are a few drawbacks to Anable. One is that they don’t give you water pitchers, although my kids had no trouble getting individual plastic cups of water or ice. It was hot outdoors, even after 5 pm, and we were all a little dehydrated by the time we left around 8. The other is that it’s outdoors, so there’s no smoking prohibition in effect. If you’re a smoker or don’t mind others smoking, this won’t be an issue, but if you don’t want your kids hacking up a lung, you may have to change tables at some point. The last sticking point is the bathrooms. There are no paper towels or hand dryers provided, so the floors are wet and slippery, and it’s hard to tell if what’s down there is water . . . or something else. Enter at your own risk, and don’t wear your shoes in your house when you get home.

A final danger to Anable is large, laughing groups of people making idiots of themselves by taking lots of pictures using selfie sticks and singing horribly off-key renditions of “Happy Birthday.” I plead the fifth on that one.

Note: My 30-day writing challenge to myself has officially ended, hopefully with some momentum built and discipline discovered. I will continue posting on a regular basis, but probably not everyday. My goal is two “Summer in the Psalms” reflections a week, plus at least one additional post.

Thanks so much to everyone who has been reading, liking, and following my posts. Now that I’m back from vacation, I will do my best to stop by all of your blogs and say hello, if I haven’t already. You’re all the best!