Central Park Goes to the Dogs

Sept. 1, 2014 9:00 p.m. ET

Rob Shepperson

After a lifetime in this city, I embarked upon a rite of passage last week that I had happily managed to avoid all these years: the Central Park dog run.

Mostly due to laziness, I never walked our previous dogs any farther than the corner. I always assuaged my guilt by telling myself that the pet was free to roam upstate on weekends—even if we were too isolated for her to make new canine friends.

But my wife decided that Wallie, the newest addition to our family, deserved a social life. So she started taking her to the park, and returning with stories about how well Wallie played with others, how Wallie was something of a star, and how both she and Wallie were making lots of acquaintances.

I was happy for both of them, but not tempted to join them.

For starters, I write this column first thing in the morning, prime off-leash dog walking time in Central Park, which ends at 9 a.m.

Next, I’m not terribly sociable, particularly early in the day. My idea of hell is staying at a bed-and-breakfast where you’re expected to be pleasant to your hosts or fellow boarders over pancakes.

If the dog-walking rules could be altered ever so slightly so your dog could roam free at cocktail hour, and the cops agreed to look the other way when you arrived at the dog run with a martini in hand, I’d be more than happy to exercise the beast.

Finally, there’s my fear of the dog bolting. One of my most terrifying moments—ever—occurred in Central Park when I was around 10 and our Boston terrier, Skippy, started running toward traffic at approximately 30 miles an hour. I saw not only the dog’s life, but my own, flash before my eyes as I returned home to tell my mother that her beloved and pampered pooch was roadkill.

Fortunately, Skippy came to his senses at the last moment and managed to live several more years. When he eventually died, I had nothing to do with it.

But Wallie is different from all our other dogs. A Bracco Italiano, or Italian pointer, she falls into the “sporting” breed category. Her biological destiny is to hunt, to flush fowl from fields and streams. It’s not to be sitting in an apartment systematically consuming the carpets and furniture, and our personal effects whenever she’s not sleeping.

In other words, she needs exercise. Lots of it. Indeed, our only hope of salvaging our décor seems to be to keep the pooch in a state of perennial exhaustion.

The last time I wrote about Wallie she was a cute 22-pound puppy. At five months, she’s still cute by double the size and weight. Even though I’ve never owned a lion, I suspect the experience isn’t dissimilar from being dragged down the street by Wallie.

The circumstances that found me contemplating a visit on Thursday to Central Park arose because my wife was out of town, inconsiderately having left Wallie behind.

I couldn’t employ my boilerplate column-writing excuse because I don’t write a column on Thursday.

Hence, I faced my fears, leashed Wallie and headed out the door.

When we reached the park, it wasn’t even 8 a.m. However, people and their dogs were already leaving. They all seemed to know Wallie, though. One woman reported that she’d owned a Spinone, a longhair version of a Bracco. She described the breed as high maintenance, but confided that they calm down by the time they reach 3.

By the time Wallie is 3, we won’t have any furniture left. All our computer power cords will be gnawed through. Our leather shoes will have been reduced to beef jerky.

We made our way to where my wife told me Wallie meets his friends, but the space was occupied by a lone Dalmatian who showed no interest in anything but his ball and owner.

I was starting to feel lost—I called my wife who guessed that maybe everybody was out of town already for the Labor Day weekend, but counseled determination—and we continued on to Cedar Hill, a second spot she recommended, just inside the park at 79th Street and Fifth Avenue.

Bingo! It looked like Westminster, but with the dogs running the show. There were big ones, little ones, purebreds and mutts—all raising a ruckus. Wallie was befriended by Whiskey, a Bernese Mountain Dog/Poodle mix.

But she really bonded with Pele, a 3-year-old Border Terrier with boundless energy. For the next 45 minutes Wallie and Pele chased each other around like a circus act—running, banking and rolling; they even took a water break together, sipping from a sprinkler. Which just goes to show that dogs, like people, have better chemistry with some than others.

I’m looking forward to Wallie and Pele having a long, fruitful friendship and many more play dates that end in almost crippling exhaustion. There are few things in nature more delightful than a sleeping dog.

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Putting It All on the Line at the U.S. Open

The Wall Street Journal
Aug. 27, 2014 9:51 p.m. ET

Line umpire Jill Spencer is working her 11th U.S. Open. ‘The more court time, the better you become,’ she said. Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

Of the most thankless tasks, in perhaps the most thankless of cities, line umpire at the U.S. Open would have to rank near the top.

You’re all but invisible when you get the call right. But get it wrong and the wrath of 22,000 fans may well rain down on you, not to mention the verbal opprobrium of some of the world’s most highly compensated athletes.

So who would sign up for such combat duty?

Jill Spencer, for one. She was among the line umpires patrolling the baselines in Tuesday’s spirited late-afternoon grandstand contest between 16th-seed Victoria Azarenka of Belarus and Misaki Doi of Japan. Ms. Azarenka won in three sets.

“I always say, if I had a penny for every time I was told I was the worst umpire in the world, I’d be a rich woman,” Ms. Spencer said after she came off the court in the middle of the second set. She’d just completed a typical one-hour-on/one-hour-off officiating shift.

I had lots of questions. But foremost among them was how she manages to maintain focus. I was there to watch her in action rather than the match—though action is a relative term when it comes to line umpiring. Yet, I couldn’t prevent my attention inexorably shifting from her to the point in progress.

“For me, it’s no different than taking up a sport,” explained Ms. Spencer, who is working her 11th U.S. Open. “The more you practice, the more court time, the better you become. As you get better, it becomes easier to stay focused.”

Nonetheless, she confessed her concentration occasionally betrays her, especially during boring matches.

‘You want to make sure your eyes get to the line before the ball … ,’ says Jill Spencer, a line umpire at the U.S. Open. Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

“You totally zone out, or you’re standing in the wrong position. It happens to everybody. It’s embarrassing, and all of a sudden the chair umpire is … “—she mimics a discreet hand gesture on the umpire’s part—” ‘You need to move over.’ “

Working matches and watching how top players put together points has also helped her own game—and her officiating, by being able to predict a player’s thinking.

Ms. Spencer describes herself as a high intermediate player. (Her husband, Wayne, is a former tennis professional and a line umpire at the Open.)

“The strategy of where to hit next,” she explained. “Also, I can anticipate where the ball might go next.”

The line umpire tried to explain the art, or is it the science, of seeing the ball accurately as it bounces in front of you at well over 100 miles an hour.

“You want to make sure your eyes get to the line before the ball, so you can see it coming in,” she said, as she recuperated from the heat in the umpires’ cafeteria in the bowels of Louis Armstrong Stadium. “If your eyes are late it will create an optical illusion; it will look out when it’s actually in.”

One would assume the best way to do that would be to track the ball from the instant it leaves the racket of the player across the net. But Ms. Spencer, a global relationship partner at IBM IBM +0.16% in California when she isn’t officiating Grand Slam tennis tournaments, said that is not true.

“The trick is not to get to the line too early,” but to anticipate where the ball is going to land. “It slows down the ball a lot when you get your eyes to the line before the ball.”

Looking over her shoulder is the Hawk-Eye instant replay system. I would have thought being watched like that, and potentially second-guessed, would be intimidating.

But Ms. Spencer said it’s just the opposite.

“I love Hawk-Eye,” she said. “It takes the emotion of the players out of the game. They have a way to create the final word. It’s not just me and my opinion.”

The most difficult player whose games Ms. Spencer has had to officiate was Andy Roddick. The easiest: Roger Federer. “Hands down polite, professional, all business.”

However, her most memorable match over all her years at the Open is the 2009 five-setter that Mr. Roddick played against fellow American John Isner, ending in victory for Mr. Isner around 2 a.m.

“Isner is 6-10 and his serve comes at you like a bullet,” Ms. Spencer recalled of match point. “All I could think of was, ‘Don’t screw up now.’ “

“It was in,” she added. “I didn’t screw it up.”

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Bucket Challenge: Don’t Pour Ice Water on This Guy

The Wall Street Journal
By Ralph Gardner Jr.
Aug. 26, 2014 9:40 p.m. ET

Officials from Little Ferry, N.J., take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Associated Press

The first I heard of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was a couple of weeks ago, when my daughter Lucy showed me a video of her cousin Emma accepting the challenge.

The challenge started out as a way to raise awareness of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and has turned into a remarkable fundraiser for the ALS Association as well.

Here’s how it works: You have someone dump a bucket of ice water on you and dare a few others to follow suit—on video. Then, post the video to social media—take your pick: Facebook, Twitter, etc. The folks you dare can either accept the challenge, donate $100 or preferably do both.

I was impressed and amused. Impressed because Emma, who lives in Kentucky, was willing to suffer the shock of ice water being poured over her head for a good cause. Amused because a friend takes her by surprise and does the honors before she can.

In accordance with the challenge, Emma posted her video along with who knows how many other shivering sufferers. The videos have gone famously viral—is that redundant?—and the amount raised by the ALS Association has been impressive: The group raised $88.5 million from July 29 through Tuesday, compared with $2.6 million for the same period last year.

My reaction to Emma’s video wasn’t to feel left out that I hadn’t been nominated yet. It was more relief that I was far from splash range of the driveway where Emma got soaked.

I suppose I assigned my niece’s fundraising effort to the “Those crazy college kids! What will they think of next?” category. Even though Emma is several years out of college.

Does this make me a bad person?

I checked with Lucy because my experience is that members of my family haven’t hesitated to bring my character flaws to my attention. Indeed, if you were to ask them whether they consider me a good person who occasionally indulges in selfish behavior, or a bad person, period, there would probably be a seven-second delay before they responded one way or the other.

So I was relieved when Lucy confessed she would probably also decline the invitation to get soaked—were she nominated.

“In general,” she explained, “I don’t put up pictures or videos of myself. I don’t believe anyone gives a [expletive] or should.”

Which, I suppose, raises the questions: Are people accepting the ALS challenge because they’re good Samaritans, because they briefly get to hog the limelight or a combination of the two? And has the selfie gone so far that the most efficient way to get us to cough up dough is to let us glorify ourselves?

And does it matter?

Because the gimmick seems to be working. After all, almost $90 million in a month has been raised. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a fatal and particularly diabolical disease of the nervous system—the person loses control of his or her muscles and eventually can’t speak, eat and even breathe.

Tony Judt, an historian and essayist, wrote a haunting series of stories in the New York Review of Books documenting how the disease ravaged his body. “In effect, ALS constitutes progressive imprisonment without parole,” he explained. He died in 2010.

“The cynicism I had about it has had to be put on hold,” my daughter acknowledged. “If a viral video is what it takes to raise money and awareness for research that isn’t getting enough recognition I think that’s great.”

However, she raised another point that also occurred to me—that the challenge seems to smack of coercion, no matter how gentle or fun-loving.

“It seems like the new chain email,” she said.

I’ve always hated chain mail, which depends on guilt compelling you to keep the chain going.

“I’m seeing more people donating money and ending the cycle rather than accepting the challenge,” my daughter said.

Those who have taken the easier, or at least less saturated, way out include President Obama, who declined to submit to a drenching.

However, Lucy said she felt no pressure either way, possibly because among her friends, “Only the preppiest people I know have done these videos. I think it hit a wall when it came to more alternative crew. Most people doing it among my friends are covered in Vineyard Vines.”

She was referring to a preppy clothing company.

My daughter, Gracie, raised a similar reservation with the campaign’s script. “You get nominated to donate $100,” she said. “Which I think is kind of elitist.”

Emma believes she was among the earliest ice bucket challengers, nominated by friends of hers who were New England college athletes. Pete Frates, a former Boston College baseball player with ALS, helped launch the campaign.

“People our age have all these big issues, but they feel they can do nothing about it,” Emma explained. “There’s no other issue where you feel you can donate a dollar and it will make a difference. You feel instant gratification. Which is something the millennials care about.”

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

On a Lobster Roll

The Wall Street Journal
By Ralph Gardner Jr.
Aug. 25, 2014 9:57 p.m. ET

The mayo, left, and ginger-scallion lobster roll at Eventide Oyster Co. in Portland, Maine. Ralph Gardner/The Wall Street Journal

After informing me that I’d cut in line—I swear it was by accident—a regular at the Net Result, a fish market and takeout restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard, strongly suggested I order the butter lobster roll.

This was the first I’d heard of a butter lobster roll. My favorite lobster rolls had always come with a touch of mayo. And just to confuse things more, the restaurant sold something called a lobster salad roll for a few bucks less.

Cooked lobster. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Dare I mess with my beloved lobster roll?

Part of what makes comfort food comfort food is its predictability. The results, net or otherwise, meet and sometimes exceed expectations. But rarely do they disappoint completely because they know not to venture too far outside the tried-and-true.

Actually, that is false. The margin for error when it comes to lobster rolls is huge. All it takes is too little mayo or a roll filled with too much rubbery claw meat or roe and I can be thrown into despondency—especially at the price of an average lobster roll.

I can live with the disappointment of an overcooked $6 cheeseburger, seeking refuge in the pickle and fries. But often at $20 or more there’s a lot riding on a lobster roll. Plus, the delicacy, if not quite seasonal, isn’t as universally accessible as a burger deluxe. They’re more a special occasion treat.

So should I have rolled the dice on a butter lobster roll or not?

I love steamed lobster wallowing in drawn butter, so how far wrong could I go with the same meal surrounded by a bun? And all the hard work removing the meat is already done.

Caption: A classic lobster roll from the Docksider restaurant in Northeast Harbor, Maine. Ralph Gardner/The Wall Street Journal

The warm butter lobster roll was superb. And even though it may strain credulity, there was so much tail meat it was a challenge to finish. But about halfway through the experience, I felt as if something was missing: coleslaw. So I had to go back and buy a container a la carte.

Would I have felt the same way if I’d purchased a traditional cold mayo lobster roll?

The past few weeks, I’ve been on something of a lobster roll—pun intended. It started with that lunch on Martha’s Vineyard and continued last week during a lobster barnstorming tour that took me from Portland, Me., to Mount Desert Island, consuming these tender crustaceans in various permutations.

At Eventide, a well-known Portland oyster bar, I devoured—with the help of my family—three variations on the lobster roll: brown butter, mayo and ginger-scallion.

To complicate matters further, the lobster came not in a conventional lightly buttered and grilled New England-style hot dog bun but something more the consistency of a steamed, fluffy Asian-style bun.

It worked with the brown butter and the ginger-scallion, but the combination of bun and mayo seemed too bland by half.

A classic lobster roll from the Docksider restaurant in Northeast Harbor, Maine. Ralph Gardner/The Wall Street Journal

I found myself hankering for a lobster roll I’ve been able to count on over the years—the one served at the Docksider, a restaurant in Northeast Harbor, Me., that isn’t actually aside any dock. But I’m willing to entertain false advertising for the sake of a perfect lobster roll.

In the case of the Docksider, it’s the classic: fresh lobster with a little mayo stuffed in a hot dog bun—and fries on the side.

I can’t overstate the importance of fries. The relationship between lobster roll and fries is a mutual admiration society—loving siblings almost.

They get along so well. No other manifestation of the potato will do—not even potato chips, though they’ll suffice in a pinch.

I also think a Coke is helpful. I’m not sure it’s a case of showing the lobster roll who’s boss, though it does feel as if it acts like a solvent. Maybe it’s a matter of aesthetics—the darkness of the Coke setting off the milky reddish-whiteness of the lobster meat. I suppose a good beer would also do.

Mary’s Fish Camp in Manhattan Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Truth be told, my favorite, most dependable lobster roll is made and served in New York City at a place called Mary’s Fish Camp on Charles Street in Greenwich Village.

Made with mayo, this roll has so much lobster that I’ve seen customers request a backup bun for the overflow. And the shoestring fries play harmony to the lobster roll’s song. Nirvana doesn’t come cheap, however. A Mary’s lobster roll costs in the vicinity of $30.

But here’s how addictive it is: I once visited Mary’s at the end of lunch hour when the restaurant was virtually deserted. Nonetheless, because I was alone, I was informed I had to sit at the counter even though many tables were available.

The waitress refused to budge, explaining it was the owner’s unbendable rule. If I had any self-respect, I’d have thanked her and taken my business elsewhere. Restaurants should be a refuge from bubble-gum, high-school nonsense.

But when you’ve primed yourself for a world-class lobster roll, nothing else will do. Thus, I meekly took my place at the counter. I’ve been back several times since, always sitting at the counter.

I hate myself. But I love Mary’s lobster rolls more.


Richard Estes: A Modest American Visionary

Aug. 24, 2014 10:22 p.m. ET

‘Water Taxi, Mount Desert,’ exemplifies the work of photorealist Richard Estes. An Estes retrospective opens Oct. 10 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Richard Estes/Marlborough Gallery, New York

We don’t know for certain the identity of the woman who has come to be known as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” Or whether Édouard Manet bought a drink from the girl standing behind the counter in “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.”

But we do know how “Water Taxi, Mount Desert” (1999), by Richard Estes came to be—a painting that I suspect will stand the test of time.

“Who paid for that?” Mr. Estes asked Nancy Monfredo of the boat ride depicted in the work, which shows Ms. Monfredo and her daughter, Nina, seated on a wicker chair gazing out at the ocean as they headed back to Northeast Harbor, Maine.

“You and I did,” Ms. Monfredo recalled, as she sat in the living room of Mr. Estes’s home in Maine last week. “Twenty dollars apiece.” She added, laughing: “You said, ‘I’ll take some pictures and I can deduct this.’ “

“I had about three frames left on the film,” remembered Mr. Estes, perhaps America’s greatest Photorealist painter. “I wanted to use it up so I could have it processed.”

Mr. Estes at his home in Northeast Harbor, Maine. Ralph Gardner/The Wall Street Journal

I visited Maine with several goals in mind: to swim and hike in Acadia National Park, to consume several lobster rolls and to see the retrospective of Mr. Estes work, “Richard Estes’ Realism” at the Portland Museum of Art. The show runs through Sept. 7, then travels to the nation’s capital, where it opens Oct. 10 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

I’d seen reproductions of “Water Taxi, Mount Desert” but never the painting itself, which normally resides at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Mo.

The original didn’t disappoint. Like Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” or other great portraits, its timelessness is set off by a sense of immediacy.

I don’t think it makes any difference to my appreciation of the painting that Ms. Monfredo was my wife’s college roommate or that we were on our way to see her and her husband, Paul, in Seal Harbor. Nina, now 25, lives and works in Manhattan. None of the other museumgoers knew our friend. But as with a Vermeer, the image attracted a crowd.

I recall the painting that first drew me to Richard Estes’s work, if not the year or even the decade. Titled “Drugs” and painted in 1970, it depicts the streamlined facade of Weiner Drugs, the word “DRUGS” in large neon letters above it. The pharmacy, long gone, stood on the southeast corner of 72nd Street and Columbus Avenue. That’s where I’d spend my 25-cent allowance as a child. I had a particular weakness for Nestlé Crunch bars.

Another of his works is ‘Diner.’ Richard Estes/Marlborough Gallery, New York

“My parents came to visit me once,” Mr. Estes remembered of the ’60s and the neighborhood, less glamorous in those days. “I was living on 75th Street between Central Park West and Columbus. We were going to go out and eat. We couldn’t find a restaurant on Columbus Avenue. We had to go to Broadway.”

While the portrait of the Monfredo women was the main incentive to visit Portland—the food scene coming in a close second, especially for my daughters—the exhibition also made a case for Richard Estes as the most significant landscape painter of New York City.

These days, Mr. Estes divides his time between Maine and his apartment in the Eldorado on Central Park West. He paints for several hours in the afternoon.

Whether diners seated around a table at the Automat (1966-1968), Sunday afternoon sunbathers in Central Park (1989) or the Shake Shack on Columbus Avenue and 77th Street under scaffolding—the work that sat on his easel the morning I visited—Mr. Estes imbues his scenes, no matter how seemingly commonplace, with a delicacy and poignancy that rivals those of his influences, ranging from Canaletto and Frederic Church to Edward Hopper.

“Half of New York is under scaffolding,” he explained.

‘Brooklyn Bridge’ Richard Estes/Marlborough Gallery, New York

While ours was more a social visit than a formal interview, Mr. Estes’s fundamental modesty showed through—as it does in his art, where his signature is often hidden in plain sight.

He claims that several of his paintings decorate his walls, only because he can’t sell them—”Art collectors are funny,” he said. “They don’t necessarily buy what they want; they buy what they think they should buy”—and that he finds painting New York City and the frozen landscape of Antarctica, the subject of a 2007 painting in the exhibition, equally challenging: “I usually have just as much trouble with one as the other.”

But therein also lays the magic of his work. It manages to reduce to a bare minimum the obstructions that stand between the viewer and the truth of the subject matter.

Seeing a painting of New York City, circa 1970, makes me feel like I’m back in the ’70s with all its trappings—the storefronts, subway ads and empty building lots, long since filled in.

“You inject your own personality,” Mr. Estes said. “But if you think about it too much, it becomes phony.”

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Taking Life With Grains of Salt

Aug. 12, 2014 10:09 p.m. ET

The Meadow’s Jaime Lee Newman with customers at the Hudson Street store. Cassandra Giraldo for The Wall Street Journal

Have you ever thought what product you buy that gives you the most pleasure, the biggest bang for the buck?

For me, it’s hands down bird seed. I’m more than happy to suffer your snickering. But nothing lights up the world, especially on bleak winter days, like a 40-pound bag of black-oil bird seed—and for less than a $20 bill.

Running a not-too-distant second is salt. I’m not talking about Morton table salt, but that’s pretty great, too. I realized this recently as I sprinkled flakes of Black Diamond salt—hand-harvested from the Mediterranean and then combined with activated charcoal—on a lovely slice of heirloom tomato. I think I hear the snickering growing into a chorus of guffaws.

I acquired a 0.6-ounce vial of this flavor enhancer on a visit to the Meadow, a store on Hudson Street that sells 90 kinds of salt, including pink slabs of Himalayan salt so big they’re used as cutting boards.

“Don’t put them in the dishwasher,” manager Jaime Lee Newman warned about the slabs. “It will disappear.”

I’d been planning to visit the store for a long time, just to appease my curiosity. I love salt. But is that because my body requires it? Or might some salts be more flavorful than others?

The store sells 90 varieties of salt. Cassandra Giraldo for The Wall Street Journal

In salt, as with most things in life, there are Ford Fiestas and Toyota Corollas—not that I have anything against subcompacts (a ’91 Corolla remains active in our family fleet)—and Porsches and Bentleys.

Or is all salt intrinsically excellent? Perhaps it’s because I’m a cheapskate, but rare is the visit to the supermarket for salt when I don’t say to myself, “Wow, you get so much for $1.19 and it lasts so long! How to they make any money?”

Then again, I’m connoisseur enough that I once arranged a special order of pond salt from Anegada in the British Virgin Islands. When it arrived by boat in Tortola and was handed off to me, I felt as if I was participating in an illegal drug deal.

But did that salt taste better than table salt or was it all in my imagination? Was I combining one of nature’s most common substances with an exotic resort destination and coming up with a condiment that exceeded the sum of its parts?

Answers to such existential questions are what drove me to visit the Meadow, launched in Portland, Ore., by Mark Bitterman, salt maven and author of the encyclopedic “Salted” (10 Speed Press).

It depends on “where they’re harvested—the minerals in the area,” Ms. Newman explained of salt’s variety and taste. “And the process they harvest them.”

She pulled a container of Sugpo Asin off a high shelf. It’s a Philippine fleur de sel, a hand-harvested sea salt.

“Half the year the basins are used for shellfish,” she said. “And the other half as salt brines.”

Customers taste a few varieties of salt with an ice-cream sandwich. Cassandra Giraldo for The Wall Street Journal

I expected a mildly fishy smell. But it didn’t taste like shellfish at all. It tasted like salt. And, as I may have mentioned, salt tastes great.

I asked Ms. Newman what her favorite family of salt is and she selected Japanese shio. Other categories of salt include fleur de sel, flake salt and rock salt.

“It’s a really soft crystal,” she explained as she sprinkled a few flakes of Takesumi Bamboo, a type of shio, in my hand. “Taste that early iron-y taste?”

I can’t say for certain that I did.

“It’s a sea salt that’s stuffed in bamboo and incinerated three days,” she went on. “A soft, ashen crystal. Oh! I just tasted a real iron-y one.”

The delight of artisanal salt, I deduced when I got my $38 Meadow Finishing Salt Starter Set home, is that it embodies all the mystery and wonder of a chemistry set. It’s about experimentation:

“Sure, that cucumber wedge tastes great with the Molokai Red, made from evaporated sea salt combined with sacred Alaea volcanic clay. But might it be even better with the Maldon from England’s Blackwater river estuary, collected during fortnightly spring tides?”

I asked Ms. Newman her opinion of adding raw rice kernels to a salt shaker to prevent clumping during humid times?

“I don’t do that,” she said, without sounding judgmental. “We like to keep ours a little bit moist. Sea salt is supposed to be moist. It helps it dissolve better.”

Ms. Newman said the store’s best seller is Himalayan pink.

“It’s from Pakistan,” she confided. “Nobody knows that.”

She also let me try Kala Namak, an extremely fine, purplish, powdery Indian salt with a faint smell of rotten eggs.

I can’t say I loved it, but it certainly proved a point: Not all salts are the same.

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

It’s an Honor, Mr. President

Aug. 11, 2014 9:56 p.m. ET

A gamelan concert on Sunday at the Martha’s Vineyard home of Peter and Gwen Norton. Ralph Gardner/The Wall Street Journal

Some time early in the year, Peter Norton and his wife, Gwen, invited us to their home on Martha’s Vineyard for a weekend in July or August.

Mr. Norton likes to plan ahead. And as it was still winter, many dates were available.

But Mr. Norton, the computer software guru and a philanthropist who sits on the Board of Trustees of the Museum of Modern Art, suggested the weekend of Aug. 8.

“There’ll be something you might find of extra interest,” Mr. Norton hinted in an email.

What could that possibly be?

But then my wife and I recalled that President Obama and his family have spent Augusts on Martha’s Vineyard for the last several years.

It didn’t seem out of the question that Mr. Norton may have been referring to the Obama visit. Perhaps he was holding an intimate dinner for them and we’d be among the guests.

The possibility seemed only somewhat fantastical. The Nortons have lots of important friends, several of whom we met when we spent a weekend with them last summer, albeit in July. I could already see us sitting on the porch of their Oak Bluffs mansion shooting the breeze with the first family:

President Obama, as he puts his hand on my shoulder: “Ralph, I just wanted to let me know how much I enjoy your column. I’m a big fan.”

Me, elated but slightly skeptical: “Wow. But in print it’s only in the Greater New York section.”

Him: “I read it online. As a matter of fact, I’m planning to award you the National Humanities Medal.”

My hopes for a presidential tête-à-tête were further stoked when I discovered that the Obamas would be vacationing on the island for two weeks starting Aug. 9. We’d be arriving the eighth and departing the 10th. Admittedly, our overlap didn’t leave much time for socializing.

Also, if I were Barack Obama, given the kind of summer he’s having, the last thing I’d want to do my first night of vacation is party with strangers. I’d go for a swim, take a nap, take another nap, watch the sunset accompanied by a very dry martini, have dinner with the family and retire early.

I’d repeat that routine, with only minor variations for the next 14 days. As a matter of fact, I’d be loath to leave my compound, except for maybe once for a photo-op ice cream run with Sasha and Malia in Vineyard Haven or Edgartown.

Apparently, we weren’t the only friends of the Nortons who thought they might be hobnobbing with the Obamas. Mr. Norton sent out fliers to friends announcing an “American-Style Barbeque supplemented with Indonesian flavors” for Sunday afternoon.

Didn’t the president spend time in Indonesia as a child?

Also, on the invitation right below the Indonesian reference came this: “in honor of visiting guests.”

“People think, ‘The president’s in town. He must be coming over,’ ” Gwen Norton reported. She said friends had asked, ” ‘Do you need our Social Security numbers?’ “

The Nortons have a mischievous streak. They hold a hamburgers-and-hot dogs barbecue on their lawn overlooking Oak Bluffs’ end-of-season fireworks display.

“The president was still here,” Ms. Norton, a former banker and a Spelman College trustee, told me, referring to last year’s fireworks. “We did four chairs that said, ‘Reserved VIP,’ and two behind,” for the Secret Service, “(just because we’re evil) and people were like, ‘He’s coming!’ “

I’m pleased to report that shortly after noon on Saturday I saw the Obamas, or at least proof that they’d arrived on Martha’s Vineyard.

President Barack Obama golfing on Martha’s Vineyard on Saturday at the start of his family vacation. Associated Press

As we were bicycling around the island, I heard the rotors of a large helicopter beating the air, looked over my shoulder and spotted Marine One, or a look-alike, heading in the direction of Chilmark, where I understand the Obamas are staying.

Slightly later, while having an excellent lobster roll at the Net Result restaurant in Vineyard Haven, we saw a squadron of similar helicopters departing the island.

As it turned out the mysterious “visiting guests” to whom the Nortons referred in their invitation were the more than 20 members of Dharma Swara, a gamelan that Peter Norton brought to the island to perform for his guests on Sunday and to give a free public concert Monday afternoon.

(Mr. Norton has been a gamelan aficionado since college: Gamelan is the word for a group of Javanese or Balinese musicians who play xylophones and other instruments with hammers.)

I wasn’t totally disappointed with who the visiting guests were. I had known since last week. And one of the musicians was composer Dewa Alit, who is referred to as the “Beethoven of Bali.”

In fact, I believe I shall always remember taking a shower before the concert and all of a sudden hearing, just below our bedroom window, an explosion of sound—sort of like a celestial marching band—warming up for the afternoon’s performance.

The Obamas missed a great concert.

A Not-So-Still Life at the Met

Aug. 6, 2014 10:19 p.m. ET

Emily Rafferty, in her office at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She is stepping down next year after a decade of leading the noted institution.      Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal

Before Monday afternoon, I’d never met Emily Rafferty, the president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But I had observed her for several hours in 2009 as a witness in the trial of Anthony Marshall, the son of the philanthropist Brooke Astor; I was covering the trial for the Daily Beast.

Ms. Rafferty took the stand to testify against Mr. Marshall, who was accused, and eventually convicted, of stealing from his mother’s estate.

Mrs. Astor was a longtime member of the museum’s board and the Met stood to gain millions from her will before Mr. Marshall tampered with it for his own benefit.

Throughout her testimony, Ms. Rafferty showed her sang-froid. She impressed me.

Testifying at a criminal trial may have been one of Ms. Rafferty’s more stressful chores as president of America’s most prominent museum, but she pulled it off with characteristic aplomb.

“My relationship with Brooke Astor was a respectful one,” Ms. Rafferty remembered as she sat in her office overlooking Central Park on Monday afternoon. “We were devoted to each other in a wonderful way.”

She announced her retirement on July 29 after almost four decades at the Met, the past 10 years as its president.

I was told her decision took the museum’s top echelon by surprise.

“Somewhere between surprise and seismic shock,” as one of its executives put it.

Ms. Rafferty, who is 65, said she has no idea what she’ll do next.

“It’s truly a blank slate,” she said. “I came to the decision after a lot of thought. I’d like to have another experience in the public sector; I don’t know what it will be yet. My time clock gave me every possible signal.”

One of the Met’s projects at the moment—a collaboration with the Whitney Museum of American Art to present Met exhibitions at the Whitney’s landmark Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue when the Whitney moves downtown next year—would seem tailor-made for Ms. Rafferty’s administrative skills.

But she sounds unworried about its success without her.

“I’ve never gone to bed one time and felt the job was done,” Ms. Rafferty explained.

However, she added, “I do feel I’m leaving at a good time for the museum. Tom Campbell will be entering his seventh year as director. We’ve had a wonderful partnership.”

Ms. Rafferty’s congested desk is a study in organization, its composition of documents, memos, Post-it Notes, and printed emails no less rigorous than that of the Hubert Robert landscape that hangs on one wall.

She also has a large hand in fundraising—”I’m good at raising money,” she said—and, serving in an ex officio capacity, in handling the healthy egos on the Met’s Board of Trustees, perhaps the city’s most prominent and socially prestigious.

Ms. Rafferty resisted the invitation to dish about the power-broker personalities she has encountered there over the years.

“I’ve been offered the opportunity to meet extremely important people,” during her career, she acknowledged. “Queens, prime ministers, kings, heads of state. But universally, I look for the human quality. Their lives don’t all go smoothly.”

She has even been stuck in an elevator at the Met with the emperor and empress of Japan. They spoke perfect English.

“She said, ‘We’re able to take the elevator,’ ” the Met president remembered.

Ms. Rafferty grew up on Park Avenue, roller skating past the museum on her way to and from school at the Convent of the Sacred Heart.

These days, she’s a West Sider. She and husband John Rafferty, a retired partner with Ernst & Young, raised their two children there.

“I find the light on the West Side totally ravishing,” compared to the East Side, she said—a distinction perhaps best made by a native New Yorker. “I wanted my children to have rooms that were exposed to light all the time.”

After all these years at the Met, she remains humble about her knowledge of art, even though her appreciation for a John Singer Sargent portrait of two peasant women in her office—”The ambassador from Morocco was here; he said it’s definitely Moroccan”—makes it clear her relationships with Mr. Campbell; the director before him, Philippe de Montebello; and the museum’s dozens of department curators have rubbed off.

“Look at the lines,” she said. “Look at the flow of the skirt.”

Ms. Rafferty hopes to travel more after she leaves the Met. In any case, she probably won’t have any trouble filling her calendar. She also serves as chairman of the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York; of NYC & Company, the city’s marketing and tourism agency; and as a board member of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.

Whatever she does, New York City will remain her base of operations.

“I wound up where I grew up. But I grew up were I wound up,” she said. “I owe to this place an enormous amount of opportunity for personal development.”

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Seeing the Merit in Moths

The Wall Street Journal By RALPH GARDNER JR. 
Aug. 5, 2014 9:35 p.m. ET

The American Museum of Natural History contains its moth collection in thousands of glass-topped drawers like the one pictured.         Brandon Thibodeaux for The Wall Street Journal

I don’t feel especially guilty that I missed National Moth Week 2014 a couple of weeks ago. As far as I’m concerned, every week of spring and summer, and sometimes even fall and the occasional unseasonably warm stretch of winter, is National Moth Week. These insects don’t seem to miss any opportunity to beat against your screens, feeling compelled to reach your reading light while you’re otherwise snug in bed, and give you the creeps.

David Grimaldi, curator of invertebrate zoology, with a tray of Chrysiridia Rhipheus moths.Brandon Thibodeaux for The Wall Street Journal

Actually, I do feel somewhat guilty. My hunch is that moths don’t get the credit they deserve. They’re like the unpopular kids in high school—all the attention and fun accruing to the beautiful ones. I’m speaking of butterflies, of course.

In an effort to confront and perhaps erase my prejudices, I paid a visit to the American Museum of Natural History last week. It has one of the world’s great moth collections. I also met with David Grimaldi, the museum’s curator of invertebrate zoology. Dr. Grimaldi has a particular interest in moths.

I shared everything I knew about moths and butterflies. That moths are generally nondescript. (I didn’t want to poison the well by describing them as ugly.) And they seem to have a particular talent for annoying humans.

Butterflies, on the other hand, are beautiful and we love them. Also, butterflies fly during the day and moths at night.

Dr. Grimaldi quickly disabused me of my ignorance. First of all, he explained that people who study moths feel in no way inferior to butterfly aficionados. “There are only 10,000 species of butterflies,” he said. “And the rest of the 160,000 species of Lepidoptera are moths. Butterflies are just a tiny lineage of moths that are day-flying and gaudy.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself. Butterflies are exquisite and fly during the day, when we can enjoy them. Moths are brown, bombard you at night—while you’re simultaneously being attacked by mosquitoes—and totally freak you out.

Dr. Grimaldi prefers to think of the average moth’s coloration—not that he finds anything average about them—as “cryptic” rather than boring. “When you fly during the day, you don’t camouflage yourself,” the zoologist said of butterflies. “They advertise themselves” to the opposite sex, or to intimidate predators.

Dr. Grimaldi described moths’ coloration as subtle and delicate—”tweeds and tapestries.”

I liked that.

Trying to reach across the moth/butterfly divide, I acknowledged that Luna moths—one visited our home recently and now resides in our wunderkammer (it died of natural causes; we had nothing to do with its demise)—as the equal of any butterfly in terms of size, majesty and beauty.

Mr. Grimaldi holds a case of Comet moths from Madagascar. Brandon Thibodeaux for The Wall Street Journal

Dr. Grimaldi seemed unimpressed by my effort at diplomacy. “They’re not particularly large,” he stated. He mentioned Hyalophora cecropia, North America’s largest native moth. “The largest one ever recorded,” the scientist reported, “had a wing span of a foot.”

Imagine going for a romantic moonlit walk in the woods and having that thing land on your head. Or how about a White Witch, an example of which sat on a high shelf in Dr. Grimaldi’s office. “It looks like a white bat when it’s flying,” he said.

But his larger point is that not all moths are brown and nocturnal. Some are day-flying. More to the point, they can be as beautiful as butterflies. For example, India’s green, turquoise, black and orange Zygaenidae. Or Madagascar’s Comet moth, which makes a swallowtail butterfly looked like chopped liver.

The zoologist made his point by giving us a guided tour of the museum’s collection, which includes thousands of glass-topped drawers filled with moths carefully arranged on pins. It included everything from almost microscopically small moths toSesiidae—”they’re wonderful wasp mimics; that’s how they protect themselves”—to, perhaps my personal favorite, Attacus atlas, found in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia and considered to be the largest moth in the world in terms of total wing surface.

But as impressive as its size is its decoration. Its wings include small windows. Dr. Grimaldi explained why: “Sunlight comes through and helps camouflage the insect when it’s resting.”

Isn’t evolution amazing?

As is the museum’s 3.5 million-strong Lepidoptera collection, which even includes a few specimens collected by the great British naturalist and Charles Darwin rival Alfred Russel Wallace. Indeed, there’s something moving about removing a tray of Luna moths and discovering a card with a lovingly rendered watercolor of a Luna moth caterpillar by some anonymous 19th century collector.

Dr. Grimaldi said the collection definitely sparks a connection to his scientific forebears. But its importance well transcends sentimentality. “We’re able to track historical changes,” he explained. “We can see changes in the northern edge of the distribution and decline in the population size and range.”

As amazing as I’m now persuaded moths are, the scientist said not to expect them to guest star in the museum’s celebrated free-flying butterfly vivarium anytime soon. “Moths are more difficult to exhibit,” Dr. Grimaldi admitted. “They won’t flutter around much.”

Bully for Bangers and Chocolate

Aug. 4, 2014 9:29 p.m. ET

Pete Myers with daughter Jennifer Myers in his Hudson Street shop, which caters to British expatriates.               Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal

The splendor of New York City is that some store, somewhere, has the product you’re looking for—no matter how exotic.

That’s what propelled me to the British grocery Myers of Keswick a few days ago. It’s on Hudson Street between Horatio and Jane.

But saying that Myers of Keswick specializes in British products is a grotesque understatement. The experience is similar to taking a trip to the British Isles absent the airfare.

I’d come hungering for three items, starting with bangers—British breakfast sausages. I can’t really explain why bangers. Last spring, I was down in the British Virgin Islands where I’d been able to find them in the past. But not this time. However, once your appetite is whet, there’s no turning back.

Also, I’d recently watched “The Trip,” where Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon travel the Lake District and have several lovely meals, starting with a typical “fry,” or full, breakfast. I wanted a fry.

Next on my shopping list was a particular kind of marmalade: Frank Cooper’s Original Oxford (Course Cut Seville Orange.) After reading a column I’d written about marmalade, a British acquaintance informed me that Frank Cooper’s is the real thing and sent me a jar.

He wasn’t joking. It’s solemn stuff.

Mr. Myers’s pork pies stacked high. Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal

Finally, there was my urge for British chocolate. Which I’m willing to admit is a full-fledged addiction. I wish I could kick it, but not really. I know how people hooked on cigarettes or worse feel.

My habit started when I was 8 years old, traveled to Ireland on summer vacation, and had my first Cadbury Flake. Or perhaps it was a 6-pence Dairy Milk chocolate bar.

I’d brought along $5 for the whole summer. (This was a long time ago when $5 was a huge sum.) But I blew it in the first week on British candy and spent the remainder of June, July and August begging me parents for money. It got pretty ugly.

Fortunately, it’s easier to get Flake, Dairy Milk and other British candies in New York than it used to be. Fairway, for instance, carries them. But I was still looking forward to basking in Myers’s selection, and curious whether the shop might carry Fry’s Chocolate Cream, a tasty dark chocolate candy bar with a fondant filling that I haven’t seen lately, even on visits to the United Kingdom.

Not only does Myers carry bangers—I was relieved to see as soon as I set foot in the store—but also pork pie, sausage roll, Cornish pastie and shepherd’s pie.

Pete Myers, who opened the store in 1985, told me in a telephone interview later that he comes from a long line of Keswick sausage makers.

“My father and grandfather was a butcher,” he explained.

There are probably many reasons he isn’t. But perhaps the most relevant is that the Keswick’s Lake District tourist economy didn’t lend itself to survival.

“The winter you could hibernate,” he said. “There were 11 butcher shops. Now there’s only one.”

He moved to the U.S. to find his fortune. Or rather his fortune found him.

“I met a guy from the consulate,” he said. “I remember him distinctly telling me there were 150,000 [Brits] in the city and another 100,000 in the tri-state area. Since then, I’ve heard there a million Brits on the East Coast.”

Mr. Myers said 90% of his clientele is British.

I’m pleased to report Mr. Myers shares my passion for his native candy bars.

“Fry’s cream. One of my favorites,” he said, even though he sadly doesn’t carry it. “In the purple-and-white wrapper. They’re ancient. They’ve been around forever.”

That doesn’t mean he endorses his entire inventory; the store these days is run by his daughter.

“We sell one called Refreshers,” he said, referring to a hard candy that apparently has an audience, though not with him. “Which I think are repulsive. I can’t stand them. They’re shockingly awful.”

We bonded over Cadbury Flake, which looks like a chocolate log and literally melts in your mouth. If I can quote the wrapper—it’s “the crumbliest, flakiest milk chocolate.” Ever.

“You can’t beat a plain Flake,” one of us said.

“Absolutely,” agreed the other.

Tins of Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls and Flake bars. Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal

We also had a learned discussion about whether Cadbury’s Dairy Milk made in Ireland tastes different than the same candy bar made England.

(Whether you can taste the difference between Cadbury’s Dairy Milk made in Britain and in the U.S. is a whole other discussion.)

An Irish friend of mine claimed his country’s milk is different, better, imparting a slightly sour taste to the candy bar, a bit of a yin-yang. I tend to agree.

“I’ve heard the same story,” Mr. Myers said without taking sides.

“They do have peculiar taste, the British,” he acknowledged. “We sell an item called Mushy Peas. That’s exactly what it is. It’s vegetables for people with no teeth.”