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Valentine’s Candy

Valentine’s Candy

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio (aired 2.11.17)

CLICK HERE FOR AUDIO ( 4:24)

I’ve got a confession to make. I buy Valentine’s candy. For myself.

No, of course I’m not talking about those large, red velvety, heart-shaped boxes filled with assorted chocolates.

I purchase those for my wife and daughters. And I buy local, by the way. At Vasilow’s an old-time candy store in Hudson, NY.

But if I did acquire for personal consumption a box bursting with raspberry crèmes, sea salt caramels, and chocolate covered cashews, so what? Who came up with the dorky notion that the bounty of Valentine’s Day should be reserved for the female sex?

I respected the gesture when my father came home with a large Valentine’s heart for my mother. But I’d have respected it even more if he’d remembered my younger brothers and me. That would have staunched the guilt of stealing my mother’s chocolate — a notorious sweet tooth she was, and still is — when she wasn’t looking.

No, the Valentine’s candy I buy myself are those over-the-counter chocolate covered marshmallow, caramel, and fudge hearts you can find at your local supermarket.

In fact, I risked mortification yesterday when I found the aisle where they stock holiday candies blocked by a burly deliveryman.

(By the way, a gentle hint that you can do with whatever you want: even though Easter is two months off and the marshmallow Peeps have yet to arrive, the Cadbury Crème Eggs are already in and they’ll never be any fresher than they are right now.)

I was afraid the delivery man might make some crack when I squeezed past him to reach the shelves bursting with Reese’s Valentine’s Peanut Butter hearts, pink and white M&M’s, Valentine’s Tootsie Pops, and Brach’s Tiny Conversation Hearts candies (you know, the kind printed with messages such as “Sweet Thing” and “Hugs and Kisses.”)

Fortunately, he kept his mouth shut. And I’d like to reiterate that I limit myself to those aforementioned foil-wrapped hearts. And never more than one or two, or three maximum, on any supermarket run.

Curiously, I never purchase seasonal candy the day after the holiday, whatever the holiday happens to be, when supermarkets and drug stores slash their prices.

It’s not as if they’re any less fresh than they were the day before. I suspect they’re so shot with preservatives they’d taste exactly the same next Valentine’s Day.

It must be that, despite my chocolate addiction, I’m just as much a sucker for Cupid’s punch as the next guy, or typically gal.

But my wife recently came up with a more manly way for me to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Fudge sauce!

If chocolate is your thing, there’s no more potent delivery system than hot fudge.

The problem is the wide variety in quality, and all those products masquerading as fudge sauce that are actually, quote, “toppings.” You need to read the label carefully. There’s no substitute for the all-natural real thing.

Indeed, my belief is that there’s as much variety, as many flavor notes, in an excellent fudge sauce as there is in a fine Bordeaux.

My favorite locally is Mother Myrick’s homemade hot fudge sauce out of Manchester, Vermont. Chatham, NY’s Blue Plate restaurant also makes an intense hot fudge sauce that they sell by the jar.

My first exposure to this culinary delight probably came at the Schrafft’s restaurant chain.

No life form is more ravenous than the average 12-year-old after a day at school. So I’d go to Schrafft’s and treat myself to a sundae. My mouth waters all these decades later when I remember the experience.

But that’s the thing about hot fudge. It’s Proustian. It makes you realize that you never completely leave childhood behind. And all it takes to retrieve it is a syrup of sugar, chocolate, butter, salt and vanilla extract heated in a microwave.

Among the other things I do to embarrass my spouse is when I order hot fudge sundaes at restaurants and tell them to hold the ice cream, at least the majority of it. And if it’s not too much trouble could they bring an extra helping of hot fudge on the side.

Which is why you should always have some at home. So you don’t have to humiliate yourself in public.

I’d go so far as to argue that hot fudge ought to be as much a staple in your refrigerator as a container of excellent sour pickles.

It’s the condiment for all seasons. But if you need to hide behind a holiday, Valentine’s Day will certainly do.

Mary Tyler Moore and Rich Conaty

Mary Tyler Moore and Rich Conaty

Sometimes you don’t understand what a person meant to you until he or she is gone.

That happened to me twice over the last couple of weeks. The first occasion was when I learned that Mary Tyler Moore had passed away. The second time it was Rich Conaty, a DJ on WFUV, Fordham University’s noncommercial radio station.

Both of them impacted my life at different times but in altogether pleasant ways.

Let’s start with Ms. Moore, who I associate with the flu. And I say that in the nicest way.

I feel I got to know her when she played housewife Laura Petrie on the “Dick Van Dyke Show.” I’d watch it on morning reruns on the occasions when I was home sick from school, knowing that hours of uninterrupted TV viewing lay ahead.

The weekday morning lineup back in the mid-Sixties included Leave It To Beaver, Candid Camera, The Beverly Hillbillies, Andy of Mayberry, and The Dick Van Dyke Show.

And those were just the sitcoms. It was an embarrassment of riches. There were also a half dozen game shows to choose from. Among them The Price is Right, Concentration, Jeopardy, and Truth or Consequences.

But of all of them I think The Dick Van Dyke Show was the most sophisticated, the one whose sensibility served as a model for the way you’d want to grow up and the kind of world you’d want to live in.

Humor was its guiding ethos. For example, in the dysfunctional relationship between Rob Petrie, Mr. Van Dyke’s character as a TV writer, and Alan Brady, the preening star who employed him. Carl Reiner, who created “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” played Alan Brady.

But the stresses of an overbearing boss were soothed by Rob and Laura’s affectionate marriage. And its undercurrent of love and romance despite Dick Van Dyke’s klutzy pratfalls. Nobody – not even a twelve-year-old running a fever – could fail to notice that Mary Tyler Moore was a really good-looking mom. And one with impeccable comic timing.

I came to appreciate Rich Conaty in more recent years. His show, “The Big Broadcast,” where he played music from the 1920s and 1930’s, ran on WFUV Sunday nights from 8 pm until midnight.

We’d be returning to the city from upstate with our children around that time of the evening. Usually somewhere along the West Side Highway when he lowered the needle on his theme song, Fats Waller’s “You Meet the Nicest People In Your Dreams.”

The four of us would sing along at the top of our lungs, though I’m not going to insult your eardrums by doing so now: “I’ve looked the universe over,” the song went, “from wacky Nagasaki to Dover, and now that we have met how sweet it seems. I love you more the more I know you. Which only goes to show you. You meet the nicest people in your dreams.”

I never met Rich, who was originally from Astoria but lived in Hudson, NY. But I understand he was hard to miss behind the wheel of his beloved 1950 Nash Ambassador.

I did, however, contact him once to ask whether he had any information about, “I’m Not Too Sure of My L’Amour” a 78 — that’s rpms — from the 1940’s by Ray McKinley and his Orchestra.

I discovered it in a stack of records that probably belonged to either my parents or grandparents. I was impressed with its randy humor.

If you’ll indulge me again, I’d like to share just one of its stanzas: “My brother John is my twin. So I asked my girlfriend with a grin. How can you tell which one you’re kissing. Brother John or I? And she said, “Baby, I don’t even try.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Conaty knew nothing of the song or Ray McKinley, perhaps because it was outside of his time frame.

But in his area of expertise his knowledge seemed total. And the way he offered the dates of long dead songwriters, singers and bandleaders before he played their music, sounded like an incantation.

When he died of cancer at the age of 63, he’d hosted over 2,200 shows starting when he was a freshman at Fordham in 1973.

After providing just enough background, he’d cue the song, the voices of  Bing Crosby, Al Jolsen or Cab Calloway, sending us back in time.

I particularly appreciated it when we pulled up to the stop light at 96th Street and Broadway, the music filling our car providing the perfect soundtrack to the crowds of pedestrians crossing the street. It was the kindest way to slip back into the city after a weekend in the country.

The Hudson Women’s March and Encounters with Donald Trump

The Hudson Women’s March and Encounters with Donald Trump

Commentary:   WAMC Northeast Public Radio  (aired 1.28.17)                   

(Click here for audio)

Women’s march in Hudson, NY – 1/21/17
Unless you were vacationing on another planet or living under a large, intractable rock you’re aware there were massive women’s marches around the country and the world last Saturday, including the one I attended in Hudson, NY.

Hudson is excellently laid out for a march. The participants – I’d put the crowd at close to a thousand people – walked from 7th Street Park to the bottom of Warren Street, the city’s main drag. It’s a straightaway a little more than a mile long.

From there we continued on past the city’s handsome train station to Henry Hudson Riverfront Park. It seemed an appropriate place for the march to end. Not just because you couldn’t go any further without getting wet. But also because the historic river seemed to match the majesty of the occasion, the blue skies, and the warm weather.

I’m not much of a marcher. I was born in the McCarthy era with parents who thought it was stupid to sign any petitions or lend your voice to any protests.

In fact, when my mother, who’s 92, heard my daughter was heading to Washington last weekend, she shook her head and asked why? It wasn’t worth explaining. Nothing I said would have justified the risk in her mind, minimal though it may be.

But to me it boils down to patriotism. I don’t recognize the nation President Trump described in his inaugural address.

Sure, we’ve got our problems. The gap between the superrich and everybody else doesn’t serve democracy. And a living wage and affordable health care ought to be a right, not a privilege.

But the President’s rallying cry to make America great again never made much sense to me. I just don’t share his apocalyptic vision. We were great before he came along and hopefully we will be after he’s gone, as long as we follow the instructions on that piece of parchment that got us this far.

Also, as a child of the Cold War, I have trouble thinking of Vladimir Putin as our friend.

I met Mr. Trump in 2003 when I interviewed him for the New York Times. I was working on a story about the way real estate developers misnumbered the floors in luxury buildings to make residents believe they were living on higher floors than they actually were.

Someone told me Donald Trump invented the sleight of hand and suggested I talk to him.

Mr. Trump was more than happy to get together. And instead of denying the practice, as I expected him to do, he owned it. “A lot of people have copied me,” he boasted.

I also remember his surprising first words when I walked into his corner office in Trump Tower: “Another big guy,” he observed.

Meaning he was tall and I was tall.

It sounded like high school. Or rather junior high. As we’ve all learned since, size matters to the man, whether it’s the height of buildings or the crowds at his inauguration.

In fact, he proudly showed me a prize souvenir. It was an autographed sneaker belonging to basketball star Shaquille O’Neal. Size 23.

He also contacted me in 2010 after I wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal about a very brief bus ride we took together. And I mean very brief. Arranged to celebrate a Gray Line sight-seeing bus named in his honor, our journey started in front of Trump Tower and stopped around the corner at the entrance to the Trump Tower apartments.

My column wasn’t especially complimentary. I noted his otherworldly complexion, his seeming impatience with the ribbon cutting ceremony, and in what turned out to be unintentionally prescient, I described “his regal disinterest… as if his real job was keeping America safe and he was more than a little anxious to get back to it.”

The day the column appeared I got a message from the real estate mogul’s office: “Mr. Trump wants to talk to you.” I assumed it was to inform me he planned to sue. He was famously litigious, after all.

But he just wanted to thank me. He apparently focused not on my barbs but on the column’s headline “Donald Trump: Landmark”.

So I had nothing against the guy. In fact, I rather liked him. He was funny and charming.

But any respect I had vanished as soon as he adopted the birther lie. And it’s been downhill ever since.

If I have a pet cause, it’s the planet. To quote Bob Dylan, “It’s easy to see without looking too far that not much is really sacred.”

When you find something that is, it’s hard not to get worked up over it. We don’t own this place. We don’t even rent it. But as arguably its most evolved species we have an obligation not to trash it.

So I’ll probably be out protesting again. In fact, when this commentary airs, I plan to be at a rally in front of Republican Congressman John Faso’s district office in Kinderhook, NY, protesting the GOP’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

It seems the only patriotic thing to do.

The Norman Rockwell Museum

The Norman Rockwell Museum

Commentary:   WAMC Northeast Public Radio  

A photo of the 1960 Norman Rockwell painting, “Triple Self-Portrait” – taken at the Norman Rockwell Museum Photo credit: Ralph Gardner
 You may be familiar with the Danish word, spelled h-y-g-g-e, and pronounced “hoo-guh.” It was among the finalists for the Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 Word of the Year. My wife, who spent her junior year abroad in Denmark, has been using it for years.

The subject of recent articles in both the New York Times and The New Yorker, there’s no exact translation. But it refers to an experience of superior coziness, contentment and well-being.

And the concept seems more enticing than ever these days as many of us seek a respite from the news.

I’m struck by hygge at least once a day at our home in Columbia County. A roaring fire and an acceptable single malt scotch serve as excellent catalysts to help spark the sensation.

But it need not be limited to indoors. A walk in the woods in a light snow can trigger it just as easily. Or wending your way through the aisles of your friendly local farmer’s market.

An artist whose work brings to mind “hygge” is Norman Rockwell. For example,  the painting “The Runaway,” where a crewcut very young vagabond with dreams of adventure sits alongside a sympathetic state trooper at a local diner. We can be confident that after treating him to breakfast, the officer will make sure the boy gets home safely.

Not that Rockwell shies away from challenging subject matter. His 1964 cover for Look magazine, “The Problem We All Live With,” addresses racism as powerfully as any work of art I’ve seen.

It depicts six-year-old Ruby Bridges, an African-American girl, being escorted by four U.S. marshals to her first day at an all-white school in New Orleans.

Last weekend, my wife and I finally got to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. after promising ourselves to visit for years.

It rates high on the “hygge” scale.

Not just the art. But the museum itself. Designed by renowned architect Robert A.M. Stern, it’s located on a 36-acre site overlooking the Housatonic Valley.

Even the half hour trip to get there from our house was hygge. And yes, snow started to fall as we crossed from New York into Massachusetts.

Visiting a good museum is a treat under any circumstances. But there’s something exhilerating about one off a country road.

We expect great cities to have them – the Met in New York, the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid. To find a stronghold of culture in the middle of nature feels a special gift.

Nonetheless, there are probably those who still think of Rockwell, who lived the final 25 years of his life in Stockbridge, as primarily an illustrator for magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post.

But I believe he can also claim to be a great artist.

Perhaps the picture of a Rembrandt self-portrait he has taped to his easel for inspiration – it’s in the 1959 self-portrait the Saturday Evening Post asked him to do to accompany the first of eight excerpts of his autobiography – is meant as a joke, as gently self-mocking humor.

And I’m not going to argue that Rockwell approaches Rembrandt, whose self-portraits are among the most moving ever painted. But there’s something about the quality of Rockwell’s work that the artist, who grew up in New York City, shares with great painters throughout the ages.

It has the ring of truth, achieved through the masterful control of light, color, composition and perhaps most of all an understanding of human nature.

There are many virtuoso examples in the museum. But none more so than “The Gossips,” a 1948 Saturday Evening Post cover. It depicts fifteen separate subjects, Rockwell among them, spreading and reacting to an apparently salacious rumor.

I may have been overcome by “hygge” at that instant, but Rockwell’s work brought to mind the luminous quality of Vermeer.

For example, “Home for Christmas.” It’s a painting of Stockbridge’s main street, decorated for the holidays.

I doubt it was the intention of the docent who started her afternoon tour of the museum in front of that work. But as she pointed out Rockwell’s second story studio from 1953 to 1957 – where a Christmas tree glows in its oversized window – I wanted to contribute to the local economy by having lunch in Stockbridge.

Maybe even at the Red Lion Inn, depicted on the right hand side of the painting.

And my wife and I did just that. She had the pea soup, me the New England clam chowder washed down with an excellent draft beer.

Things don’t get much more “hygge” than that.

Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com.

The New Second Avenue Subway

The New Second Avenue Subway

By Ralph Gardner for WAMC Northeast Public Radio  (1.14.17)

 Art in the new Second Ave 72nd St station
These commentaries were conceived as celebrating the pleasures of country living, with occasional digressions. This is one of those occasions and one of those digressions.

A cultural moment back in the city – I’m referring to New York City – so charmed that you’re almost required to pay a visit.

I’m not speaking about seeing “Hamilton” on Broadway. Visiting your kids in Brooklyn. Or making your way to Trump Tower, whether to protest or register your support.

No. I’m talking about taking a ride on the brand new Second Avenue subway, as I did last week.

There are many reasons to do so.

This thing has been in the works, on and off, for almost a hundred years. So the city, state, and Governor Andrew Cuomo, who dragged the project over the finish line, deserve credit for perseverance.

It’s still sparkling clean, which is more than I can say about almost any other line in the city. The peculiar odors and rodent life one associates with subway travel are thus far absent.

But there’s one reason above all others to board the subway at one of its three new Second Avenue stops – 96th street, 86th Street or 72nd Street.

I’ll get to it momentarily.

But first I need to go on the record as a big fan of the subway system, even before the new stations came along. It’s too easy, and actually occasionally fun, to criticize it. Among experiences lacking aesthetic appeal, a ride on the Big Apple’s transit system must rank near the top.

The stations tend to be dark and dank, if no longer routinely dangerous. The noise can be deafening, and that’s even before buskers enter your subway car with their guitars and drums under the presumption that you desire to be entertained.

Admittedly, the “countdown clocks” that display the number of minutes until the next train arrives, even if they sometimes lie, have reduced the fear that the train will never come and you’ll be stuck underground forever.

However, the system remains so illogical that even lifelong New Yorkers can look up from their books or Kindles and find themselves pulling into 125th Street when they were only going as far as Columbus Circle.

And then there’s the moment we’ve all shared where the local train waits to close it doors until the instant the express arrives, as if baiting us.

But balancing all that is the fact that when it’s running smoothly, there’s no way to get around town faster, cheaper or with a smaller carbon footprint than on the subway.

You can board the train uptown, half an hour before a meeting in Soho, Tribeca, or Wall Street and arrive ten minutes early.

Those of us who are forced to take the subway at rush hour may disagree, but the city’s greatness is spelled by the social contract observed by riders of every conceivable stripe packed into its seats and clutching its poles.

Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum are overrated. If you really want to experience the city’s majesty, it’s the unconscious cross-pollination that occurs among you and fellow passengers sitting around you.

So what about the new Second Avenue subway?

It’s amazing.

Unlike the typical station where the ceilings are so low you can almost bump your head on the mechanicals, or get dripped on by strange fluids, the new stations are spacious, brightly lighted and filled with art.

My favorite is the 72nd Street station where three dozen characters – representing the kind of people one encounters on the subway (the friendly kind, not the ones who try to shake you down) – are rendered by artist Vik Muniz in shimmering mosaics.

My wife also visited last week and asked a transit worker why there were so many of them milling around. She thought it was perhaps to ensure the trains ran smoothly. But she was told MTA workers were visiting in droves because they’re as excited as the public to see the new stations.

But here’s the reason above all others to celebrate the new stops. They change your experience of the city. And I say that as someone who has lived there my whole life.

What surprised me most wasn’t descending the burnished escalators and enjoying the art of Sarah Sze, Chuck Close and Jean Shin along the way, in addition to Mr. Muniz.

It was ascending those same escalators to street level.

Avenues and buildings I’ve seen forever suddenly looked different, refreshed. They seemed alive with possibility. Their neighborhoods had become destinations in their own right.  It felt akin to when electricity, or perhaps these days Wi-Fi, finds its way to a remote country road.

Because, when you think of it, as routine as subway travel becomes, the simple act of emerging from underground into the light of day is an invitation to the senses. It’s one the Second Avenue subway, at least in its opening days and weeks, refuses to let you take for granted.

Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com.

Some Pig

Some Pig

By Ralph Gardner for WAMC Northeast Public Radio  (1.7.17)

(Click here for audio)

 

Come the New Year we can’t help but look ahead to the next twelve months and wonder about the ways our lives will be different or the same a year from now. Personally, professionally, politically.

But it’s the unexpected twists and turns, the defining events you can’t predict, that make the exercise so challenging.

For example, this time last year, Cheryl Jones – she’s a financial policy advisor with the U.S. Department of Transportation; she lives in Hillsdale, NY — had no intention of acquiring a pet. That is, in addition to the two horses she already owned.

But then Cleopatra came along.

Cleopatra isn’t a cat.

Or a dog.

Or a third horse.

Cleopatra is a pig.

She was born last March and lived briefly at the farm across Cheryl’s dirt road. But in May the piglet escaped, along with her six littermates.

Cleopatra was the only one who refused to return.

She wandered onto Cheryl’s property. And it didn’t take her long to decide that life was better on that side of the road.

No amount of cut apples, her favorite food, could lure her back home.

“She’s had multiple opportunities to join the other pigs,” Cheryl reported.

Cheryl believes that part of the pig’s thinking is that she doesn’t have to compete for space at the trough with a half dozen other pushy porkers.

But that probably only begins to explain the pig’s calculus. Also insufficient a reason is the abundance of acorns on Cheryl’s property, a prized treat for Cleopatra. She’s a handsome Tamworth pig, with reddish fur, descended from Old English forest pigs.

No, the main attraction, more important than any food source, seems to be the company of Cheryl’s horses, Image and Vicky.

Cleopatra took to them instantly.

Indeed, so fast did the trio become friends that Cheryl spent the summer and autumn wondering whether the pig, who arrived at a young, impressionable age, thinks of itself as a horse.

She even canters like a horse.

“It is adorable watching her canter,” Cheryl told me. “I didn’t know pigs cantered.”

However, the pig’s owner conceded that as Cleopatra has grown – she’s now over 300 pounds – cantering has become a greater challenge.

By the way, Cleopatra is only one of the names the pig answers to. Or more accurately doesn’t, since pigs have forceful minds of their own. Others are Miss Piggy and Bacon, employed when the animal turns destructive. She does things like digs up the garden and she ripped up a trellis by the front door of the house.

However, she earned the name of the Egyptian queen from the way she enjoys being pampered, particularly having her back stroked with a manure fork.

It’s unlikely the horses, being of an advanced age, started to think of themselves as pigs. But they almost instantly displayed a maternal instinct toward the piglet as she foraged under their feet.

“Both of them have responded to the pig as if it was a baby horse,” Cheryl said. “They sensed its vulnerability.”

One time they comforted the unruly pig after Cheryl stunned and quite possibly insulted it, by placing its food bucket over its nose to control the animal when she charged her.

“The younger mare came over and started nuzzling her back,” Cheryl remembered. “It’s like, ‘Don’t pay attention to that nasty woman.’”

And when the pig recently made a return visit to the farm next door during a snowstorm, no amount of food could convince her to come home. That required bringing over the horses. Whom she obediently followed back to her enclosure.

With the arrival of the New Year, Cheryl has a painful decision to make: whether to turn the pig into ham, pork chops and bacon — its original destiny — or let the pet live on.

Cheryl had a processing date in November, which she cancelled. “He was supposed to come on Saturday,” she said of a company that provides the on-site service. “I started weeping on Wednesday. I thought she was too young.”

That’s not the issue in January. It’s more what Cheryl describes as her sense of betraying the animal after Cleopatra entrusted Cheryl with her destiny.

I asked her whether pigs are as smart as they’re alleged to be. But there’s probably no greater sign of intelligence, or at least shrewdness, than finding the perfect home.

“Home is where you feel safe,” Cheryl observed.

But that connection must be weighed against the pig’s growing size and destructiveness. Also, much past three hundred pounds and pigs become less desirable for meat, Cheryl said.

Whatever Cheryl’s decision, Cleopatra has changed her attitude towards food.

“Most of us have lost touch with the reverence for what we eat,” she said.

And then she added, “Sometimes in life, something comes along and changes your whole perspective.”

Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com.

Robert Morgenthau: On Retirement and Hard Cider

Robert Morgenthau: On Retirement and Hard Cider

By Ralph Gardner for WAMC Northeast Public Radio  (12.31.16)

 

(Click here for audio)

Robert Morgenthau in June at Fishkill Farms

(photo credit: Ralph Gardner)
Among the perks of being an empty nester is that you’re not enslaved by your children’s school calendar. When our daughters were younger we left the city as soon as school was dismissed Friday afternoon and returned Sunday night.

These days we get to linger in the country longer: we’re often on the road upstate by Thursday evening, and don’t return until Monday.

A few months ago, I had lunch with someone else who divides his time between the city and the country — former Manhattan District attorney and Hudson Valley farmer Robert Morgenthau. I asked him when he leaves for upstate?

Friday afternoon, he told me.

And when does he come back to town?

Sunday night, he said.

Why don’t you stay longer, I asked?

By the way, Mr. Morgenthau is 97 years old.

And I wasn’t trying to impugn his stamina. I just find life more gracious the more time you spend upstate, particularly when you don’t have to endure the stress of traffic Friday and Sunday night.

“I’m too busy,” the former DA told me.

And he is. He’s an attorney with the prestigious law firm of Wachtell, Lipton where he’s currently working on an Alabama death penalty case. He’s trying to correct what he has described as an egregious violation of law that put a man on death row 28 years ago.

He’s also on the board of the Immigrant Justice Corps. It was started in 2014 and is dedicated to giving immigrants high quality legal representation.

Oh, and he’s the chairman of the New York City Police Athletic League and chairman emeritus of the Museum of Jewish Heritage. And he was recently also grand marshal of the Veteran’s Day Parade up Fifth Avenue.

And then there’s Fishkill Farms in Dutchess County. It was started in 1914 by Mr. Morgenthau’s father — U.S. Treasury Secretary under FDR Henry Morgenthau, Jr. These days the farm is run by Robert Morgenthau’s son, Josh.

But the old man – I use the term as a colloquialism, not to suggest the former DA is in any way past his prime – is still very much involved with the farm’s apple orchards and it’s bustling farm store.

On peak autumn weekends, he greets visitors, the line of cars waiting to pick apples sometimes snaking back all the way to Interstate 84.

In fact, a few weeks ago I called Robert Morgenthau and suggested we get together. I was seeking perspective from somebody whose vocabulary doesn’t include the word retirement. This was after the Wall Street Journal abruptly folded its Greater New York section, and with it my four-day-a-week column.

Mr. Morgenthau’s perspective came in the form of an email from Josh: “I hear you’re working on a piece about hard cider,” it began.

No I wasn’t. I don’t believe the words “hard cider” crossed my lips, or his dad’s, during our brief phone conversation.

But Fishkill Farms had recently started producing a high-end cider called “Treasury” and Robert Morgenthau apparently wasn’t one to let pass an opportunity to promote it.

So we got together a couple of weeks ago with Josh in his father’s impressive midtown office. It’s filled with photographs. They include a somewhat younger DA with President Lyndon Johnson – “When I was sworn in my second time,” he explained.  As well as with JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr.

By the way, there are newsreels, shown at the farm on “Founders Day” in June, that include one where the future DA, in his Navy whites during World War II, is serving mint juleps to FDR and Winston Churchill.

But Mr. Morgenthau wasn’t there to reminisce. He wanted me to sample the hard cider. It comes in several varieties, both still and sparkling.

“Thomas Jefferson and George Washington all drank hard cider and made it themselves,” he told me. “I figure if Thomas Jefferson can do it, I can do it.”

I confess I’m not much of a hard cider fan, preferring beer. Or better yet single malt scotch. But Treasury cider tasted different. More like a fine wine, or champagne. To complete the effect, it comes in champagne bottles with champagne corks and wire fasteners.

The Morgenthaus sent me home with a few bottles that I put before a panel of experts – my wife and daughters.

They were impressed, judging it superior and less sugary than other hard ciders they’ve tried.

Back at Mr. Morgenthau’s office, I realized seeking career advice would be futile. The former DA’s energetic presence, his success at remaining part of the conversation, is all the advice one needs.

But I decided to broach the subject anyway.

So he told me: “You quickly go to seed if you stop working. You literally go to seed.”

Did retirement ever cross his mind?

“Never,” he said.

And then, as if to prove it, he returned to the cider.

“The still or the sparking are very good with a meal,” he said.

#####

The Holidays

The Holidays

 
WAMC Northeast Public Radio

If you attend a party this time of year somebody will probably ask you, “Do you have plans for the holidays? Are you going anywhere?”

They don’t mean to Rockefeller Center to see the Christmas tree. Or whether you’re making roast beef or turkey for Christmas dinner. Or going out or staying home on New Year’s Eve.

They mean visiting somewhere that probably involves airfare. Someplace that boasts a change of scenery. Perhaps skiing out west. Or heading south to Florida, the Caribbean, or, what the heck, the Galapagos.

My answer is always the same and has been for approximately the last thirty years: I’m spending the week between Christmas and New Year at our home in Columbia County.

After traveling back and forth between New York City and upstatethe other fifty-one weeks of the year, I look forward to an uninterrupted stretch of time and nature. The rewards are both aesthetic and psychological. Those seven days (up to ten or eleven depending on when in the week the holidays fall) serve as a buffer between the old year and the new.

That’s not to say that I never leave our property. In fact, we rarely accomplish all we plan to do because an intoxicating inertia sets in. But that’s the whole point. You know you’re on the right track if the most ambitious thing you accomplish all day is to gather kindling and set a roaring fire.

When our children were younger we made an annual pilgrimage to the Crossgates Mall in Albany. That was primarily because our daughters had Christmas money from their grandmother burning in their pockets and they felt obligated to spend it.

From my point of view, it was an opportunity to experience mall life since we have no malls in Manhattan, where I live much of the week.

But after a couple of hours window-shopping at Best Buy and Dick’s Sporting Goods, jockeying with other males for a chair at Forever 21 while my wife and kids shopped, overspending on lunch, then resisting the temptation to succumb to the seductive aromas of Cinnabon, and finally starting to go stir crazy, came my favorite part of the afternoon.

That was heading east out of Albany on Interstate 90, returning to the cleansing influence of forests and fields after overdosing on consumerism. Looking forward to nothing more strenuous, or pricey, than, a bath, dinner and bed.

Culture also plays an important role during that week. We typically travel to the Berkshires and visit Mass MoCA and the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. At least we say we’re going to. But we haven’t done so in years. We’re too busy doing nothing.

This season my plans include a trip to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. Then again, I say that every year.

My determination to flee the crowds during the crucial week between the holidays dates back to when I was approximately seventeen years old. After having previously experienced the forced frivolity of New Year’s Eve, the noisemakers and party hats, I found myself standing alone under the stars in a snowy Vermont field, breathing in the cold night air.

I realized at that moment where I wanted to be on New Year’s Eve ever after: a timeless setting, as far as possible away from the clock ticking down to 1970 or 1999 or 2017 and the ball dropping in Times Square. Somewhere that put things in a slightly more cosmic perspective.

That’s not to say you were required to be cold sober. Mild intoxication, the moon and the stars, go well together, especially if you’re warmly dressed.

This year also marks the 28th uninterrupted year that we’re hosting a New Year’s Eve party at home for close friends. We’re not that hospitable. It’s just another excuse to avoid leaving the house.

Guests arrive at approximately 8 p.m. We sit down to dinner at ten. And seconds before midnight we file outdoors to stand around the bonfire in the backyard. Actually, it’s a copper fire pit on the patio that I purchased after years of trying and failing to construct a bonfire.

There’s also a Japanese drinking tradition, repurposed by my wife, that involves writing down on a scrap of paper wishes, resolutions or demons one might want to purge, and tossing them into the flames.

I never participate because my wish is always the same: that twelve months from now, whatever its triumphs or setbacks, I’ll be right back here watching the sparks from the fire as they ascend to the stars.

(illustration:  Rob Shepperson)

Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com.

A Well-Crafted Fruitcake for the Holidays

A Well-Crafted Fruitcake for the Holidays

WAMC Northeast Public Radio

I’ve got a confession to make. I like fruitcake.

I don’t understand why fruitcake is a punch line. You know, like the joke that there’s only one fruitcake in the world and it’s constantly being regifted.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not my favorite baked good. It doesn’t fill me with the thrill come autumn of a golden yellow box of Mallomars.

Or an excellent croissant. A bakery recently opened a few miles from me in Columbia County that makes a Parisian quality croissant. The owner told me the process of creating it takes three days. That doesn’t surprise me. A perfectly crafted croissant – the outside crisp and flaky, the inside fluffy as a cloud — is a work of art.

This croissant, in the middle of upstate New York, has undoubtedly added to my quality of life. Here’s how good it is: I’m keeping the name and location of the bakery a secret. There’s already enough competition for their pastry, especially on weekends. I’m always concerned they may run out by the time I get there. So lately, I’ve been calling and reserving a few of them.

Come to think of it, I should be doing that right now.

I’ve never met the fruitcake, on the other hand, that I can say has improved my quality of life. But recently I did encounter one that provides an excellent accompaniment, come holiday season and for several weeks, even months, subsequently, to a cup of tea on a dreary winter day.

Because the shelf life of this fruitcake, like any self-respecting fruitcake, is unknown and probably unknowable. It could be millennia. As far as I can tell, fruitcake has no expiration date. Robin McKay, the chef who, each December, makes and sells several hundred of the fruitcakes I’ve come to admire in her kitchen in Ghent, New York – you can find her at www.Robinskitchenview.com — told me she recently tossed out a few leftovers from 2015. She probably didn’t need to. They probably tasted almost as good as when they were baked twelve months ago.

I visited Robin one afternoon last week when she had four fruitcakes in the oven and another one on her kitchen table. She was basting it with brandy for Ruth Reichl, the bestselling author, and the former editor of Gourmet magazine and New York Times restaurant critic. Robin works as a recipe tester for Ruth.

Robin told me she’d never had a fruitcake before she started making her own a few years ago. She did it for her British boyfriend and his friends.

“When Christmas came around they were all begging for Christmas cake,” Robin said. Apparently, they call fruitcake Christmas cake in the U.K.

So Robin did some research.

“There’s Jamaican fruitcake soaked in black rum,” she told me. “In Ireland there’s a fruitcake with actual tea.”

Her premise is that wherever the British went, they left behind a fruitcake. She makes hers with currants, raisins, figs, dates, apricots, lemon peel, almonds, hazelnuts and fresh ginger. There’s no preservatives. Nonetheless, Robin understood the risks of manufacturing a fruitcake, no matter how organic, small batch, and tasty. I mean the risk of becoming an object of humor and derision. For example, when she visited Michael Albin, the owner of Hudson Wine Merchants on Warren Street in Hudson, New York.

“He’s like, ‘I hate fruitcake,’” Robin recalled. “Everybody says that until they try it.”

Ruth Reichl dropped by to pick up her fruitcake while I was there consuming the free samples. Ruth used to be among the haters. Her previous experience with fruitcake was similar to many of us: Over a cup of tea, Ruth said the fruitcakes she received as gifts would sit there and sit there until she eventually aroused the initiative to throw them out months later. Robin’s fruitcake was different. Ruth described it as grown-up fruitcake. I’d have to agree. It tastes refined. By which I mean, sophisticated.

I have only one complaint. Robin’s fruitcake, while festively wrapped, is basic brown. There’s none of that candied fruit that glows in the dark. You know: the bright red cherries. The even brighter green cherries.I swear I’ve seen green cherries in fruitcake. And you’d have to agree. There’s nothing that says the holidays like green cherries.

Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at www.ralphgardner.com.

The Hudson Valley

The Hudson Valley

You’re receiving this email because you’ve expressed interest in my work in the past. Or you’ve been moved to correct my spelling or grammar, sometimes both.

Since my final “Urban Gardner” column in the Wall Street Journal , I’ve received many emails from readers, asking whether I’m retiring.  I’m not.  

The Greater New York section was eliminated and with it my column. Readers have asked what’s up next? I hope to write a book or two and also find a new home for the Urban Gardner. 

In the meantime here’s my first weekly commentary for WAMC, the Hudson Valley’s NPR station (Saturdays at 12:50 p.m.),  where I prove myself a better writer than radio personality. I think you’ll agree that I can only improve.  

Best, Ralph

(I can be contacted at rgard135@aol.com, or by replying to this email.)

WAMC Northeast Public Radio

(link to audio)

The Hudson Valley
By RALPH GARDNER JR. • DEC 10, 2016

My grandparents bought our home in Columbia County in 1948. But I didn’t start visiting regularly until I was a teenager in the late Sixties. I’d walk deep into the woods to write bad poetry. Which I’ve come to understand is age appropriate behavior.
After my grandparents passed away, I was lucky that my parents showed little interest in the place. They were born and bred city people. My mother was once stung by a wasp in her upstate bedroom — in February.

I believe she took that as an omen.

My father kept all the doors locked all the time. And when he left the house, he left lights on, as well as an elaborate place setting in the dining room, along with a note that said, “Be right back!”

Just to spook any burglars.

By the late Seventies, and post-college, the property was basically mine. There’s a photo album of Polaroids that documents the fun my friends and I had back in that charmed era. The intoxicated dinner parties. The skinny dipping in the pond.

My wife has relegated the album to the top shelf of our library so our children won’t be tempted to examine it. Even though they’re both in their twenties.

They couldn’t care less. They just wish we didn’t come up every weekend. They want the run of the place — the way we had it at their age.

There was rumor of only one celebrity who had a home in the area back then. Harry Belafonte.

I like to think the rumor confirmed when I ordered a roast beef sandwich topped with cole slaw at the Claverack Food Mart a few years back. Guess who was the first person ever to order that combination years earlier? Owner Ted Filli told me it was Harry Belafonte.

When my grandparents bought own house, the story went that the traffic consisted of one car. It traveled down their sleepy country road in the morning and returned in the evening.

There are more cars, and more notable residents, than there were back then. But the fundamental experience of the area feels unchanged.

Nature still holds the upper hand. You can still go to the supermarket in pajama pants if you feel like it.

I’ve heard the fear expressed for years that the Hudson Valley is destined to become the next Hamptons.

That will never happen. And not just because we don’t have ocean views.

Ours is not the area for you if you like to see and be seen. Even if the buzz on Warren Street in Hudson, New York on weekends bears more than a passing resemblance to Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Privacy is one of the area’s selling points. And you don’t needs twelve-foot hedges or forbidding security gates to accomplish it. Fields and woods do the job just fine.

And then there’s our ace in the hole. The Taconic State Parkway. One of the nation’s most lovely yet fearsome roadways. It boasts what I like to call “The Wall of Death.” You know what I’m talking about. It’s that Depression-era, shoulderless, high stone retaining wall around Carmel, New York.

I know otherwise happy, successful adults who will do anything to avoid that harrowing experience, preferring the monotony of the New York State Thruway, even if it takes them well out of their way.

However, the beauty of the Taconic is that it also serves as a metaphor. As soon as you join it, you may as well be on a magic carpet ride to a different time and place. It taps the Rip Van Winkle in each of us.

That fantasy holds sway unless the cops pull you over for speeding. They typically don’t buy the excuse that you’re just excited to reach your house and start your weekend.

Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com.