A response from Farmer Gasper

P1130156 You will recall that, while in Kansas City, I bought some grass-fed meat and a dozen eggs from Gasper Farms, a small, sustainable-run family farm near Lawrence, Kansas.  In an entry here, I wrote about my comparison of one of their eggs and a standard supermarket egg.  In the end my test (admitedly very unscientific) didn’t show much of a conclusive result.  I also noted that the sustainably-produced egg had a much paler yolk than I expected.

Well, I’m not sure what clipping service he subscribes to, but Pete Gasper – Farmer Gasper himself – responded to that entry.  Here’s what he had to say:

The thing with sustainable food is it changes with the seasons. I like to see darker yolks than that, but in the winter the chickens just don’t get the grass and bugs they normally would.

The industrial outfits just fake it by feeding things which artificially color the yolk.

So there you have it, folks: a good explanation and nice follow-up.  Two cheers for the family farmer!


A visit from the country mice

Another first: Ajarn Yai, the retired director of the country school where I used to volunteer as an English teacher, came to the big city to visit me.  For more than a year, she has said she would come see our new house.  But I was actually surprised when she called last week to tell me that she and another retired teacher from the school would visit on Monday.

P1130512 With the worry that most people save for visiting in-laws, I tidied up the house, prepared some small snacks and brewed both iced and hot tea.  It took several phone calls to clarify driving directions and I finally had to wait downstairs to wave my arms when they drove down the street.

In the back of her former student’s pickup truck (he had agreed to drive her) were gifts for me and Tawn: two dozen coconuts and a dozen large bags of palm sugar made on the student’s plantation.  Additionally, she had a large bag of a local snack mix that includes tiny dried fish, rice crackers and peas.

The visit was interesting: I showed them around the condo, which Ajarn Yai pronounced beautiful but then went on and on about how it must be so expensive.  Houses in her town are much less expensive, of course.  Houses in her town are also at the end of an unpaved trail behind a temple, several kilometers from the town itself.

I served tea, invited my guests to sample the different snacks, and tried to carry the conversation mostly in Thai.  The other teacher and the driver sat on the sofa much in the same way you might sit on your Victorian Aunt Millie’s lace doily lined sofa: musn’t muss things up!  The atmosphere felt kind of stilted and I never was able to convince anyone to snack, although they liked the tea.

After a few minutes, Ken arrived, which livened things up considerably. 

We headed to lunch at a local Thai restaurant.  I had originally thought it might be nice to take them for Japanese or Italian, but am glad I didn’t as that would have been a fish way too far out of water.

At the restaurant, everyone had menus but deferred to me – the farang and the youngest at the table – to order.  I tried to see what everyone would like or if there was anything catching their interest, but kept being deferred to.

I ordered as best I could, trying to remember what Tawn has taught me about creating the proper balance of Thai dishes.  When the food arrived, which was delicious and plentiful, the Thais ate with uncharacteristic timidity.  Normally, when I eat with the teachers at a restaurant in Samut Songkhram, appetites are hearty and people serve others and themselves, eating with gusto.

Monday afternoon, however, it was a very “refined” dining experience.  They seemed to enjoy the food and ate plenty in the end, though.  I tried to engage the other teacher in conversation, but she wasn’t very responsive.  Ajarn Yai did relax a bit and we ended up having a good conversation, mixing Thai and English and translating for Ken as necessary. 

Tawn laughed when I told him about the experience.  He explained that both the other teacher and the former student were there to make sure Ajarn Yai had a good time; it was her trip, after all.  So he wasn’t surprised they were so quiet and kind of “melted” into the background.  He also pointed out that the restaurant, which I consider to be just a mid-range restaurant, would be very high end by their standards.  So their “discomfort” was the same thing I might exhibit when I go walking in to the fancy home of some friend’s well-off parents.

All in all, though, it was a nice visit and I’m glad she made the effort.  Ajarn Yai still harangues me about taking her to the United States.  Maybe one day.  If she felt out of water just on this short visit to see me in Krungthep, imagine if we were in the US.


Temps Hit Nine-Year Low

P1130505 As much as you folks in the further reaches of the Northern hemisphere may scoff at it, Thailand has been in the grip of a high pressure trough which has dropped down from China, bringing with it the chilly Siberian air. 

Temperatures Sunday night hit an nine-year low in Khrungthep: 15 C / 59 F.  The last time we were colder was on Christmas Day 1999: 13.2 C / 56 F while the coldest I could find on record was January 12, 1955 at 10 C / 50 F.

“Oh, that’s nothing!” scoffed one of Tawn’s former colleagues, a British expat still living in our tropical paradise.  “Thais don’t know what cold weather really is!”

Put it into perspective, though.  Our average low temperature in December and January is 21 C / 70 F.  So we’re significantly cooler than the norms and much cooler than I’ve experienced since I moved here in October 2005.  People aren’t used to this and even I closed the windows today for fear I would catch a chill from the cross-ventilation. 

Tawn even reported that one rider on the SkyTrain was wearing earmuffs, although that may be just because the air con is often quite cool on the train.  We would see this at the cinemas, too, but then the digital sound (which is cranked up to 10, by the way) would be muffled.

Thailand In Loei province, in the more mountainous north, the overnight low was 2 C / 36 F.  Provincial governors have been coordinating the emergency distribution of blankets.

And last night a monk in his 70s died from exposure in Ayutthaya, about ninety minutes by car north of Khrungthep.  He had only a knit cap and a jacket to add warmth to his robes, and was discovered in his cell by other monks when he failed to show up for the early morning alms collection rounds.

Speaking of knit caps and jackets, Tawn has dug deep into his closet and is enjoying this opportunity to layer and dress in a more wintry fashion.  Above, a wool vest purchased at Macy’s while in the US.  Below, an ascot and sportscoat keeps Tawn warm while enjoying his morning oatmeal on our balcony.


Oatmeal isn’t the only cozy food we’re eating.  Last night I heated up the Dutch oven and cooked some split pea soup.  I’m perusing other hearty recipes that will help us get past this cold front until the warmer days of the hot season return.  Tis the season for braising!


Bargain of the year

The trip to the US last month included a lot of shopping, a fact about which I was reminded when I went to pay my credit card bill online yesterday.  Ouch.  But I’m glad to say that we didn’t shop impulsively.  Between trips overseas we keep a running list of things we’re looking for that we haven’t found in Khrungthep, or which we think are just too expensive here.  So when we do arrive in the US, purchases are purposeful and long-considered.

Along the way, we also hunt for bargains.  This trip, we managed to score what I roundly consider to be our bargain of 2008, short of that free dinner we received from Patrick when we met at Ember on Soi Langsuan.

One of the things we did when I grew up, something I’m told is very Midwestern (despite having been raised in the Bay Area by parents of midwestern origin), is to keep a compost pile.  Compostable matter, scraps from veggies, peels, stems, eggshells, etc. would be placed in a container, to be taken to the compost pile each night.  Likewise, “wet” garbage – chicken bones, meat scraps, other things that would otherwise foul up the rest of the trash – we segregated, usually in a milk carton, and taken out the night before the garbage collectors arrived.

That’s a habit I continue to this day.  No compost pile (no garden in our condo, I’m afraid) but I do place our wet garbage in a separate container.  This is something that took a long time for Tawn to get used to.  But I finally won him over when he observed that our building’s janitorial crew actually sort through all the trash, pulling out recyclables.  As such, if wet garbage is mixed in, it not only contaminates the recyclables, but it makes for a very unpleasant job sorting.

Even as he was won over on the value of separating the wet garbage, he didn’t think the milk carton is very pretty sitting on the counter.  So ever since we moved into this condo more than a year ago, we’ve been looking for an acceptable container, something ceramic, with a tight fitting lid and straight sides, that could replace the milk cartons.

Several initial selections by Tawn were very decorative, but were utterly lacking in practicality.  The size was too small, the neck of the container too narrow (so that you couldn’t pull the bag of garbage out after it was full), etc.

So “wet garbage container” has been on our mental shopping list for many, many months.

While we were in Kansas City, we stopped by Dean and Deluca, the famed foodstuffs store out of New York City.  On a rack near the dessert counter, set way up high and covered with a layer of dust, were three ceramic crocks, about 15 inches high.  The crocks contained biscotti from De Camillo Bakery in Niagra Falls, NY, the expiration date of which had passed six months earlier.

P1130502 The price tag reinforced the reason for a layer of dust.  The price had started at $120, marked down to $80 and then again to $60.

We discussed whether or not to buy the crock, which at $60 was still a bit pricey.  But after a year of looking, we had not found anything that seemed to meet our expectations so nicely, so maybe this was worth paying the money for.  We decided to get it.

When I stepped up to the register, the cashier scanned the bar code but it didn’t register in the system.  Looking it over, she asked where I had found it.  I pointed back towards the dessert counter, “On that shelf over there.”

“Oh, the discount shelf?” she asked.  I had not noticed that next to the dessert counter was another shelf filled with discounted, mostly holiday, items.  Not knowing whether or not my purchase was in fact a discounted item, but considering the dust and overdue expiration date, I replied “yes”.

The cashier manually entered the last price, $60, and then a code giving a 75% discount.  Final price was $15 down from the original price of $120. 

We’re back home and the crock is in use.  It is large enough to hold several days’ worth of wet garbage.  The lid fits tightly to keep any smells in and any flies out.  All in all, a very satisfactory purchase.  And, at 87.5% off the original price, my bargain of 2008.


The Postal Service Just Confuses the Heck Out of Me

You’re going to call me crazy for expecting anything else, but the United States Postal Service just confuses me to no end.  Of the hundred and fifty holiday cards I sent out (yes, by snail mail… call me old-fashioned), I’ve already received four of them back with incorrect addresses.

One of them was from Australia and while the address was correct, the house was new and the owners had not yet installed a mail box out front.  Okay, fair enough.

Cliff Three of the returned cards were from the United States.  One of them has a sticker that says “Return to sender – attempted to forward, address not known.”  Again, fair enough.  The recipient of the card (Mr. Niwano!) has not informed me of an address change so what can I expect the USPS to do?

(There’s a whole other blog entry on the topic of letting people know in this digital age when your snail mail address has changed.)

But two of the returned cards really confused me:

The first card, the sticker tells me that the forwarding time has expired, but helpfully lists the new address, which is in the same postal code. 

Checking with Google maps, it seems that the new address is exactly 2.3 miles form the old address.  So, in their infinite financial wisdom, the United States Postal Service decided to return the card about 7,934 miles (by the great circle route) rather than forward it to an address they have, 2.3 miles away.

The second card, the stamp tells me that they are unable to forward the card.  It seems that I’ve transposed two digits in the house number.  How do I know.  Because some postal employee crossed out the incorrect number (4305) and wrote the correct number (4035).  Then sent it back to me. 

Again looking at Google maps, it seems that the recipient’s street is only one block long, so it isn’t like the postal employee had to walk two blocks to deliver it.  He or she already knew the correct address but couldn’t be troubled to deliver it there!

You tell me, please, what exactly I’m getting for my 42 cents.


Interesting turn

In the LA Times on Monday, Bob Barr, Republican from Georgia from 1995-2003 and the 2008 Libertarian Party candidate for President of the United States, explains in this op-ed piece why the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which exempts states from having to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, should be repealed.

What is tremendously interesting about this, is that Bob Barr was the author of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Let’s be clear: Bob Barr is not necessarily advocating same-sex marriage.  But as a Federalist, a believer that the states’ rights trump the rights of the federal government, he makes a compelling argument why DOMA has failed.

Considering that President-elect Obama has indicated that he feels DOMA’s time has passed, this could prove to be a very interesting turn of events. 


The cycle continues

The adjustment back to Khrungthep local time has been a tough one.  I managed to have an upset stomach the day after I returned, possibly caused by jet lag, and then have been waking up at various odd hours the past few mornings: 12:50 am yesterday, 2:40 am today.

I’m not worrying about it, though.  The nature of my job is such that I can do my work pretty much at any time.  So if I’m awake in the middle of the night, I can work then and nap in the afternoon, instead.  Besides, the jet lag will wear off and normal sleeping patterns will return.

The coming of the New Year has brought some sadness to those near us.  Two days before the end of the year, Tam and Pune’s mother passed away up in Pan, outside of Chiang Rai.  Pune is already living in Germany and Tam is scheduled to move there in the next few months with his husband, Markus.  Sadly, this will mean that they won’t have much of a familial connection left here.

Then on Monday we received news that Ja’s father had unexpectedly passed away.  He had been suffering some health issues, but nothing that was considered immediately life threatening.

When a Buddhist dies here in Thailand, the funeral events have a way of taking precedence in others’ lives.  This is because the (usually) five nights of chanting commence on the first day of death, so there is no postponing things for a few days to allow people time to clear their schedules.  It is this custom that really emphasizes the ties that bind families, friends and communities together. 

Unfortunately, we were not in town for Tam and Pune’s mother’s funeral ceremonies.  But Tawn attended services for Ja’s father on Monday and we’ll both attend this evening.

A reminder of the nature of life: we are born, we grow up, we grow old and sick, then we die.


But I Married Your Mother Anyway

Sapphire Rain had this cartoon as part of her recent entry on a court case restricting a woman’s lesbian partner from spending the night.  The sentiment of the comic really hits home.


Here’s to hoping that in another decade or two, we’ll look back on the issue of gay marriage and, just as we look back at the anti-miscengenation laws that were on the books up until the 1960s, wonder what in the world we were thinking.


Return to the Big Mango

After two full weeks in the United States, Tawn and I departed Friday afternoon from San Francisco en route to Taipei and, eighteen hours later, Khrungthep.  The heavy drizzle which had greeted our arrival to San Francisco on December 18th had returned to see us off.

In the morning, we met with Brian and Keng (who had arrived the night before from Khrungthep) for breakfast at Chloe’s, a Church Street diner that has long been a favorite of mine.  Below, a view of this cozy breakfast spot.


Chloe’s has a Thai connection.  Several, in fact.  Over the years there have been many Thai servers and it turns out that the man in the apron, above, lived in Thailand with his partner for many years, speaks Thai, and is planning on moving here again in 2009.  I gave him my card and we’ll see if you end up seeing him again here in this blog.

Below, the pumpkin ginger pancakes and the tomato, basil and brie scramble.

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It was fun to see people from home (Khrungthep) in SF, especially as we had gone to see a show with Brian and Keng just two days before we left on vacation.  Below from left: Brian, Keng, Tawn and me.


The drizzle cleared as we returned the rental car to the airport.  We checked in a bit early since the car was due back at 1:00 even though the flight wasn’t until 4:10.  That gave us some time to browse around the largely empty SF Int’l Airport and then sit and read while waiting for our plane.  Below, our EVA 777 taxis to the gate on still-wet pavement.


The flight out was on-time and smooth.  We had a beautiful view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge as we climbed to our cruising altitude.  While the flight was long (13.5 hours to Taipei, another 3.5 to Bangkok) our connection in Taipei was short and so we didn’t feel like any time was spent lingering.


We landed just after 2:00 this morning and were at home and in bed by 4:00.  I managed nearly eight hours of sleep, although Tawn was up several hours earlier.

There were probably be some more reflection on this trip as I sink back into my normal routine over the next few days.  For now, though, I’ll just say that it is good to be home.


Last Bites of SF

P1130304 As 2009 came to a start, our trip to the US came to an end.  Wednesday morning, Jenn and Kevin and the girls drove us up to the airport for our flight back to San Francisco. 

The girls had been moody all morning, their usual reaction when we are leaving them.  Emily wasn’t willing to get out of the van when we reached the airport, right. 

Seems mighty stubborn to me, especially since her sister was willing to get out of the van and join us on the curb of the terminal for one final photo, below.  But then, Emily is a “cut off your nose to spite your face” kind of person.


The three and a half hour flight back to the West Coast was smooth.  There was a heavy layer of fog over the bay and we actually didn’t pull out of the fog until we were crossing the runway threshold, something that appeared to be near the limits of acceptable landing visibility.

For these final two days in SF, we rented a car.  With the New Year’s holiday, we knew that parking enforcement wouldn’t be much of an issue and as we had some engagements in the East Bay, having a car would be very helpful.

Wednesday evening, New Year’s Eve, I surprised Tawn with tickets to see The Phantom of the Opera, which is showing right now at the Orpheum Theatre.  I have seen this show three times before but Tawn never has, so it was a nice treat.  John Cudia made for a very effective Phantom but overall the show’s production was just okay.  I think the audio system at the Orpheum is not very good, more like listening to an AM radio than is okay for such expensive tickets.

Still, it was fun and we spent the evening together, which is what is really important.


We preceded the show with an early dinner at Little Star Pizza.  With two locations in SF, we walked to the Valencia and 15th street branch.  They do deep-dish Chicago style pizza, along the lines of what Zachary’s in Berkeley provides.  My one complain with Zachary’s is that their crust isn’t very good.  Sure enough, Little Star has this problem solved with a buttery, cornmeal-laden crust that is much more substantive and tender than Zachary’s. 

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Click on a thumbnail for a larger version.  From L to R: Caprese salad with tomatoes and wonderful fresh mozzarella cheese; a deconstructed garlic bread with bread, butter and a roasted bulb of garlic – spread it yourself; a “small” pie, half with the Little Star special (spinach, onions, feta/ricotta/mozzarella cheese) and half with the Classic (mushrooms, sausage, peppers and onion).   Heavenly.

New Year’s Day we awoke relatively early since we were just climbing into bed when the fireworks went off the night before.  We walked down to Tartine for one more taste of their lovely pastries.  Below, a view into their kitchen with Guererro Street reflected. 



Above, the best croissant I’ve tasted outside of Paris with a bowl of latte.

The Mission District is a fascinating neighborhood with lots of little gems like Tartine.  Another gem, just down 18th Street from Tartine, is the Bi-Rite grocery store.  Lovingly maintained, it has a retro feel but a very contemporary selection of foodstuffs.



Above, Tawn ponders the selection of fresh fruits and veggies.

We walked back through the Castro and then back down Market Street to Anita’s in order to get some exercise.  There was a pretty side street with leaves that looked autumnal, strewn in the gutters and on the cars.


Speaking of cars, we rented a Toyota Prius hybrid, the first time I’ve ever driven one.  What a weird and wonderful vehicle!  No ignition switch; just a on/off button.  I spend the drive watching the efficiency display, moderating my speed and trying to keep the efficiency as high as possible.  So far we have driven 120 miles and have a 44.3 miles per gallon average.  The needle on the gas gauge has barely moved.


After Tartine we drove over to the East Bay, stopping in a my aunt and uncle’s house for a New Year’s brunch.  Everyone was there, including my cousins Alex and Bill who had flown up from Long Beach the night before.  Below, my cousin Patrick holds Logan, the son of family friends and a frequent topic of Alex’s blog.


After a visit to Bruce and Howie’s in San Ramon, we returned to the city to face the most difficult task: packing.  The last item we purchased on our list was a new comforter at Macy’s.  There was a sale and we paid a nice, low price, but getting a comforter into our suitcase is proving to be a challenge.  One that has not been solved eight hours before our plane departs.

We enjoyed some mid-afternoon bottles of champagne with Anita, Lilian and Tanya, then set out for Cha Cha Cha, the “all-powerful” Cuban tapas restaurant that is always on our to eat at list.  The Mission District location was busy but the wait wasn’t too long, a wait shortened by a pitcher of sangria.


From the left: Tawn, Anita, Tanya, Lilian and me.

We ordered all of the usuals.  From upper left, clockwise: fried calamari, fried new potatoes with garlic-chili aioli, chicken paillard, sauteed mushrooms, fried plantains with black bean sauce, warm spinach salad.

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We had a wonderful time and once we returned home, were too exhausted to do any further packing.  Which is why, as soon as I finish this paragraph, I’m going to return to tackling the comforter problem.  We leave this afternoon.