Saturday, November 26, 2016

Behind the Scenes at Trump's Mar-A-Lago

Since the President-Elect and his family are spending their  Thanksgiving holiday at Trump's Florida estate of  Mar-a-Lago,  I thought I'd repost a photo essay from my blog of April 4, 2011 to give an inside view of just how over-the-top the place is, not to mention re-showing the portrait found inside that shows The Donald just as he imagines himself to be.

Palm Beach, I’ve noticed, is like Disney World for grown-ups—everything is bigger, better, cleaner, fancier (and more expensive) than in the real world. 
The latest example came yesterday (Sunday) when we were invited to lunch at the Mar-a-Logo Club by a friend who is a member.  (The cost, I’m told, is $150,000 initiation fee and $75,000 each year after that.)
I didn’t even know that Donald Trump had turned his palatial (think Versailles) private home into a private club in April of 1995.  His presence is still everywhere—from the plaque at the door to the name and crest on the paper hand towels (I stole one) in the gold-encrusted bathrooms and on the welcome mat, to a portrait that is apparently meant to portray The Donald at a younger age in sports clothes.

Everywhere you turn there are golden cherubs, marble statues, parrot and monkey motifs and antique Spanish tiles.  Flowers? Chandeliers? Fountains? Swimming pools? Don’t ask.

 The Mar-a-Lago Estate was built to the specifications of Marjorie Merriweather Post (then Mrs. E. F. Hutton)and completed in 1927. (The name is Latin for “Sea-to-Lake”—it has water views both front and back.)  Three boatloads of Dorian stone were brought from Genoa, Italy. There were 114 rooms in the original villa.  According to a “short history” of the place, “It was Mrs. Post’s plan to bring together many Old -World Features of the Spanish, Venetian and Portuguese styles.”
In January of 1969 the estate was named a “National Historic Site”.  After Mrs. Post died in 1973, she left the place to the federal government for use as a diplomatic/presidential retreat.  It was pretty costly to maintain--so in 1985, it was sold to Donald Trump who used it as a private residence for ten years  (and married his third wife, Melania, there in 2005).  Even his first wife, Ivana, used it for her ill-starred wedding to an Italian 24 years her junior in 2008. 
In April of 1995, it became the Mar-a-Lago Club.

According to the “brief history” available at the desk, Trump has “since built a magnificent swimming pool, an award-winning beauty salon, a world-class spa, one grass and five red-clay championship tennis courts and a remarkable croquet court.…Completed in 2005 is the all-new Donald J. Trump Grand Ballroom—the interior is in a Louis XIV  gold and crystal finish that is one of the finest spaces of its kind in the country.”

We joined our friends for lunch in the outdoor patio (where I ordered lobster quesadillas) and they told us that Jennifer Hudson was on the premises, resting after her recent performance on American Idol, and Joan Rivers had just checked out.
With the Trump name plastered everywhere, it sort of seemed natural that The Donald himself breezed in as we were eating. Wearing a baseball hat and casual clothes, he greeted the several tables of diners, making sure everyone was happy.  I asked about the décor, having been stymied by the mix of Spanish tiles and the Arabic-looking plasterwork.  Was it Moroccan? I asked and he agreed—Moroccan it was!  (At that point neither he nor I had read in the “brief history” that it’s actually “Spanish, Venetian, and Portuguese” all mixed together into a decadent , dazzling, over-the-top mish-mash that would send Mad King Ludwig into a jealous funk. There popped into my memory a French phrase which doesn’t really have an English equivalent.  It was all a bit “de trop.”)

Later in the afternoon we saw Trump depart, along with Melania and her parents, their young son and an older girl who was evidently Tiffany, the daughter he had with second wife Marla Maples.
Throughout the estate, which we explored post-lunch, poking into rooms and peeking behind doors, we kept encountering antique tiles with a Latin motto: “Plus Ultra”, which translates as “Beyond the Ultimate.” This is Mar-a-Lago’s slogan.  As we left, past the gilded cupids and the large brass lions at the gate , I was reminded of another ancient classical slogan carved into the Temple of Apollo at Delphi:   “Midhen Agan”—“Nothing in excess”. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

More Thanksgiving Shortcuts from a Lazy Grandma

--> It's time to post my yearly essay about Thanksgiving shortcuts from a lazy cook (me). It changes slightly every year as I find more ways to cut down my holiday hysteria with even more shortcuts.  For example, this year I got our turkey from Trader Joe's because it 's already brined as well as "all natural, no antibiotics,  fresh" and  the turkeys "roam free...and they're fed an all vegetarian diet."  And they're very reasonably priced!   

I'm starting my annual baking tonight before the kids and grandkids arrive on Wednesday and on Thursday we'll sit down to a Thanksgiving table set for 12, including five-year-old granddaughter Amalia and 18-month-old grandson Nicolas.  Last year  Amalia made me promise that we'd bake an "orange pie" together, which I took to mean a pumpkin pie, and she decorated the top with a ring of candy corn left over from Halloween.  The pies pictured above are from a Thanksgiving several years ago, in the days when I would make three pies and a pumpkin roll every year. 
Every Thanksgiving I'd try a different apple pie recipe in the hopes of finding the prize-winning pie that will bring tears (of joy, not sorrow)  to my family’s eyes.  This year I'm only baking the Chocolate Kahlua pie (at right above) which has become a tradition that the family insists upon.  I'm ordering a pecan pie and an "Apple Croquante" from a wonderful  bakery that popped up next to my hairdresser's in Westborough, MA.  It's called "Yummy Mummy Bakery" and has addictively delicious brownies all year round.  By popular demand, I'm substituting for the old faithful pumpkin pie (which nobody ever finished) some incredibly delicious Melt-In-Your-Mouth Pumpkin Cookies which I made last Christmas and then had to make again after Christmas.

For 46 years I’ve been streamlining Thanksgiving cooking  because I’m lazy, and my Greek relatives still don’t realize that my special cornbread stuffing comes out of a package (slightly doctored up.)  They spend days making their Greek stuffing, which includes chestnuts, hamburger and a lot of other good things.  Amalia's honorary Grandma, "Yiayia" Eleni Nikolaides, will be making it for our table this year.  Of course everyone prefers the Greek stuffing, but I still make my cornbread stuffing, because it’s “tradition.”   Another tradition is everyone competing for the honor of wearing the Turkey hat, which Nicos won last year.  He's next to "Yiayia" Eleni Nikolaides.

Amalia wore her turkey dress to the Thanksgiving show at her school last year

 Nowadays magazines and ads on TV make much of the young wife and mother terrified by the complexities of roasting a turkey and serving Thanksgiving dinner to a crowd. I think the whole thing has been vastly over-complicated by the media. So I’m going to share my sneaky shortcuts for a super-easy Thanksgiving.

The Turkey—don’t stuff it! A turkey roasted with the stuffing inside takes much longer and then you have all those risks of food poisoning if you leave the turkey and stuffing unrefrigerated long after taking it out of the oven. Stuffing baked in the turkey comes out soggy. I prepare my stuffing on top of the stove.The directions are on the back of the Pepperidge Farm Corn Bread Stuffing package—Melt 6 TBSP butter in a saucepan, add a cup of chopped celery and a cup of chopped onions, cook for 3 minutes. (Then I throw in sliced mushrooms and maybe this year chopped apples and cook some more. You could also add chopped chestnuts or pecans and crumbled bacon or sausage.) When everything is softened, you throw in 2 1/2 cups water or broth  and add the stuffing mix, stir and you’re all done.

As for the turkey—I always get a fresh turkey, even though it costs more, so as not to have to defrost it for days and then find it still frozen on Thanksgiving morn.  Last year I got mine from a nearby Wegman's and bought the organic kind, which cost five times as much as the non-organic kind, but I justified the expense to myself and a sticker-shocked husband by saying the turkey was free range, had a happy childhood, and was never injected with hormones. (This year I got the already brined free-range turkey described above from Trader Joe's.) When I put it in the oven, I'll cut an onion and a couple oranges in half and put them in the cavity first.  For the last 15 minutes I'll baste it with an Apple-cider glaze from an old Martha Stewart Living.  (Do you remember the Thanksgiving when Martha recommended deep-frying your turkey and many faithful readers risked life and limb trying?  This year she recommends starting the turkey upside-down, nestled on slices of bread on a v-shaped rack for 45 minutes, but I'm certain that, when it came time to turn it over, I'd drop it. So I'll stick with a turkey cooking breast-side up, but with an aluminum foil tent  on it after it's nicely browned.  Tradition! (Don’t forget, the turkey needs to sit for a half hour to soak up the juices.  But without stuffing, it cooks a lot faster, so I won't have to get up before sunrise to start it.)

Green Bean Casserole and Candied Sweet Potatoes with Marshmallows: I don’t make them. I came to realize that nobody eats them. What I do make is: Parmesan Potato Casserole which is mashed potatoes in a casserole dish with a lot of butter and cheese, cream and eggs stirred in and then you bake it with some cheese and parsley on top. I cook Wild Rice mix straight out of the Uncle Ben box. Artichoke hearts alla Polita with peas and dill. Corn and red pepper casserole.  Stuffed mushrooms as an appetizer.
2016 Update: Daughter Eleni has been doing research for a magazine article on foods that are likeliest to improve health and increase longevity, and it seems that sweet potatoes are one of the best.  Who knew? So this year, at her suggestion, I'm going to make Coconut-Mashed Sweet Potatoes from the Blue Zones site. 

Gravy—open a can. I’ve tried about a million “No-fail turkey gravy” recipes over the years and I manage to fail every time. What I do now is open a couple cans of store-bought turkey gravy, chop up some of the neck and liver of the turkey (which have cooked in the roasting pan alongside the turkey), add a nice splash of some liquor—like sherry—or you can throw in some of the pan juices. Who’s going to know that it came out of a can? (Update--this year I'm using Trader Joe's Turkey Gravy which comes in a small carton, not a can.)

Orange-cranberry relish—you can make this up to a month ahead. Everybody loves it and it makes even the driest turkey taste better. Pick over and grind in the blender a one pound bag of cranberries. Grind up a couple oranges—pulp and rind. Mix together with two cups sugar or more. Chill in the refrigerator--the longer it sits the better it tastes. I always make a double recipe.

When the kids were small I would have them cut with scissors a jagged edge around hollowed-out orange halves to make little baskets to hold the cranberry relish—I’d put the baskets surrounding the turkey. Nowadays I surround the turkey on its platter with bunches of green and purple  grapes.

Place cards and menus—Making the place cards or favors is a great way to keep children busy and out of your hair. I used to have mine make favors/place cards that were turkeys fashioned out of (store bought) popcorn balls with a ladyfinger for the head and neck, three toothpick legs to stand, red or orange cellophane tied around the popcorn ball and gathered for a tail.—The three-legged turkey was then stuck in a large flat cookie, where the name would be written using those cake-decorating tubes.  Last year granddaughter Amalia made our place cards --colorful paper turkeys with googly eyes from a kit I bought at a Paper Store in Manhattan.  Stores like Michael's now offer place mats to color and place-card kits to assemble.... perfect for keeping the little darlings busy through the long Thanksgiving meal.

Here's our table last year.  Papou Nick, as the patriarch,always sits at the head of the table to carve the turkey. 

 The centerpiece is always the same—I have a basket shaped like a cornucopia, filled with various fruits, nuts and some fall flowers that have survived in the garden. Couldn’t be easier. Candles in candle holders.  Also I've acquired a bunch of rubber turkey finger puppets which Amalia has already commandeered.    And yes, everyone has to tell what they're thankful for. I always print out on the computer a small decorative menu for each plate so people know what they’re eating. What they won’t know is how easy it was, unless you tell them.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Obama Visits Greece and Nick Quotes Him the Bible


Last Sunday, Nick and I were in New York when he got word that he was invited to attend the state dinner in President Obama’s honor to be given by the Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos in the Presidential Palace in Athens on Tuesday night.

So we drove back to Massachusetts while Nick scrambled on the phone to find a flight out of Boston that would get him to Greece in time for Tuesday.  (There are no direct flights to Athens at this time of year.) He eventually flew on Monday afternoon on Lufthansa to Frankfurt and then to Athens, arriving midday on Tuesday. I really wanted to go too, but the Embassy told him no spouses were coming, not even Michelle Obama.

Nick has sent me photos of the event, which he thoroughly enjoyed.  Young women in native costume welcomed the 120 guests entering the grand dining room.  They were seated at long tables arranged like three sides of a rectangle, or the Greek letter pi. Obama sat in the center of the head table, at the right of Greek President Pavlopoulos and on Obama’s right was Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

  I was amused to see that Tsipras, who as a Marxist and leader of the leftist Syriza party made a point throughout his campaign of never wearing a tie, appeared throughout the state dinner and other events honoring Obama, always tie-less in an open-necked white shirt.  I was also amused that the Prime Minister, an avowed atheist, was seated next to the Archbishop of Athens. I wonder what they talked about.

While Prime Minister Tsipras speaks halting English, Greek President Pavlopoulos knows it well, but both made their public remarks in Greek and then paused for an English translation.  Watching the event on Greek TV, I heard Obama whisper to President Pavlopoulos, “Is this your house?  Do you live here?” and Pavlopoulos answered, “No, I have a home over by the Hilton.”

The menu, printed in two languages, featured “Shrimps with citrus fruits”, “rice with vegetables and herbs”, “baked grouper with greens, garnished with potatoes and cherry tomatoes”, “chestnut dessert”, ”seasonal fruit, two kinds of wines and coffee.

President Obama began his remarks with “kalispera” (good evening) and lauded Greece for the country’s hospitality, humanity and its contributions to the world as the source of democracy.  After the Greek president and prime minister spoke,  the children’s choir of the Greek National Opera sang four songs, both John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Simon and Garfunkel’s  “Sounds of Silence” and two popular Greek songs by Theodorakis and Hadjidakis.  Afterward, Obama enthusiastically mixed with the children and thanked them for their performance.

Sadly I have no photo of Nick talking to Obama.  At U.S. State dinners, there is usually a photographer who takes your photo as you are introduced to the President in a reception line, but at the Greek state dinner, Obama shook hands with the guests as they filed out of the dining room.

Nick had a brief conversation with Obama which delighted them both—Nick said, paraphrasing a famous statement made by Saint Paul right before his martyrdom: “Mr. President, you have fought the good fight, you have finished the race, you have kept the faith.  History will not slight you.”  Obama replied, “Thank you. That means a lot to me.”  Then he took a few steps, turned back smiling and said, “Letter to Timothy right?” (He was right, it’s from 2nd Timothy 4:7.  Proof that our President knows his Bible and was not dozing during Sunday school.)

The next day, Wednesday, Obama visited the Acropolis Museum and saw the Parthenon for the first time.  Then he spoke to a large group of invitees at the new Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center.  Nick was there.

I asked Nick, when it was all over, if he felt Obama’s visit to Greece had been a success. (It was covered live for three days on Greek TV, which I watched sporadically.) The New York Times said last Tuesday that Trump’s victory had rattled Greece because “Obama had been supportive of Greece’s efforts to get its finances in order, and of Europe’s bid to keep Greece stable.  Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras hoped that Mr. Obama, who travels to Berlin on Thursday, might even persuade the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to offer Greece some debt relief by the end of the year.”

In answer to my question Nick said, “I think it was important to both the visitor and the visited. Obama, as he finishes his presidency, wanted to go to the fountainhead of the values he pursued as President. And that of course is Greece, where democracy and individual rights and equal justice under law were developed.  And the Greeks needed somebody to show compassion for their plight in view of the hard stand their fellow Europeans, especially the Germans, are taking. I think both of those goals were fulfilled very successfully. Obama was really in top form.”

Saturday, November 5, 2016

"Holy Death", the Virgin of Juquila and My Painting

Since it is the season of the Days of the Dead, I decided to re-post one of my very first blog posts, published on November 18, 2008, about a painting I did inspired by some of my visits to Mexico.  (I'm hoping to make another visit to Oaxaca in February.)
My friend, photographer and teacher Mari Seder, first introduced me to Mexico, its incredible colors and fascinating folk and religious art when I visited her in Oaxaca many years ago.

Several years ago I traveled with her to the isolated Church of the Virgin of Juquila on the mountainous road from Oaxaca to Puerto Escandido. Pilgrims come here by foot from all over Mexico to ask for a miracle from this tiny, dark-skinned figure of the Virgin who is housed in a massive church.

The pilgrims walk for days, sleeping in village squares, fed by pious Mexicans, until they reach Juquila. They often approach the saint on their knees. The tiny figure (who is considered Indian because of her dark skin) has a white train which stretches out of the church and far into the distance. Pilgrims leave on the train gifts and hand-made wooden crosses either specifying the favor they need or thanking her for favors received. My photo at right below shows two Indian women on their knees approaching the Virgin, one with a blond baby on her back.

 Three years ago on March 21 my daughter and I were on a tour led by cooking guru Susanna Trilling ( We were at El Tajin – a pre-Columbian archeological site in Veracruz, composed of multiple pyramids. It was the Spring Equinox and hundreds of Mexicans, all dressed in white, came there to be cleansed by the Sun God with the aid of cueranderos (healers).

On the way into the pyramids, among the many objects on display on the road outside, I noticed the skeletal lady dressed as a Spanish Senorita. I had never seen anything like her … she was like the many Guadalupe virgins seen everywhere, but she was Death.  So I took her photo, but no one could tell me exactly what she was for. They told me she was Santa Meurte and I could see she was available for some kind of religious ceremony (for a price) but I couldn’t get any other kind of information. Everyone seemed reluctant to talk about her.

Last year in February in Oaxaca I attended a class sponsored by the Worcester Art Museum called “Expanding Your Vision -- Painting and Photography in the Magical World of Oaxaca, Mexico”. It was taught by my friend Mari Seder and Oaxacan artist Humberto Batista. (Nowadays they still offer classes in Oaxaca, but they're doing it on their own: Humberto strongly encouraged the students to think outside the box and to paint something unlike their usual style.

At his urging (although I am VERY literal – usually painting just what I see) I incorporated the figure of Santa Meurte from El Tajin into my painting of the interior of the Church of Juquila. The result is the painting above.

I was surprised and excited when I recently picked up the New Yorker dated Nov. 10 and found an article by Alma Guillermoprieto called “Days of the Dead, The new narcocultura.” She wrote about the narcotics trafficking that is causing such bloodshed in Mexico and she investigated the role of “The Holy Death” – especially as she is celebrated in a mass every day in a troubled neighborhood of Mexico City called Tepito where the drug dealers and addicts collect.

The author suggested that there are two thousand shrines in Mexico to Santa Meurte and that she is the saint of drug traffickers (although the woman who established the large shrine in Tepito denies that it is only for drug traffickers.)

When I painted the watercolor at top, showing a woman crawling toward the Virgin of Juquila , I imagined that she was going to ask the Virgin to heal her baby and was encountering Santa Muerte blocking her way to salvation. If it’s true that Holy Death is the saint of narcotics dealers, that adds another dimension to the painting. Perhaps the baby’s health and safety are threatened by some version of the narcocultura (maybe not now but when he grows up.)

The thought gave me a shudder, appropriately enough at this season which celebrates the Days of the Dead. And it adds a layer of unexpected meaning to the painting