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250. The Best Peppermill
The pantry is stocked with a long winter’s supply of peppercorns:  boldly aromatic black peppercorns from the Malabar Coast, creamy white peppercorns from Sarawak, fresh-tasting green peppercorns from India.  But the real challenge is finding the right peppermill.  There are a few immutable rules.  The mill must feel “good” in one’s hand:  comfortable, solid, easy to operate.  It must be simple to refill. The grind must be adjustable, from fine to coarse.  It must be so well made that you feel that you might be able to pass it on to one of your children when he sets up his own household in years to come.  And, of course, it must be beautiful.  Or, at  least, able to move from the stove to the table or sideboard without causing too much commotion.

We extensively tested five peppermills, two of which are regularly touted as the world’s best.  In all of them, we used Penzy’s Whole Special Extra Bold Indian Black Peppercorns, which have become the black pepper of choice in our household.  Here are the results:

Personal Favorite.   The voice on the other end of the line was abashed:  “You mean you’re still using a Peppergun you bought 15 years ago?”  No surprise, actually:   even the most basic Tom David Unicorn peppermill is tested for 40,000 grinds.  We love our Peppergun—a slim bright red plastic cylinder with rabbit ears for handles—because it’s easy to use and makes us smile every time we look at it.  To grind pepper, simply squeeze the handles together; you can do this with one hand while the other is stirring the pot.  The mill is filled through a large hole in the side which opens when you twist the body; we’ve found that using a funnel helps to corral stray peppercorns. The grind, adjusted by turning a black screw on the underside of the mill, produces pepper that ranges from finely ground to coarsely cracked.  Our sole complaint—and the only reason we didn’t rate this number one—is that our model will not sit evenly on its base when the screw is turned out for the coarsest grind.  (This may have been corrected in later models.)  In the meantime, we tend to keep it set for a medium-coarse grind.  Although the exterior is plastic, the grinding mechanism is metal with a zinc chrome alloy coating. The company, located in Nantucket, makes other mills, including the Magnum Plus (a black plastic cylinder sans rabbit ears that has a much larger grinding surface) which was Cook’s Illustrated’s choice for best peppermill in 1997.  You will see these mills all about you if you summer on the island.  Contact: Tom David, Inc.  Telephone: 1-800-634-8881. Website:

Sexiest Peppermill.   Peugeot has been making pepper and salt grinders since 1842, and the brand is regularly billed as “the best” by many vendors.  We were Peugeot neophytes so we selected a modestly priced model ($22) made of dark wood, with a sensuously curved body and a satiny surface that almost begged to be fondled.  Beneath the Euro-sleek exterior is a tough case-hardened steel mechanism with grinding and channeling grooves that cut peppercorns in half before they are ground to the desired fineness.  In spite of its impressive grinder, we found two problems.  To adjust the grind, you must loosen or tighten the brass screw on top of the body.  For a very coarse grind, the top must be loosened so much that the body becomes wobbly and unstable. The Peugeot is also difficult to fill:  When the top is removed, the peppercorns must be poured into the body, passing around a  plastic support which holds the central shaft in place.  Hard little block peppercorns bounced all over the kitchen when we tried to fill it a little too swiftly.  Peugeot, which offers a lifetime warranty on all its peppermills, makes many other styles, in materials such as beechwood, clear acrylic and stainless.  Contact:  Williams-Sonoma, 1-800-541-2233. Website:  Broadway Panhandler, 44 Broome Street, New York, NY 10013.  Telephone: 1-800-COOKWARE or 212-966-3434.  Website:

Most Ancient Regime Peppermill.    One can just imagine the Zassenhaus peppermill dancing atop a swaying table in Beauty and the Beast.  Of all the peppermills we tried, it has the most fanciful, old-fashioned appearance.  Its rounded walnut body resembles a turret crowned by a burnished brass “minaret.”  The handle angles elegantly up in the air, ending in a smooth walnut knob; a gold “P” is discreetly emblazoned on the side.  Made in Germany for over 100 years, the Zassenaus has a grinding mechanism made of carbon tool steel, which is machined rather than cast, so that it stays sharp for years.  The grind can be adjusted by tightening or loosening the “minaret,” and ranges from very fine to medium coarse; of all the mills we tested, this produces the finest uniform grind.  (If you prefer very coarsely ground pepper, you’ll be better off with another mill.)  It can be filled by unscrewing the top and pouring in the peppercorns.  In all, a solid, well-crafted peppermill, for those who like the old-fashioned look.  Contact: Penzey’s Spices, 19300 West Janacek Court, P.O. Box 924, Brookfield, Wisconsin 53008-0924.  Telephone: 800/741-7787.  Fax: 262/785-7678.  Website:  (Note: Penzey’s sends the Zassenhaus filled with Tellicherry peppercorns.)

Sturdiest Peppermill.   When we want coarsely ground pepper—and it seems that’s what the world’s palate craves these days—we always reach for our Perfex.  Made by a 50-year-old French company, this mill has a sleek nickel-plated cast aluminum body which houses a rugged metal grinding mechanism with stainless steel heads.  To grind pepper, simply turn the crank top.  Actually, this takes two hands and just a bit of muscle, especially when the mill is set to grind coarsely.  To adjust the grind, there is a round nut underneath the body which turns smoothly.  (As a clerk at Williams-Sonoma explained, “righty-tighty” produces a reasonably fine grind, “lefty-loosey” creates a coarser grind, with many variations in between.)  The Perfex is easy to fill through a capacious pull-out chute in the side; we use a funnel to channel the peppercorns into the grinder.  Favored by many chefs, this is probably the best-made of all the mills we tested.  It is attractive in an industrial sort of way, feels solid in the hand, and produces a wide range of grinds.  If only it had a little more, ummm, flair—then we would be unabashed admirers.  Contact:  Williams-Sonoma.  Telephone: 1-800-541-2233.  Website:  Also at

Cheapest Peppermill.  Cruising the grocery aisles, we noticed that McCormick is selling whole black peppercorns in a glass bottle with a built-in plastic grinder.  The mill, similar to those sold in Europe, is not adjustable nor is the bottle refillable, so you toss it when empty.  The grind is coarse and the “mill” hard to turn. Still, at $1.99, we’d buy it in an emergency, or for a picnic or beach barbecue when we wouldn’t want to risk losing our good peppermill.  (It’s strictly for the kitchen, however, since the bottle bears the spice merchant’s familiar label.) Now, if only McCormick would put premium peppercorns inside. Widely available at grocery stores.  See also

249. Gabrielle’s Place—Asheville, North Carolina
Richmond Hill Inn is Asheville’s premier small hotel.  Featured on Zagat’s 2001 list of top small resorts and inns, the imposing green and yellow Queen Anne-style mansion, built in 1889 by Richmond Pearson, a North Carolina congressman and ambassador, has much to recommend it:  a tranquil hilltop site with vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a magnificent garden with waterfalls and formal boxwood beds, and a surprisingly good restaurant.

So let’s dispense with the downside.  Calling for a reservation ten days ahead, we decided to try the O. Henry Room on the second floor of the mansion.  We were dismayed to find a cramped space with somber brown walls and tatty blue carpet, crammed with dark wood furniture, and a bathroom with gurgling plumbing.  The desk clerk had promised a view, but only by pulling the blinds up all the way were we able to  glimpse the mountains.  Next time we’d stay in one of the Croquet Cottages, a charming group of five Victorian-style two-story cottages surrounding an immaculate croquet green.  For antique-lovers, there are the elegant rooms that once belonged to Richmond and Gabrielle Pearson; attractive modern rooms are available in the recently built Garden Pavilion

But you don’t even have to stay at Richmond Hill to enjoy its main attraction:  the over-the-top Victorian gardens created by Southern landscape guru, Chip Callaway. Callaway, who has designed historically accurate gardens for the Roper-Jenrette House in Charleston and for Stratford Hall, Robert E. Lee’s Virginia home, has created a mix of “natural” landscapes and formal beds that irresistibly draw even the most casual onlookers.  Tumbling down the hillside from the main house is a splashing brook with small waterfalls lushly bordered by ferns and sprawling nicotiana, interspersed with native trees and shrubs.  The brook ends at the bottom of the hill in a large waterfall facing the piece de resistance:  a stunning parterre garden whose severely geometric boxwood beds can scarcely contain an explosion of summer blooms.  Billowing waves of pink and white phlox, hydrangeas heavily laden with huge blossoms, and dozens of other old fashioned flowers are anchored by Weeping China Doll rose topiaries and giant cardoons with fluffy purple tufted heads. Lavender wands of verbena bonarensis emerge from clumps of flowering alliuim, spiky sea holly and bright blue balloon flowers.  Towering over this riotous jungle are 10-foot tall hollyhocks, with blooms in luscious shades of apricot and rose. Generously, current owners Marge and Albert Michel have opened the gardens to anyone who wishes to see them.

The other compelling reason to go to Richmond Hill is Gabrielle’s, a modern American restaurant named after Richmond Pearson’s wife.  There are several formal dining rooms, but just as twilight was falling, we gravitated to a table on the more casual enclosed sun porch, with comfy wicker chairs and a ceiling fan turning lazily overhead.  Summer offerings included an impressive tasting menu of fresh, seasonal dishes such as an heirloom tomato gazpacho with avocado sorbet and Carolina shrimp, and roasted Maine lobster with fava beans and saffron butter.  Feeling a bit less ambitious, we zigzagged through the a la carte menu to create our own mini-tasting extravaganza.  Highlights included a very fresh, buttery tuna tartare with cucumber, ginger and cilantro, and a jumbo lump crab cake with piquant remoulade sauce and North Carolina sweet potato fries.  We liked the salad of slow-roasted beets with goat cheese and caramelized bacon in a spritely sherry vinagaigrettte.  The Valrhona chocolate cake with caramel ice cream was predictably dark, rich and impossible to resist.

Contact:  Richmond Hill Inn, 87 Richmond Hill drive, Asheville, North Carolina 28806.  Telephone:  800-545-9238 or 828-252-7313.  Website:

248. Best Rare Book Shop—Asheville, North Carolina
The Captain’s Bookshelf is all any booklover might desire:  a clean, well-lighted space with an alluring selection of old and rare books and a pair of knowledgeable owners.  We lusted after a first edition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude in a lovely floral dustjacket ($2,250, due to a desirable exclamation point somewhere inside), but contented ourselves with good reading copies of Justine and Clea, two volumes from Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet.

The bookstore is a welcome relief from the plethora of hair salons and low-end import shops that cover this end of town.  The very agreeable owners, Chandler and Megan Gordon, sell to rare book collectors across the United States and will search the web for any book that they do not have  They are genuine book people and it is a pleasure to listen to them converse about rare finds.  Contact:  The Captain’s Bookshelf, 31 Page Avenue, Asheville, NC 28801.  Telephone:  828-253-6631. Fax:  828-253-4917.

247. Best New North Carolina Eatery—Asheville, North Carolina
As we drove through an afternoon downpour, our eye was snagged by a storefront kitchen and a sign that read “Rezaz.”  Upon investigation, we glimpsed big jars of exotic spices, a black Garland range and an attached Mediterranean bistro with a menu inspired by the sunny cuisines of Morocco, Spain and Southern France. Owner Reza Setayesh—hence the restaurant’s name—is a personable Persian chef who has plied his trade in Washington and other upscale burgs.  Now he has turned an old hardware store near the railroad tracks into a culinary hot spot with paprika colored walls, bright paintings and sassy food that draws lively crowds every night.  

And no wonder:  The food is great. The Moroccan spiced lump crab cake was a crisp golden cylinder of fresh, succulent crab, topped with a tomato-cinnamon jam that amped up the sweetness of the seafood.  Oxtail soup Jerez was fragrant and rich, its steaming broth filled with tender chunks of meat.  Pink, juicy slices of peppery seared duck breast, served over garlic mashed potatoes, were napped with a sweet -tart pomegranete molasses sauce that intensified the flavor of the duck. Grilled lemons added a bright note to a dill-flecked seafood risotto studded with tiny clams and mussels and slices of spicy chorizo.  For dessert, we sampled a sophisticated pistachio and rosewater ice cream that could have come right out of The Arabian Nights.  Feather-light apple fritters, liberally dusted with powdered sugar and served with caramel-laced ice cream, were simply addictive.  Surely among North Carolina’s top five restaurants.

Contact:  Rezaz, 28 Hendersonville Road in Biltmore Village, Asheville, North Carolina.  Telephone: 828-2771510.

246. Best Porcelain Boutique—Asheville, North Carolina
The sign said “Open by appointment—or by chance.” The dimly lit shop looked deserted, but the door was ajar, so we wandered in.  Rustic ladders leaning against pale walls were draped with exquisite antique lace.  Porcelain cups and saucers, vases and bowls, as thin and as fragile as rice paper, in subtle hues of mist and fog, drifted across a few tables. Eventually a solitary workman emerged from the rear, letting us know that the premises were closed for the day.

We learned later that the owners of Craven Handbuilt Porcelain lived in Europe for many years, traveling and collecting old lace.  Jo Lydia Craven makes each piece of tableware by hand, rolling out the clay and pressing a piece of lace into the surface to leave a faint pattern.  Ian Craven creates the moody glazes.  The Japanese phrase shibui—“effortless elegance”—comes to mind.   The couple make only 200 to 300 pieces a year and the waiting list is 12 months long.  Appointments are recommended.

Craven Handbuilt Porcelain, 58 Wall street, Asheville NC 28801.  Telephone:  828-232-1401, or 800-764-2402.  

245. Fiskars
These people make the best scissors, and we have a flock of them around the house and office.  But there’s a double mystery to this:  What’s so special about the scissors and why is the Fiskars company so invisible? 

“Our passion is embodied in our orange-handled scissors”:  these words sum up the Fiskars culture on the first page of its American website.  Certainly all of us were able to do our cutting swiftly before Fiskars came along.  But now it is nice to do it with these molded orange beauties that look nice and feel nice.  They’re fun to behold when sticking out of the old porcelain English jelly jar on the desk, and the ergonomic turn of the metal is so pleasant to the hand that you look for other things to cut, just to enjoy the experience. 

There are knockoffs now as others try to crowd into the designer scissor, designer tool niche.  That others can invade the Fiskars niche speaks volumes about the company.  They should own the scissors market and lots of other handtool areas.  But they are not great merchandisers.  Their American website ( is clunky and slow to load.  We have always known they make other stuff, but it is painful to find out about.  The website last seems to have been changed in 2001.  Why is it that the vast majority of people that make the best things going are lousy at selling their wares, and the great salesmen offer deeply average products?  There is the famous story of IBM at its start:  others had better technology, but it had better salesmen, and, for many years, it won the commercial wars. 

Digging a little deeper, we discover that Fiskars is a Finnish company ( and that explains a whole lot.  Like Nokia, it has strategically transformed itself over time, more global in a sense that several large U.S. companies.  But it shares some of the Finnish reticence that makes it a bit less commercially successful than it could be.  There’s an old saying that the Finns invent it, and then the Swedes sell it, with the sauna and several other things we attribute to the Swedes serving as examples of the truism.  The company dates back to 1649, originating in Fiskars Village, which, like Helsinki, is in the south of Finland.  You can find a lovely introduction to the village on the Finnish website, a much better promotion than anything the company does for itself.  We conclude that it is very natural that such wonderful scissors should come from design-conscious Finland out of a company with 350 years of history, and that the company’s products and provenance should be so mysteriously elusive.

244. Best Music for Summer Dreaming
In this summer of 2002, with its appalling forest fires, creeping economic drought, and daily round of horrific news, we find ourselves inventing new ways to escape, if only for an hour or two.  So it was with pleasure that we recently ran across Operatica:  Shine, a mysterious and beautiful CD that blends classical opera with modern electronic music.  Several divas, including noted sopranos Ying Huang and Maureen O’Flynn, lend their soaring voices to works by Grieg and Debussy, while Iranian singer Shakila lures us on a heavenly carpet ride with her dreamy Persian folk tunes. This exotic cocktail is the creation of a Los Angeles-based English chap named Lord Vanger, who also wrote and sang some of the music on the album.  There’s a hypnotic, trance-inducing beat driving much of Operatica; with the divas’ honeyed voices, it offers balm for the spirit, creating the illusion, however fleeting, that we are all one world.  (See also Operatica, the first album in the series.)

243. Best Way to Connect the Indoors to the Outdoors
Maybe it's the President's admission that global warming is here (and that there's nothing we can do about it), or maybe it's just the soaring mercury, but lately we've been intrigued with the notion of easy-flow houses that  are open to the outdoors.  Homes where the barriers between inside and out are nearly invisible, where one can drift from a  living room with plush, linen slip-covered sofas, say, through French doors to an enclosed patio with trickling water and from thence to a flower-filled garden.  

New Asian Style:  Contemporary Tropical Living in Singapore, by Jane Doughty Marsden (Periplus Editions Ltd, Singapore: 2002), is a seductive guide to living in houses of endless summer.  The book resonates with ideas for floor-to-ceiling windows with enormous louvered shutters, shimmering tile pools that come to the edge of or even into the house, and open air bathrooms where bamboo is neatly planted next to a shower with teak decking.  Marsden, a former Vogue copy editor, writes intelligently about Singapore's tropical architecture, which ranges from stark, all-white, minimalist abodes to converted colonial shophouses arrayed in vibrant silks and adorned with wondrous collections of handicrafts and antiques.

Ample proof that such architecture isn't limited to the tropics can be found, incidentally, in a recent New York Times article by Raul A. Barraneche, "Metal Warm as Brandy," (May 16, 2002, D1, D10.).  Architects Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe designed a seemingly open air house for an investment executive and his family in Toronto, of all places.  Using a Canadian "palette" of "golden Douglas Fir ... and a steel facade that has weathered to ... a soft nubuck chocolate," the design duo created a very modern home with huge glass windows that wrap around a rectangular lily pond that is shrouded in vapor during the frigid winter and, in summer, is filled with blooming water hyacinths. When the weather is hot, the windows slide open, letting butterflies and lady bugs inside. In all seasons, the water casts rippling reflections on the interior ceilings and rain drips down a "large steel scupper" into the pond, making the residents intimately aware of the world outside.

A more conventional approach to the topic can be found in Page Dickey's Inside/Out: Relating Garden to House (Stewart, Tabouri & Chang, New York: 2000).  This is not a criticism, since Dickey, a well-known garden writer and designer, has selected 13 alluring homes that are unusually well-connected to their gardens.  Our favorites include a 19th-century limestone house in downtown Austin, Texas, which seamlessly opens onto limestone terraces, outdoor stairs and paths interplanted with brilliantly colored rununculous, anemones and roses.  In true Austin fashion, there is a corner devoted to a pet cemetery with Mexican madonnas and votive candles that the owner lights to her past dogs.  On a more elegant plane, a deceptively small stucco house in Tuxedo Park, New York has French doors that open onto a bluestone paved terrace which in turn connects to a magnificent cedar deck descending in a series of levels to a small dining gazebo overlooking a romantic sunken garden.  Proof once again that indoor-outdoor living depends as much upon a state of mind as it does on geography.

242. Best of Barbecue
Well, we don’t even know if this is the best of barbecue.  Certainly the authors don’t pick the right joints in our part of the country, but they have still made respectable choices.  This all reminds us that American Way—the inflight on American Airlines—used to be a very good magazine (sort of a spritely Reader’s Digest) but has slowly declined into mediocrity.  The two articles mentioned here were written well before the mag hit bottom and began being formulaic.  In the May 15, 1996 issue, regular-contributor Jim Shahin did “Barbecue Capital of the World,”  covering well the likely regions such as North Carolina, Texas, Missouri, Tennessee, etc.  Later the readers kicked back, so their choices were compiled in  “Second Helpin’s” in the January 1997 issue.  If the truth be known, Shahin did a better job than the assorted readers but it was a lot of fun to see what people came up with.  At any rate, talking about barbecue will warm up the conversation better than almost any topic you can dream up if you are in a barbecue state.  Invariably, however, the locals do not know where the good barbecue is, so this makes the hunt both perilous and tantalizing.  And then there’s the whole debate about which state makes the best barbecue sauce, and, of course, which wood to use and how fresh does it have to be.

241. Journalists Worth Reading
Some people are a joy to read, and many of the others are a trudge, prompting you to say, “Why did I read that?”  Even the best of newspapers or magazines are lucky to get one or two people who make the cut.  The New York Times sort of invented good food writing and good restaurant reviewing with Craig Claiborne, and yet it has not found anyone of his caliber since.  Finding a persona who can write and who has judgment and who focuses on substance:  it is simply serendipity.  One newspaper recently passed over a journalist for its top job, and so, thank goodness, he is writing columns again, simply outclassing every other scribe on the paper.  We have looked over the lists newspaper nabobs nominate to sundry halls of fame:  most of the honorees are terribly pedestrian.  It’s a miracle that cream occasionally rises to the surface.  We hope you enjoy the following guys and gals as much as we do:

3. -new- Philip Bowring.  Bowring has been posted in Asia since 1973, served once as editor of the now defunct Far Eastern Economic Review—it is being revived in a lesser form at—but has contributed invariably insightful columns to everything from the International Herald Tribune to the South China Morning Post.  We much enjoyed his columns on the slow death of FEER, which can be found at
scmpfeer.htm and at  He more or less attributes its demise to Karen House, current publisher of the Wall Street Journal.  An awful lot of his columns are about China and Hong Kong, but, on occasion, he roams through Southeast Asia with telling comments about politics and economics.  Read him as well on Davos, which he finds to be less and less worldly, particularly as it becomes a circus of stars.  See  He’s the hardworking overseas columnist the Times should have on its staff—indeed, it once had types like him in the days when any journalist worth his salt wanted to get as far away from the meddlers at headquarters in New York as possible.  A great deal of his work is posted at  (4/20/05)

2. Robert A. Caro.  We often forget that this marvelous historian and biographer came off the New Brunswick Daily Home News and Long Island’s Newsday.  But he has the journalist’s predilection to tell the whole story, leaving  nothing—and we mean nothing—out.  What he picks are  politicians who have clearly made a giant difference in American society, because they will stop at nothing to move their plans along.  So his subjects have been Robert Moses, who paved over New York City with cement and, in effect, instructed the nation that highways are the American route to eternity, and Lyndon Johnson who showed us that you “get along by going along.”  You’d say that Caro has a passion for authoritarian, well-meaning, and simultaneously corrupt individuals who did us proud and/or did us in—who knows.  His picks are interesting, because Caro himself has a genial, hardworking, ethical demeanor:  he is not afraid to continuously make his point, but, unlike his subjects, he clearly does not push people around.  Somewhat to his wife’s chagrin and as part of his next chapter on Johnson’s career, the man who must pursue every detail next intends to go and live in Vietnam, where he will surely capture details about the Vietnam War that have escaped all those who have come before.  Caro is a relentless reporter who fairly presents all sides of his subjects, but perhaps never quite makes up his own mind about them.  For a good account of him, see Scott Sherman’s “Caro’s Way” in the May/June 2002 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.   Also learn a bit about Caro at, perhaps paying special attention to the Kurt Vonnegut interview.

Some of his titles include:

1. Malcolm Gladwell.  We have previously written about Mr. Gladwell under Big Ideas, Item 21.  He is author of The Tipping Point, a book that had a whirl a year or so ago.  Though it was a trendy affair about how trends happen, we don’t think it’s his top stuff.  Gladwell is prolific and has written about everything under the sun.  Visit his website and read everything he has written, because each piece gives you some major insight into the complex architecture that lies behind all the ordinary stuff in our lives, whether he is talking about retailing, dieting, or 40 other things.  A Canadian, he is the son of a mathematician who wins awards (See his entry in Slate magazine for November 19, 1999) and a writer.  All 3 I think—Canada, mathematics, writing—explain Gladwell to us.  He denies understanding the mathematics of his father, but I think it can fairly be said that he bemusingly applies rhetorical algebra to ordinary existence to see if he can solve for the unknowns.  He does a heap of writing for the New Yorker, one of a stable of writers who are pretty good at explaining stuff and who have saved the magazine from trendy or ideology-stuffed editors who tend to take the magazine down side streets.

240. More Black Pepper from India and Malaysia
Our pepper explorations have opened unexpected doors.  We've crunched on more black peppercorns than we ever imagined possible.  With burning lips and scorched taste buds, we've made the not-so-surprising discovery that the flavor of pepper grown in different geographic regions can be as subtle and varied as chocolate, or even varietal wines.  The soil in which the vines of piper nigrum are planted, the ripeness of the berries when plucked, and the method of processing and drying all contribute to the particular taste of peppercorns from, say, India or Malaysia.

In the spice industry, it is widely agreed that the best black pepper comes from India and that Malabar pepperhigh in volatile oil and pungent oleoresinsis the finest of the mass market varieties.  Even so, we found that the quality varies widely.  Some Malabar pepper that we tasted was, well, nearly tasteless, hot and nothing more; some was simply stale.  But Penzeys Spices, a high-end Wisconsin-based purveyor, offers a particularly fine India Malabar pepper with a light, fragrant aroma and a rush of fiery heat that lingers on the palate.  Though not as complex as the company's Tellicherry pepper, this is still a good, all-purpose pepper which you could use in almost any culinary fashion, from making a French vinaigrette to finishing a bowl of lemon, mint and ricotta pasta.  Contact:  Penzeys Spices, 19300 West Janacek Court, P.O. Box 924, Brookfield, Wisconsin, 53008-0924.  Telephone:  800-741-7787.  Fax:  262-785-7678.  Website:

Another Indian black pepper came to us via Herbie's Spices, based in Sydney, Australia.  These South Indian Super Grade Extra Black peppercorns have been blanched to accelerate the enzymatic reaction that turns freshly picked green peppercorns black.  The peppercorns are, indeed, quite black and also very large. Their flavor is strong and bold,  rich but not particularly subtle, with a straightforward medium heat.  We'd use it in dishes that require an assertive cracked or coarsely ground pepper: steak au poivre, for instance, or pepper crab, an unforgettable dish we devoured with streaming eyes on a moonlit terrace in Singapore some years ago.  Contact:  Herbies Spices, 745 Darling Street, Rozelle NSW 2039, Australia.  Telephone:  02-9555-6035. Fax:  02-9555-6037.   Website:

Pepper has been grown in Sarawak on the island of Borneo since 1875.  In an essay in his catalogue, Bill Penzey says that he likes working with Sarawak pepper growers because they believe that "high quality pepper is worth more than money.... [I]t is a source of pride and a part of their cultural heritage."  Penzeys' Sarawak Black pepper is hand picked at the right moment of ripeness and then, unlike most other black pepper, is dried indoors, which protects it from the elements and helps to preserve its flavor.  This is one of the most intriguing peppers we tasted:  the flavor is toasty at first, with fresh green notes, followed by a mild heat that peaks quickly and  fades.  Because it is relatively delicate, we'd use this pepper as an adventurous seasoning for sweet fruit, such as pineapple and strawberries, and in baked goods, such as black pepper biscotti, where one wants just a hint of fire.  Contact:  Penzeys Spices, as above.

239. Best Guide for Pepper Travelers
Our kitchen table peregrinations through the lands of pepper were helped immeasurably by Salt and Pepper, a wonderful book by Michele Anna Jordan that was recommended by Corby Kummer in The Atlantic Monthly:  Jordan is funny, smart and probably has a very keen palate.  We were charmed by her visit to the Malaysian Pepper Marketing Board, where the aroma of bushels of fresh black pepper nearly drove her mad with hunger, and to a nearby farm where she downed potent rice wine and nibbled fresh green pepper berries off the vine.  There is good, solid information about the different varieties of pepper and salt and many useful addresses in the glossary.  Our only frustration is that we have been unable to find the very fine Malaysian pepper, sold under the label Naturally Clean Black Pepper, but it is always good to have a grail to search for.  The book has 135 recipes, including one for black pepper ice cream, which we made with Penzeys' Sarawak Black peppercorns:  imagine a good vanilla ice cream with a luscious afterburn. Salt and Pepper (New York: Broadway Books, 1999) is out of print, but you may find a used copy at

238. Some Great Fishing Books
We will be adding to this list.  It is about both fish and fishing.  To our embarrassment, we don’t know where we got some of these names; they have been hanging out in our files for a long time, so somebody is due a lot of credit: 

11. -new- Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis.  Howell Raines.  William Morrow, 1993.  We bought a bunch of these books on remainder and sent them to friends.  Howell Raines has been at the New York Times an awfully long time, spent a good spell as head of the editorial pages, and now resides in the top job as executive editor at the behest of the publisher.  Raines demonstrates what he is about in this fun book and shows as well why he made it to the top of the Times, why he is pretty good as head of the paper, and why he was not as good as the head of the opinion slot.  This is a pretty conventional fellow, good at telling a story or two, who knows how to play with people rather than think deep thoughts.  The book has a lot about crappies and trout, but it has more on the social mix of fishing, whether chatting about Hoover, fishing with George Bush, or going on about Richard Blacock, out of the State Department, who becomes sort of fishing mentor to our hero.  This is an easy read by a guy who shows up at fishing holes and knows all the right trappings, expressions, people.  We know (because we have read elsewhere) that he is passionate about fishing but here we feel like we have met the guy who perfectly plays the role of the perfect fisherman.  As executive editor, Raines is a populizer who brings in a common man story to exemplify big events and who includes more popular culture on the Times pages than we found there heretofore.  He has a nose for the hot story, not necessarily the important idea.  Hence, his midlife crisis that never is resolved.  He’s good at fish stories.

10. Red Smith on Fishing.  Doubleday, 1963.  He was the great civilized sports writer, and we have not found another like him.  (Out of print.  Try locating a used copy at

9. The Fly Fisher’s Reader.  Leonard M. Wright.  Jr. Simon and Schuster, 1990.  Short stories.

8. The Compleat Angler.  Izaak Walton (and Charles Cotton).  Stackpole Books, 1653, 1998, with innumerable editions inbetween.  This, of course, is the high literature of fishing texts, famous not only for its illustrations but also for its witty and eloquent depiction of a gentleman’s five-day fishing excursion.  Absolutely a must-read.

7. Fisherman’s Fall. Roderick Haig-Brown.  William Morrow, 1964.  Advice guy. 

6. The Orvis Fly-Fishing Guide.  Tom Rosenbauer.  Lyons Press, 1988.  New York. 

5. Fishing Came First.  John N. Coal.  Lyons Press, 1997. 

4. Trout Bum.  John Gierach and Gary LaFontaine.  Fireside Books, 1988. Rockies. 

3. Trout Madness.  Robert Tarver.  Fireside, 1979.  Judge, writer, and great Michigan fisherman. 

2. A River Never Sleeps.  Robert Hague-Brown.  Nick Lyons, 1946.  (Out of print.  Try locating a used copy at

1. Early Love and Brook Trout.  James Prosek.  The Lyons Press, 2000.  Prosek does love and trout here.  Also, though, he has done a few beautiful books which we will have to list later, including his illustrated history of trout.  This guy has a way of making life seem idyllic, just right for summertime.

237. Best Black Pepper:  Tellicherry and Beyond
One whiff of the rich, fruity aroma of Tellicherry peppercorns explains much about the Age of Explorationwhy, when most Europeans were subsisting on watery gruel and rotten meat, an ounce of fragrant black pepper could cost as much as an ounce of gold, and why captains from half a dozen nations risked everything on perilous, globe-circling voyages to distant equatorial lands.  Today, of course, pepper is commonplace, as accessible as the nearest supermarket, but the ordinary finely ground stuff that appears in shakers across America is a pale echo of the pungent spice that launched empires and destroyed countless lives.

There are at least 13 different types of black pepper.  Tellicherry peppercorns, which are grown on the Malabar coast of India north of Cochin, have long occupied pride of place in our spice cabinet and are considered top grade by the spice industry.  Like French grapes, their flavor begins with the terroir or particular soil in which they are grown.  The berries are left to ripen on the vine longer than others, resulting in peppercorns that are larger, sweeter and more complex in flavor.  Though not actually black, Tellicherry peppercorns are are more uniformly dark brown than other pepper when dried.  Cracked or coarsely ground, they have a vibrancy which enhances a surprising range of flavors.  Lately we've found that ground Tellicherry pepper on our strawberries makes them even sweeter.

As with all good comestibles, one eventually discovers greater possibilities.  Recently we ran across an even more select grade of  pepper in the pages of Penzeys' Catalogue of Seasonings:  Whole Special Extra Bold Indian Black Peppercorns.  (In industry terms, "special" means best flavor, extra bold refers to the extra large size.)  According to Penzeys, only ten pounds out of every ton of pepper can be given this moniker; the berries are Tellicherry but they are left even longer to ripen and are picked from a particular part of the vine.  This pepper differs from Penzeys' Tellicherry in that the initial flavors are more robust, and that the slowly ascending heat achieves a mellower burn.

We'd use either of these premium black peppercorns as a cracked or coarsely ground condimenton creamy goat cheese, or over slices of luscious mango sprinkled with lime juice.  But we also used the Special Extra Bold peppercorns with abandon in a version of Singapore-style pepper shrimp with ginger and garlic to great applause from our teary-eyed dining companions.  Next up:  black pepper ice cream.   Contact: Penzeys Spices. 19300 West Janacek Court, P.O. Box 924, Brookfield, Wisconsin 53008-0924.  Telephone:  800-741-7787.  Fax:  262-785-7678.  Website:

236. Best Book about Man's Passion for Plants
Michael Pollan is a clever fellow.  Magazine editor, original thinker and passionate amateur garderner, he deals with big themes, world-changing ideas about man and nature.   In his first book, Second Nature:  A Gardener's Education (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991), he acknowledged the uneasy relationship Americans have with the wilderness, then offered a philosophy allowing for a more constructive give-and-take in the garden.   Now, in The Botany of Desire (New York: Random House, 2001), Pollan tackles evolution in the plant world, showing how four domesticated plants have survived and flourished over the centuries by evolving in ways that gratify mankind's deepest desires.  We've been seduced, he says, by apples that satisfy our craving for sweetness, by the tulip which offers beauty, by cannabis which provides  intoxication, and by the potato whichwell, that's a more complicated  story. 

The most original aspect of the book is that Pollan examines all this from the viewpoint of the plant.  He speculates, for instance, that man is hardwired to love flowers because a bloom can be the precursor to edible fruit.  Now that we no longer forage, certain flowers have evolved ever more beautiful forms to ensnare us.  Viewed from this perspective, the tulip's occasional "color breaks"virus-caused streaks and flames that drove stolid Dutch burgers to insane speculative frenzywere the simple Turkish flower's way of  encouraging the almost obsessive development of spectacular new varieties, thus ensuring its entree into the world's gardens.

Pollan has an equally refreshing take on the apple and its chief American apostle, Johnny Appleseed:  Instead of the sanitized folk hero of legend, his research leads him to a wild, shadowy backwoodsman who had more in common with the pagan god Pan, "a satyr without sex" able to glide back and forth between wilderness and civilization, than with the saintly figure sold to millions of school children.  (One  reason settlers welcomed John Chapman into their homes was the prospect of being able to grow fruit to make hard cideran acceptable alcoholic beverage.)

But what of the humble potato?  In Pollan's view, the McDonalds of the world, fired by our appetite for an unending source of perfect French fries, have led  us down the road to ever more destructive and expensive pesticides and fertilizers in the vain attempt to produce limitless quantities of the Burbank Russet potato.  But the land is exhausted and even the deadliest poisons are losing the insect war.  Monsanto's NewLeaf potato, created in a petri dish with the Bacilllus thuringensis gene (a naturally occurring insecticide) would appear to answer man's desire for control through artificial selection.  In fact, it raises a whole slew of new concerns, ranging from who owns the "rights" to a naturally occurring substance to the spectre of new famines caused by diminishing genetic variety.   Most alarming is the fact that the FDA has never ruled on whether the NewLeaf is fit for human consumption because it doesn't regard this potato as a food, but as a pesticide.  Now that potato salad season is upon us, we may have to grow our own.

235. Bestus New York Times
The New York Times did an issue on Millennium bests that verges on the eccentric, with some items worthy of a peek.  Others, though, are just there because the Times commissioned some trendy authors.  But at its best, it's fun.  You can read praise for garlic and test your own favorite music selections against its favorites.  Somehow we were attracted to Charles Johnson's Best View of the World.  See

234. Best Catalogs
We are just beginning to think about catalogs, because an inordinate number pour through our mail slot.  A few tantalize.  The point of this entry is just to look at their design or editorial merit—without judging the goods.  Please understand then that we are neither recommending for or against the purveyors cited here:  we are simply telling you to enjoy the catalogs in their own right.  We are reminded, incidentally, of a wonderful account of the pre-war life of a couple off on a lark in the Caribbean.  They built their own house and other buildings, freely using the Sears Roebuck catalog for all sorts of fixtures.  Not only did they frequently order merchandise, but the catalog pages also doubled as a source of toilet tissue.  The Sears catalog, sadly, has long disappeared.  Sears is just buying Lands End, and we hope it does not do in that catalog, which has occasional amusing snippets.

4. SaksySaks Fifth Avenue.  Wonderful Saks Fifth Avenue has stumbled in recent years, and it is still having a bad patch.  But if it can smooth its management processes, it will be worth it, since it provides the only pleasurable shopping experience for discriminating women in some parts of the country.  Despite its operating troubles, Saks has gotten its catalogs very right and pulled ahead of the competition.  Its Spring Preview 2006 features an array of wonderfully photographed exotic ladies done up in the clothing of all the tres chaud designers, put against a “due South” (South Carolina) backdrop for those wanting to escape the cold.  The images of the women fill out each page, making each seem bigger than life.  (2/22/06)

3. Dooney & BourkeDooney and Bourke makes fancy handbags and a bit of other leathery stuff.  It and others have learned that the way to put a premium on such goods is to display them in exotic settings.  Dooney, in its catalog, does this as well or better than anyone.  We are looking at Spring 2003 which is set in Laos this year; Southeast Asia is all the rage in many catalogs.  Perhaps it was just last year that a wonderful Morocco was featured.  Of course, you might ask yourself, “With these kinds of settings, who needs purses?”

2. Lands End   This catalog could be better designed, and a lot of the clothes lack a graphic sense.  But, like the wares of L.L. Bean, the goods of Land’s End have a certain Midwestern integrity, sometimes lacking in the sharper looking items from the smartest houses.  But the reason for looking at the current catalog (and a darn smart merchandising idea) is the cover pix of Rosie the Riveter as well as the fictional memoir from her on pages 27-29.  The June 2002 catalog celebrates the American spirit with enough panache that we can say that it is clever, appropriate, and a bit heartwarming.  So much of retailing consists of striking just the right note.  And Rosie fans are referred to a West Coast website in her honor at

1. The J. Peterman Company.  As you know, J. Peterman has risen from the dead after the collapse of his last enterprise.  We now have Owner's Manual No. 8 , Summer 2002, in hand.  His new catalogs are far better than his old ones, although those were also good.  The pix make every product look great.  But it is the prose that has all the fun.  Read, for instance, his opening comments under Philosophy:  "People want things that are hard to find.  Things that have romance, but a factual romance, about them.  …  Clearly, people want things that make their lives the way they wish they were."  You can get started on the website but make sure you do get the actual catalog.

233. Best Sea Salt from Portugal: Necton's Flor de Sal
The first thing one notices about Necton's sea salt is how thin and flat the crystals are. At the harvest along Portugal's Algarve coast, food writer Corby Kummer observed a crystal floating on the water like "an oversized dragonfly's wing."  As Kummer relates in The Atlantic Monthly ("The Cream of the Salt Pan," March, 2002, pp. 100-102), the discovery of this lovely salt was a happy accident.  Two Portuguese aquaculture students who were restoring wetlands in order to produce algae for food manufacturers stumbled across a detritus-clogged salt pan.  After cleaning it out and letting sea water flow into the maze of ever shallower channels and eventually evaporate under the blazing Algarve sun, they saw something wonderful:  "irregularly shaped, mica-like formations skittering along the surface, visible only if viewed at the right angle, glinting in the sun."  It was flor de sal, the very finest, topmost layer of mineral-rich sea salt, whiter even than the prized fleur de sel from Brittany.  Soon plans for algae production were put on the back burner as they began to harvest the salt by hand.

Now comes the kicker:  Under Portuguese law, this lovely, but unrefined flor de sal is classified as Grade III salt, fit only for de-icing  roads.  A few daring gourmet shops in Portugal carry it; in this country one can order it from Zingerman's in Ann Arbor (  The flavor is fulsome, at first intensely salty, but quickly mellowing into a briny sweetness that leaves the tastebuds refreshed.  The enclosure which came with the salt suggested a test:  frying an egg with common table salt and another with Necton's flor de sal.  We complied.  The former was merely salty, but the latter was a revelation:  a light sprinkle enhanced the rich creaminess--even voluptuousness--of the yolk, imparting a faintly sweet flavor to the white.  Icy roads never had it so good.

232. More Sea Salt from Around the Globe:  England, Sicily, Hawaii
Traveling along our own exotic salt routes, we had close encounters of the most delectable kind with a number of other sea salts.  Although not as stellar as Necton's or the Guerande fleur de sel, each is far superior to ordinary table salt and to the Kosher salt favored by many professional chefs.  Maldon Sea Salt, produced along the English coast in Essex since 1882, has large, bright white, flakey crystals with a lightly salty taste that rapidly dissipates, making it ideal for cooks who simply want to add a soupcon of flavor to the pot.  From Sicily comes Sale Marino di Trapani, produced in the ancient Phoenician manner at saltworks near Marsala and Trapani:  the large, grosso (coarse-grained) crystals are very salty, packing a wallop that stands up to meaty swordfish grilled with rosemary, lemon and garlic.  And finally, we confess to an unfashionable fondness for Alaea red seasalt, harvested from tidal pools in Kaua'i.  Purists complain that the salt is mixed with natural iron-rich clay to achieve a color that varies from light rose to deep terracotta, but the mellow flavor of the medium-sized crystals seems to enhance almost every sort of food. Besides, Alaea is still used in sacred Hawaiian rituals, a notion which returns the use of salt on food to its wondrous roots.  

Maldon Sea Salt and Sale Marino de Trapani may be ordered from Corti Brothers, 5810 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento, CA 95819.  Telephone:  800-509-FOOD.  Fax:  916-736-3807.  Alaea sea salt may be ordered from  Hawaii Specialty Salt Company, P.O. Box 5766, Hilo, HI 96720.  Telephone:  808-334-3929.  Website:

231. Best Bavarian Beer
Bavarians like their beer much like they like their politics:  local.  Whether you are spending an evening exploring Bavaria’s brewing culture in a massive Munich beer hall or an intimate small-town beer garden, chances are good that the liter of frothy suds that you’re drinking was brewed and bottled no more than a brisk walk from your bench.  This is why it is all the more remarkable that across a wide swath of Bavaria you can order a bottle of Unertl.  Like most breweries in upper Bavaria, this family-owned brauerei in the town of Haag brews a wide range of beers, but you can’t do any better than their Weissbier.  I have concluded after an exhaustive but by no means scientific search that Untertl’s Weissbier is the epitome of what this thick, wheaty brew is supposed to be.  The essence of Bavarian Weissbier is here:  a creamy head and smooth, dense texture supports a smoky and surprisingly complex taste.  The finish brings a delightful hint of citrus, rounding out a beer that is both satisfying and interesting.  (This entry was contributed by Adam R. Seipp, who will soon be returning to Bavaria for a year of research.  While there, he plans to enjoy many an Unertl.)

230. Best Small Art Museum—San Antonio
On a scorching summer day, when the thermometer pushes past 101 degrees and the air is desert-dry, cooler heads may opt to visit one of San Antonio’s loveliest gems, the McNay Art Museum.  Just stepping from the car onto the stone walk that winds through lush subtropical plantings, past rivulets of water and cascading fountains, quickly lowers the heat index.  Only the peacocks which once strolled the grounds are missing from this vision of paradise.

One reason to visit the McNay is simply to enjoy the Spanish Colonial Revival mansion in which the museum in located.   Built in the 1920’s for local art patroness Marion Koogler McNay, this gracious Mediterranean-style home has the sort of elegant  intimacy that encourages the visitor to feel as if he or she could move right in.   Among the original decorative details are elaborate wrought iron balustrades and lanterns, thick stucco walls, glazed tile floors and gaily painted roof beams.  The core collection includes many lovely  Impressionist  paintings, and though modern galleries with impressive works of the 20th century and a renowned print collection have been added to the mix,  the whole museum has such an easy flow that one feels as if one were wandering through a wealthy collector’s rather marvelous home.

There are two other compelling reasons to visit the McNay:  One is the Robert Tobin Collection of Theater Arts: 10,000  items spanning 500 years of scenic art, including exquisite renderings for the Ballet Russe.  The other, rarely mentioned reason is that the McNay is the home of some of the most beautiful 1920’s tilework in the United States.  The central patio, which was inspired by McNay’s memories of Seville, features several magnificent tile murals of peacocks, doves and other birds produced by Uriarte Talavera, a venerable tile manufacturer in Puebla, Mexico.  There is another tile mural of Don Quixote and, tucked into a recessed stairwell, many individual tiles which tell the story of the knight’s peregrinations.  An outdoor staircase has 24 risers inlaid with vibrant Moorish-style tile; nearby a colorful tile “rug” lies beneath a table.   Large boldly patterned cement tiles produced by the Hispano-Moresque Company in Los Angeles during the late 1920s encircle the reflecting pool; many also found their way into simpler homes of the era.  Inside, don’t miss the glazed double-fired clay floor tiles in the entrance hall, in four slightly different earthen hues, inset with incised decorative pieces.  The Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, 6000 N. New Braunfels, San Antonio Texas 78209.  Telephone:  210/805-1755.  Website:

229. Best Source of Mexican Talavera Pottery—San Antonio
If the McNay’s enchanting peacock mural is just what you need for your own patio, you will be delighted to discover that its maker, Uriarte Talavera, has opened a store in San Antonio.  Uriarte might be described one of the “national living treasures” of Mexico.  Since 1824 this Puebla workshop has been creating tiles, tableware, urns, and many other desirable items, made by hand and exuberantly decorated with fanciful Spanish, Islamic, Chinese and Art Nouveau motifs.  “Talavera” refers to the traditional method of manufacture introduced from Spain at the end of the 16th century.  Each piece is fashioned by hand  of two different  clays which have been mixed together.  It is left to dry for eight to twelve weeks, and then fired twice at low temperatures, achieving a characteristic brick color.  Using mule hair brushes, artisans hand paint designs with natural mineral colors; the piece then undergoes a final high temperature firing to obtain the unique colors and luster for which Talavera is known.  No wonder that Uriarte’s works of art are  highly prized by North American collectors.

On a recent visit, we were dazzled by rooms of kaleidoscopically patterned Talavera tableware in rich hues of  rosy terracotta,  gold, pale green and blue.  We could envision a refectory table set with Italian silver, glowing beeswax candles and Uriarte’s brilliant cobalt blue and white plates, but there are at least 60 equally entrancing patterns from which to choose.  Elsewhere we found antique-style water bowls and urns, sinks and picture frames, flower pots and crosses, and enough tiles to transform any kitchen or bath into in a Mexican neocolonial extravaganza.  (One San Antonian recently purchased 10,000 tiles for his new home.)   Of special interest are reproductions of Uriarte pieces in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Uriarte has a website, but the best prices are at the San Antonio store.  Uriarte Talavera, 204 West Olmos Drive, San Antonio, Texas 78212.  Telephone:  210/930-5595.  Fax: 210/930-5556.  Website:

228. Ten Best Magazines
Well, we have not found 10 good ones but we promise to keep on trying. What’s more, the good magazines have an awfully hard time making a living which means that our choices below are imperiled unless and until they restage themselves economically with other types of sponsorship.  Two of our picks, The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker, were big winners at the recent National Magazine Awards 2002.  Here is what we have so far; it’s in no particular order because none of these picks stand out over the other.

8.  Garden and Gun.  It takes a while but we’ve found another magazine that’s original and refreshing.  Garden and Gun, which rather dumbly calls itself  “the soul of the new south,” the New South having no soul, nonetheless invokes the South at its grandest. The March 2009 issue, for instance, does a very good report on Savannah that gets beyond John Behrendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.  Savannah has lots of surprises, including the second biggest St. Pat’s Parade in the country.  This article gets the details right, not missing some of the haunts that have been around for a while. But there’s much else about the good life such as mansions, sporting guns, bootmakers, new chefs, fishing, you name it. This magazine rekindles our fantasies about the South, making us forget that it has largely turned into a region of sub-developments and middleweight food chains. (09-09-09)

7. Foreign Policy.  This is much more cosmopolitan in its approach than the city in which it is based, Washington, D.C.  See our longer description of it at Best of Class. For a think tank magazine, it is distinguished by the real diversity of its authors and its topics, which range well beyond the conceptual thickets on which policy wonks feed.

6. Paris ReviewOnce of Paris, but now from New York City, of course.  We are not even sure you have to read this magazine's current contents, but we know for certain that you have to look at its archives.  Since its founding in 1953, all of America's literary figures seem to have worked their way into its pages.  Its marvelous website reminds you of those little green parks you see in New England communities where a World War I memorial commemorates all of the soldiers who died in The Great War; likewise, the Paris Review celebrates all its literary heroes of the last half of the 20th century.  Pay particular attention to its pleasant little history, solid proof that writers could teach the ad world a thing or two about branding.

5.  The Atlantic Monthly.  Along with Harper’s, you thought this magazine was going to bite the dust, but somehow it got revived.  It is very uneven, because it normally does one topic very well, and then the rest of the magazine is so-so.  When the topic is right—the next age of small point-to-point aircraft, our national asthma epidemic, or something on next generation warfare—the magazine is very good.  When the magazine thinks it is a monthly newspaper reporting on the ins and outs of the Afghan war, it is an abject failure (several of the new younger editors at magazines occasionally get carried away thinking they are daily journalists).  We suspect the magazine should do a better job of tapping into New England where it is based and into doing a better presentation job on poetry where it feels it has a franchise.

4.  Scientific American.  We were reminded of how good this publication is when we read an archived piece on quantum computing.  Either you will find two pieces you like in an issue, or you will find nothing at all.  This is a magazine that needs an ever-more creative relationship with the web, which, after all, was created to share the results of scientific research and could easily be used to expand the reach and audience of the publication.  Watch out, however, for balance in this magazine.  John Rennie, the editor, gave a long, one-sided hosing to Danish scientist, Bjorn Lomburg.  Rennie published several critical pieves of Lomburg, who has come up with some environmental views that are very unpopular in the scientific community.  The commentary is very polemical rather than discursive.

3.  Mercator’s World.  We happened on this magazine quite by accident and are surprised that it is not more widely known.  It is not just for map buffs; it will give you an education on everything from mapping in the world wars to Samuel Pepys as cartographer or the like.  In other words, you get a heap of history with your maps.  Plus you will find your way around the map world, discovering all the shops and map compulsives of note.

2.  The New Yorker.  The cartoons are not quite as funny, and the one-topic issues, when they occur, are deadly.  But The New Yorker is back, thank goodness, after an unhappy tenure under an English chat editor.  An occasional new experiment is worthwhile, even the ones that fail such as the abortive financial news page which never quite manages to get its arms around any topic.  Curiously the best stuff is about medicine, often by Boston doctors who know their stuff.  Plus Malcolm Gladwell ( is always welcome whatever he chooses to look at.

1.  The Economist.  Remember as a kid when you read Time magazine every week and thought you were getting the real stuff?  It is a hash now, so you have to read The Economist, which pretends to be English, but is as much American as it is UK.  The best part of the magazine is the briefest:  the back of the book where it does science, books, culture, and the like.  It’s there that you learn something is happening in Iranian cinema or in some other unlikely part of the world.  Next comes business and finance, with politics a very weak third.  The Economist does very long surveys which need a lot more work to be successful, though recently it surprised us with a very good treatment of the long-term inertia in Japanese society which, clearly, is not going to change without a rude shock from the outside world.  It’s a curiosity that the British do a better job in their magazines than in their renowned but often inadequate newspapers.  The Economist is a jewel based on a host of wonderful stringers spread about the globe who seem to operate very much on a shoestring but who get lots done.  

227. Museums as Special Places
Museums have become somewhat tiresome big businesses.  Half Barnum and Bailey, one-quarter auction house, and one-quarter rent-a-hall for blow-out art extravaganzas, they are less and less places to contemplate works in tranquility, works that aspire to speak eternally and universally.  Still, there are other kinds of museums, where you can linger and rest.  Often former residences of well-to-do families, they have now becomes homes for everybody.  They're as much about atmosphere, feeling, and environment as they are about precious collections.  Sometimes, in fact, it seems a shame to waste such places on art and crafts, when the parts are only a distraction from the whole. Over time we will list here musees you visit to get away from it all, not to get with it.  Good places to go AWOL.

7. Economist Trove of Small Museums.  In one of its little seen online columns, the Economist did a few entries, beginning in July 18, 2009, on hidden-gem museums.  These include the National Museum of the Renaissance  at Chateau d’Ecouen, Amsterdam’s Museum of Handbags and Purses, the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, Hertford House in London, etc. (02-10-10)

6. Venerable Asia: Pacific Asia Museum.  We wish we had visited this museum because its stupendous online collection of its offerings is immensely attractive.  Its Visions of Enlightenment: Understanding the Art of Buddhism is a wonderful introduction to Buddhism and Buddhist art.  And it embraces Western graphic interpretations of Buddhism.  Or one can explore Nature of the Beast: Animals in Japanese Paintings and Prints , where the work of Edo period artists is caught in screens that would enhance anyone’s imagination and contemplation.  Pacific Asian Museum.  46 North Los Robles Avenue. Pasadena, California 9110l.  662-449-2742.  We suspect we might stop here on the way to the Huntington and never quite make it to that wonderful institution.  To bolster their presence in the modern world, other museums will be forced in time to be equally imaginative in their use of the Internet.  (1/18/06)

5. The Sanxingdui Museum.  Read more about this museum at  Two Rivers.  We hear that both the museum and its collections are gems, more than worth the stop for anyone with a serious interest in archaeology. Going to Sichuan takes one into the interior of China, an arena that will now merit more of our attention economically and politically.

4. The McNayWhen the sun gets piercing in San Antonio, there is nothing like a retreat to the McNay, which is nicely buried in a residential area you may miss because it is well away from the madding crowd.  You can read more vividly about the museum at our San Antonio's Best Small Art Museum.  The art collections here are almost incidental to the household, to the lovely tiles, and to the collection of theater effects.  Older than Dallas or Houston, San Antonio is certainly the most civilized city in Texas, and this museum conveys the graciousness and the Hispanic accents that are inherent here.  The most pleasant eating club in town is also in an old residence, perhaps an ideal prelude to a lazy visit to the McNay.

3. The Frick CollectionDon't be put off by the Frick's unwieldly website, which is often hard to reach and which includes an over-complex, hard-to-use virtual tour of the collections.  The museum itself is still wonderful relief after you have taken in its overwhelming, over-peopled neighbor, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  We recommend just hanging about the pool of water, which gives solace in spiritually arid New York.  Others will remark upon the concerts.  Obviously an ambitious management has tried to busy up the place, but it ever retains its charm. The Frick Collection.  1 East 70th St., New York, New York 10021.  Telephone:  212-288-0700.  Website:

2. Mrs. Jack's Place:  The Gardner MuseumIf you are just going to one, this is it.  But first read about the patroness in Mrs. Jack:  An Autobiography of Isabella Stewart Gardner by Louise Hill Tharp.  Then visit the website at, which, unlike many museum sites, is easy to use and comfortably informative.  The Gardner is a little worse for wear, what with funding problems and a burglary or two.  But, as you wander, you can still imagine Mrs. Jack’s goings on there, transporting you to an earlier time when Brahmins dreamed of bringing Europe into their lives.  Boston has a raft of good museums, but the best ones seem to surround you with history, more than collections.  The Gardner Museum.  280 The Fenway, Boston, MA 02115.  Telephone:  617-566-1401.

1.  Louisiana.   About 35 kilometers north of Copenhagen, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art is in a lovely setting beside the water, looking across to Sweden.  It houses a fine collection, adjoins a lovely sculpture garden, and mounts several worthy modern shows each year.  We first visited at the end of the sixties, a hurried end to an afternoon, yet we did not feel rushed even at the close of a day. 

Yes, it suffers from that relentless passion to expand, but remains pretty because it is situated in a park, the legacy of the Louisiana estate about which we intend to learn more.  Proudly, the directors say the park overcomes the "museum fatigue" which has been known to overcome all of us, that feeling of surfeit and enervation that attacks all visitors to museums. 

Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.  DK-3050 Humlebaek.  Telephone:  45-4919-0719.  Website:

226. -new- Best Re-Creator of Middletown 1950
There's a hearkening now back to the 1950s when, it is felt, we were safe, protected from the world out there as well as our own wayward inclinations.  We even went to a fifties party the other night.  Naturally bomb shelters, the Cold War, and the compound insecurities of that era are forgotten.  All that said, it does seem like it was a more hopeful time for many.

Apparently this has created a little boomlet for Richard Roman's East Coast Enterprises (see, which builds train layouts with small towns for hobbyists, all in 300 square feet.  These towns are safe, the trains run on time, and nostalgia is okay.  Roman will build most any era, but the fifties are the most popular.  See the New York Times, April 11, 2002, D1 and D9.

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