Amarna at the Penn Museum

Image of an Egyptian (Non-Funerary) MaskPhiladelphia is in the throes of Egyptomania at the moment, with a heavily promoted King Tutankhamun exhibit at the Franklin Institute and a companion exhibit featuring artifacts from Amarna at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology.

The Franklin exhibit has been disappointing for many, with negative comments all over the Internet. This review, from summarizes many of the objections:

As long as you understand that you are seeing 130 beautiful treasures from the tomb of King Tut, other Valley of the Kings tombs and additional ancient sites, but not Tutankhamum’s death mask or inner coffins, you should not be disappointed in Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

In addition, the admission price of $32.50 (weekends) and $27.50 weekdays is very steep when compared to the prior and larger Titanic and Body Worlds exhibitions which were also held at the Franklin Institute.

Missing from the Franklin are most of the artifacts that were featured in the dramatic and extensive King Tut exhibit that famously toured the US in 1977; they were deemed too fragile to travel out of Egypt. The incredible funerary mask that featured in the seventies exhibition is among the pieces that have not returned; distressingly, the promoters of the current exhibit have chosen to prominently feature an image of Tut (above, left) that most people will assume is the mask — though it is actually a photo of a miniature organ coffin.

(Londoners take note: This is the Tutankhmamun exhibit that opens in your city in November, 2007.)

Image of a Side View of an Egyptian StatueForewarned regarding these matters and cognizant of reports of huge crowds, Allium and I decided to sit this one out, and headed over to the Amarna exhibit instead. The good news is that Amarna is well worth seeing. It’s a small, quiet, completely non-glitzy experience; perfect for those who prefer their museum experiences contemplative rather than entertaining.

The bad news is that the curation is minimal — as seems to be the trend these days — and incredibly sloppy. Although English is normally read from left to right, and enumeration written likewise, several displays have numbers slapped on willy-nilly, in an apparently random fashion. No attempt has been made to ensure that the descriptive cards lie in the same order (or even in numerical order) beneath the artifacts.

Under these circumstances, trying to match an identifying numeral or artifact with its corresponding card is counter-intuitive and distracts quite a bit from the viewing experience. In some cases, identifying text appeared to be missing, and at least once, available text seemed to identify an completely different artifact. Why, one wonders?

Curatorial carelessness aside, the artifacts themselves are interesting, and sparse attendance (at least on the weekday when we were there) meant that viewing was unhampered.

In addition to the current Amarna exhibit, the Penn Museum maintains two Egyptian galleries, including a royal palace. There’s a completely pointless video at the entrance to the galleries, but the galleries themselves are worth visiting; curation here is much better than that for Amarna.

One entrance fee covers the entire museum, including Amarna.

I have a few more posts lined up that feature Amarna to greater or lessor degrees; I’ll be putting them up as time allows.


Unbento – Gyoza on a Red Plate

Homemade gyoza filled with Chinese cabbage, spring onion, shrimp and ginger; steamed rice with furikake; and dipping sauce of shoyu with rice vinegar, garlic and ginger.

Image of a Bento with Gyoza in Red

The wrappers were purchased, and the dumplings crimped in a gyoza mold we bought a few years ago. Next time I’ll make the filling-to-dough ratio a bit higher.


Bento 10 – Stuffed Grape Leaves

Bento a la Grecque

Image of a Large Bento Box Box Stuffed with Grapeleaves

Upper Tier: Two layers of grape leaves stuffed with rice, onions, sumac, walnuts, and lemon juice

Upper Tier, Center: Cucumbers with sour cream and yogurt (both fat-free), salt, pepper and dill

Bottom Tier, Upper Half: Grapes and blueberries, cheese wedge, almonds

Bottom Tier, Lower Half: Greek salad (minus cucumbers — I ran out!) made of tomotoes, red onion, kalamata olives, oregano (from our garden) and feta (fat-free)

This bento was for Allium; here’s the same one packed in a smaller container for me:

Image of a Bento Box Box Stuffed with Grapeleaves

Allium’s box is meant to be a lunch box, but mine is actually theoretically meant for craft storage. Mine’s available at grocery stores, sold for lunches, but you get only two tiers — neither of them divided. I found a three-tiered version with one divided section at a craft/fabric store for the same price. The craft organizer also has a handle, which the lunch boxes lack. (Too bad!)

Amazon sells the “small 3 layer square Snap ‘n Stack by Snapware” and also carries Allium’s “snap ‘n stack 2 layer lunch box”.


Waterworks Redux

The Waterworks Giveth and The Waterworks Taketh Away

Allium and I returned to Philadelphia last Friday, and were astonished and pleased to see that the Waterworks Restaurant, on the banks of the Schuylkill, had unexpectedly enhanced the view of the building and grounds by installing boxed evergreens where formerly all we could see were trash and pallets. Huzzah, huzzah, huzzah!

However, as noted above, the improved view has not come without cost. Some bright bulb at the restaurant has seen fit to add a rolling bar to the newly beautified scene. It’s hideous — bright white and electric blue. It’s exactly what was needed to completely destroy the otherwise tasteful serenity of the riverside. Nice work, guys — what’s next? An inflatable pink elephant over the bar?

Image of a Riverside Building with a Hideous Rolling Bar Alongside

Say it ain’t so.


Bento 9 – Onigiri with Grapes

Wasabi Tuna Stuffed Onigiri

Image of Bento Box with Onigiri and Grapes

Upper Left: A single strawberry

Upper Center: Salted cucumbers

Upper Right: Green grapes and blueberries

Lower Left: Onigiri stuffed with canned tuna (good quality!) seasoned with wasabi mayonaise and sambol olek and wrapped with a band of nori

Lower Right: Cherry tomatoes

This represents a new low in photography — got to work on that lighting!



Allium and I went into the city the other night, as we do a lot lately, with bento boxes packed for dinner and folding chairs stowed in the trunk of the car. Behind the museum there’s a small rise topped with a pavilion; we carried our gear up the hill and set up camp in the shade. It was a warm evening — 85 degrees or so — but a strong breeze came up over the river as the sun began to set, and we were quite comfortable.

Image of a Restaurant by a River

Beneath us was the old Waterworks, refurbished and now converted into a restaurant. The main building resembles an enormous and unimaginative wedding cake, plopped down on a table, for safety’s sake, away from the celebration. It’s meant to look elegant, and almost succeeds, except for its dull proportions, and the fact that we can see the garbage bins and stacks of delivery skids tossed off to the side.

Across the way we can see traffic backing up in both directions, in and out of the city, but it’s of no concern to us (at least at this moment). An ancient overpass is directly across from us; it’s one of several in this area that features beautiful brick arches. Trains go by across the top; we’ve been on those trains, and there’s nothing romantic about them, but you couldn’t prove it from where we sit tonight. Even though I know better, a fond wanderlust steals over me as I watch the trains move slowly across the bridge.

Below us flows the fetid Schuylkill River, beautiful in the waning sunlight. We can’t smell it from our perch, though. Once we finish our meal, Allium brews ginger tea in the thermos he secretly brought and ginger scents the air around us. The tea and our relative solitude remind Allium of Taiga — whose work we are about to see again — and Allium feels at one with the greenery that surrounds us and the river. In previous visits, we’ve seen several paintings of small dwellings set on mountains whose rice paper walls have been pushed aside; with the shoji screens out of view, the definition between structure and landscape is lost. As night falls and we relax, our open domed pedestal seems similarly organic.

Image of Paths by a Riverside

I feel this, as Allium does, but my mind is elsewhere, too. I’m watching the pathways that zigzag down the hill, and I’m thinking of Orson Welles in The Third Man. It’s the scene when he’s up in a defunct carousel car with Joseph Cotton. He opens the cab door dangerously, and they regard the pedestrians below.

Tell me [he says]. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?

But that’s for another post.

Image of a River

I turn away from the infrequent joggers and the dolled up diners — the dots — far below and gaze lovingly on my favorite feature of this stretch of the river. In keeping with the classical theme of the museum (or vice versa), someone has constructed what looks an open-air storage facility, based on the facade of the Pantheon. It’s on the near bank, just to the right of us, and it brings to my mind Marcus Didius Falco and his misadventures by the banks of the river Tiber. I can imagine the barques unloading, the urns of oil and grain stacked up.

Image of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Taken From the River Side

The faux temple should feel out of place next to the grimy river, the automobile congestion, and the dirty trains, but it suits nevertheless, probably only because of its proximity to the museum. The museum is the only beautiful thing you see as you come into Philadelphia from the east — the only beautiful thing you see coming into Philadelphia from any direction.

Final photo from vergo1220 at flickr; all others mine

Update 7/29/07: Waterworks Redux


Bento 8 – Spring Rolls with Edamame

Thai Spring Rolls with Edamame

Image of Bento Box with Spring Rolls with Edamame

Upper Tier: Lettuce, carrot, rice noodles, spring onion, shrimp, mint and cilantro (both from the garden) in rice paper wrappers on a bed of basil leaves (also from the garden)

Lower Tier, Upper Left: Sliced strawberries

Lower Tier, Upper Right: Grapes and blueberries

Lower Tier, Lower Left: Skewers of stuffed green olives and grape tomatoes on basil leaves

Lower Tier, Lower Right: Edamame


To Market, To Market

Image of a Box Meant to Hold  Garlic SlicerOne of the pleasures of liking things that aren’t readily obtainable in your own neck of the woods is having to go hunting for them. Allium and I live in a pizza and chicken wings kind of place, but generally prefer to consume fare that is, shall we say, a bit more interesting. In our world, re-stocking the kitchen requires a bit of travel. When the pantry began to look like Mother Hubbard’s recently, we struck out for a nearby state and a favorite Asian market — in this case, a Korean Market, stocked with goods from Japan and China as well.

We quickly picked up the 50 lb. sack of rice and the gallon of shoyu, and then the fun began. We always shop with a specific list, but these infrequent trips are also an opportunity to discover new things. We meander up and down the aisles while gathering the necessities, keeping a sharp eye out for new flavors or items we haven’t seen elsewhere. The shops we favor tend to be small, and sometimes the stock doesn’t vary a lot, but we usually come home with at least one interesting new find. This time we were a bit luckier and came home with two new kitchen implements, and two new comestibles.

Image of a Garlic SlicerBuried in a bin filled with tissue soap packets I found the rather battered empty box you see at the top (left) of this post. A few minute’s scrabbling produced the gloriously decorative thing you see to the right. Inserted into one side is a series of thin stainless steel blades, which produce beautifully sliced garlic from whole cloves. This is not your ubiquitous garlic press — this device makes garlic wafers. Garlic you can see! Garlic you can bite! And yet . . . garlic thin enough to brown all around each perfect piece. Why haven’t I seen this anywhere before? I’d have snatched it up in a minute. As I did, this go-round, without any hesitation.

Image of a Plastic Mold Used to Make Rice RollsIs it easy to figure out what these three plastic pieces are (to the left)? I found them packaged up and hanging on a peg. The two pieces with the half-cicle cutouts were packed inside the rectangle, so the whole thing looked rather like a child’s building block. There weren’t many clues on the label (OK, there may have been, but I don’t read Chinese ideographs), however, I’d been reading about miniature rice rolls on bento blogs, and this looked as if it might be useful for making them. Into the cart it went.

Once we got home, I discovered that there were instructions for the language-impaired after all — minuscule illustrations demonstrating how to place one of the half-circle pieces into the frame with the indentations facing up, how to fill the rectangular frame with rice, and then press the other half-circle into the rectangle. Once the last piece is aligned with the top of the frame, you push the whole thing out and then pop the rice out of the mold. It’s incredibly easy, and the rolls are absolutely uniform and ready to play with. I’ll be doing that when making future bentos.

Image of a Furikake BottleWe’re always on the lookout for new furikake. Nothing enlivens a bowl of plain steamed rice better than a tasty blend of dried seaweed and seasonings. When we can find them, though, the variations we see are almost always made with sugar, which we’ve discovered neither of us likes much. Of the dozen or so types we found on this excursion, all but this one had the despised sweetener. Allium made out the kanji hiragana on the front of the bottle — nori, wasabi, egg and sesame — but I was happy to confirm his translation by reading the tiny nutrition label — your FDA at work. This one turned out to be every bit as good as our favorite shirasu furikake.

We filled our cart to overflowing and navigated past the cartons and merchandise surrounding the counter at the front of the store. Checking out in a small store owned by someone who is proud of it is such a different experience to the miserable one at the local chain grocery. The register at this particular store is not much more than a glorified adding machine; the owner does most of the calculating his head and he picks each item up as he does the tally. You can tell what he’s thinking; he’s figuring the price for multiple items even as he’s planning how he’ll pack the bags — a process with which we’d never dream of interfering. Unlike at the local grocery, each one of these bags ends up packed to the very top and nothing at all comes home even slightly squashed.

I know enough to hand the funds over a bit ceremoniously, and that I will be handed the receipt in the same way. There’s a slight formality to our departure which is pleasing to everyone. With many smiles, almost bowing to each other, we make our way out the door.

Image of a Bottle of Aloe Vera JuiceThis time, though, before we’ve crossed the sidewalk, the proprietor comes through the door after us. He’s got two green bottles in his hands which he hands to Allium, smiling and nodding his head. Here’s a truly unexpected discovery — it’s aloe vera juice, something we’ve never heard of. We’re tempted to open one in the car, but decide that we might want to refrigerate it first. We’re touched by the gift, but Asian beverages, other than tea and sake, have mostly been a little frightening in the past. We think trying it cold may help.

Later, after the leisurely drive home, after we’ve unpacked everything, after the aloe vera juice is icy, Allium pours each of us an ounce or so to try. We smell first, but there’s almost no odor — the fluid just smells clean, maybe a bit like cucumber. We take a closer look; there appear to be bits of ice — no, it’s gel — floating in the glasses. We’re dubious, but we drink. It’s different, light, delicious. The bits of gel — aloe vera, we assume — taste curiously clean. We’re glad the drink’s not too sweet — we’ve noticed that the label says “no sugar added”, but the ingredients list makes it clear that this doesn’t mean that they left the corn syrup out!

The next day, I am curious and do some research. There are two types of aloe vera juice, it seems — one of which is used to treat constipation. With caution — ingesting very little can apparently cause cramps and much gastrointestinal distress. I’m relieved that neither one of us has noticed any discomfort. The other version, aloe vera juice without aloin — juice squeezed from the inner parts of the aloe vera leaf, not from the external skin — appears to cure just about everything without any digestive side effects. We’ll be drinking it one refreshing ounce at a time, just in case — and toasting the health of our generous grocer each time we raise our glasses.


Bento 7 – Salmon

Ginger Salmon on Soba Noodles

Image of Bento Box with Salmon

Upper Left: Olive and tomato skewers on a bed of basil

Upper Right: Strawberries

Lower Left: Ginger broiled salmon on soba noodles with ginger soy sauce

Lower Right: Artichoke hearts with greek olives and red peppers, lemon juice and red pepper flakes


Dabbawallas and Tiffin Tins

Among the effluvia engendered by Britain’s Prince Charles’ marriage in 2005 to Camilla Parker-Bowles was this tidbit, from the BBC:

Two of the famous lunch-box, or tiffin, carriers from the Indian city of Mumbai are on their way to London to attend Prince Charles’ wedding on Saturday.

The honored men belong to a group, virtually all male, which delivers 175,000 home-cooked lunches, daily, to suburban workers in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India.

Image of a Lunch in a Tiffin TinOperating much like a postal system, the men, called ‘dabbawallas’ or ‘tiffinwallas’, collect lunches (‘tiffin’) from the homes where they’re cooked, transporting them on foot or by bicycle or by handcart and by train until they are delivered to individual offices.

Image of a Bicycle Loaded with Tiffin TinsThe entire operation takes a whole day. Tins are collected at 9 AM, put on the trains by 10:30 and delivered to offices at 12:30. The empties are collected at 1:30 and returned to homes by late afternoon.

Image of Dabbawallahs Sorting Tiffin TinsA total of four dabbawallas handle each individual tiffin on each run. The first collects the tiffin tin from the home. A second sorts the tins before they are placed in bins on a train. A third sorts the tins after they leave the train, and the fourth delivers the tiffin tin to the office.

Image of Tiffin Tin CodingThis enterprising workforce, 5,000 strong, is semi-literate; the tins are marked with symbols and colors which code their destinations. Each carries an origination symbol, a symbol for the destination station and one for the building where it’s finally delivered. The system is so precise that the error rate in just one in two months – or one in 16 million trips.

The dabbawallas have lots of experience to build on — the company has existed for well over 100 years, ever since British colonial times.

Why don’t the office workers carry their own lunches? A commenter named Karuna answers, writing on a business forum:

This Dabba is quite big and crude Alumininum container inside which the tiffin carrier is kept. One thing it is too big. and looks too crude and unsophisticated for a decent office-goer carry to with himself. The harried office-goer would hardly like to carry it with himself on his way back. More over bombay trains do not have space for commuters themselves. How can these big containers be accommodated during rush hour traffic?

I think there’s a tiffin in Allium’s future. No dabbawallas, though — he’s going to have to provide his own transport.

Image credits, all from flickr:

Tiffin lunch from Chris Brun
Bicycle from lheisinger
Sorting also from lheisinger
Tiffin codes from etm21