The Weight of the Choice

East of Eden was the first classic in English I picked up to read.  The biblical reference in its title seemed mysteriously intriguing, and the fact that John Steinbeck set the story in the Salinas Valley not far from where I currently live added to my curiosity tremendously.  The experience turned out to be simply marvelous.

This 600-page novel tells the lives of the Trask family together with a number of other characters on the periphery.  Their life paths of these characters, all with radiant virtues (maybe except for one person on this end) and woeful flaws  interweave in to a story so vividly real and relatable.  The novel, however, does far more than just evoking empathy.   As the fate of each character unravels with both inevitability and unpredictability, it stimulates reflections on subjects as deep as the fundamental meaning of life.  The story convincingly leads to the author’s eventual exclamation on the principal theme, that all humans face a crucial choice between good and evil.

The protagonist, Adam Trask, bears multiple allusions to the accounts of Genesis in the Holy Bible, but mainly points to the First Man.  Innocent to begin with, he is tempted in the grandest scale.  Fallen to the darkest abyss and struggling to recuperate, he inadvertently passes the weight of his suffering to the next generation.   Cal and Aron, Adam’s twin sons, fulfill the novel’s reference to the biblical tragedy on the land to the east of Eden with a heart-wrenching tale.  Cathy Ames, the novel’s antagonist, seems to be a rendition of pure evil that not only plagues the Trasks, but also corrupts the entire Salinas Valley.   The slightest human soul of hers eventually awakens in the forms of fear and guilt, which lead to her demise.

On the surface, the novel may look like a masterpiece of melodrama that incorporates all the necessary elements—love affairs, sibling rivalry, family feuds, conspiracy, murder, sexual scandals…  But to me, all of these only fortify the central theme in the most powerful way.  The temptations that everyone in the novel encounters are painfully realistic.  The author seems to have raised a philosophical paradox about the flaws each one of the characters are born with.  These flaws may be the culprit of the transgressions they commit, the agony they inflict on one another, and eventually the consequences they have to take on their own.  Translating to the physical world, the author recognizes war as a destructive incarnation of human sin.  But more subtly and cautiously, he criticizes the traceless loss of conscience, induced by the pursuit of  financial prosperity at the time when technology brings unimaginable opportunities to the world.

On his deathbed, Adam Trask utters his final word to his surviving son Cal—Timshel, which means “thou mayest” in Hebrew.  To me, it reveals the author’s utmost urge to the world, that no matter how dark the surrounding, how miserable the heart, we all have the power, and maybe more critically, the obligation, to choose.   As a Protestant, I find this message comforting and reassuring.  He also says in the book, “… it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal.  Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.”  Firm as he is about the fortitude of good, in the way he wrote the novel he seems uncertain about its origin and universality, or the means by which to persevere in its pursuit.  Timshel only points to half of that vital truth.  —WZ

 

Sunshine After the Storm

I landed in Orlando, Florida, right after the catastrophic Hurricane Irma had passed the state.  Overlooking from the airplane, all seemed to be normal already.  Slightly overcast but no wind or rain, the city felt perfectly normal;  only patches of palm trees and pockets of wetland at the end of the sight reminded me this was the tropical Southeast.

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The lion statue at the Bridge of Lions in St. Augustine

I finally got to have a relaxed appreciation of this area after a few days of in-and-out of conferences, meetings, and dinners.  Northeast from the city of Disney World and Universal Studios, the road led me through lush wide-leafed woods and humble residential houses.  At this point, the impact of the hurricane started to show.  Only few of the giant billboards along the roads were intact; debris piles of tree branches lined up; some houses still had sealed windows and doors, indicating the absence of their owners.  To my comfort, my destination, the old town of St. Augustine was calm but vividly colorful.  Spanish colonial architecture of various shades of bight colors, studded with tall cathedrals and stone monuments, revealed a charisma different from most American towns I had been too.  After all, this was one of the earliest European settlements on the North American land.

Castillo de San Marcos was a 17th-century masonry fort built at the shore of Matanzas Bay in St. Augustine, guarding the  waterway that led to the Northern Florida.  Over the past three hundred years, this fort had witnessed the richness of history on this land.  Its ownership had been exchanged multiple times, between the rivalry of Spanish and English colonist armies in the early years, and similarly, between the Confederate States and United States during the American Civil War.  Constructed with coquina, a sedimentary rock composed of ancient seashells and corals, which had been quarried locally, the fort’s extraordinary mechanical strength had successfully resisted firepower from these historic battles, and remained its original form today.

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Wall of Castillo de San Marcos and water-filled moat
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One of the sentries

When I started to stroll on the broad roof of the fort, I realized that it had a simple, square outline.  On each corner of the square, however,  an arrow-head-shaped bastion protruded, each with a garita (sentry in Spanish) at the tip, silently boasting its defensive sharpness.  At that moment, the fort felt like a colossus ancient beast in dormancy.  The numerous marks of erosion on its grey skin testified to its age, but it felt firm, solemn, even a bit grim.  After all, besides the battles it had endured, it eventually became a prison that claimed the freedom and lives of a large number of Native Americans towards the end of the 19th century.  Landmarks like this are often times mesmerizing in many ways.  On the one hand, they may be remarkable demonstrations of engineering excellence or artistic merit.  But more often than we imagine, they expose a fragment of history that triggers our introspection.

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Fishing along the quiet lagoon

Going south along the scenic Florida A1A toward my next destination was a pleasant drive.  The wavy Atlantic and calm lagoons on the two sides of the road composed a dramatic contrast.  Cars were still scarce shortly after the hurricane, and most of the vacation beach houses and resorts looked idle.  Sporadic piles of debris added some ruggedness rare to tropical beaches.  By the lagoons, however, joggers and fishers were already out enjoying a peaceful afternoon.  It was difficult not to pull over and take a closer gaze at this scene in front of me.  The clear, still water extended into clusters of emerald woods at the end of the sight; the humid, warm air brought slight saltiness that felt so strangely exciting to me; the sound of clashing waves echoed gently from far behind.   This corner of the world became surreal.

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Looking south on Canaveral Seashore
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Shells on the beach

And all led to absolute reclusiveness when I approached Canaveral National Seashore.  This federally preserved and protected area includes a 15-mile-long barrier island, its adjacent wetlands, and thousands of species residing there. The Atlantic Ocean continued to fascinate me with its warm embrace, coarse sands, and colorful seashells.  Thriving marsh plants weaved into blankets and rose like towers, rendering the land with prominent livelihood.  Flocks of large shorebirds—egrets, storks, pelicans—were leisurely gliding over the sky.   In water, families of endangered manatees surprised me many times while I as pondering upon the lagoon scenery.  My stay was quick and short, and yet it relaxed and amazed me perfectly.

When I stopped at the visitor center, the worker there explained that this was actually the first day that the seashore park reopened after the hurricane.  Parts of the park were still closed due to the hurricane damage.  “We are still in a rough shape.” She explained apologetically.   I responded with a word of appreciation.   So often we travel with the expectation of being entertained, and Orlando evokes none other than the paramount of such expectations.  I was so glad I had chosen to visit these hidden gems to appreciate and celebrate something far more worthy.


My trip to the southern states left me with many wonderful culinary experiences.  With the leftover North Carolina barbecue pork in my last post, I also tried to recreate Brunswick stew that I had enjoyed.  It was a tomato-based soup with chunky meats and a medley of vegetables, which was delicious, hearty, and nutritious.  Jamie Deen’s recipe seemed to resemble what I had eaten most closely, and the outcome of the imitation was satisfactory.  By the way, it was the first time I used baby lima beans in cooking, and they were fabulous!

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Brunswick stew from our kitchen

In a coastal state like Florida, I thought I shouldn’t miss the opportunity to check out the local seafood venues.  Karen’s, a humble, self-serving eatery, presented a southern-style crab meal that was not to be missed.  Crab legs cooked perfectly in spicy, buttery Cajun-Creole seasoning, were tender, juice, and so flavorful that I could not stop eating.  In my kitchen, I used more meaty, but less tender Dungeness crab that was readily available in California, and married them with YouTuber Blissful Creation’s oven roasted crab legs recipe.  Without quantified instructions from the video, I had to devise some of the details, but it was more fun that way, and again, the flavors were quite all right.

Recipe serves 4–6

3–4 lb cooked, refrigerated Dungeness crab, cleaned and separated into sections
1 lb small potatoes, halved
1 lb corn cobs, halved
4 hard-boiled eggs, shelled
1/3–1/2 cup butter, melted
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 TBSP parsley, minced
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 TBSP minced garlic
1 TBSP Cajun seasoning
1 TBSP Creole seasoning

In lieu of Cajun seasoning and Creole seasoning, I used the following mixture of seasonings:
1 tsp salt
1 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
1/4 tsp ground white pepper
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp ground mustard
1/4 tsp dry thyme
1/4 tsp dry basil
1/4 tsp dry sage
1/4 tsp dry oregano
1/4-1/2 tsp cayenne pepper, depending on preference
1/2 tsp chili powder

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Mix butter, oil, and all seasonings in a bowl. Liberally brush the crab sections, potatoes, corn cobs, and eggs with the seasoned butter until they are completely covered. Place them in a large baking dish.  Cover with foil and bake for 10 minutes.
3. Flip all the pieces, and apply more seasoned butter if needed. Return to oven to bake for another 10-15 minutes, until all pieces are thoroughly heated. Serve warm.

Last but not least, cheese grits were served multiple times both in North Carolina and in Florida.  This rich, savory staple side dish added so much flavor and substance to the meals that I fell in love with it quickly.   After I visited Canaveral, I stopped at Goodrich Seafood & Oyster House for a late lunch.  The rustic, waterfront diner’s beautiful deck had been completely wrecked by the hurricane, but the quality of their food was not affected, nor was the hospitality of the owner, who sent me a bowlful of fish stew as I was waiting.  The fried alligator I ended up ordering was a blast, but certainly something I cannot replicate easily.  The remediation was to whip up some cheese grits to remind me of the bold, warm southern flavors.  Paula Deen’s recipe turned out to be an even more flavorful version of what I had tasted.  I used half the butter and cheese the recipe called for, also replaced 1/3 of the cheddar cheese with some nutty Gruyère.  Next time I will probably use less chicken broth as well.  —WZ

Lady Bird Soars High

Authentic and sincere, relevant and relatable, well-written and excellently acted, Lady Bird struck me as one of the best coming of age movies in recent years.

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Set in Sacramento, California, at  the beginning of the 21st century, the film sketches the life of protagonist Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson in her senior year of high school.  Facing one of the biggest transitions in her life, Lady Bird relentlessly pilots through possibilities, combats perceived adversities, and paves a road she believes will lead to independence and happiness.  Complexity of the world unfolds little by little through these impulsive, dramatic, and sometimes naïve endeavors.  And Lady Bird finally sheds her last few down feathers and starts her life on her own.  All seem to look and sound familiar, but the universality of the story echoes beautifully with my heart, and poses a question far from mundane: what helps us go through the things that are in our way to becoming adults?

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By adults, I certainly do not simply mean people above certain physical age.  At the end of the film, Christine (she has stopped calling herself Lady Bird) does the one thing that symbolizes the maturity and wholesomeness of mind that the film tries to uphold.  The fruition of her self-awareness appears natural and spontaneous, as her conscience and sensitivity have helped her recollect past events and come to a realization of the love and affection she has been receiving.  For that, I consider Christine fortunate.

Lady Bird also radiates with emotions that are both raw and tender, thanks to the fine skills of young film-maker Greta Gerwig, and no less significantly, the daughter-mother duo brilliantly played by Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf.  Such female-centered cast and crew bravely contribute a unique, refreshing feminine voice and style rare in today’s movies.

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In my humble opinion, despite the accolades it deserves, Lady Bird has yet to measure up to history’s best coming of age movies, perhaps partly because such genre often times shines over time.  Among my favorites, The 400 Blows reflects a growing boy’s struggle and despair in a simpler, purer way; The Breakfast Club synchronizes a group of youths’ thoughts into a profound melody; The Last Picture Show reveals and sympathizes the decline of morality through the restlessness and aimlessness of a generation; Boyhood transcends the limits of time and space to pay tribute to the power of love.  It is my sincere hope that Lady Bird will continue to be a rare gem twenty years from now.  WZ

All images in this article are from the internet and owned by A24 Films.

Old North in the South

For a family who have been living in California for over a decade, every trip out of this vast and wild western state becomes an exciting adventure.  This past September, I had the opportunity to travel to two southeastern states for a week.   The few moments of leisure outside my work schedule, where I managed to take a peek at the unique natural and cultural heritages of the region, turned out to be such a refreshing experience.

The 3 days in North Carolina, I was going back and forth between Raleigh-Durham, the state capitol, and the rural-industrial areas around it.  In appearance, Raleigh-Durham was not different from any other modern American city with a scenic combination of high-rises, urban afforestation, and road network.  And yet widespread waterways and endless patches of broadleaf trees made it vibrant and exhilarating.  The bustling vibe quickly quieted down as we drove out of the city, and tobacco fields and rustic farmhouses became the major characters of the stage.  This scenery became an interesting topic between a couple of co-workers of mine, whose families were both connected to this agricultural tradition of North Carolina—the coastal Atlantic plains’ sandy soil was uniquely suitable for tobacco; tobacco farming helped forming the industries of the state since the 17th century; tobacco remains the #1 cash crop of North Carolina today.

Historical facts like this, trivial as they may seem, always fascinate me.  On my last day in North Carolina, I took a detour to Greensboro for a quick visit at Guilford Courthouse National Military Park, which commemorates a critical battle in the American Revolutionary War.  The Battle of Guilford Courthouse took place on March 15th, 1781, lasted only 9 minutes,  resulted in the British Army claiming victory while sustaining heavy loss,  then forced to abandon the gains and retreat.  From that point on, the United States army proceeded to confining and destroying the British Army, leading to their eventual surrender.  How dramatic it was that such a short battle was the turning point of a historic war and impacted the fate of a nation!

The current state of the park was a decorated celebration for the event, with numerous statues, monuments, and demonstrations reminding people of faith, valor, and tenacity that upheld this country’s history.  More than that, this place is anything but an isolated memorabilia of the past.  Miles of trails wound under the vast canopies shaped by  lush woods providing joggers and bikers a perfect destination in which to enjoy this warm, beautiful late summer day.

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Green woods in Guilford Courthouse National Military Park
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Trail in Guilford National Military Park

As I drove out of the parking lot, one of the park rangers rushed out to correct a piece of information he had given me earlier about the site.  Thanking him, I was reminded of the few brief encounters I had with the Southern hospitality.  Folks here never seemed to hide their thoughts, and yet their words conveyed genuine care, proven by them going out of their way to extend help.  Among many things, this will probably at the top of my list to remember.


As the cool autumn breeze suddenly descended on the land of Northern California, I started to crave the warm, spicy, hearty food I got to enjoy during my trip.  I vividly remembered that one lunch I had in North Carolina was a feast of all the southern goodness in a simply but hearty way with the state’s signature barbecue pork, accompanied by a handful of side dishes.  It certainly filled my stomach and replenished my mind like magic.

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Lunch in North Carolina

First dish to replicate was the Carolina style barbecue pork, with a tangy vinegar sauce accentuating the natural richness of pork.  As a meat eater, I never succeeded in fully appreciating the smoky Texan barbecue flavor, but the Carolinas seemed to know how to cook meat like a Chinese.  I  tried a simple recipe on allrecipes.com for the pork, which required no more than adding salt, pepper, and vinegar to pork shoulder and letting it cook in a crock pot for a day.  The outcome was outstandingly satisfactory.  For the sauce, this recipe combines vinegar, sugar, and a few common spices to concoct a perfect mate for the pork.  Moreover, a mayonnaise-less coleslaw can bring some extra freshness to the table.

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Carolina style pulled pork with coleslaw, from our kitchen

I made this meal on a busy day where nobody had big chunks of time to cook.  We would have made cornbread to appropriately pair with the pork.  On that thought, maybe I will challenge the ultimate Southern side, hush puppies, next time to compensate.  —WZ

Into the Deep Valley

North of Sequoia National Park and contiguous of it, is Kings Canyon National Park.  Departing from the Grant Grove where many giant sequoias resided just like Sequoia National Park, CA 180 quickly and steadily descended from the rocky peaks of Southern Sierra Nevada. Although Kings Canyon is the deepest canyon in the US, registering 8,200 feet from top to bottom, it does not seem to enjoy the fame it deserves among the many popular destinations the Sierra has to offer.  And yet as soon as we stepped into its periphery, we realized its beauty and grandeur were not to be dismissed.

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Kings Canyon from the mountain top

The giant shady trees were gone.  Instead, cliffs and domes were bare and rugged, sporadically covered by short shrubs.  The rocks themselves displayed an amazing variety of colors and hues under the crispy clear California sunlight, some golden and shiny like brass, some gray and dense like steel.  On one side of the windy and steep road, the deep valley gradually became visible.  The silver-white traces of rivers stretched across the entire range of solid land in between two lanes of towering mountains, outlining the paths where the massive glacier had mightily scraped through.

At the bottom of the valley, the cliff faces were nearly vertical, with white granite reflecting sunlight beautifully, which once again evidenced the power of glacier that formed and shifted this landscape millions of years ago.  Water was still the main character of the stage here.   Rivers were rushing and roaring among boulders, demonstrating yet another  formidable facet of nature’s forces.   Waterfalls could be found in many places in the valley.  Some were turbulent, immense, and boisterous, others slender, lofty, and delicate.  At places where water became placid, grass and trees flourished, forming patches of green land that were serene and tender.  Water brought such deep and complex character to this geological wonder .

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The Sierra Nevada nourishes California as its main watershed.  Kings Canyon and its humble beauty, despite being shielded by the stark mountains, is a manifestation of the range’s deep nurturing power.  On an otherwise desolate land, what can compare to this source of livelihood that dates back to the beginning of time and endures on?


Although mentally satisfied by Kings Canyon’s unparalleled marvel, we were physically drained after an entire day’s exploration.  In Fresno, which was one of California’s largest cities and only one hour from the park, we enjoyed a relaxed dinner at Koja Kitchen.  This modern Asian Fusion chain was such an interesting depiction of how the culture of Central Valley had evolved over time.  Their miso-coconut braised pork bowl, was an ultimate comfort food to me, mixing deliciously cooked meat, bold flavors, and balanced nutritions.  Coconut is not the most common ingredient in Eastern Asian cooking, but its sweet rich fragrance added a unique flavor to the pork, and the use of miso brought out the best earthiness (or umami) one could ever anticipate from pork.  The inclusion of masago and kimchi in this dish was also ingenious.  Masago brought a delightful burst of saltiness when we bit into the rather mild meat, and kimchi simply balanced the overall flavors with its signature spicy acidic notes.  Fortunately these ingredients are all available in the Asian market near us, and using a crock pot basically means very little time is needed in the kitchen to bring this dish to our dining table.

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Original Koja burger and miso-coconut-braised pork bowl from Koja Kitchen
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Miso-coconut braised pork with kimchi, masago, salad greens, and brown rice

Recipe serves 6–8

3 lbs pork shoulder, cut into 2-inch thick slices
1 can (14oz) reduced-fat coconut milk
1–2 TBSP white miso, depending on its saltiness
1 TBSP fish sauce
1 TBSP sake
1 TBSP minced fresh ginger
Half a medium-sized onion, sliced
1 clove garlic, sliced
1/3 cup dried shiitake mushrooms
1 scallion, green and white parts, thinly sliced
3-5 oz masago (capelin roe)
Kimchi
Salad greens of choice, with any light vinaigrette, if needed
Unsweetened coconut chips, for garnish (optional)

  1. In a large non-stick skillet, heat 2 tsp vegetable oil on medium heat until hot but not smoking, and sear sliced pork shoulder in batches until all sides are lightly browned, about 3-5 minutes per side.
  2. Sauté onion and garlic with the leftover oil in skillet until softened but not browned, about 5 minutes.
  3. Mix coconut milk, miso, fish sauce, sake, ginger, and cooked onion and garlic in a large bowl. Use a whisk if needed to disperse the miso paste.  Taste the marinade to determine if more miso is needed before marinating the seared pork in the refrigerator overnight.  The saltiness of marinade should be about the same as that of cooked meat to your liking.
  4. Reconstitute shiitake mushrooms, and make sure to wash thoroughly to get rid of any sand they may carry.  Transfer pork with marinade into a crock pot, and cook at low heat for 7-8 hours, or at high heat for 4-5 hours.  Flip the meat at the middle point of the cooking time, and add the mushrooms.
  5. On a large plate, use forks to shred the cooked pork. Transfer the desired amount onto a serving plate, add some liquid and mushrooms from the pot to it, and sprinkle masago, scallion slices, and coconut flakes on top.  Serve warm with the salad greens, kimchi, and rice or bread of choice.  —WZ

Giants of Millennia

The grand Sierra Nevada is home to a wide variety of natural wonders, including the country’s second oldest National Park, Sequoia National Park.  Driving southeast yet again along the broad California Central Valley for three hours, we reached a little town called Visalia.  Eastward from there, the windy CA 198 slowly but steadily elevated into the Sierra, unfolding extended lush vegetation.  Although expected, this was still a pleasant change of view after a long, dry summer in suburban California.  A rushing river leaped in and out of our view as we wound along the road, reminding us the source of such livelihood among these mountains.

Moro Rock is a bare dome extruding from the vegetation-ridden mountains within the park, and a popular hiking destination.  A stairway was built along Moro Rock’s natural ledges and crevices, allowing us to climb onto the top of the rock.  It gave us a perfect stretch after the long drive, as well as a chance to overlook the surrounding mountains from a high point.   Sunlight in early September was still bright and warm, and yet the breeze seemed to be carrying a cool sweet scent from the emerald-green hues around us.

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We spent the rest of the day exploring the deepest interior of the Giant Forest, where numerous giant sequoia trees (sequoiadendron giganteum) towered magnificently.  Their furrowed bark radiated a red-brown hue, setting them apart from the gray and moss-green pines and firs around them.  Their clustered dark green leaves were high above the ground, creating large areas of shade beneath them.  The sheer size of the giant sequoia trees were beyond imagination.  Human beings, or even cars, seemed so tiny and negligible next to these giants.  The General Sherman Tree, world’s largest living tree by volume, stood among its peers with an astonishing 275-ft height and 25-ft diameter, since about 2,500 years ago.  It had stopped growing vertically after 2 millennia, but continued to increase in width and volume year after year.

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Giant sequoia trees among other types
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Me at the bottom of three giant sequoia trees
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Comparison between a car and a giant sequoia tree

They were undoubtedly the kings of this old land and survived the transformations caused by nature and human activity.  This dry land experienced frequent wildfires.  With their thick natural armor, the giant sequoias survived these tribulations, though charred marks of these events still remained on many of them, probably permanently.  While age shifts waters and crumbles mountains, life continues and thrives with amazing resilience.


On our way home from this wonderful 2-day trip to the Sequoia and Kings Canyon (will be recorded in a separate post) National Parks, we stopped in Fresno, one of the largest cities in Central California, to re-energize.  Our meal at Koja Kitchen, an Asian fusion chain restaurant, was a pleasant surprise.  The restaurant combined elements of several Asian cuisines into dishes of such bold flavors, that I could not resist trying them in our own kitchen.  My first attempt was there signature “Original Koja Burger”.

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Original Koja burger and miso-coconut-braised pork bowl from Koja Kitchen

Having spent 5 years in Southern California, we could never forget the exquisite tastes of the dishes from the Korean restaurants and our Korean-American friends’ homes.   The Koja Burger blended the sweet-savory and tender beef ribs, which reminded us of the good times, with a creamy-sweet aioli that mimicked the dipping sauce for fried meats (katsu) in Japanese cooking.  It was an ingenious invention.  In my attempt, I marinated the meats with our friend Grace Kim’s family recipe for Korean-style barbecue beef (galbi).  It turned out quite similar to what Koja Kitchen had to offer.

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Briased ribs burgers with white and brown rice patties
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Braised ribs with katsu aioli, leafy vegetables, and sesame seeds

Recipe makes 8 burgers

2 lbs boneless beef short ribs
3 cups short-grain white-rice, preferably sushi rice
2-3 cups leafy vegetables of choice, lettuce, spinach, arugula, or spring mix, coarsely chopped
Toasted white sesame seeds for garnish
1 tsp corn starch

Marinade (Korean galbi) for 2 lbs meat:
1/2 cup regular soy sauce
1/2 cup dark soy sauce (may be substituted with 1/3 cup regular soy sauce)
3 TBSP rice wine
1 TBSP toasted sesame oil
Half a pear, peeled, cored, and chopped
Half a medium-sized onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 TBSP minced fresh ginger (or 1 tsp powder)
1/3 to 1/2 cup light brown sugar

Katsu aioli
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 tsp tomato ketchup
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp mirin
1/2–1 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp Dijon mustard
1/4 tsp garlic powder

  1. Add all ingredients for the marinade in a blender, and blend until well mixed and smooth.  Trim the meat and cut into 3/4-inch pieces, mix well with marinade, and let sit in refrigerator overnight.
  2. Cook rice according to instructions and let cool. Sprinkle corn starch on top of cooked rice and mix with spatula. Whip all ingredients for the katsu aioli together until uniformly mixed.  Keep the aioli refrigerated.
  3. In a large non-stick skillet, heat 2 tsp vegetable oil on medium heat until hot but not smoking.  Drain liquid and wipe out excessive marinade from meat. Add about half of meat into skillet to form a single layer, cook for 2 minutes, flip the meat, and cook for another 2 minutes.  Turn fire to medium-low, stir occasionally to prevent burning, and cook with skillet covered, for another 3 minutes until the center of the meat registers 160 degrees F.  Transfer meat and any leftover juice onto a platter with a foil tent to keep warm.
  4. Use a mold, or a large cookie cutter, to compact rice into a firm patty. Sear each side on a lightly oiled skillet at medium heat for 2 minutes or until a crust forms.
  5. Spread one side of 2 patties with katsu aioli. Add leafy vegetables and cooked meat to assemble into a sandwich.  Sprinkle with sesame seeds.  Serve warm.  WZ

 

 

The Justified Conscience

The most successful war movies in history seem to always revolve around the perpetual, sometimes unbearable paradox of human beings’ self-destructive tendency to creating wars.  And all of them manage to grasp a laser-focused facet of humanity as a starting point to illustrate the paradox.  In Hacksaw Ridge, the facet is faith.

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The film’s protagonist, Desmond Doss, was one of the very few conscientious objectors in the US history that have earned the highest military honor.  His story, on the individual level, seems like a paradox itself—joining the army despite his strong nonviolence philosophy, his conviction to never carrying a weapon, and ultimately, saving lives of 75 wounded soldiers under heavy gunfire almost singlehandedly.  The tension runs through the entire film, builds up as Desmond’s beliefs are markedly challenged by his peers and superiors, climaxes as he begins and succeeds in his heroic acts, and twists surprisingly as he agrees to join the fight on a Sabbath day, an action directly contradicting his Seventh-day Adventist beliefs that he has tightly held onto ever since the beginning.

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To me, that final twist is a moment of illumination when Desmond is able to set aside his doubts and struggles, and continues to do what is right to him, which leads to a few questions that greatly interest me.  What makes him change his behavior at that final moment?  Is it a sign of compromised faith as it  has been under siege by the gruesomeness of the battle?  Or is the faith elevated as Desmond ceases to be bound to legalism even though it is just his own version of law?  I prefer believing in the latter.  His final act justifies and bolsters his previous convictions, making the magnitude of his faith known, not just to his fellow soldiers back in time, but also to movie-goers in the 21st century.  In a culture that  values freedom, personal choice is merely protected, but justified conscience can be extolled.

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This film’s technical achievements are outstanding.  The battlefield scenes are easily among the most gory and bloody ones in film history, and yet relentlessly demonstrate the powerlessness of human in war.  It also salutes a number of notable war films by sharing their signature themes—sacrificial camaraderie in Saving Private Ryan, reflection of human cowardice in Paths of Glory,  war’s soul-twisting power in Full Metal Jacket…  Mel Gibson is a master of epics, often times centering grand scenes around singular historic figures, and arousing contemplation of Christianity.   The character of Desmond Doss blends common sentiments relatable to ordinary people with remarkable resilience and heroism transcending human nature, therefore renders the film a profound and thought-provoking masterpiece.  —WZ

All images in this article are from the internet and owned by Summit Entertainment.

The Shape of Eternity

Paris’s architectural charisma was irresistible.  Ornate or simple, colorful or plain, the buildings all carried a unique temperament that was a vital part of this city.  Notre Dame and Sacré-Cœur, the two cathedrals that represented its grandeur, gave us the chance to walk into the past of Paris and savor its historical evolution via these two monumental cathedrals.

And yet they were so different from each other.  Notre Dame was gray, solemn, almost forbidding.  Its sharp outlines, towering spires and grotesque gargoyle statues demonstrated a textbook gothic style.  Approaching its grand front façade, however, we were immediately drawn by the incredible level of details of the numerous statues around its doorways, telling stories silently but vividly.  After a long wait in the queue, we climbed up the famous narrow and windy stone stairs to the top of one of the front towers.  Our ascension by foot was laborious and slow, and yet enabled us to see the cross-shaped hall roof and its accompanying flying buttresses.  It was a strange sensation viewing the vast city through arrays of gargoyles, some of which already worn out by the touch of ages.  It was beyond my fascination what viewers in the past saw from these particular angles.

Sacré-Cœur, on the other hand, was pure white.  Its hemispherical apse (back altar), together with numerous round arches, made the outline soft and mellow, marking the obvious oriental influence on the style.  Located on top of Montmartre Hill, the highest point of Paris, it provided yet another overlook of the city.  On the sunny and warm day of our visit, Paris was as radiant and vibrant as the cathedral itself.  Meandering its periphery, we encountered a string duet playing under one of the cathedral’s side arch doors.  We did not recognize the piece they were playing, but they were focused, skillful, and friendly, smiling at everyone that stopped to listen to them.  The echoing music added to the serene, narrow alley such liveliness  that it no longer felt like a relic, but something upbeat and relevant.

As protestants, touring a catholic church is always a mesmerizing experience.  Early Christianity not only defined regional culture heritages, but also shaped European history.   Notre Dame is considered the earliest Christian worship site in Paris, remained center of Catholicism in France, and witnessed numerous historic events there.  Sacré-Cœur was constructed much later, after the defeat of Franco-Prussian War and the uprising of Paris Commune, to expiate the “decline of morals” during that turbulent period of time.  How the faith for Christ guided the establishment of nations and yet became mere renditions of political agendas is profound.  These astonishing artistic virtues of these cathedrals may be attributed to divine inspirations, or more indirectly, expression of worship and awe in a most ingenious form.  And yet as time goes by, have they become the likes of other man-made wonders that boast the abilities of human mind and craftsmanship?  Did the height of the spires and vastness of arches point to the path to eternity, or did they limit it?

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Side view of Notre Dame
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Side view of Sacré-Cœur

Harmony Café also served a chicken dish that was earthy and comforting.  Its version of poulet suprême, or the best of chicken, was pan-seared to perfection, tender and juice, served with a sweet-savory jux (thin sauce), on a bed of roasted mix vegetables that reminded me of ratatouille in a lighter, fresher form.  I found the NYT Cooking’s chicken breast and chef Anne Burrell’s roasted veggie recipes gave very similar results to what we tasted in Paris.  Click on the links to view the original recipes—my versions did not deviate from them significantly.

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Poulet suprême with roasted veggies and jus at Harmony Café

The chicken breasts in this recipe are seasoned and seared in an oven-proof skillet before the cooking is finished in the oven.  The cooking juice of the chicken is then mixed with verjuice, which is a sweet-sour fruit juice, more chicken stock, and herbs before being reduced to the jus.  Verjuice is not a common ingredient in the US, and I found that it could be replaced with the same amount of white wine vinegar and a little bit of sugar (to taste).  The recipe also calls for a generous amount of Dijon mustard, which I think might be overpowering.  I would reduce it in half or completely remove it, to allow the chicken flavor to shine.

The roasted veggie ratatouille requires cooking veggies in just 2 batches, which makes it less time-consuming than traditional ratatouille.  The harder-to-cook veggies, Eggplant, zucchini, squash, and tomatoes, are sliced into the same thickness before being roasted in oven.  Onions and bell peppers, which take less time to cook, are sautéed and then mixed with the roasted veggies after they are cooled and cut into smaller pieces.  Vinegar and fresh herbs are added in the end to make the dish earthy-rich and fresh-tasting at the same time.   —WZ

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Chicken beast with jus and roasted vegetables from our kitchen

A Valley Not Barren

Death Valley had always been a mysterious and formidable destination for us.  Extreme heat and aridity being the causes of enjoyable objects was simply beyond our imagination.  And yet we kept hearing testimonies about the unique landscape and experience it could offer.  We finally decided to explore it at the end of a peaceful winter break.

Having lived in California for over a decade, we thought we had already gotten used to the geological and climatic diversity within this vast state.  Within a few hours of drive, we had departed from the humid cool East Bay, cut through green-orchard-ridden Central Valley, and reached the southern tip of the High Sierra.  Turning eastward from there, towering mountains and extensive deserts began to alternate dramatically, and finally led us into the rust-colored Panamint Range that guarded the west rim of Death Valley.

Entering the valley at dusk added another layer of mystery to our anticipations.  The setting sun cast its deepest red-brown hues onto the mountains, blending short shrubs, rocks, and soil into unpolished canvases, which quickly started to sink into darkness.  At that moment the edges of mountains where they met the sky became the only visible thing, outlining the extensive yet fathomable dimension of the valley.   When the daylight finally appeared, however, the valley became surprisingly lively, not so much in the varieties of creatures, but rather the shapes, colors, and textures of geological formations within our sight.

Badwater Basin, the lowest point of land in North America at 282 feet (86 meters) below sea level, was a grand salt flat.  Rain, scarce as it is, dissolves minerals in the soil of surrounding mountains, brings them down to the bottom of the valley, evaporates under high heat, and accumulates the salt crystals there.  The majority of the area was flat, smooth, and white as snow; the edge, where the ground was a mixture of mud and salts, however, had a much coarse, wavy appearance.  The visuals were so unusual that we felt as if we were walking on a giant lake, frozen in time.

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Badwater Basin
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Devil’s Golf Course at the edge of Badwater Basin

The high 70s temperature here reminded us of the amenable Southern California winter weather, but as we drove around, we were reminded of the harshness of the natural conditions during the rest of the year.  Rock arches among bare, crumbly hills, along with the badlands structures at Zabriskie Point were evidence of  the immense power of nature over ages that had drastically shifted the shape of land.  At Artist’s Palette, the entire face of a hillside displayed the most unnatural array of vibrant colors, caused by chemical weathering and hydro-thermal alteration of an area where various geological components had deposited and cemented.  Every tourist was ecstatic here, climbing up the radiant hill like children.  What a feast of visual enjoyment in such an unexpected way!

Mosaic Canyon was a spot where the valley seemed to have opened her heart to us.  A rocky side road led into a trail that was a dried river bed.  The two sides of the river banks often times revealed completely different textures–one side mainly contained coarse, grainy sediments; the other was composed of enormous, smooth boulders.  Walking on the quiet trail, I could imaging the river in the past, where roaring water gushed down, carrying rocks that constantly scraped  the banks for centuries or longer.  Was that not the past of the entire Death Valley that was dynamic and ever-changing?  Or was it even the case now, except we couldn’t notice it with our naked eyes?

 

We were told this was the start of Death Valley’s light season for tourists, and yet clusters of people still filled the place, most with awe and joy upon setting foot on this marvelous land.  And we were not alone!  Native Americans have been residing here for over a thousand years, relying on the flora and fauna that are resilient enough to survive the extreme conditions.  At Salt Creek,  where streams of water flowed all year long, we saw an expansive bed of desert plants, and were told that pupfish, a species unique to Death Valley, could be found abundantly in the extremely salty waters in spring, along with blankets of wildflowers that could cover large areas of the valley.   The name “Death Valley” may not be really appropriate after all.  And yet it does proclaim the reverence we ought to have toward nature and the forces it is able to render.

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Salt Creek

Stovewell Pipes was the town we stayed in during our visit.  This town was within the National Park periphery and provided comfortable daily rest one would need to explore a remote area like this.  Toll Road Restaurant, the only dining place in the town, had a decent menu, where an entrée called Pigs N’ Puddin’ stood out.  This Tex-Mex dish featured barbecue ribs on a bed of polenta.  The rich, tangy barbecue contrasted and complemented the creamy polenta nicely, with some salsa on top, bringing a touch of freshness.  It was a beautiful, hearty dish after one day’s exploration in the dry, warm wilderness.

Coming home, Fei successfully brought the Pigs N’ Puddin’ into our kitchen.  She used the Smitten Kitchen’s oven-roasted ribs recipe, where spare ribs (for flavors) or baby back ribs (for tenderness) were seasoned with a dry rub, wrapped in foil packets, and cooked in the oven.  The juice of the cooked meat was then reduced into a naturally thick sauce.  Polenta was cooked with milk into a thick porridge, blended with cheese for extra creaminess, and then topped with the cooked meat and sauce.  Minced fresh herbs (cilantro or chives) and diced tomatoes and avocado added the final complexity of colors and flavors.  This dish has become a course of comfort food that we now cook often times, and reminds us of the memorable moments we have spent in Death Valley.  —WZ

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Barbecue ribs with creamy polenta, avocado, tomatoes, and fresh herbs