Monday, January 27, 2014

Highlights from the Musee Cluny in Paris


Out of the many museums we crammed into our weeklong visit to Paris, my favorite had-to-see museum by far was the Musée Cluny over near the Sorbonne. It was THE museum that I wanted to see thanks to my years of studying medieval art history. It did not disappoint (well, except for the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry not being on display when I was there).

The museum is housed in one of the few surviving secular medieval structures left in Paris, the Hôtel de Cluny dating from the 1400s. The hôtel itself was built over the ruins of a Roman bath, and you can still feel the temperature differences walking between the Roman spaces.


When we were there, there was a special exhibition of alabaster mourning sculptures that are usually housed in Dijon. They were commissioned in the 1400s to adorn the tomb of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy. This exhibit, while removing their context, allowed you to see them at eye level and appreciate the individual expressions of the mourners.


Other highlights? The heads of the kings from Notre Dame’s exterior were lopped off during the French Revolution. They were mistaken for French kings instead of Old Testament kings and chucked into the Seine. They were eventually dredged up and put on display at the museum.

The collection also includes pieces such as polychrome Gothic sculpture, texts, reliquaries, jewelry, and tapestries. The most famous collection piece is the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry cycle. It consists of 6 tapestries from Flanders dating from the 15th century. You can read more about them here.

If you want to visit a quieter museum with a rich history, head for the Latin Quarter and check the Musée Cluny. You’ll gain a greater appreciation for Notre Dame and other medieval churches around Paris by giving you more material context.


Saturday, January 25, 2014

Saturday Snapshot: Icicles in Cambridge


Since the polar vortex has returned to Massachusetts making it “wicked” cold, I felt like an icicle on our front porch from an earlier cold snap was apropos. I’ve wanted to get out an photograph the snow, but it’s just been too cold to comfortably be out plus I don’t have those cool gloves that let me use my phone while avoiding frostbite. Why is cold weather so darn pretty?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

5 Places to Go (not) in Boston

Most Boston guides suggest a trip to the North End for cannoli or gelato, a walk along the Freedom Trail, a stroll through Boston Common, visiting Fenway and Harvard, and maybe a venture to the Sam Adams Brewery.

But that means coming over to the Cambridge side of town for just 1 thing. There’s SO much to do and eat in Cambridge, Somerville, and north of the city. I’m a bit biased as I live on this side of town, but if you read any “top restaurants” in Boston guide, a good chunk are over here.

If you want to experience the city beyond the usual, here are some of my favorite spots to hit up.

Union Square Donuts


While Dunkin Donuts was founded in Boston, and you can’t go anywhere without walking by at least 1, there’s a doughnut shop bringing fresh flavors to town. Located in Somerville’s Union Square, this tiny shop is only open Thursday-Sunday and once they’re out, they’re out. With flavors like Sea Salted Bourbon Caramel (which I can attest is DIVINE), Honey Almond, and Grapefruit Juniper Cream Filled, you can’t go wrong. They rotate flavors constantly, and there’s often a line around the block on Saturday mornings. You can also find them at a few farmers markets and pop up shops because they’re that good.

Tip: near Union Square is Taza Chocolate where you can tour a Mexican-style chocolate factory. Because chocolate.

Inman Square

Neighborhoods clustered around intersections are called squares around here even though most are not squares per se. Inman Square is right on the edges of Cambridge and Somerville and home to a ton of great restaurants, bars, and shops. Want authentic Indian street food? Try Punjabi Dhaba. A gazillion different flavors of ice cream like Honey Lavender, Ginger Molasses, Bergamot, or Rhubarb? Try Christina’s Ice Cream. A bar with a brunch dish called the Ron Swanson? Go to Lord Hobo. Two of the top spots in the Boston area? Go to East by Northeast or Puritan and Co.

Davis Square

Tacos at Five Horses Tavern

Tacos at Five Horses Tavern

Located in Somerville between Tufts and Harvard, this is another great neighborhood for food, shopping, and entertainment. There’s a farmers market on Wednesdays from May-October, ArtBeat in the summer, Honk Fest, Porch Fest, and lots of other events. Davis Square Theatre has concerts, plays, and comedy acts while Somerville Theatre (dating from 1914) shows movies, film festivals, concerts, and other acts such as Slutcracker (just Google it). Five Horses Tavern is great for hefty, eclectic bar food and tons of beer choices. Diesel Cafe is a funky coffee shop with pool tables. You can find Himalayan, falafels, Mexican, BBQ, Italian, and Indian as well. Boston Shaker is a cute shop full of every bar item you could think of from tonic syrups to make your own tonic to special ice trays to every bitters flavor you can think of.

Harvard Museums

The stairwell at Harvard's Sackler Museum is super colorful with purple and yellow stripes.  The whole lobby is color blocked.  It's a little Michael Graves-ish, but it's a fun contrast to the art on display.

The stairwell at Harvard’s Sackler Museum.

Don’t just tool around the “yahd” and pretend you’re Zuckerberg or in Good Will Hunting. Go to one of the 12 museums on campus. Yes, 12! Many are free such as the Warren Anatomical Museum or the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments. Their art museum is reopening in the Fall of 2014 in a Renzo Piano designed building.


The suburb you may remember from the lockdown/shoot out last April. Watertown has a large Armenian population so you can try Armenian food in many of the small markets with cafes. There’s also the Armenian Library and Museum dedicated to Armenian art, history, and culture.

Everything listed is accessible by either the T or the bus so you don’t need a rental car to get away from the “typical” spots.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Ethics of Visiting Certain Areas

This was a hard post to write.

Both because of the mixed feelings I had about visiting a certain area and also because I didn’t want to call out people who were most likely genuinely oblivious to how uncomfortable the tour was in the second half.

When I went to New Orleans for a work trip, there were several planned outings to educate the attendees about the architectural history of the city. We had a lecture, visited some historic locations, and the like. However, we also had a bus tour led by a professor.

Doullet House near the Mississippi River. Via Creative Commons.

Doullet House near the Mississippi River. Via Wikemedia Commons.

The first part of the tour highlighted early 20th century shippers’ mansions that survived Hurricane Katrina because of their proximity to the Mississippi River. Before the large flood banks were built, the seasonal flooding of the river added silt to the flood plain which, over time, raised the ground level of the area closest to the river. These mansions were just high enough to avoid major water damage and didn’t receive much wind damage either despite delicate ornaments like cupolas.

The second part of the tour was a bit different. While I’m sure the intention was in a good place, highlighting the architectural ingenuity of new homes that could respond to rising water levels through stilts or detaching from their foundations as house boats, it was still…uncomfortable.

The Lower 9th Ward today. Photo by Katherine Apricot via Creative Commons.

The Lower 9th Ward today. Photo by Katherine Apricot via Creative Commons.

We were on a giant tour bus driving around the 9th Ward. Where people lost their homes and lives. Where people have started to rebuild their lives. And this bus comes through with people taking photos of their lives. There were plenty of shells of homes with the various spray painted markings that indicated clear or that a body had been found inside. There were numerous foundations with no structure in sight. There were also people who had returned (or never left) and were trying to just rebuild their lives in either “architecture student project” houses or homes that were rebuilt by Brad Pitt’s foundation or Habitat for Humanity or the like. While the sustainability and ingenuity in some of these homes were fascinating, we were really just gawking. Many of the attendees were from very privileged backgrounds, and I felt like they were not connecting “this is a poor neighborhood that has struggled even before Katrina” with “I’m driving through someone’s neighborhood on a tour bus like I’m on safari”. I didn’t take a single photo because it just felt wrong to me.

Photo by Aaron Gustafson via Creative Commons.

Photo by Aaron Gustafson via Creative Commons.

The intention was to show the difference in how the land levels were affected by flooding and the genuinely clever ways architects were coming up with ways to prevent flood damage. But it felt like disaster tourism. The roads couldn’t accommodate a giant bus, and the city had actually stopped allowing buses in the area around that time because of the “gawkers”. I just felt really uncomfortable the entire time rather than appreciating the architecture that was the point of the tour. Perhaps if we had an architect of one of the homes to speak to us and talk to the current resident to hear their story and how a new house differed from their old one. Something that made it more personal.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Fig, Cardamom, and Honey Olive Oil Cake

spiced fig olive oil cake

I saw this recipe at Will Cook for Friends over the summer when I was searching for things to do with fresh figs. I ended up just making an upside fig cake, but I made a version of their honeyed fig preserves and stuck it in the freezer for Christmas baking.

The day before Christmas, I whipped up a variation on this cake to serve as breakfast on Christmas morning. It was the cake that kept on giving as it seemed to regenerate slices.


The fruity olive oil and fragrant cardamom gave it an exotic feel while the sweet honey and figs leant a holiday familiarity. All of the flavors combined reminded me of the ridiculously tasty desserts and breakfasts I had in Istanbul. We had it for breakfast, dessert, and snacks for the rest of the week, though I’m pretty sure I ate 90% of it.

If you’re feeling fancy, try using a citrus infused olive oil.


Fig, Cardamom, and Honey Olive Oil Cake

Yield: 1 cake

Prep Time: 20 minutes (plus 30 minutes if making preserves)

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 50 minutes

A twist on spice and fig cakes, but you can make it year round if you have good fig preserves.


1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
6 cardamom pods, remove and coarsely grind seeds
2 eggs
1/2 cup honey (I used wild honey, but use whatever variety you like)
1/4 cup sugar
1 Tbsp orange juice
2 Tbsp milk
1/4 fig preserves (see recipe below or use store bought)
1/2 olive oil (I used Spanish olive oil which is slightly greenish)

Fig Preserves
1 lb. figs, washed, stemmed, and quartered
3 Tbsp honey
1/4 sugar



Preheat oven to 350F.

Oil a 9 inch cake pan (I used a springform pan).

Sift the dry ingredients (through baking soda) together in a bowl. Grind the cardamom seeds (they can be coarsely ground) and add them to the dry ingredients.

In an electric stand mixer, beat the eggs, honey, sugar, and orange juice until fluffy, 2-3 minutes on medium. Add the preserves and milk and mix on low to combine. While mixing, pour in the olive oil slowly.

Add the dry ingredients to the wet until just incorporated. Pour batter into the cake pan and bake 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Cool cake in pan on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Either release from the springform pan or turn over to release the cake onto the wire rack or a serving platter.

Drizzle with honey or more preserves and serve.


Place all the ingredients in a small pan and let sit for 10-15 minutes.

Turn the burner to medium-low and cook for 10 minutes. Mash the softened figs with a fork, spoon, or potato masher.

Turn the burner to low and let thicken for 10 minutes or until it's the consistency that you prefer.

You can either can the preserves or pour them into a glass dish and freeze.