Doing nothing at sea

When Hampshire House owner Tom Kershaw invited me to join him on the square-rigged, 122-foot schooner Lynx, based in Nantucket and St. Petersburg, Florida, at Saturday’s Parade of Sail, I immediately said yes. Journalists often get to do something special—once I walked the entire Big Dig tunnel while it was under construction, and I’m still jealous of my colleague who explored the part of Hanover Street still extant under City Hall Plaza.

Tom was able to invite about 40 guests to join him in the parade because he has been a long-time board member of Sail Boston. He has a special relationship with the Lynx, built in 2001 based on a privateer of the same name that participated in the War of 1812. His charity, Cheers for Children, has supported the Lynx’s sailing instruction and history programs, but are really providing kids a potentially life-changing experience. Three members of the Peacock family, who run the programs, were on board. Donald Peacock said sailors in his family go back to the early 1800s.

We arrived at the ship about 6 a.m. It was a good thing we got there early. Fan Pier no longer looks like the old Fan Pier, and without Anthony’s, Pier Four no longer looks like Pier Four. But we found the ship, climbed aboard and enjoyed a leisurely day, starting with coffee as we watched the crew ready the ship for a sail.

Most of the guests were long-time friends of Tom. A television crew led by meteorologist Cindy Fitzgibbon of Channel Five set up their equipment to broadcast all day, but no beauty shots were to be had.

The water was glassy, but fog enclosed the ship so tightly that we could only hear the airplanes taking off above our heads. We never did see them. About 8 a.m. the ship left the dock and joined a line headed for the outer harbor. When we passed the large Navy ship anchored near the Reserved Channel, a crew member stuffed the small cannon with a ball of explosives and bread—why the bread I never understood—and fired it at the Navy ship. It was a salute, but it also could have been a hostile act. The Navy, thankfully, did not return fire.

During most of our journey we could barely see the ship ahead of us or the one behind. A fine mist pelted our faces. Tom’s friend Lindy distributed thin plastic rain ponchos adorned with the Cheers logo.

The sea became rambunctious, making it difficult to maintain footing unless you were holding on. But the fog lifted somewhat, and the sea took on that glassy look again. The crew raised the sails, with one female crew member climbing to the top of the mast to do some adjusting and all the others heaving and hauling the lines to secure the unfurled sails in their rightful places.

We were sitting on wet wood, but it was not cold. The sea was not emitting that wonderful briney, fishy, kelpy fragrance that northern seas can achieve. Police boats flew through the water, slapping the waves as they bounced. There were few bird sounds, few clanks on what was mostly a wooden ship, and a low drone of motors. The major noise continued to be that of airplanes landing and taking off.

At one point, a Boston Whaler, the Annie Laurie, roared up to our ship. We paid no attention until a police boat roared even faster and megaphoned the Annie Laurie to get away from the Lynx. Oh. Security.

Land came into view as the fog lifted more, and we saw we were lingering, waiting for the delayed parade to begin, with all the other ships spread out between Nahant and south of Boston Light.

Gradually most of the ships began to raise their sails. About 10:30 a.m. our ship’s guests started to delve into big coolers, bringing out sandwiches and hummus dip. Soon we heard the parade had begun. We hung around for an hour or so though because we were in the ninth flotilla. Our lead ship would be the three-masted Gulden Leeuw, or Golden Lion when translated from the Dutch. We would sail in tandem with the smaller Ardelle.

The sail into the inner harbor, the turn-around and the return to our dock were accompanied by a few more cannon firings and the remarkable sight of sailors in uniform standing on the yards of the barque Guayas.
We docked and shed our sea legs as we walked into the crowds along the Harbor Walk, all the while thinking of the talk we’d heard on board.

This spectacle is expensive. Ships pay for crews, food, gasoline and all else that enables them to sail across oceans. Such groups as Sail Boston give ships “honorariums” so they can afford to participate.

It was reported, unverified, that Mayor Walsh has said this is the last time Boston will put on this extravaganza. The security costs are too high. Given the many police officers we encountered on land and the many police boats on patrol, we could see why this would worry a mayor who has housing to build and schools to support.

So maybe you should get yourself down to the harbor to enjoy a free boarding of these ships. It isn’t certain that they’re coming back.

Questions you’ve wanted answered

Why does the Hurley Building on Cambridge Street have chain link fence pieces around it?

A person from the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance who said not to use his name told me that there is a drop between the plaza and the sidewalk and his department is concerned that people could fall over the side. He said DCAM is looking into a solution, but there is no timeline.

The problem with that answer is that the fence is deployed around the whole building, even in places where there is no drop. The fence is not strong enough to stop a terrorist truck. It’s sort of thrown up against the building. It’s strange.

The plaza on the Merrimac and Staniford Street corner of the building has been turned into a permanent parking lot, rather than just a plaza entrance to the Erich Lindemann Mental Health Center. A couple of horse chestnut trees along Cambridge Street are thriving, but the building is dirty, forbidding and poorly maintained, at least on the outside.

Parking lots degrade spaces. Scraggly trees should have been watered. Windows can be washed and concrete can be cleaned, sort of. Why can’t the state take better care of its property? Why is such a building allowed to denigrate the neighborhood? And, again, why do those chain link fences exist?

Maybe we’ll never know.

 

 

During spring snowstorms, limbs fall off Boston’s street trees because snow weighs them down, especially if their leaves are emerging. Why doesn’t the city’s Parks and Recreation Department pollard our trees, as they do in France, so their branches are thinner and less susceptible to breaking off?

 

Gregory Mosman, the tree warden and arborist for the City of Boston, said in an email that the drawbacks of pollarding outweigh the benefits. “Pollarding works only on certain species,” he said. “It is time consuming and labor intensive and if not done regularly creates weak branch unions that can fail. It also defeats the purpose of having canopy cover that is home to birds and insects and provides shade and all the other benefits of large shade trees.”

 

 

Why has Massachusetts tax revenue recently been coming in below the forecast? Are we citizens not spending enough or making enough?

 

Revenue forecasting is an art, not a science, said Andrew Bagley, vice president of policy and research for the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. Bagley does revenue forecasting himself, so he should know.

Part of the problem, he said, is that forecasters depend on data about how revenues have behaved in the past. Then they look at such factors as wages, personal income, current economic conditions, employment rate and sales figures. “We sit and stare at it and think if it is overly optimistic,” he said.

But there are problems in coming up with a sound prediction. First, they are forecasting the revenues six to 18 months ahead. Things could change drastically over that period of time. Then there is tax planning. Some people, anticipating that Trump’s budget will cut the federal capital gains tax, may wait longer than usual to sell stock, depriving Massachusetts’ coffers of the tax expected to be collected.

If people buy fewer cars or go out for dinner fewer times, their behavior reduces the tax collected on those items. If, instead of going to a local retail shop, they buy something on the internet from a company with no location in the state, Massachusetts loses sales tax on that purchase.

It’s hard to predict those behaviors, Bagley said. Then there may be long-term changes afoot that are hard to account for. Are Millennials not spending as much as we might expect because they are paying off student debt? How long will that continue? Are people having to pay more for health care, thereby not buying as many goods? Forecasters try to ferret out these structural changes in consumptive patterns ahead of time, but their findings can be incomplete.

Other states face the same problem as Massachusetts in accurately predicting tax revenue, Bagley said. For example, car sales are down in every state. People are staying in their houses longer so those sales are down, and a new house often drives purchasing of furniture or appliances. That behavior is somewhat countered by an increase in home renovations. Despite cranes on the horizon in Boston and a soaring stock market, “something is slowing down,” he said. But it is unclear what that is.

We’re dealing with small percentages here, but they have significant implications, Bagley points out. In a $40 billion budget, if the forecast is only one percent more than the actual revenue, that leaves about a $400 million shortfall. The fiscal year begins July 1 every year. “If you don’t find out until May or June, that leaves little leeway in balancing the budget,” said Bagley.

The Filene’s block

I’m sitting in the sun at a corporate event on Summer Street. Newspaper people often get invited to occasions like this. Millennium Partners are the hosts. They redeveloped the Filene’s block, restoring the 1912 Daniel Burnham Building, named after its architect, and adding the new residential tower built on the hole in the ground that Vornado Realty Trust left when they demolished the 1950s addition to Filene’s. Millennium is rededicating a bronze tablet commemorating the nearby site of the first and second Trinity churches.

About 100 people are here. I’m prepared to be satisfyingly bored. Speeches take place in four versions of Boston accents. The ground shivers as a subway train passes underneath. A police whistle blows. Birds flitter past. Planes climb overhead. Then a vicar says a final prayer. Two children run up to hug one of the speakers, obviously their grandfather, because they are so proud of watching him give a speech. He must be important.

I think I might cry. This is the way things should be. Children delighted with a grandfather. The hubbub of a city street contrasted with a program designed by a buttoned-up corporation. Unlike what might be held by Wells Fargo or United Airlines or America’s other corporate criminals, this program features a vicar from one of Boston’s wealthiest churches praying for justice, fairness and sharing with those who need a hand. I trust his words because Trinity puts its money where the reverend’s mouth is through the Trinity Boston Foundation. I’m proud of these fellow Bostonians and want the world to change so that generosity like Trinity’s is America’s norm, not the cruel, punitive meanness of the US House of Representatives.

This columnist could write many despairing words over the sorrowful plight of our country due to Washington, but you probably think too much about that already.

Instead I’ll treat you to the story of the historic block bordered by Summer, Washington, Franklin and Hawley streets that is being celebrated in this event. You can refresh your sense of history by studying some artifacts Millennium has placed around its perimeter.

Before you start your perambulation, remember that in the first half of the 19th century Summer Street was lined with fashionable houses. By mid-century, commercial encroachment had begun. When the entire block and more was destroyed in Boston’s devastating 1872 fire, the burned-out smaller businesses and remaining residences were replaced by some of the city’s most beautifully decorated commercial buildings. This and the surrounding blocks were dubbed “the Commercial Palace district.”

That fire burned Trinity Church, whose rector decided it was time to move to the Back Bay, the up and coming neighborhood that replaced the stinking mud flats along the Charles River.

Start at the Trinity Church plaque, mounted behind a narrow window near the entrance at 10 Summer Street. The plaque is a bit odd, since it celebrates the founding of Trinity in 1734 with the 1829 Gothic Revival stone building. But the first building was a wood-framed structure. Oh well.

Nip into 10 Summer Street’s lobby to find brackets from the now-demolished 1905 building at 33 Franklin, which eventually became part of Filene’s store. You’ll also find decorative brickwork in a historic motif on the lobby’s back and side walls.

As you head toward Washington Street, you’ll come upon a window that commemorates the pottery firm of Jones, McDuffee & Stratton, founded in 1810. They worked with the Wedgwood and other fine ceramics manufacturers to turn out dinner services, calendar tiles and commemorative plates. The calendar tiles now sell on ebay for between $13 and $75 each, depending on the subject.

As you turn onto Washington Street look up at the old Filene’s building. A restored glass and iron canopy lies beneath green Deer Isle granite. Above is the decorative façade, including the dark green middle part that looks like iron and is as complex as a cathedral. All is made of terra cotta. You’ll now realize that other buildings in the neighborhood are clad in the same material.

As you walk along Washington Street, you’ll see into Primark through the windows. Burnham designed them in that open fashion, which died out in retailing during the 20th century. Roche Bros. market along Summer Street is now also on display through the windows.

At the corner of Washington Street and Franklin, named after Benjamin by Charles Bulfinch, you’ll find a subway entrance, a small amphitheater and the 1905 clock from now-demolished 33 Franklin Street.

Looking up, you’ll know you’re next to the 60-story Millennium Tower, finished last year. But a few old artifacts hang around. A short way down Franklin Street, near the tower’s driveway, you’ll find pieces of 33 Franklin repurposed as benches or space dividers. Around the corner, Hawley Street, originally called Bishop’s Alley, reportedly had on it a tavern frequented by Captain Kidd. Now it is lined with delivery bays.

It’s satisfying to live in a city old enough to have pieces to save.

Summer reading. With plots.

Have you kept up with contemporary authors? They get praise from reviewers, but some are challenging. Their books are admired for convoluted structure and no plot line. You search for the good writing the reviewers say they demonstrate, but you find it hard to determine what certain sentences mean. The authors can seem self-absorbed, forgetting they have readers. (I’ll not name those books. If you come upon them, you’ll know.)

I’m here to save summer reading. You can depend on the following books, written by Boston-area authors, for good story-telling. One is about a well-to-do Jewish-Yankee-ish family in Rhode Island, another written from the point of view of a child of Italian immigrants in the North End. The third is about a Jewish family in Boston’s suburbs. I guess that almost covers New England’s waterfront.

Let’s start with Eden, written by Beacon Hill resident Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg.

The action centers around Becca, now 72, who expects to lose the coastal summer house her father built in the 1920s because her late husband, a doctor, left her with debt. But debt is only part of the story, which involves four generations of family members, a local ice-cream seller, an institution in Kansas City and the after-effects of decisions made long ago.

There are many stories about New Englanders’ summer houses in jeopardy. But this story engages the reader through events in the year 2000 explained by events in the first half of the 20th century. The story is satisfyingly long, while broken up into digestible segments. Becca’s character is gratifyingly complex. Themes deal with efforts to gain control over events and other people, tradition played out against new attitudes and progress, tribalism and its breakdown, class, status and wealth.

A few characters are left by the wayside. I wanted to know more about the doctor who caused the debt. That’s hard to do with a high income and a modicum of attention. Did he have a gambling addiction? Something else?

But this complaint is small. The tale is original and well told.

The Saturday Evening Girls Club by Jane Healey takes place in Boston’s North End in the early 1900s. The club actually existed, but the characters are Healey’s creation. While the story of women trying to escape from conventional expectations is familiar, this book has a richer take on that theme. Not only must these women deal with the general society’s expectations, but they have the added burden of the “old” country’s culture that their immigrant parents can’t discard.

The story is told by Caprice, a member of a Sicilian family. She is a talented hat designer and dreams of opening a millinery shop. The decisions she and her friends make as they navigate jobs, boyfriends and their own friendship show the contradictions they struggle with and the slim perch on which their prospects rest. They help out in the club’s pottery studio and retail shop, named the Paul Revere Pottery, whose output is collectable today. There’s a cameo appearance by Isabella Stewart Gardner and a more sustained role for Helen Storrow, who financed club activities, and the North End librarian, Edith Guerrier, who started the book club out of which the more comprehensive group grew.

This is a sweet story of friendship and change. It reminds us that America’s history is and has always been filled with adult immigrants who can’t let go of old ways even as their children assimilate into the American mainstream.

Stuart Nadler’s third novel, The Inseparables, must have been called that because the story follows members of a Jewish family who have a hard time getting rid of something. Oona, a hard-hitting orthopedic surgeon, wants to get rid of her husband, Spencer, who suffers from an addiction to weed and a lack of ambition. Spencer doesn’t want to get rid of either of these afflictions.

Their high school daughter, Lydia, wants to get rid of the Internet photos of her naked body posted by a predatory boy whom she naively trusted. Oona’s mother, Henrietta, wants to get rid of the slutty reputation she acquired from a book she wrote long ago as well as the grief caused by the death of her beloved, but imprudent husband, a chef.

The men don’t come off well in this novel. In addition to the stoned Spencer, there is the scumbag boy and Henrietta’s husband, who turns out to have spent all their money in a futile, foolish attempt to save his dying restaurant.

Downtown Boston readers may have the same reaction I did in reading this book about a suburban family—they spend so much time driving.

Read all three of these books this summer. Novels usually tell you more about a culture than non-fiction does. Each of these books gives bits of insight into New England and its people.

Spring cooking

Our dinner last night was typical for us in the spring. We sat down to fava beans, fiddleheads and morel mushrooms sent for my birthday from my sister-in-law. Last week we had soft shell crabs two nights in a row because they are so good, and their season is short. I haven’t found ramps this year, but finally shad roe appeared at our small, local grocery store.

While these foods are touted in magazines and cookbooks as part of the local food movement, I am surprised at how many people are unfamiliar with them, don’t like their taste or find them too difficult to deal with.

So, dear readers, this column is about spring recipes.

My husband and I think we hunt down foods like this because we grew up on farms, foraged in the woods, knew at an early age where food comes from and got over any squeamishness that might have lurked about.

When I was a young, inexperienced cook, I served Julia Child’s braised tongue in madeira sauce to dinner guests who exclaimed how good it was. One person asked what we were eating.

When I answered, most stopped.

Later, my father-in-law packed up in dry ice several pheasants he had shot and shipped them to us. Having learned from the tongue experience, we invited only friends who we knew could handle wild birds.

One spring when that same father-in-law sent a mess of morels from his Midwestern woods, we invited a sophisticated couple who had never heard of them for brunch where they featured prominently. Our friends looked as if we were going to poison them, but they gamely tried them. They were as hooked on morels as we were. A couple of years later, when mushrooms sprang from new mulch they had had delivered to their courtyard a couple of weeks before, they recognized them, invited us over to pick, and we all had a morel feast.

One summer we spent a vacation with several friends in Westport, MA. At the beach my Midwestern husband and I picked a bucketful of blue-black mussels off the rocks, steamed them with lemon and herbs and served them to our New England city-raised friends, who had never heard of them. After that, everyone picked them off the rocks and we had them about every night until we left.

That was then – before eating local, seasonal and even historical food like tongue was trendy and popular. Even now it isn’t easy to find these foods. Whole Foods doesn’t regularly carry tongue. Soft shell crab makes it to some restaurants menus, but it is only at Boston’s private clubs that you can regularly find shad roe. Nobody serves fava beans. Like quinces, another historical food, they take too long to prepare, I guess.

You can find recipes for all these foods online easily so I won’t bore you. But I’ll give you a few tips.

Morels. They are easily the best tasting mushrooms in the world. Few shops carry them, and when they do they’re usually dried out and expensive. My sister, who still lives in the Midwest, finds them for free in the woods. My sister-in-law orders them from Wisconsin. When they arrive, split them in half, wash and clean them because you’ll find a few bugs. Use them in pasta, over toast or flour them lightly and cook them in butter until crisp.

Fava beans. Remove them from the pod. Slip them into boiling water for a minute or two. Plunge them into ice to stop the cooking. When they are cool, slip off the skins to reveal bright green beans with a lovely taste. A bit of lemon juice, salt and pepper and a dash of olive oil is all they need. In English grocery stores, where they are sometimes called broad beans, you can get them already out of the pod. I don’t know why the American food-industrial complex hasn’t figured out how to do that here.

Shad roe. Cook bacon, drain most of the fat, then cook the roe in the same pan. This is easy.

Fiddleheads. Trim them, blanch them for a minute or two in boiling water and then sauté with garlic or shallots.

Soft shell crabs. Have the butcher trim them, roll them in corn meal and then sauté. I never do this as well as a couple of restaurants I know. So we usually order them at those restaurants.

Tongue. Go to Julia Child’s recipes. She’ll teach you everything you need to know. But I imagine you won’t bother.