Tuesday, October 21, 2008

California Academy of Sciences: The Green, The Odd and The Beautiful

Almost a month after it opened, the California Academy of Sciences continues to keep the buzz alive around the world. From Vanity Fair to Sunset Magazine, from BBC News to the New York Times, there aren't enough words to praise the green example set by the building and its designers.

Rarely has a venerable scientific institution been this much fun and worthy of travel articles. When I visited the building a month ago to research an article for SFKids.org, I discovered the aquarium in all its silver blue waves and musical glory.

Picture this: 2,000 fish, 350 species and coral reefs modelled after actual dive sites in the Philippines. The giant waves lining the walls with smaller tanks heightened the experience of aquatic life thriving within. Only the surrounding lounge music seemed slightly off, if somewhat distracting.

The small tank on the picture got my attention because human feet are not staples of aquariums but then this is a novel way to introduce the life of fungi underwater.

Climbing up three flights of stairs, the highlight of the building is its green living roof with seven hills, thousands of photovoltaic cells and coconut husk trays to root down native species, the latter aiming at capturing rainwater to irrigate the roof, the rest being drained outside for ground re-absorption.

This spectacular and organic design was created by the Italian architect Renzo Piano who got inspired by the view of Grand View Park in the distance.

However the contents of the exhibits beneath are equally fascinating. In true scientific tradition, they are mostly thought-provoking with public education in mind. Right under an 87-foot long blue whale skeleton, the exhibit on climate change in California is frightening at best, terrorizing for green eco-conscious minds like me.

As our presentator said, "What you chose for breakfast, lunch and dinner actually makes a difference [on climate change.]" Since then, I've actually reduced my meat consumption ...

It's a thorough multi-level analysis of climate change in the sierras and its ski resorts with impact studies on natural habitats and the fauna. For curious minds, the exhibit also clarifies the mystery of fog formation on the bay, something tourists couldn't live without.

To brighten up spirits, the giant Amazonian bubble is next door thriving with lifeforms of all sizes both above and under water.

Chris Andrews, Chief of Programs at the Academy, led us through the exhibit explaining how the noise level inside the rainforest depends on the time of the day. Obviously we were at bird-chirping max with 40 specimens of birds flying around.

The exit of the rainforest bubble includes a double-cubicle with heavy rubber curtains aimed at keeping Amazonian life indoors. "Don't let butterflies fly out on your shoulders," we were told.

At the opposite end of the hall, the Islands of Evolution panels nail down Darwinist revisionists' theories with factual evidence around various animals and birds from the Galapagos Islands, and how some species have adapted to evolving habitats.

Towering above bird beaks of various shapes is the Planetarium, a hi-tech facilitity offering live space feed from NASA satellites.

The current show on the quest for life in space, narrated by Sigourney Weaver, is definitely more thrilling than Disney's Soarin' Over California ride.

As you sit comfortably in your plush seat, the screen shows you an uber-realistic view of the building around you through the walls. Then the camera takes off to fly above the Golden Gate Park, the Bay Area coast and then off to space. For a few seconds I actually hung on to my seat. However as the step-by-step quest for life in close and more remote planets or systems unfolded, I entirely dove into the narrative. It's better than science fiction.

Last stop in my tour was the kids space or Young Explorers Cove. It was closed that day but I got in thanks to a member of staff who had the key.

It's a cute little space but slightly hidden from plain view and I don't know how it fares with hundreds of kids mercilessly playing with the toys each day. I found the schooner miniature replica disapppointing as I envisioned an ambitious half-size boat like the one at Lookout Cove at the Bay Area Discovery Museum. But hey, it's a good option for preschoolers nonetheless.

Can't wait for Friday. This Friday, the California Academy of Sciences unveils Maya Lin's "Where the Land Meets the Sea", a monumental installation depicting the Bay Area below and above sea level.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Harvest Festival at Ardenwood Historic Farm

"I'm going back for more!" said Inga as she disappeared in the maize field. Minutes later she was back with armfuls of Indian corn. Not she needed them. Her husband and boy team had already done a pretty good job at filling their burlap sacks. But it's so much fun!

Each year, Ardenwood Historic Farm throws a unique Harvest Festival. I attended last year and enjoyed so much that I returned this year.

As you enter the farm yard, fiddler Ray Frank and guitarist Dan Engle tap the rhythm while playing hoedown music and hot cookie scents already fill the air. Currently part of the East Bay Regional Parks system, Ardenwood used to be a wealthy estate going back to the early days of American California.

Purchased by George Washington Patterson in 1856 for farming purposes, the place was baptized Ardenwood after the mythical "Forest of Arden" in Shakespeare's play As You Like It. It is now an 1890s functioning farm on 205 acres of land shouldering the Silicon Valley. It has everything a Victorian farm should have: a walnut orchard, a farm yard, farm animals, a blacksmith shop, a grain-milling operation and finely combed gardens around a beautiful Gingerbread Victorian house.

The Harvest Festival is one of many historical events that draws lines of locals and non-locals to the gates of this Fremont park. Besides the get-a-burlap-sack-and-pick-corn-off-the-plant activity (a favorite, for sure), families with children love David Maloney's goofy magic show or the old lady teaching children how to spin and shear wool with special metallic combs. Note that all people picking corn are asked to donate half of their harvest to Ardenwood for their school programs, which I find is pretty neat.

Some of the corn (the Indian corn) is ground into flour, as well as the wheat grown on the property. I went away with two sacks of corn meal, as well as one plastic teddy bear filled with honey harvested from beehives on the farm. In truth, it doesn't get much more farm-to-table than this.

Other children activities are available such as the immensely popular hand-cranked ice-cream operation next to the musicians, or the tables for making corn husk dolls behind the outdoors kitchen.

Speaking of, my oldest loved the hot crispy oatmeal cookies coming right out of the wood-fired oven and kept coming back for more.

If you need more reasons to go to Ardenwood, there's a train that takes you for rides. There's a wooden press to make fresh apple cider. There are quilters threading needles on intricate quilts in the farm yard.

The next special events at Ardenwood will be particularly close to my heart: the Christmas at Ardenwood on December 6 & 7, and the Evening at the Patterson House on December 12. Which to pick? Hmmm...

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Petaluma's Great Peter Pumpkin Patch

Peter Peter pumpkin eater,

Had a wife but couldn't keep her.

He put her in a pumpkin shell,

And there he kept her very well.

So goes the nursery rhyme. Nobody in a pumpkin shell at the Petaluma Great Peter Pumpkin Patch but it's a great place to carve out a fun day between pumpkin fields and hay stacks.

The place is named after Larry Peter, owner of the Spring Hill Jersey Cheese company and founder of the pumpkin patch. We did not exactly plan on being there on the first weekend of October, but the timing was good nevertheless.

After we had lunch at Nick's Cove above Point Reyes in Marshall, we headed back home on Petaluma's back roads. I couldn't believe how many "Organic Pumpkins" or "Pumpkin Patch" signs lined the roads. However when I read Peter Pumpkin Patch, I vaguely remembered going there last year (the photo is from last year) and having fun. "Turn right," I told my husband.

Several hills later, there we were. A big parking lot on a hill, square tents above Spring Hill Cheese displays, mounts of various pumpkins ready to buy, a dirt field, tractors for hay rides, a hay maze and of course, a big field orange with plump roundish pumpkins.

The Great Peter Pumpkin Patch is a traditional pumpkin patch with a focus on farming. No haunted houses, no jumpy houses, no latex ghouls.

Farming you say? "I'm going to dig up potatoes!" shouted my 5-year-old, running for a pitch fork. The girl has a memory for anything hands-on. And so she ran. Went straight to the dirt field. She pitch-forked three glorious potatoes and that was it because we couldn't find too many others. The family next to us also looked pretty much empty-handed with their three pitch forks and plastic bags. Dear Mr. Peter, I hope the potato situation improves until Halloween because right now, it's potato-hide-and-seek.

Pumpkins, on the other hand, you could count by the hundreds. All on the vines, if you please. So little ones don't think they all grow in cardboard boxes. Some funny-shaped, some dirty, some split open and lots just ripe and ribbed and bright orange just like the good Jack'O Lantern carving variety (or is the Trick-or-Treat variety?).

We brought on the wheel barrow, picked a pumpkin off the vine and walked back to the square tents. While the girls were getting "lost" in the hay maze, I picked pumpkins to decorate the house.

I'll take two munchkins and maybe two others. Boo Pumpkins? Thank you no. Oh I like that green squash. Right in the wheel barrow. And a few Sugar Pumpkins for good measure.

$24 later we were out of there, happy and for our girls, tired. Too bad we didn't have time to milk the cows and go for hay rides. Carving time was about to begin.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Geoff Kaufman abord the Balclutha

How often do you attend a concert at San Francisco's only national park? Yes, there is a national park in San Francisco and it's not the Golden Gate Bridge. It's not Chinatown either. Don't you know? It's the historic ships at Hyde Street Pier.

San Francisco night lights viewed from the Hyde Street Pier with a chilly breeze in the neck is pretty close to heaven. Extra points if parking was suspiciously easy, McKormick's had a table at the back of the bar and the NPS guy hands us our concert tickets within seconds. Yes we're attending a concert.

After my "yo ho ho" pirate adventures two weeks prior and our concert mini-series, we combined the best of both worlds with a sea chantey (sailors songs) concert.

Now, I'm not usually the kind to venture into a concert when

- I don't know the singer

- I have no idea what he sings

- I have no idea where it's at

- I have no idea if it's such a good idea.

Yet, a concert aboard a 1886 square-rigged ship tickles my curiosity. What could it be like? Worse comes to worst, it's a night out without the kiddos and that's enough to do the Snoopy wacky dance. At best, we might actually enjoy Geoff Kaufman's performance. And we did.

Chances are you don't know Geoff Kaufman, the self-described "folk singer with a pinch of salt". Let me tell you. All the people attending the concert are big time Mel-type fans of Geoff Kaufman. Mel is the female fan stalking the band in Flight of the Conchords, the HBO series. It was that type of crowd just slightly older. Laughing at Geoff's jokes, helping him out with some lyrics, furiously clapping after each song. What a trip.

When we sat down, Geoff Kaufman was already singing. As the chorus started, everybody around us joined in. I mean, every single person sang along. My husband and I stared at each other.

Did the others have cheat sheets? Nope. The front row ladies sang in seconds, thirds and in harmony! As Geoff ends the song, a furious round of clapping followed.

Then Geoff gets two pairs of "sticks" from his pocket. "Rib bones gain an interesting quality as the marrow dries out," he says showing them. "They have a more hollow sound." The bones were his music instrument for the next song. Other instruments included a guitar, a concertina and a small flute.

As the evening went by, we regretted not being Mel-type fans of Geoff Kaufman. Some of the songs were incredibly beautiful, like the one about the Island of Mingulay that Geoff Kaufman introduced with: "the rhythm is fabulous for rowing."

All of the songs had stories to them. There's the song about a whaler built in 1841 and its British sailors dealing with Spanish ladies of Tijuana. There's the gorgeous song called Ambletown in which a sailor at sea receives a letter from his wife announcing a baby to be born.

There's the song about 1860s ships going to Alaska and a whalebone cutter's hands being smooth but worn. There's the song saying farewell to fishing because the seas' supplies are slowly being depleted. There's the song about "them Johnson girls are mighty fine girls." There's the hilarious song about the Prohibition and going "all along the beehive." There's the poetic song written by a reverend and describing how a carver made an incredible figurehead for the Marco Polo Clipper Ship. And there was the "Stand on Shore" goodbye song.

Totally enthused, I bought the CD entitled Fair Stood the Wind. Too bad it doesn't come with the fan audience. I'll just wait for Mr. Kaufman to come back to our friendly shores. Then maybe I can sit up front too!

Eatwell Farm: Symphony in Tomatoes and Chickens Major

My friend Heather Knape is a Bay Area photographer. She is also an epicurian and adventurous foodie.

Her series on tomatoes once decorated the walls of San Francisco's Millenium restaurant. For that series, she frequently visited Eatwell Farm and soon befriended Nigel Walker, the farmer at Eatwell.

When she offered me to join her to visit Eatwell Farm recently, I asked what for. "Why, to pick tomatoes of course!" My husband and I had just canned 52 pints and 7 quarts of Roma tomatoes the previous weekend.

You'd think we'd peeled and seen enough tomatoes for the remainder of the season. But picking fresh organic tomatoes right of the vine sounded too tempting an offer to pass. Late September is the perfect time to enjoy the last glory days of tomatoes.

On a Tuesday morning, Heather and I packed our little crew, met up with our friend Esther and drove to Dixon in the Sacramento Valley. More than picking tomatoes, I was eager to get my girls out on the farm, to have them interact with the real thing.

Nigel greeted us by the produce-packing buildings and got on his bicycle to show us the way. We grabbed a handful of empty boxes and proceeded down the dusty road.

It seemed so dry that I couldn't help asking where the irrigating water came from. "From Lake Berryessa over that hill," said Nigel pointing at two hills on the horizon.

Soon we were walking alongside the squash fields and reached the tomatoes. Now, I'm loosely referring to "the tomatoes" but the truth is, Eatwell Farm is notorious for its "Tomato Wonderland" and produces dozens of heirloom/non-heirloom tomato varieties.

As Nigel needed to tend the farm (we came on a Tuesday and Tuesdays are CSA-packing days at Eatwell Farm), his time was limited. We got a quick rundown from him: here the Romas, further Cherry tomatoes, across the road Green Zebras, towards the chicken coops, yellow tomatoes.

While we were trying to memorize locations, Nigel kneeled down and showed us how to look for tomatoes under the leaves. "Just rub them with your fingers," he said. "They'll have dirt on them and maybe sunburns, but they are good to eat. See?" Since he was graciously allowing us on his tomato fields during regular farm hours, we were only too happy to nod.

Following his example, we all got down to business. As down as down can get, feet and hands in the dirt. Heather carried her 16-month old in a carrier on her back but that did not discourage her tomato endeavours. Esther also carried a little one.

I was probably the only one with two useful hands but my 3-year old was whining. "It's full of dirt Maman, I want to get back home!" What can I say? My little urbanite doesn't live on a farm. Fortunately she noticed her little friend Lily helping Heather and so, started helping her too. Spotting red tomatoes through green leaves is not difficult but then, you have to discard the half-rotten ones, the "squishy" ones, the bad ones.

My 5-year-old was getting pretty involved, especially after she and Lucas noticed the Green Zebras. Green Zebras are a great tomato variety with whitish stripes, a very firm texture and a tangy taste. They make for fantastic tomato salads.

Both children went crazy over the stripes and literally went on a treasure hunt in Nigel's fields. It did not take long for Lily to join the fun.

Meanwhile the litller ones were getting tired and before heading back, we opted to visit the chicken coop. There, we had the biggest surprise ever.

Who ever heard of chickens fed with organic jalapenos, cherry tomatoes, squashes, cucumbers and apples? Eatwell Farm clients who get the farm's eggs probably have no idea how lucky they are. Only the best organic produce for these feathery guys!

Candidly, I never heard of anything but grain-fed chickens. When my grand-father ran a chicken farm in the South of France in the 1980s, his volatiles were always fed corn in dusty barns lit with low-lying aluminum lamps.

To this day I remember the sweet grain smell and busy rustling of feathers. It did seem pretty crowded in there and they didn't get to go out much (except to get slaughtered or sold, obviously). Life wasn't a picnic for them.

Nigel's chickens are treated like royalty in comparison! They eat fresh produce year-round, have their private elevated red-painted quarters (very cheerful) with stairways and awnings for sun-protection, run around as much as they want in their fenced-in area, are protected by a big barking dog and see the sun every day. Fancy that.

No wonder Nigel restricts his clients' egg orders. You need space and commitment to make 3,000 chickens happy!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Birthday Parties: A Pinch of 1978 and More

This year, I combined my 3-year-old and my 5-year-old birthday parties. Out of my mind, I opted for the at home/home-made birthday party. No entertainers, no catering services. No fuss? Think again.

As the date grew nearer, the idea of having 23 kids under age 6 running around in my home lead to several sleepless nights. I had visions of post-atomic gooey floors with chocolate cake spread on the walls and popcorn bits magically appearing until Christmas. At last, I found the answer: the backyard!

I'd never thought much of it before, mostly because it's a steep and narrow terrain, therefore tricky to use.

However I recently built a tree house (or rather a house under a tree) with my landlord's help and the backyard gained monumental appeal overnight. First, the B-day activities.

The best idea I had did not emanate from me. It came from a 1978 photograph where my younger brother and I are standing in our living room under a string of felt puppets my mom made. The photo was taken on the day of his 5-year-old birthday party.

My mother was and is still very crafty (she made puppets and sets for The Night Before Christmas two years ago) and I got completely inspired.

I dusted off my sewing machine and two evenings later, I had 25 felt puppets ready to decorate. I made a point of making whimsically gender-neutral puppets using mostly primary colors with odd ears, hair and head shapes.

I knew it'd be a hit when my girls started playing with them before they were even sewn. "When I'm a mom, I'll make puppets for my children's birthday party too," confided my 5-year-old with a grin.

So as children started trickling in on the B-day, I got them each to choose a puppet and then they decorated them with fabric markers. Even the 3-year-olds got into the groove and soon enough there were decorated puppets hanging from each parent's purse awaiting the ride back home.

Second activity was of course the tree house, where children were naturally drawn. Until then, I had no idea of the maximum occupancy of that structure. Now I know it's about six screaming kids inside and as many as you want around.

They climbed in and out, waved their puppets through the windows, re-arranged the table and two chairs in many creative ways and later, threw the furniture out the windows. That qualifies as sheer success.

I did try to organize a "wrap the mummy" game with toilet paper but while some of the kids were particularly enthusiastic at freely unrolling TP, none of them wanted to get wrapped.

So we moved on to bobbing apples where Tiana, Andrew, Ben and Domenico each had a try. Soaking wet, Tiana succeeded twice. Out of curiosity I gave a go too, mainly because I'd never tried before. It's not that easy!

An hour into the party, the pinata made its appearance as some guests had to leave early. Girls will be girls and mine chose a sickeningly pink blond princess as their pinata.

Since I bought it empty at a grocery store on Mission Street, my husband and I filled it with healthier alternatives than the usual crap-candy-alternative. We went for fruit leathers, chocolate bars, salted caramels, natural fruit lollipops, honey sticks and natural fruit hard candy instead.

I'm not sure the kids noticed when they all ran and tumbled to pick up candy on the ground but we felt a lot better about it. The birthday cake followed of course.

My girls had requested a chocolate cake. Standing firmly against cake mixes, I bake everything from scratch. This one was no exception: three layers of chocolate sponge cake, two layers of chocolate butter cream and one of Nutella. Rich!

To honour my artisan clock-reparer older brother Jean, I made the cake in the shape in a clock whose needles marked three and five respectively. As additional decorations, I baked animal-shaped meringues (hedgehogs, mice and snails).

As usual, children were way more interested in the frosting and rainbow non-pareils than the cake itself. The party was coming to an end and before they left, our guests received the goodie item some had been waiting for all year: the annual selection of our girls' favorite songs compiled by my husband.

Party over. Time to switch to Halloween mode.