Bento 12 – Squash

Onigiri with Squash and Asparagus

Image of a Bento Box With Squash

Upper Left: Pears broiled with ginger and honey

Upper Right: Roasted asparagus and red pepper

Lower Left: Nori-wrapped onigiri with tuna, wasabi mayonnaise and sambol olek

Lower Right: Onion and squash sauteed in broth, with black pepper


Bento 6 – Grape Leaves and Chick Peas

Grape Leaves with Squash and Chick Pea Salad

Imge of a Yellow Bento Box with Grapeleaves

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

Lower Tier: Grape tomatoes, squash and black olives in a silicone baking cup, chick peas with lemon and red onion

This bento box is made by Lube Sheep (don’t ask; I sure don’t intend to!). It’s one of three I just got from a great eBay store, and is pretty commonly available. These particular boxes look quite small at about 6 by 3 by 3.5 inches — and they really are small. But according to a really useful chart over at Lunch in a Box, it’s the right size for me. Bento boxes size is usually determined by capacity, rather than dimensions: these hold just under 600 ml.

Each layer has its own lid, and there’s a nifty little space under the domed top for a thin goodie or two, and a set of undersized chopsticks — or a full-sized pair like my wonderful technical chopsticks, which I’ll show in another post.


Ike Taiga

Image of A Mountain Painted by Ike TaigaFor the past month or so, Allium and I have been traveling regularly to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to re-visit the Ike Taiga exhibit. Taiga and his wife, Tokuyama Gyokuran, lived allegedly “bohemian” lives as artists in 18th century Japan. A single visit was not enough; the gallery is huge, and the sheer quantity of the surviving works of these two is overwhelming.

Because all of these works — done mostly on paper, and mounted on silk — are extremely fragile, they are rotated in and out of the exhibition. Subsequent visits have taken on the nature of a treasure hunt while we identify the new items and recall those removed.

Allium has lived in Japan, and has more than a passing acquaintance with the culture of the country, but my own formal cultural education (such as it is) has been largely euro-centric, and my own inclinations are far more literary than art-driven. I’ve been astonished and delighted by this extensive exposure to a world where ‘words’ are themselves visual — where text is a crucial part of the visual experience. Kanji — the ‘text’ — is completely integrated with representational paintings here, and sometimes is, entirely, the ‘painting’.

Image of the Moon and a Cottage Painted by Ike TaigaAllium interprets some kanji, but I can only experience these disciplined and graceful figures visually. I’ve been intrigued to see how much more this kind of exhibit demands of me; really seeing requires attending more precisely than I must when viewing the types of art I more typically observe. I’ve had to slow my pace considerably in order to fully appreciate these works. Seeing, in this case, has not been intuitive.

As was common, both Taiga and Gyokuran painted in response to Chinese texts. My favorite piece is an album of minuscule paintings inspired by the Chinese poet Li Yu (1611-1680). One scene depicts a pavilion, a flowing river, and crosshatching paths down a hillside. The relevant poem is translated as:

My mountain window show[s] all four sides
with perfect clarity
Green fields and verdant paddies
all fall right
before my view
Elbow on desk I supervise the
farmers to the utmost!
And never does it interfere with
the job of reading books.

(“Middle-management” Allium remarked, amused.) (Not so much the last two lines, though, I think.) We are, as ever, at the mercy of the translator here, but you get the gist. No translator is necessary to enter Taiga’s illustration, which is at once sparing and detailed — and wholly evocative.

Unless you take the tour, or are an inveterate reader of the curator’s notes, you may not realize that Taiga sometimes painted using only his fingers. Using the interior curve of an overgrown fingernail as an inkwell, Taiga dipped the fingers of his other hand into the ink and drew using only his digit. To call this ‘finger-painting’ is terribly wrong, conjuring, as it does, the slop and chaos of the modern kindergarten; what Taiga does is nothing short of astonishing, and involves subtleties that are difficult to imagine without actually seeing them.

On a recent visit, a set of screens covered with Taiga’s journal notes was newly installed. Pages of Taiga’s kanji were mounted on the screen — calligraphic scribbles and quick sketches. Allium thought he saw something odd, and pointed out a early page that appeared to be a primitive sketch for a larger painting of Mount Asuma, done much later, in a different display on another wall. That’s treasure-hunting!

Inevitably, we noted some universal human experiences recorded among the more esoteric explorations. On a farm many years ago, Allium and I would hear a whippoorwill calling through the night. Allium understood the underlying message and immortalized it ever after in the cry “My tree! My tree!”. Apparently, neither Chinese poets nor Japanese artists have escaped the territorial expressions of our avian friends. Taiga includes this selection, by Jin Changxu, in his Book of Tang Poetry in Five Calligraphic Styles:

‘Poem of Spring Sadness’

Please, stir up the yellow warblers
So they won’t keep warbling in the trees!
So many times they wake my from my dreams,
Preventing me from traveling to Liaoxi!

A few parts of the exhibit seem surprisingly contemporary to me. A set of screens, filled only with enormous kanji, for instance, that lack, in every way, the subtlety and creativity of most of Taiga’s work. “Hmmm,” I thought. “An eighteenth-century version of a lazy modernist effort.” Perhaps it was just another (and mercifully brief) avant garde moment for Taiga — or does that prove my point?

Image of an Orchid Painted by Tokuyama GyokuranGyokuran’s work is not without interest, but it is less complex. It’s noteworthy that few women were artists, and undoubtedly her inclusion has to do with this, as well as with her association with Taiga. She seems less experimental, and her work more predictable, but some of her orchids are lovely and capture the essence of the plant in just a few well-described lines.

Unfortunately, none of the illustrations shown here (taken from the PMA website) suggest the enormous variation in style and theme demonstrated by Taiga throughout the installation. It’s open only through July 22, 2007, at which point everything goes back to Japan. Go, if you can possibly manage it.


Bento 5 – Couscous with Red Peppers

Couscous– The Glamour Shot

Image of a Bento Box with Couscous and Red Peppers

After the disappointment of the previous couscous bento, I glammed this one up a bit.

Upper Left: Almonds and a wedge of cheese

Upper Right: Green grapes and blueberries

Lower Left: Lemon couscous flecked with olives and green onions and decorated with red peppers and black olives

Lower Right: Carrot straws


Sweet Dreams

Image of a Bed with Branch-Like Posts

This breathtakingly beautiful tree bed is handmade by a woman named Shawn Lovell, a metalworker who lives in Oakland, California. She makes other things as well, but this is, to my mind, perfection. I originally saw this photo on the blog Reading Writing Living, and tracked it down with a few minutes’ sleuthing on the Internet. Not for the first time, I’m regretting living 3,000 miles from the San Francisco Bay Area.

Lovell’s bed may owe something to this one, which belongs to Max of Where The Wild Things Are:

Image of Max’s Bed from Where the Wild Things Are

but this adult, at least, is still dreaming of the verdant walls of the Pope’s bedroom. Could there be a better furnishing than this one for that exquisite chamber?

Though our own bedroom is furnished more conventionally, Allium and I own a candelabrum that might be at home either in Lovell’s studio or in Max’s bedroom:

Image of a Candelabrum with Branch-Like Arms

Either the candelabrum or its maker is, or was, named ‘Smaug’; it’s been a long time, and I’m not sure which, though Allium and I do call the candelabrum itself ‘Smaug’.

Smaug has been in my family since 1969. The artist had a little shop in Berkeley; Oakland’s just a few miles away, and Shawn Lovell is from a later generation, but oh, that’s fertile ground out there. Must be something in the water.


Bento 4 – Couscous and Roasted Yellow Peppers

Way-Too-Plain Couscous

Image of a Bento Box with Plain Couscous

Not a flattering shot of the couscous! It needs a bit of help. I’ve got leftovers; we’ll see what I can do tomorrow.

Upper Left: Cherry tomatoes

Upper Right: Cucumber with rice vinegar, pepper and sesame seeds

Lower Left: Lemon couscous flecked with olives and green onions

Lower Right: Roasted yellow peppers (I got these at a ‘regular’ supermarket and they were a disappointment, flavor-wise, even though they cost just as much as at Wegman’s, our ‘quality’ market)


Bento 3 – Onigiri with Caramelized Sweet Potatoes

Onigiri with San Bai Zu and Sweet Potatoes

Image of Bento Box with Onigiri and Carrots

Upper Left: San bai zu — wilted carrots in rice vinegar, mirin, shoyu and salt, with toasted sesame seeds on top

Upper Right: Sugar snap peas with black pepper

Lower Left: Nori-wrapped onigiri with canned tuna, wasabi mayonaise and sambol olek

Lower Right: Caramelized sweet potatoes



Image of a Map of France with Avignon MarkedMany years ago, I lived in France for a short while. I went there, quite accidentally, during a very difficult period of my life. It was a time of enormous personal disenchantment and distress that seemed not merely unending, but perhaps simply the natural course of things — life as it really is. My European travels, and my life in France in particular, ended neither the disenchantment nor the distress, but changed my perspective in subtle and permanent ways.

Long afterward, it seemed to me that France, in particular, southeastern France, had beckoned to me as if offering a strong and heroic hand, uplifting me and setting me properly on my feet so that I could live again, the vicissitudes of life notwithstanding.

Image of the Palace of the Popes at Avignon with a Modern Banner Streaming Across the FrontThough I lived in Grenoble, and studied at the University, the totem I took from that period of my life was one I found at Avignon at the Palais du Papes, on a holiday trip. That’s the Palace of the Popes on the right, the facade hideously compromised (as it most certainly was not during my visit) by the sort of banner that is now mandatory for all historic and cultural attractions. (Else how would anyone know to visit? But I digress . . . )

The multiple popes of Avignon owed their existence (and their exile), unsurprisingly, to political disagreements, in this case one between Pope Boniface VIII and France’s King Philip IV. In 1305 Philip oversaw the election of a French Pope; Clement V was the first of seven popes who lived at Avignon in corruption and luxurious glory. A good run-down on the various French popes — and two antipopes — can be found on the Avignon Popes page from Provence & Beyond. Provence-Hideaway offers a quick gloss of the history of the Papal Territories, with commentary on the popes.

The Palace itself is a fortress, buttressed everywhere with the thick walls and all the amenities necessary to a city-castle fortification. It is as magnificent and overwhelming as any palace ought to be, and proof enough that if papacies fail the test of time, wanton expenditure and substantial architecture sometimes does not.

Image of a Large Bedroom in the Palace of Popes at AvignonThe tiled floors are beautiful, and it’s easy, now, to find pictures on the Internet of the lavish bedroom suites and Pope Clement VI’s magnificent study, with its life-like hunting frescoes. But this munificence is not what remains most strikingly in my memory.

Instead, what I remember most about Avignon is a small room, almost, in the scale of things at Avignon, an afterthought. I suspect that it must be only about ten feet by ten feet; if memory serves, there is a step with a small doorway for an entranceway. The room was empty when I was there, and few visitors chose to enter it; perhaps it felt uncomfortably intimate after the grand passageways and halls we’d already traversed.

But I was enchanted by the small scale and the intimacy which seemed so incongruous. The walls looked to me like Paradise; I know now that they were probably hunting scenes, and included bird cages, rendering the scene less than heavenly for the fauna involved, but in this dark, cool room a blue sky stretched expansively; branches and vines straggled across the stone walls bringing them to life like a welcoming, accessible forest.

Image of a Detail of a Pope’s Bedroom at AvignonI loved the idea of the pope of the moment retreating from his very public life, and even from the luxuries so coveted by each and their ilk, into this small, contemplative chamber, so much better suited to human economy than the impressive surrounding suites. The room may have been windowless, but it seemed to have no boundaries at all. As in Paradise, perhaps, one could imagine living here forever, never missing a more tangible, terrestrial world. It seemed to me that one pope, at least, must have found a measure of personal peace in this room.

I found in that small room a sustaining sense of the infinite, and an enduring, quite literal, illustration of the of the nature of human imagination. I was astonished that a pope’s private cell could seem a perfect refuge from an overwhelming world — but that, in a microcosm, was what France was like for me. That sense of refuge was due partly, of course, to the seductive nature of travel, when there is no everyday and the most ordinary aspects of life seem fresh and extraordinary.

Decades later, though, I still recall with amazement not only how completely my life in France shaped the person I would become, but also the sense of peace and joy evoked in me by the artistry of men 700 years dead yet living still.

Map of France from Just France

Photo of the Palais du Papes from Bonjour La France

Photo of bedroom suite from Virtual Tourist

Bird cages detail from the University of Utah’s art site


Bento 2 – Thai Spring Roll

Bento with a Spring Roll in a ‘Lunch on the Go’ Container



Upper Left: Cucumbers in rice vinegar with salt; marinated mushrooms

Upper Right: Grape tomatoes on a bed of fresh basil leaves from the garden, sprinkled with basalmic vinegar

Lower Tier, Upper Image: Lettuce, carrot, rice noodles, spring onion, shrimp, mint and cilantro (both from the garden) in a rice paper wrapper

Lower Tier, Lower Image: Roasted asparagus and red onion

Lower Tier, Circular Container: Dipping sauce of soy sauce, rice wine, fresh ginger and a pinch of sugar

OK, I now have a new respect for food photographers. This really was prettier in person — if you allow for the general thinness of the baby asparagus spears, and the oversized container. I’ve got quite a way to go before I become a bento master — or a master bento photographer.

Image of a Lunch Container with Several CompartmentsThe ‘Fit & Fresh Lunch on the Go’ container leaves a lot to be desired aesthetically, but has a horizontal divider shelf between the lower tier and the top containers. It’s a freezable shelf; good for keeping food fresh in summer.

I rolled each grape tomato in a whole basil leaf to eat. Too wonderful!



Heaven in a Very Small Package

Image of a Plate of Biskvier Pastries

These lovely things are a Swedish confection, allegedly beloved of Sarah Bernhardt; actually beloved of yours truly. The base is marzipan; the filling is a barely salty, barely sweet, incredibly light (but rich!) buttercream; the topping is dark chocolate.

I found these quite accidentally at a Swedish bakery near a home where we used to live. We aren’t close enough any longer for me to just stop by for a nibble or two, which might be a good thing . . . One day, though, I’m going to have to try to make them. What if we move out-of-state? Best to be prepared.

Flora’s Recipe Hideout has what looks like a good recipe. I’d watch that oil in the topping though — it makes for a smoother finish, but a purist like me would rather just have pure dark chocolate, even if it does look a bit lumpier.

Martha Stewart has a recipe online, too, but it looks unnecessarily complicated (which isn’t really a surprise).

Sometimes, these confections are actually called “Sarah Bernhardts”, but I’ve noticed that there are a few rather dubious concoctions by that name online — including some glop made with oatmeal. Beware of imitations!