a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Monday, April 30, 2007

Mystery among the rocks

The goggle-eyed and horned creatures are the most mysterious images to be found at ancient petroglyphs in beautiful Southeastern New Mexico. Some scholars believe goggle eyes in a Mexican rain god while others insist the Native Americans who etched the stone art had their own religious reasons to get creative. Maybe these strange creatures are renditions of the same aliens that “unofficially” landed centuries later about 80 miles to the east in Roswell.

You can sense the magic of Three Rivers Petroglyphs upon setting foot on the rugged path that wraps around the rocks and boulders that contain 21,000 crudely-etched pictures. The sweet smell of evergreen fills the air, while breathtaking vistas spread for miles on both sides of the Tularosa Basin 28 miles south of Carrizozo. The San Andres Mountains are to the west, while the Sacramento Mountains fill the eastern horizon. There are few houses interupting the landscape, as most buildings were evacuated and raised after the U.S. Military uprooted everyone in the 1950s and 60s for military purposes.

Three Rivers Petroglyphs

It is believed that the Jornada Mogollon tribe is responsible for the carvings of masks, sunbursts, animals, hand prints, fish, fauna and geometric designs created 1,000 years ago. Unfortunately, many of them are fading away under the elements. No one is sure what they mean, as there are no known surviving members of the tribe. There are theories that the site might have been used for trading, that each picture represents part of a larger story. “The rock art seems to reflect a strong supernatural and religious connection to their environment,” according to the visitor brochure issued by the Bureau of Land Management.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Women rule this tribe

It might not be wise to cross paths with Acoman women, especially their youngest daughters. They hold the truth and power among siblings in families that make up the 4,000-member Native American tribe in New Mexico. It’s a cherished tradition in this matriarchal society that maintains the oldest continuously inhabited pueblo in the United States. Females also own all of the property.

Acoma, Sky City

“A woman was the first person to rise from the ground,” says Dean, shown above, a mesa landowner and tour guide at Sky City, their rustic village on a mesa rising 357 feet above the “enchanted” lowlands about an hour’s drive west of Albuquerque. The female messiah sent fourth four warriors in separate directions, representative of north, south, east and west, as well as the changing seasons. They returned to report to her that it was safe for humans to inhabit the world, Dean says, repeating a story told by generations of woman who came before her.

“The people of the white rock” were likely drawn to this high ground for added security, that has outlived an invasion by Spanish conqueros in the 1500s. The Acomans had decided to put just one small door on the first floor of their adobe houses. In times of great fear, women would stand guard inside these entries, ready to club the first intruders over the head, Dean says. They also may have helped to toss 13 Spaniards off the cliffs when the men attempted to steal the village grain supplies in 1598.

Acoma, Sky City

Today, about 30 people live on the mesa that, each year, attracts thousands of tourists, who have included actor John Wayne and former First Ladies Jackie Kennedy and Hillary Clinton. The presidents' wives must have honored the rules that place strict limits on photography and against wandering on the cemetery, where Acomans are buried five deep in soil brought to the rock. If a white person ignores tribal rules, the violation can be settled with a .45-calibre handgun, Dean says. She claims to be joking.

Flirting with chile

The waitress says I look like a chile relleno kind of guy when I ask for her suggestions on the menu at a Mexican restaurant in Albuquerque, N.M. But I am leaning toward the carnitas asadas, or grilled pork tenderloins swimming in red chile and green chile. “I always know how to read my customers,” insists Dina, my Latino American waitress at La Hacienda Restaurant in an ancient adobe building in the city’s Old Town district. Many of these mud-colored, Pueblo-Spanish-style buildings here date to 1706, when Albuquerque was settled along the banks of the Rio Grande as a colonial farming village and military outpost. At its center is San Felipe Neri Roman Catholic Church, which has been in continuous use for nearly 300 years. The smell of peppers cooking circle the air around the church and every other corner of the several blocks that make up this tourist destination. As it turns out, my three breaded and deep-fried chile rellenos don't bring tears to my eyes. Their seeds, which could burn holes through a weak tongue, had been scraped off to put out the fire, Nina explained. I like them. “Did I read you right?” she says with a wink.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Child soldier

We all seem to know these people, the ones who complain almost endlessly about their “pathetic” problems. They can be especially annoying when they appear to have otherwise successful lives, and the money to afford to keep their families warm and safe.

These folks should be required to read “A Long Way Gone,” the memoirs of a boy soldier from Sierra Leone, Africa. One day Ishmael Beah is a 9-year-old learning to rap songs from America with his friends. Almost overnight, he has an AK-47 strapped to his back after a mass movement of refugees attempt to flee violence in his homeland. He is swallowed up by the government army by the time he reaches his 13th birthday, only to be rescued by UNICEF three years later.

“Memories I sometimes wish I could wash away, even though I am aware that they are an important part of what my life is; who I am now,” Beah writes in his book.

Somehow, he manages to find the courage to come to grips with his past, even though he could find more than enough on his plate to complain about. But he gazes out with joy in his eyes and a wide smile in a photograph from the book’s back cover.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Welcome home soldier

Relatives of U.S. Army Sgt. Keith Knezovich were so happy to have him back safe after a year in Iraq that they decorated a Christmas tree to welcome him home to Beallsville, Pa.

Follow this link to a photo of him and his mom Debbie.

Dinner in the delta

Mekong rice farmer welcomes Americans
Tu Man, above, has been having good rice harvests, making him a middle-class, head-of-the-household in Vietnam. The average worker in Vietnam is lucky to earn the equivalent of $40 U.S. dollars a month. Tu Man is smiling, too, for impressing his neighbors, by having American visitors.

ALONG THE MEKONG DELTA, Vietnam – The rice boat's engine sputters, stalls and spouts thick, smelly black oil on its passengers.

They wipe themselves down with newspapers and rags while its engine cranks and churns back to life, pushing the boat again down the Mekong Delta.

The weathered gray wooden boat is not carrying its normal haul of rice weighing 10 tons. It is parading two Americans on a sweltering mid-July afternoon along the muddy brown delta the Vietnamese call Cuu Long, or River of Nine Dragons.

Vietnam veteran Neal Armagost of Reynoldsville is aboard with his wife, Thanh, a Vietnamese immigrant to Pennsylvania, en route to give a rice farmer photographs of his newborn granddaughter in the United States. An American newspaper reporter is at their side, invited by Thanh Armagost to glimpse the life of an average hard-working farm family in Vietnam.


Onlookers, many of whom have probably never seen Americans, smile and stare from thatched huts on stilts lining the riverbank and passing boats hauling exotic fruits.

Children splash at the river's edge while a group of women stoop to wash clothes.

"The water is poison," a young man named Hieu said, blaming the pollution on runoff from rice paddies that have been sprayed too often with pesticides.

Downstream, the farmer's family is preparing a feast that is costing it about $40, the monthly salary earned by most workers in Vietnam.

The boat anchors at a small plank dock after navigating under a narrow bamboo monkey bridge villagers built to cross the river.

Everyone follows a path covered with terra-cotta shards leading to the rice farmer's home, passing well-manicured papaya and mango orchards. A barefoot boy uses his hands and feet to shimmy to the top of a palm tree to retrieve a dozen coconuts to serve the fruit's cool, refreshing milk.

Inside the four-room, one-story white stucco house, a woman drains blood from the neck of a red-feathered chicken that will become dinner.

The menu also includes rice noodle soup with pork and beef, seafood rolls, fresh-baked bread and banh xeo, or Vietnamese pancakes.

Thanh Armagost passes around photographs of 5-month-old Loan Thy Vu, the daughter of her nephew, whom she raised. The baby's mother, who also lives with the Armagosts, is a daughter of the rice farmer, Tu Man.

"I miss her already," said Ba Noi, the grandmother on the father's side of the family. The wrinkles on the 88-year-old woman's tanned face testify to the hours she spends under the sun tending to the vegetables, two-thirds of which are sold to sustain the family.After dinner, Tu Man beams while leading his visitors to his paddies, showing them how he toils in fields, hand-harvesting each stalk of rice. The men return to the head table to share bottles of Saigon beer.

"I respect the American soldiers," said Tu Man, whose youthful appearance helped him avoid serving in the South Vietnam army three decades ago.

He later lines up his family on the front porch in view of the Americans' cameras for a group photograph, a special occasion in this village without such conveniences as telephones.

It is time to return to port, where the farmer leaves his visitors with hugs and kisses on their cheeks.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Pause for Virginia Tech

WASHINGTON, Pa. – Washington and Jefferson College students Lauren Parcells, 21, of McClain, Va., left, and Rebecca Lopez, 21, of Washington, lean on each other for support during a moment of silence Friday in memory of the students and professors killed this week in the massacre at Virginia Tech.
Published with permission of the Observer-Reporter

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Savannah was once common

Savannah tombs
SAVANNAH, Ga. – Often called the “Belle of the South” because of its charm, Savannah probably wasn’t “too beautiful” to burn when union troops stormed the Confederate states at the close of the Civil War.
The city then looked much like most dusty cotton towns along the Atlantic Coast south of the Mason-Dixon Line, which separates the North and South, a guide told tourists on one of the modern city’s popular historic walking tours.
Savannah folks received word that Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was heading their way after his troops burned Atlanta to the ground in November 1864 in his “March to the Sea” campaign.
Everyone fled for their safety, including the men who had the messy job of removing the many piles of horse manure that littered the streets. Not only was Savannah average, it’s air must have contained a foul odor when Sherman arrived because he decided to spare the city from ruin, the guide said.
The general would later write about Savannah as having been “far too beautiful a city to burn.”
The general, the guide explained, was likely putting a spin on the story to the mainstream press, which moved slowly on horseback or by stagecoach in 1865 because many of the South’s railways had been destroyed in the fighting. The reporters had begun to catch up with Sherman’s troops when they arrived in Savannah.
Some had already published reports of the travesties the soldiers committed in Atlanta. Southerners were growing angrier by the day over how the soldiers had ripped up railroad tracks, wrapping some around tree trunks like pretzels. Even the newly freed slaves were upset with Sherman for the way his followers had been treating them, the guide said.
Regardless of which story is accurate, those who have inherited the city are blessed with an urban historic district whose beauty is unmatched in the United States.
The city had the fortune of being discovered by Oxford-educated James Oglethorpe and 21 other Englishmen who settled Georgia to maintain their homeland’s stake in the 13 colonies.
Laid out in 1733, Oglethorpe gave the city a new design of streets and alleys offset by six 60-foot-by-90-foot squares that was uncommon to colonial America. There would be a 44 acre farm shared by landowners on the outside of the town. As the city grew and gobbled up the farm, city planners continued laying out streets with the same pattern of public squares.
Today, these impeccably maintained parks are home to historic markers, statues and ornate fountains under the shade of tall “live oak trees draped in Spanish moss.” The streets also are lined by row after row of stately brick houses with richly adorned secret gardens.

Savannah town square

In 2005, the city attracted more than 6 million visitors who, combined, spent more than $1.7 million, according to Georgia Trend magazine. The tourism boom is largely based on the heritage trade, which has spoken volumes to the value of historic preservation.
The Civil War walking tour, meanwhile, passed the stately home of Jim Williams, whose scandalous murder trial became the inspiration for the best-selling book, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Tourists also flock there for walking tours of the house and other sites associated with Williams, an antiques dealer who was acquitted on charges he shot and killed his male lover.

Garden is out back

Our guide also stopped at the stately post office, which holds a tiny sculpture of President Lincoln peering down from above two second-story windows. The massive marble and granite building was a gift to the city during the reconstruction era that followed the Civil War.
Its architect was believed to have incorporated Lincoln’s face into the building as a reminder that the president would “always be looking down on us,” the guide explained.

Lincoln head
Published with permission of the Observer-Reporter

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Spring rolls for a cause

Cha gio are small spring rolls that, according to Chinese folklore, represent the golden nugget or prosperity. Anyone lucky enough to live in Pittsburgh, Pa., and have a ticket to the annual fundraiser for poor children in Danang wouldn’t want to pass up the uncooked versions they serve there on the side. Wrapped in thin sheets of rice paper soaked in water to make them pliable, the rolls are made fresh by Vietnamese immigrants. They come filled with steamed shrimp, slivers of pork, mint leaves and rice noodles alongside brown peanut dipping sauce.

Viet Ku
(Some of the Vietnamese immigrants to Pittsburgh who prepared the food for the April 15 dinner in Bethel Park)

The dinner is sponsored by the Friends of Danang, a group of American Vietnam War veterans that has raised money to build schools on their former battlefields. Now its members are raising money to build a bridge poor village children need to reach their school during the rainy season. Danang has seen rapid economic improvements in recent years, but hundreds of thousands of children in its rural villages still suffer from poverty and illness.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Writing on the wall

As a journalist with an art degree, I can fully appreciate freedom of speech and expression.
But, I have never understood the logic of graffiti artists who have no problem with expressing themselves on someone else’s private property. Most of this stuff around Pittsburgh, Pa., with its big, bold, colorful letters, appears to be repetitive nonsense. From what I see, it doesn’t confront the viewer or seek some important political change. The photograph above is one of many examples of this vandalism that can be found throughout Pittsburgh’s South Side.
Some graffiti art, however, is cool enough to qualify for display in a nice gallery. Avone is once such artist in New York who comes up with some amazing images while also landing himself in quite a bit of trouble with the law. Tomorrow’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette promises a story on a local spray-paint artist who was nabbed and faces fines of more than $500,000. At that rate, the artist will never be able to afford a real canvas.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Cambodia, looking back

At the close of the Vietnam War, Cambodia became caught in the violence of America’s long and bitter struggle in Southeast Asia. The Viet Cong had taken a stronghold in its jungles when then President Richard Nixon carried out secret bombing raids over the tiny country.
New York Times bureau chief Sydney Schanberg stayed behind in 1975 when helicopters evacuated the U.S. embassy in Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh. The rest of the world was watching a similar scenario in neighboring South Vietnam when the U.S. abandoned Saigon. Few seemed to care about what was happening in Cambodia.
Schanberg’s gripping story about the slaughter of life that followed in Cambodia was told in the 1984 movie, “The Killing Fields,” starring Sam Waterston. It was based on the reporter’s book, “The Life and Death of Dith Pran,” a Cambodian journalist who worked as Schanberg’s assistant.
The story later inspired the novel of the same name as the movie. While the book’s pages have yellowed over time, it’s worth another read today, while America is “spreading Democracy” in a war that seems to have no end in sight in Iraq.
Schanberg’s dispatches to New York revealed how a tiny insurgent group led by the infamous Pol Pot had grown to include thousands of members following the 1973 bombings. The ruler’s Khmer Rouge party stormed Phnom Pehn in the spring of 1975, taking command of the country. It would become responsible for an estimated 1.5 million deaths.
It took several years for Vietnamese troops to quash the regime, only after Pol Pot’s army had littered the country with land mines. Today, Cambodia’s government majority is held by Communists. And its citizens are living a legacy from that conflict where just about every family has lost a member to land mines, or has a relative missing an arm, leg or eye to the devices.
It’s safe now to visit Cambodia, only after millions of dollars in foreign aid have been invested to sweep the landscape of mines.

Siem Reap landmine victims
(Land mine victims make music, above, at the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia)

War follows similar paths. Last month, former army Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski spoke at California University of Pennsylvania about the need to pull out of a misguided war in Iraq. While serving there in 2004, she said many Iraqis who initially supported U.S. soldiers went on to join the insurgency in hopes of change. This is a war, too, where journalists of Schanberg’s breed are not given the opportunity to send home the full story.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A pilsner is born

Te brewery at Plzen (Pilsen), Czech Republic, above, is where the locals invented pilsner beer in the 1840s.

By Harry Funk

PLZEN, Czech Republic – They take their beer seriously in Europe.

Back in 1838, for example, a near riot erupted in the city of Plzen when residents became so dismayed at the poor quality of the local brew that they emptied gallon upon gallon into the gutter in front of the town hall.

Their loss is our gain.

Town leaders acted swiftly to consolidate Plzen's brewing operations, culminating four years later in the first batch of what would become Pilsner Urquell.

Nations have come and gone in Plzen. At various stages, it has been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Czechoslovakia, under German occupation, and now is one of the major cities of the Ceská republika (Czech Republic).

But no matter who's been in charge, the golden beverage has flowed out of Plzen and all over the earth for more than 160 years.

"It's the pride of the whole Czech Republic and of each Czech person," explained Helena Emmerová, client service coordinator for Pilsner Urquell Svet Piva (Beer World), the combination brewery, museum and entertainment complex in the heart of Plzen.

She may be a bit biased considering her job, but the typical Czech seems to agree. First-time visitors to the republic, for example, often are whisked straight to a friendly pub and presented with a tall glass of the cold stuff.

"Our national drink," they'll be told.

As well it should be, according to beer connoisseurs who have tried the best of what the world has to offer. Writing for Brewing Techniques magazine, Peter A. Ensminger summarizes the impact made by Pilsner Urquell:

"No sooner had shipments of this new beer reached American shores than brewers set to work duplicating the style. ... No imitator, whoever, can hope to match the true character of this Czech original. Brewed with a combination of soft Plzen water, home-malted barley, superb native Saaz hops and a lager yeast originally smuggled out of Bavaria more than 150 years ago, Pilsner Urquell is to this day a true king of beers."

The beer's reputation preceded it, as Matt Lawrence, bar manager at the Union Grill in Washington, Pa., learned this summer when his tavern started serving Pilsner Urquell on tap.

"I didn't know how many people were familiar with the beer," he said. "As soon as people see it, they want it. It's been a huge success."

For the curious who don't know about it, the bar often pours a small sample.

"After that, nine out of 10 people say, 'Pour me a draft,'" said Lawrence. "It's a good-tasting Pilsner beer for someone who's not real familiar with a Pilsner. It's not overpowering."

Pilsner beer – the name is derived from Pilsen, the German name for Plzen – is made with bottom-fermenting lager yeast and usually has the slightly bitter taste of malt and hops. The golden color represents a change of pace from the dark, cloudy beers available before the brewers of Plzen developed their heralded recipe.

That recipe starts with barley that is soaked in water for five days, then heated to convert malt starches into sugars, a process repeated three times (known as "triple mashing").

"That's a specialty to Pilsner," Emmerová said. "Of course, it's time- and money-consuming, but the product is better."

The solution is filtered into conical, stainless-steel kettles, where hops are added and boiled, then cooled to 5 degrees Centigrade. Yeast and oxygen are added for fermentation, which takes seven days, then the brew is aged for 29 days.

Until recent modernization of the brewery, the final process took place in oak barrels stored in the spilka, or fermenting cellar. Today, visitors can walk through sections of the 9 kilometers (5 1/2 miles) of corridors constituting the cellar, where they can sample the beer poured directly from a traditional wooden fermenting barrel.

The taste is described on the realbeer.com Web site: "a very slight but benign sulfury flavor, where the rich hops dominate the flavor with a very smooth bitterness. This version has yeasty notes and fermentation byproducts evident in the final flavor that you'll never find in any of the 50,000 bottles that leave the bottling line each hour."

More of those bottles are finding their way to the United States following the recent merger between Miller Brewing Co. and SAB, the South African conglomerate with a majority interest in Pilsner Urquell.

"The regulars are very loyal to it," said Matt Talerico, assistant manager of the Beer Store in South Strabane Township. The distributor is owned by Beverage Distribution Inc., the regional wholesaler for Pilsner Urquell (and the folks who recommended it to the Union Grill).

The beer could be more popular among U.S. beer drinkers, in Talerico's opinion.

"I believe that its biggest obstacle is a lack of advertising," he said. "Comparable imports, like Corona and Heineken, they have those great commercials. Even Foster's, for that matter."

But while Pilsner Urquell may be a relatively well-kept American secret, it's ubiquitous in taverns throughout the Czech Republic and neighboring countries, especially Slovakia. Plzensky Prazdroj s.a., the corporation that runs the brewery, now accounts for nearly 50 percent of the Czech beer market, and sales abroad totaled 1.2 million hectoliters (31.7 million gallons) last year.

After all, Europeans take their beer seriously. Especially when it comes to the original Pilsner.

Friday, April 6, 2007

View from Vietnam

War crimes museum, Saigon
A relic from the Vietnam War outside the War Remnants Museum in Saigon.

By Scott Beveridge

The old news photographs on display at what has been nicknamed the American war crimes museum in Saigon are enough to make people sick.
One shows an American soldier shoving an M-16 against an old Vietnamese woman’s head in what is officially known is the War Remnants Museum. Another U.S. soldier laughs in a black-and-white photo while holding up the charred remains of a Viet Cong guerrilla fighter caught in a napalm blast.
“My insides turned inside out, like I wanted to throw up.” said Andrew Boone of Chicago, who served as a platoon sergeant in the war, after the sights inside this museum became too much for him to handle.
Boone is featured in a moving film on WQED, “In Country: A Vietnam Story,” which began airing in November 2006 in Pittsburgh. He’s one of two friends of “Black Horizons” host Chris Moore, who made their first return trip this year to their former battlegrounds since they left Vietnam 35 years ago.
They cry, laugh and somehow seem to find a way to heal their guilty consciences about their roles in the unpopular war in Southeast Asia.
Moore is anguished by his memories of driving supply trucks at full speed through “Ambush Alley,” some of which ran down anyone who got in their way. This was dangerous territory in Central Vietnam, where enemy snipers were determined to destroy the cargo route.
“I can only ask God to forgive me. It was stupid,” Moore said in the film.
The story also touches on the work of the Friends of Danang, a McMurray, Pa.-based humanitarian group founded by Vietnam War veteran Tony Accamando of nearby Eighty Four. He and his pals raise money to build schools and provide surgery to Danang’s many deformed children over their “need for healing and reconciliation,” Moore said.
What sets this film apart is how Moore and his buddies divulge their pasts as they seek to find peace from the war that killed as many as 2 million Vietnamese and nearly 60,000 American troops.
“I don’t know about you, but that eats me alive,” Moore said. “Where did we go wrong?” Boone added, wiping tears from his brow.
So many veterans from this war refuse to take this journey, and still suffer night sweats from the painful wartime nightmares that haunt them.
Accamando, a retired cable executive, has long declined to discuss his war experiences in public unless they involve civilian affairs.
In some ways, it seems even more sad that these oral histories about a war that reshaped U.S. history will be lost to time because the stories are just too disturbing to bring to the table.
It takes another generation to learn from the mistakes of those who came before them, Moore believes.
Maybe it’s time more veterans from this war begin to tell their stories before the hell from Vietnam becomes something future generations romanticize over.

Scott Beveridge is a staff writer for the Observer-Reporter.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Eating Saigon style

Vietnamese tables are ususally set with fresh fruits and vegetables, which often include lemongrass, shown above, at left.

By Liz Rogers

BLOOMFIELD – Tuyet Vu recalls growing up in Saigon in the years following the fall of South Vietnam to communism.

Her grandmother operated a small street business selling tobacco, and 8-year-old Tuyet (pronounced too-wee) was determined to help make the woman's hectic life a little easier.

"My grandmother was very busy," recalls Tuyet, now a 30-year-old American citizen living in the Bloomfield section of Pittsburgh. "She had to do business. And then she had to cook, so I helped her. I followed her around to see what I could do for her."

By the age of 10, Tuyet had learned enough to assume some of the cooking responsibilities. As in most Vietnamese households back then, the kitchen was outdoors, protected from the elements by a simple roof. It was there that Tuyet learned to cook rice, pork and fish dishes over an open flame.

Mekong Delta, Vietnam
(Women cooking outdoors at their home south of Saigon)

Today, Tuyet is married with a young daughter and continues to prepare traditional Vietnamese dishes – indoors, in a modern kitchen – for her family, including her husband and sister, Vy (pronounced Vee). They share a home owned by Tuyet's aunt, Thanh Armogast, who left Saigon for America before the fall to communists in 1975.

In the years since, Thanh (pronounced Ton) has built a small business assisting Vietnamese people in navigating the complicated task of obtaining visas to visit family and friends in America. She also became involved with the Friends of Danang, a humanitarian organization dedicated to helping children in Central Vietnam. The nonprofit group, based in McMurray, Pa., has raised enough money to build eight schools and a medical clinic in Danang, and launched the "Let Them Walk Again" project to provide surgery to Vietnamese children with birth defects or other injuries. The group now is raising money to build a bridge to one of the schools so children can get to their classes during the rainy season.

This month, the Friends of Danang will host its annual benefit dinner featuring authentic Vietnamese cuisine. Tuyet will be among those cooking for the April 15 event at Bethel Park Community Center.

Vietnamese cooking varies by region in this country of 84 million, but the cuisine relies universally on rice, noodles, vegetables and fruits in both main and side dishes. Fresh chili, basil, mint, cilantro, star anise and lemon grass lend distinct flavors to the food.

Fish sauce – nuoc nam, or fermented fish extract – is a seasoning agent used throughout Southeast Asia much the way salt is used in Western kitchens. If it's not used in the preparation of a dish, fish sauce likely is served on the side as a condiment.

"When I season the (food), I taste it. If I see it's OK, I stop," said Tuyet, who cooks from memory, rather than a recipe.

Tuyet marinates pork chops overnight in a mixture of crushed garlic, onions, lemon grass, sugar, fish sauce and coconut juice, left over from the New Year, when the Vietnamese typically make coconut candy. The fish sauce and other ethnic ingredients are available at the Asian market in Pittsburgh's Strip District.

She grills the meat outdoors, and toward the end of cooking, dips the pork in a glazing sauce made from olive oil, honey, soy sauce and a little hot pepper sauce. A bowl of the sauce is placed on the table for dipping.

Tuyet explained that the meat in Vietnam is much tougher and not as thick as that found in the United States. "That's because the animals in Vietnam are raised with lots of exercise," she said. In addition, they are fed "whatever we have," like rice.

Rounding out the meall she serves iced Vietnamese coffee mixed with sweetened condensed milk and pound cake served with slices of fresh mango. Also sampled was some fresh lychee – a small fruit about 1 to 2 inches in diameter and native to Southeast Asia – purchased from the Asian market in the Strip.

(Tuyet Vue, right, awaits a fresh cup of iced coffee made with a French press)

In Vietnam, Tuyet made daily trips to market. At one time, refrigerators were owned by only the very wealthy, so cooks prepared only what the family could consume at one sitting.

"Nowadays, most families can afford a small refrigerator, but there are still many, many families who don't have refrigeration," she said, referring to the countryside inhabitants.

The markets sell mainly seasonal fruits and vegetables, Tuyet explained, but seafood is readily available, too. Little emphasis is given to the sale of meat because of its high price, she said, with preference given to pork.

Freshly made spring rolls – a favorite with members of the Friends of Danang – will be available for purchase at the benefit dinner. Tuyet said preparation is simple, but requires a delicate hand.

Place a sheet of rice paper dampened with warm water on a plate and layer the following ingredients: cooked, sliced shrimp or boiled pork; lettuce leaf; mint leaf; rice noodles and bean spouts. Roll carefully, Tuyet said. "People trying to make it for the first time, don't be upset when they cannot roll it," she said with a chuckle.

The best part of spring rolls is the dipping sauce that accompanies them, Tuyet said. Hers consists of a mixture of hoisin sauce, peanut sauce, peanut butter and pork broth, created from boiling the pork. "If you don't make good sauce, it (spring roll) won't taste good," she added.

Thanh noted that she never benefited from the culinary expertise of her mother, who was Tuyet's grandmother.

"But all my family, from my sister to my younger niece, are so lucky to have my mother to learn how to cook – especially when they come here," she said. "They are bicultured, so they mix the Vietnamese culture with the American culture. We develop our own taste. We are still traditional, though. We get so many compliments from friends and family."

(Ancestor worship is practiced in nearly every Vietnamese home, using altars bearing fresh fruit and photographs of deceased relatives)

The benefit dinner will be held from 3 to 6:30 p.m. Sunday, April 15, 2007, at Bethel Park Community Center, 5151 Park Ave., Bethel Park, Pa.
The menu will include: Cha Cho, or spring rolls; lotus root with vegetables, shrimp and pork; coconut shrimp; and Pho, the national dish of Vietnam. Pho is a beef soup with rice noodles.
For information, contact thanh@penn.com

Liz Rogers in managing editor of the Observer-Reporter.

belly-dancin drummers

So I was at the coffee shop this a.m. and I saw a couple of cool ads on the corkboard above the creaming station.

A Turkish Bellydance Workshop will be held Sunday April 29 at 1110 Resaca Place, Pittsburgh, Pa 15212. For more information, contact melissa@ishtar-music.com or check out www.jalsah.org.

If one day of multi-cultural activity is not enough for you, on Saturday, April 28, a Carmine Drum Workshop will be held at the same Resaca Place address. For information on that event, it's the same e-mail and Web site as listed above.

Sounds cool.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

World's finest pistachios

I owe it to the Turks for once again traveling the slow, miserable highway to Pittsburgh that we southerners of the city despise as Route 51.

At the infamous traffic backups at the four-lane road’s meet up with Route 88 in Castle Shannon - undoubtedly the worst intersection in Pennsylvania - stands the only big box drug store where I can find green bags of Turkish pistachios.

They’ve become my latest addiction, these tiny nuts in a shell that make their Californian counterparts stack up like a Wal-Mart store in the heart of Rodeo Drive. Turkish pistachios have a unique salty flavor akin to a sunflower seed bred with a regular old pistachio.

The Republic of Turkey, which has been weathering image problems over its alleged terrorism ties and one scary wave of bird flu, has a climate that produces an incredibly tasty green pistachio.

Its unpredictable neighbor, Iran, is supposedly the top producer of the nuts, having grown 310,000 metric tons of them in 2003 - or 58 percent of the world’s share. Turkey holds the number two spot, having grown some 85,000 tons that year. The U.S. came in third, with 53,000 tons, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

I can’t tell you the last time I saw Iranian nuts for sale around here, but, I will keep navigating the nearly 30 traffic signals on Route 51 separating my home from the Eckerd in Castle Shannon to buy Turkish pistachios.

They are sold under the label of Zenobia, a company that has been processing and importing them to the U.S. since 1926. The company claims to hold the record for providing the nut to North America longer than any other importer.

Now that I have restocked my supply, I will go back to following Route 885 to Pittsburgh, the lesser path of two evils from the south into the city. That outdated two-lane road snakes through Hazelwood and pours out on Second Avenue. Surely, Marco Polo could have found a quicker route to trade in imported goods in Pittsburgh.