Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Bridge to Friendship

Card games can be traced back to around 1120 in China.  The Chinese, it seems, invented paper.  The Puritans felt that cards were the devil's work and frowned on trying to win at cards.  English Queen Elizabeth the First recognized that her countrymen loved card games and began to tax decks of cards.  The King of Spades is the fanciest of all the cards and the design of that card indicated the "stamp" of the paid tax.  The French began placing the pictures of actual rulers, or past rulers, on the kings, queens and jacks.

The game of Bridge was derived from the game of Whist, supposedly first played in Russia.  The English civil servants who were living in India began to play bridge as a way to pass time while in their "exile" from their mother country. The Italians got into the habit of playing cards as well and their playing cards were works of art.   Lots of history lies in between, but modern Bridge was introduced to New York City around the 1890's.  In 1925, Henry Vanderbilt  was bored on a cruise ship and began to add wagers to bridge games.  Many bridge clubs to this day play for money or for a prize at the end of the bridge "party."

The years of graduate school were a perfect time to learn to play bridge.   It was an inexpensive way to spend some leisure time.  Our wagers were never over twenty five cents per person for the entire evening...hardly a gamble at all!  Our teachers included the elderly aunt and uncle of a fellow grad student and some already learned fellow students.  Dr. and Mrs. Brown hosted several lovely parties for the young folks they were mentoring.  They loved the game and the delicious desserts that were served as we played.  Mrs. Brown was a math instructor at LSU and was a terror in the classroom.  As a hostess, she was the one of the kindest and most gracious women I have known.  Dr. Brown was also a professor at LSU and his garden was filled with hybrid camellia bushes he had grafted them to beautiful results.  Odd, how one remembers such details.  We were lucky to have their niece, Jeannine, as a friend.  I credit her with our introduction to our lifetime love of the game.

Through the years bridge became a favorite way to enjoy friendship and fellowship with like-minded people.  There have been parties with entire meals, ones where popcorn and dessert were served and even all day sessions where each brought a sandwich and the play was not interrupted for eating.  There have been couples groups where husband and wife were partners for the evening and duplicate games with friends known since those grad school days.

It is a thinking game with rules that must be remembered.  Charles Goren, a champion bridge player, wrote a book of rules and most players follow those rules.  The bidding involves communicating with a partner to reveal several things.  The bidding art tells one's partner how many points are between the two, what suits are best, if there is a chance of taking "tricks" and how many can be taken.  An error in bidding can be fatal to the play of the cards.  I have played bridge for over 40 years and I still make those errors.  Learning the intricacies of bidding is an ongoing process.

Playing bridge is like riding a bicycle.  Once learned, it is not forgotten.  People of all ages and backgrounds can sit down to bridge and use the universal language of bidding to play the game.   It is a game of etiquette.  One must remember to "thank his partner" when the "dummy" hand is laid down on the table, even if it is horrific!  One must remain silent during the "play" so as not to interrupt concentration.  "Talking across the table" is also a no-no! There is even a special way to place the shuffled deck on the table so as to keep up with the identity of the next dealer.  However,  one expert player told me once, that "one peek is worth two finesses" if someone is holding his/her hand in an indiscreet way. The biggest rule is:  "A card laid is a card played."  Once the card goes on the table, it cannot be removed.  Serious bridge players want to win the quarters that have been wagered!

After a recent downsizing and moving to a small community, bridge became a vehicle of meeting people and forming new friendships.  Bridge players are always seeking other bridge players.  I was able to find a group of women who shared my love for the game and who included me in their groups that have been established for decades.  It must be understood that retirement has become a time of enjoying hobbies, bridge playing included.  Last week a bridge party and lunch was hosted at our house.  The invitees were residents and a local retirement community with whom I enjoy a monthly game and some other friends met through the game.  One guest is 92 years old and is still an excellent player.

Summer in Louisiana is very hot, so it made sense to have a "party" inside for several hours on a July afternoon.  Invitations were sent and two tables of bridge players (8 ladies) assembled for food and cards.  Choosing to make it elegant with a prettily set table made it extra special for those who took time to attend.  My husband, always a good sport, chaufferred those who no longer drive.  A festive mood was set with a bouquet of fresh flowers from a local supermarket.  The menu included seafood quiche, summer fruit salad, tea biscuits, fig preserves (for the biscuits), peach tea and Lemon Ice Box pie.  Coffee provided a lift during the bridge game that followed the meal.  My Mom's fancy coffee cups made an appearance and the table was set with my "good stuff."

The quiche was a hit!  It was actually an "Impossible Pie" from a Bisquick recipe of many years ago.  That recipe has become a "go to" for lunches served at my table as it can be assembled in part the night before and baked just before serving. It calls for shrimp, but the addition of crab meat is delicious.  The fruit salad can be prepared early if the juice of a lemon is stirred into the bowl to prevent the fruit from turning brown.  Dessert and coffee are served during the bridge playing, so it must be kept simple for the hostess.  A no-bake pie was selected.  Even though she can't remember giving me the recipe, I credit a former colleague and friend, Claudia Fowler, for the pie variation I created.  Her original recipe was Key Lime, but I changed it to lemon.
Since we weren't wagering money, a prize was awarded to the person with the most points at the end of the afternoon. It was a one-of-a-kind necklace purchased from my friend, Pam Pennington Firmin.  Pam's jewelry making hobby produces designs are always a hit and the winner was delighted.

Menu items recipes are below.  You don't have to have a Bridge Party to serve them, as all are crowd pleasers.  Enjoy and if you don't know how to play bridge, you should learn.  It's a great way to spend some quality time with friends, old and new.

Impossible Seafood Pie (my variations of the original)

8 oz. cooked shrimp (boiled in seasoning of choice)
4 oz. white crab meat
1/2 cup chopped green onions
1/2 teaspoon dried basil (I used chopped fresh from our herb garden)
4 oz. shredded Swiss cheese (about 1 cup)
1 1/2 cups milk (I used skim)
3 large eggs
3/4 cup Bisquick baking mix
salt, white pepper to taste

-Heat oven to 400 degrees and spray a 10 inch pie plate with Pam nonstick coating
-Sprinkle seafood, onions, basil and cheese in plate (can be done the night before)
-Place milk, eggs, Bisquick and seasonings in blender and blend for 20 seconds.
-Immediately pour milk mixture into pie plate and bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until knife inserted in center comes out clean.
-Cool for about 5 minutes before cutting into 6 servings.
*Two pies are needed if 8 people are in attendance

Sugar Free Lemon Ice Box Pie

1 tub (or tube) Crystal Light Lemonade mix
2 packages (1 oz.size) fat-free, sugar free instant vanilla pudding mix
3 1/4 cup milk
2 Tablespoons fat free sour cream
Juice of a lemon
Zest of lemon
12 oz. reduced calorie whipped topping (thawed)
2 graham cracker crusts (I make my own and use Equal instead of sugar)

-In a large bowl, stir together the Crystal Light and the pudding
-Add milk and beat with wire whisk until smooth
-Stir in sour cream, lemon and zest of lemon
-Fold in the all but 1 cup of the whipped topping
-Pour into crusts and refrigerate until serving time
-Use reserved whipped topping and a slice of lemon for garnish

Olive is normally my sous chef, but she doesn't play bridge yet, so she decided to go home.  I caught her as she was leaving our backyard to go to her house.  I think she looks cute in the outfit I sewed for her.  It's hard to believe she will be two years old in August!  How time flies.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

A Bite of the Big Apple

Ten women boarded a 6 a.m. flight in New Orleans.  A few hours later they found themselves in Times Square smack dab in the middle of all the excitement of the Big Apple!  The excitement and the fast pulse of the place guaranteed smiles all around.  Half of the group had never been to New York and the other half were making a return trip.  Adventure awaited each!  My roommates were my sister-in-law and my daughter.  Their company was a guarantee of the fun we would have!

After checking in the Marriott Marquis we boarded the Q train on the Subway for Little Italy and China Town.  We had to have some authentic Italian food and some were pining for some great "knockoff" merchandise we were sure to find.  We decided to try Pepolino which was on the fringe of Little Italy.  The Ravioli of the day and the paninis were divine as was the Prosecco we ordered to toast our trip!  Our waiter spoke broken English mixed with some Italian words.  He said he hadn't been in the states very long.  We weren't sure if it was an act to add to the authenticity of the place or the real deal, but we loved it anyway. He was quite charming.  Imagine his dismay at 10 women asking for separate checks!

 We found the Subway to be the easiest, least expensive and fastest way to get around. It's officially known as MTA and includes trains, buses and the underground system.  The MTA website is very useful to tourists.  There is even a "step by step" guide on how to ride the Subway!   If you can navigate stairs, it is the way to go!  The green "M" signs are everywhere.  You can purchase single rides or a Metrocard with discounted fares that can be "reloaded." Swiping the card is easy and all you have to do is figure out if you are going Uptown or Downtown.  One of the many kindnesses we received was Subway advice from a lady who saw all of us peering at a map!  She saved the day.  Once underground your sense of direction escapes you!  I hope she knew how much we appreciated her telling us which train to board!

The evening's entertainment was "Anything Goes" at the Stephen Sondheim Theater.  The beauty of lodging at the Marriott Marquis is that you can walk to the theater.  Walking in the Times Square area of New York is an experience itself.  It's very pedestrian friendly and safe.  We were treated to Stephanie J. Block's stellar performance of so many Cole Porter favorites.  A highlight of this show is the 12 minute tap dance sequence to the theme song.  We "tapped" our way back to Juniors in Schubert Alley for take out cheesecake.

The outward appearance of Juniors is that of a chain restaurant, but it holds unique surprises.  The cheesecake is famous the world over and it is said that if you ask for the best, you will be directed to Juniors.  Since it was literally right by our hotel, we also feasted on the lavish breakfast they serve.  I have discovered that you can mail order the cheesecakes, so am tempted to do so for some special occasion.  It was that good.  Sorry I didn't get a picture of the cheesecake before three of us ate our fill.  This variety was Red Velvet and was superb!

The next morning some of us opted for shopping and one of us (me) opted to get a little rest and wait for my son to arrive from Boston to attend a matinee performance of Swan Lake  by the American Ballet Theater at Lincoln Center.  Based on advice from frequent theater goers, we chose Family Circle tickets.  These tickets have to be the best kept secret in New York.  They are balcony seats, but the acoustics and arrangement of the theater ensure a wonderful viewing and listening experience.  The price was less than $35 per person.  The experience of seeing a performance in the theater is a must for those who love music.  Many years ago, my husband and I had attended a performance of Rigoletto there and are still talking about the evening we had there.  A favorite memory was sipping champagne at intermission while standing next to the famous Chegall murals.

The performance of Swan Lake made us want to trade in our tap shoes from the night before for ballet slippers.  At one point in the performance, the dancers ceased to look like people and became swans in my sight.  The dazzling performance was breathtaking.  Photography is not allowed during the performance but here is the view from our center seats.  We had tucked opera glasses into our handbags, for closeup views of the dancers.  Get the Family Circle tickets and you won't be disappointed.  Just "being there" to see the raising of the chandeliers just before the curtain goes up is an experience in itself.

After the ballet, we walked across Columbus Circle to Bar Boulud.  This restaurant is considered a casual creation of Chef Daniel Boulud who has restaurants in several large American cities. Son, Greg, had been there before and ordered everything for us.  We marveled at the interesting tastes and presentations.

Bar Boulud is famous for its charcuterie, so we ordered a large sampler of these delights.  We shared a main course and desserts.  Of course we had a bottle of white and a bottle of red wine.  What a unique dinner!  We wanted to eat some things we had never tasted in our home town, so this was the perfect venue to do just that.  This was a family event as my fellow diners were my two children and my sister-in-law.  A rare treat for us to be together.

After saying goodbye to Greg, who had a bus to catch back to Boston, we rushed to the TKTS booth in Times Square (a 3 minute Subway ride from Columbus Circle).  At 7:05 (less than one hour before show time) we were able to purchase half price tickets to "One Man Two Guvnors" starring James Corden who won the Tony for Best Actor this year!   We had never laughed so much!  The play was set in England during the 60's and the references to culture of that time were aplenty.  The almost slapstick comedy interspersed with musical performances and audience participation made for a super show!

Our stay took a somber turn the next morning when we visited the 9/11 Memorial.  Although the plaza was full of people there was a reverence for the site and the victims.  The two reflecting pools are surrounded by marble engraved with names of victims of 9/11 and the 1993 attack on the Twin Towers.  There is an electronic directory of the victims' names if someone wants to find the location of one of the names of the 3000 inscribed there.  A museum on the plaza will open next year.  Surrounding the site is the ongoing construction of the new World Trade Center.  Security is tight.  I felt as though I was in an airport.  Admission to the site is free, but one must make a reservation and have photo identification to enter.  I liked this picture because you can see the construction in the background.

The pools are surrounded by 400 newly planted white oak trees.  These didn't offer much shade, but the numerous benches did offer a place for reflection and viewing.  There is one tree that receives special attention.  It's a pear tree that was planted in the 1970's and is the only tree that survived 9/11.  This Survivor Tree is surrounded by a fence and is supported by cables to ensure its continued growth.  It has been pruned of burnt portions.  One such pruning left a scar in the shape of a horseshoe, the symbol of luck!

Each of the two pools, South and North, is on the site of one of the Towers that fell that awful day.  The 30 feet tall waterfalls were hard to capture of on camera.  The enormity of each was overwhelming, but beautiful and meaningful.  When complete the new tower will be the tallest building in the United States.  The site is one of superlatives...largest tower to be constructed, largest waterfalls and most amazing reverence for the event that changed America forever.

After sampling the offerings of a downtown deli and some retail therapy we boarded the Subway again for a 15 minute ride and visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art on 5th Avenue.  Because it was late afternoon we were not charged the full admission of $25, but instead were asked to make a donation befitting the amount of time we planned to spend there.  That was a bargain as we had only two hours.

Elsa Schiaparelli, L'Officiel, October 1937
Photograph by George Saad
Copyright Les Editions Jalou, L'Officiel
The museum is huge and we had preselected the exhibits we wanted to see.  We included the galleries of the Impressionists and a special exhibit entitled: Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations.  We got to view items of clothing and accessories of the two designers who lived a generation apart and whose designs "channel" each other.  A favorite of mine was the Salvador Dali inspired item by Schiaparelli, a hat that looks like a shoe.  It's a fashion icon and has been much photographed over the years.  There was also a dress that will be in the 2012 Fall lineup for Prada.  The exhibit stated that Schiaparelli emphasized "waist up"  and Prada emphasizes "waist down" in designs. I knew Prada for accessories and was quite surprised and enchanted by the clothing designs as well.  Another treat of the museum visit was the annual Clearance Sale of the Gift Shops.  We were able to purchase posters for fifty cents and books for two dollars!  What a deal....then there was the packing of those items in our carry-on luggage...a challenge to be sure!

Leaving the museum during rush hour became a challenge as the Subway was several blocks away.  We hailed a cab...in fact we hailed three cabs who turned us down because they didn't want to get the in the Times Square rush hour traffic.  A car service sedan finally stopped and was willing to take us to the TKTS booth for a reasonable fee.  This was the first time in my traveling history that I was ever turned down by a cab driver for a ride in any city!  Oh well....live, learn and adapt.

We wanted to end our Big Apple experience on a happy note, so we opted for tickets to "Jersey Boys."
Our seats were on the last row of the balcony, but we were there and they were half price!  The amazing thing about the theaters in New York, is that every seat is a good one!  It's all in attitude of the attendee.  "Jersey Boys" chronicles the career of Franki Valley and the Four Seasons performing group.

I certainly hope my fellow theater goers were not annoyed by my toe tapping, seat dancing and singing that ensued!  It seemed everyone immersed in the enjoyment of  hits such as "Sherry Baby" and "Big Girls Don't Cry."
This YouTube link does the show justice with a medley of some of the original hits.  I closed my eyes and was taken back to my youth.  The music is universal in appeal and the show won a Tony for Best Musical its first year out.  They fill the theater each night with adoring fans!

And "What a Night" it was.  The thirty-something travelers selected our post theater dining spot.  It was an Irish Pub.  I can't recall the name of it, but it was on our walking way back to our hotel.  We ate some great pub food and enjoyed some cool libations!  A unique Big Apple experience.

What a time we had.  We endeavored to do as much as we could with our time and experience some new things and we did, indeed.  As the Four Seasons might say: "Oh What a Trip!"  Next morning found us desperately trying to pack our carry-ons.  I have never been able to figure out why it all fits when packing at home and why it seems to "explode" when trying to repack for a flight home!

Meanwhile back in Ztown,  Olive was enjoying some quality time with her Daddy and her Paw Paw Allie.  A favorite activity is feeding Paw Paw's birds.  She is an expert as this is a daily activity.  I hope to take Olive to the Big Apple someday.  I hope she likes it as much as I do.