Architecture is important

I just read an article in the New York Times suggesting how to resurrect the grandness of the old Penn Station (A Proposal for Penn Station and Madison Square Garden). If you’ve ever had the misfortune to be in the current Penn Station, you know that any change could only be an improvement.

The first time I took a train into New York, I was probably 12 or 13. It was the week after Christmas, and the last Christmas that I can remember that my dad’s entire side of the family was all together–all the aunts and uncles and cousins. The aunts and uncles and cousins decided to take a day trip into New York, so we drove down to Connecticut, where some other relatives lived (a great-aunt and uncle, I think), and we took the Metro-North train into the city. I was disappointed that the approach to the terminal was made through tunnels and that there were no grand vistas of the New York skyline to be seen. My disappointment was paid back many times over, however, when we disembarked at Grand Central Terminal. The platform was nothing special, but walking up to the main concourse of the station was incredible. It was probably the first time that I’d ever been in such a large interior open space. And there were stars painted on the ceiling! Thinking back, it occurs to me that many of those stars were probably no longer visible at night in New York even when the station was constructed in the early 20th century. Now, I wonder how many people stop to enjoy the view that they never get anywhere else in the city.

My memories of the rest of that day in the city are a haze of department store holiday windows, snow, enormous buildings, laughing with family, and the want to spend more than just a day in New York. But coming and going via Grand Central is firmly fixed in my mind. It lived up to the mystique I had already associated with it and with the rest of the city from books and movies and television. What an amazing gift to be able to come and go daily through such a wonderful space as that!

Eight or ten years later, I took the train again into New York. I was in college now and was going to spend some time with a friend in Brooklyn before we took the train back together to Montréal. I knew that my Amtrak train would leave me at Penn Station and not Grand Central, but can you imagine my crushing disbelief at being confronted with the reality of Penn Station? I distinctly remember coming up from the platform into the claustrophobic crush of those bland, low ceilings and thinking, “Huh. There must be another level up before the main concourse.” Sadly, no. That was the main concourse. I was so very confused. Why would anyone ever want to be in this building? It was so bland and enclosed and so decidedly NOT Grand Central Terminal. I couldn’t understand how such a city as New York could ever have such a rail station as Penn. It seemed a cruel joke. As one architectural historian lamented, “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.”

And so it’s nice to read that there are still people who realize the horror of the current Penn Station when compared to what came before, and who hope that we might end that reign of horror in the near future.

If anyone ever tells you that architecture doesn’t matter, please bring them to the concourse of Penn Station, which today looks like this:

Penn Station, Main Concourse

And show them a picture of what this replaced:

Old Penn Station

And ask them which one they’d rather be standing in today.


School Lunch

Sassymonkey posted today over at BlogHer about school lunches and Amy Kalafa’s new book, Lunch Wars. Besides the fact that it made me smile to read that Sassymonkey (whom I’ve known, well, for a bit) went to an elementary school that she described as “crunchy”, it was interesting to read someone else’s memories of school lunch.


Lunch Trays

Image by PinkMoose via Flickr


I remember generally enjoying school lunch. Indeed, I was usually slightly embarrassed if my mom would pack my lunch. She certainly meant well but she didn’t ever seem to differentiate between my older step brothers and me when it came to appetite. Whenever she would pack my lunch, I would unpack a plastic grocery bag full with two or three sandwiches, a bag of chips, pickles, a soda, four or five cookies, and a piece of fruit or two. I was 9. This particular bag is memorable because there was a bit of pickle juice in the ziploc bag (to keep the pickles fresh, I guess?) and the ziploc bag leaked. So there was a bit of pickle juice all over my entire lunch. I was in fifth grade and already not allowed to sit with the cool kids. The smell of pickles didn’t help my cause.

But, it was generally rare for my mother to pack my lunch. Most days, I ate the school lunch. And, generally, I enjoyed it. Indeed, I enjoyed it more than most other kids did. I recognize now that it was all mostly reheated, previously frozen, very processed food. But they were relatively balanced meals. There was always an identifiable vegetable and an identifiable fruit. The vegetable was more often than not some kind of niblet corn or diced vegetable medley and fruit was always swimming in syrup, but they were there. Thank you, USDA requirements.

Each morning in elementary school, the teacher would announce the day’s hot lunch and count how many students wanted it. If sloppy joe’s weren’t your thing, you had the option of taking the alternate lunch, which was your choice of a sandwich served with chips and carrot and celery sticks. You would have to fill out your own yellow slip selecting what kind of sandwich you wanted (PB&J, PB&Fluff, or tuna. I think ham and cheese might have been an option too). When you went through the line, there was a tray of sandwiches arranged alphabetically by name in individual waxed paper bags. In a way, choosing the alternate lunch felt more special because the lunch ladies had made that sandwich just for you.

I remember always being very interested by the shiny, stainless steel wonderland that was the school kitchen. When I was in middle school, I became a library aide (appropriately enough for the dorky bookworm), but I would have been the first to volunteer to help out making lunch if I’d had the option. I got picked on enough for volunteering in the library; I’m sure volunteering in the kitchen wouldn’t have been that much worse. Thinking back, I’m a little surprised that I never seriously pursued culinary school. (Ok. So my mother would never have let me pursue culinary school and put far too much pressure on me to get a “useful” degree. We compromised: I went to a top university but took a degree in history.)

By the time I got to high school, I was still enjoying the school lunches, though I was excited to have the option of a salad bar instead of sandwiches in case I didn’t like the hot lunch. I ate a lot of salads for lunch in high school. But they probably weren’t the healthiest salads. I was a teenage boy and had free reign over a salad bar that included bacon bits, cheddar cheese, and ranch dressing. Any modicum of healthfulness to my salads had to learn to swim in an ocean of ranch dressing.

There was also the Snack Shack. This was a separate counter in the cafeteria that only sold desserts. It was built during my time in high school. It’s the kind of thing that would make Jamie Oliver or Alice Waters shoot beet juice out of their ears. Giant, soft, sugary chocolate chip cookies. Honey buns that tasted like the plastic bags they were packaged in (not that this stopped me from consuming several a week). Nachos with neon yellow cheese. Sodas. Vitamin waters. I guess the assumption was that high schoolers had enough self-control to choose to eat healthfully.

Prior to the Snack Shack’s construction, you could only buy dessert after having gone through the lunch line once. You could go through again for a second dessert, but you had to face the guilting looks of the lunch ladies. Once the Snack Shack was built, there was no accountability. If you wanted your lunch to consist of nachos and a honey bun, there was nothing to stop you. I’m trying to remember if the Snack Shack sold fruit. I want to say yes, but it probably didn’t.

I’d grown up with enough food sense to know that I shouldn’t eat a lunch entirely from the Snack Shack. Besides, the hot lunch was always much more filling and satisfying. But I was the rare exception. Lots of kids chose to eat only from the Snack Shack and I suspect that they weren’t getting balanced meals at home either. I’d be curious to know where the funding for the Snack Shack came from and what kind of approval process it went through. Who thought it was a good idea to allow students to purchase a lunch consisting solely of desserts?

Today, more often than not, I bring leftovers from dinner for lunch the next day. It’s one of the benefits of cooking for four in a house of two. My partner is more picky than I am and doesn’t like to eat the same thing too often, so I often end up with two days of lunches from every dinner. That’s just fine by me. I do most of the cooking, so I know that I’m going to like whatever I’ve made.

It might be as much as a decade before I have school-aged kids. I wonder what school lunch will be like by then. A lot can happen in ten years. I hope that there’s still some semblance of nutrition in school lunches by then. If not, I hope my kids like leftovers.

Christmas Road Trips

Borrowing from Ms. Monkey’s theme for today, this started out as a comment on her blog but started to get rather too long for a comment.

Christmas road trips were also a part of my life growing up. With divorced parents, I would almost always spend Christmas Eve and morning with my Mother and then my Dad would pick me up around noon and we’d drive back to my Grandparents’ house where he also lived, which was a few hours away.

Not surprisingly, something that I loved the most was two very different Christmas dinners. My mother’s family is Italian and we would generally spend Christmas Eve gathered at my Grandmother’s house. All of us, which worked out to, let’s see…two, three, six, nine…at least 20. I always felt like I didn’t quite have a place. My step-brothers were four and six years older than me and my younger cousins were younger by that much, and when my little brothers were born, there were nine and 14 year age gaps. Still, even when I was young, it wasn’t so much about the gifts that my uncle-dressed-as-Santa would dispense as it was about the food. Being Italian, there was plenty of food to go around. Lavish antipasti (the deviled eggs were always my favorite but the shrimp cocktail grew on me as I got older) were spread out in the living room while people arrived before dinner and milled about and chatted and caught up. We all lived within a 20 minute drive of each other and it seemed like my Mother was always talking with our relatives and yet there was always so much more to talk about when we saw each other in person, which always confused me. I guess I started out as a wall flower pretty young.

But I digress, we were only on the antipasti. Dinner was over the top but we didn’t do the traditional Italian Christmas Eve fish dinner. Though my Great-Grandparents (both of whom only passed away recently) were both immigrants, they had become thoroughly Americanized and so our family tradition was the best of both worlds. Dinner always started with a pasta course–perhaps substituting a variety of pastas for a variety of fishes. My Nana made fresh pasta by hand from scratch every day and though that was the only pasta we ever ate at home, being gathered around a table with my entire family made it that much more special. Fusilli, lasagne, stuffed shells or manicotti. Enough pasta to feed an army. But that was just the first course. There was salad and after that, came out the more Anglo-American style meal: baked ham, mashed potatoes, scalloped potatoes (yum!), carrots and peas. None of us could move after all that but there was always dessert. Again, a blend of traditions: Italian cookies like anisettes and pizzelles and more Anglo-American treats like pies. My grandmother would always make a rum cake and there’d usually be a pistachio cake too.

After all that, THEN we’d do gifts. There were already some under the tree but my uncle would dress as Santa and emerge from the basement (which I never questioned, there being a perfectly serviceable fireplace in the living room) bearing more goodies for the kids. We always knew it was my uncle, but that wasn’t the point of course. Finally, after all that, we’d bundle up and head home. I was an altar boy, but we almost never went to Midnight Mass, though I imagine my great-grandparents did.

Christmas morning at home would usually find me wide awake around 5.30 or 6, sitting quietly in my room playing video games or patiently staring at the gifts under the tree. I knew better than to try to wake anyone up before 7.

The rest of the morning was usually a blur. I was never one for ripping the wrapping paper off my gifts, despite my mother and step father’s best attempts at trying to get me to do it for the camera. Carefully and methodically, I would undo the wrapping in reverse order of how it had been taped on. After gifts, we would have breakfast and my parents would usually have to pull me away from whatever new video or computer game I had gotten and force me to eat and then get ready so my father could pick me up to head to my Grandparents’ house.

Grandma and Grandpa’s in Central Massachusetts almost always greeted me with a white Christmas, even if closer to Boston we had no snow. Things there were usually more subdued than with the Italian side of the family. My dad’s side of the family is more far-flung so there would always be less of us, but even on holidays when we would all gather together, the Hungarian-Germans just weren’t quite as rowdy. I liked the more gentle nature of celebrations there even though I now miss my rowdy extended Italian family. Dinner with my Father’s family felt much more…British. Roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, the usual sides. Cookies and maybe a pie for dessert, but always accompanied by a Jubilee Roll from Friendly’s.

As I got older, I was often the only grandchild at the house until dinner time and my Father and Grandparents would have to prod me into opening my gifts under the tree and in my stocking. It just wasn’t what the holiday was about for me anymore. Particularly by the time I was a teenager, I treasured the week that I would spend at my Grandparents’ beautiful old Victorian house. Until just before I graduated from high school, they were the last house on the street and they didn’t even have a street number–that’s how rural it was. It was quiet and there was no one yelling from one end of the house to the other, no pressure of chores, no pressure of school. And always the offer to go do fun things like go to Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester or go into downtown Northampton or Amherst and spend an afternoon in a bookstore. Or just spend an afternoon curled up in my favorite chair in the living room, reading. Or help my grandmother cook dinner or bake a coffee cake. Mmm…Grandma’s coffee cake. That’s a post of it’s own.

So, I guess my Christmas road trip memories always remind me of how different the two sides of my family are. These past few years are the first years that I’ve spent away from my family and I’ve yet to come up with any real traditions of my own. I don’t own any ornaments or lights. I’ve never bought my own tree. Last Christmas, we were at the tail end of Snowpocalypse here in Portland and the city had basically been shut down for a week. The Man and I had only recently started dating and had survived a week together at my apartment with breaks to trudge around town on foot. I had to work a double on Christmas day and we spent the night at the hotel I work at because I had to work again early the next morning. It was very mellow and low-key. We had grand ideas for Christmas this year because he thought he was going to have friends from back East coming to visit, but that fell through and it looks like it’s going to just be the two of us again. I’m okay with that, but I might have to make some lasagne anyway…