a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Saturday, November 29, 2008

This bourbon is too smooth to waste in the oven

This post started out to be about a recipe for ham glaze containing apricot preserves and bourbon. However, my stop at a liquor store detours this story to Labrot & Graham and its Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select bourbon.

The brand stands out on the shelf over its competitors that include Jim Beam and Old Crow. Woodford’s thin, round-shouldered bottles are classy and manly, a reminder of a classic black-and-white movie scene with Humphrey Bogart pouring goblets of bourbon to share with a beautiful dame behind a piano. This isn’t the cheap stuff, either. Brewed near Versailles, KY, since 1812, Woodford is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby. Simply speaking, Woodford defines top shelf.

So back here in shot-and-beer territory south of Pittsburgh, Pa., it’s a miracle that my bottle lasted long enough to make it this week into Thanksgiving dinner.

That glaze recipe yanked from a page in the latest issue of GQ magazine calls for four tablespoons of the above-mentioned preserves and a cup of bourbon or rum warmed together over a stove and set aside while the ham cooks for about an hour. A sober cook should then apply this mixture to the ham before returning it to the oven until it reaches the right temperature.

This recipe will fail you. Instead, spoon an entire small jar of preserves into a sauce pan with about a half-cup or less of bourbon to ensure a thick dressing to dribble over the ham to counteract with all that salt it holds. A full cup of whiskey will just result in a runny glaze.

Aside from that, it would be a shame to send too much smooth Woodford to the drippings in a roasting plan. Save the rest for a day when your personal Ingrid Bergman stops by to lounge around and watch “Casablanca" one more time for good measure.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

You're no one unless you brine that turkey

It’s an appropriate time for me to confess to following the trend of brining the Thanksgiving turkey.

The technique of soaking meat in salt water to preserve it and draw out bacteria is as old as the hills. But, the practice fell out of style after modern refrigeration gave us a safer place to store tomorrow's dinner.

Now, foodies are taking another stab at brining as a way to add flavor to any number of cuts of boring meat. I was on to this last Thanksgiving, but gave it a halfhearted attempt because it seemed dead wrong to add too many unfamiliar flavorings to a meal for my waspish relatives to handle in one sitting.

Yet my then-11-year-old picky-eating nephew who usually wants pizza exclaimed at the dinner table that that was the best turkey he had ever tasted. While he had no idea who prepared that bird, he has put in a request now for one “just like we had last year.”

So to satisfy a kid like him, you’ll need a vacation day and 12.7 oz jar of Victoria Taylor’s Traditional Brining Blend. It contains two cups of California sea salt, demerara sugar, spices, Malabar black peppercorns, citric acid, garlic and orange peel.

Blend this aromatic spice kit into two cups of boiling water and then cool it with three cups of ice. If you are really smooth in the kitchen, you will have a giant airtight Zip Lock Bag to use to soak the bird overnight in the fridge in the brine and two gallons of cold water.

Wake up early Thanksgiving to pop that Tom into the oven resting in white wine and vegetables. Don't forget to tie up its legs and cover the breast meat with cheesecloth to keep the white meat moist. I stuff mine with one pear to sweeten the stock for the gravy.

Next up: a recipe for ham glaze.

Drool baby drool.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A sheet cake that spits in the eye of Wal-Mart

That's your loss....

My sympathies go out to those of you who don’t live near me and cannot purchase one of these sheet cakes.

Each time a staffer says goodbye to the Observer-Reporter newsroom, or celebrates such as milestone there as having a baby or turning 60, my coworkers cry out for a cake from Valdiserri’s Bakery to mark the occasion.

The standard order from the shop in North Belle Vernon, Pa., is a marble cake with raspberry apple filling and buttercream icing. It has no rival, unless your mother is Martha Stewart wannabe. If that’s the case, my heartfelt sympathies are extended to you once more.

This bakery is found in a nondescript storefront along a main street that is alive with business, even though it’s just around the bend from a Wal-Mart. Tell that to all the big-box store opponents who claim those retail giants kill off local business.

Valdiserri’s, which has been around for decades, can teach small business owners facing overwhelming competition something about quality products, friendliness and staying power. And, it makes a mighty fine fish hoagie bun to boot.

On top of that, the place at 513 Broad Ave. is doing just fine without a Web site to boost its sales.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sit down girls, Annie is in the house

Annie Lennox takes center stage over the younger competition, including Christina Aguilera and Beyonce, with her performance tonight at the American Music Awards.

Unlike the others in a long and showy lineup, the audience can actually understand each and every word sung by the 53-year-old Scot as she accompanies herself on a grand piano. She doesn't need glitz, backup singers and spiffy background dancers to sell that voice.

Lennox’ range is incredibly intact while belting out her signature song, “Why.” She finishes with a soulful emphasis on this stretch of the lyrics: “Do you know how I feel? 'Cause I don't think you know how I feel.”

‘It’s been an incredible journey,” she said, thanking her fans for receiving a special merit award. She also acknowledges former Eurythmics bandmate Dave Stewart for her success while accepting the trophy from a gracious Justin Timberlake.

We may never know what stirs her imagination, but should forever be grateful that she’s still around to attempt to explain herself in song.

The Los Angeles-based show's producers attempt in this program to appeal to younger audiences, but the older diva gives them the only performance worth remembering. Take a lesson from the best Queen Latifah.

(Photo: The Associated Press)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Care to get married on this old span?

A Party to mark the 100th birthday of the Donora-Webster Bridge

WEBSTER, Pa. - This grainy scan of photograph of the Donora-Webster Bridge under construction in 1908 comes to us today from a reader in Aurora, NY. It’s posted because it’s a rare photo and a timely one because a celebration is being planned to mark the 100th birthday of this span in southwestern Pennsylvania in two weeks.

There will be politicians, speeches, live music, food and souvenirs – just like there were when the bridge opened Dec. 5, 1908. So far, what is missing from the Saturday, Dec. 6, 2008, party is a wedding.

Harriet S. Binley of Webster married John Charles Witherspoon on the span when it opened. She was a daughter of a family with old money in the small farming and light manufacturing town that had become overshadowed by its neighbor, Donora, and its then-new, prosperous steel mill. Witherspoon was a newcomer who was dispatched to Webster by Pittsburgh Coal Co. to oversee its developing coal mines.

The wedding attracted a stupendous crowd. The nuptials were delayed, though, because another main attraction at the accompanying parade, the Monongahela Ku Klux Klan, had missed the train to Donora. That tidbit was proudly noted in the local newspaper.

Webster folks hosted that banquet, but they didn’t prepare anywhere near enough food for the guests, many of whom went away from the ox roast gnawing on bones. Another large crowd turned out in the 1980s to witness two weddings on the bridge when it opened again after undergoing renovations. Once again, there wasn’t enough food.

It’s not too late for a couple to volunteer to exchange their wedding vows on this aging bridge for the upcoming party. The day’s events begin at 3 p.m. and will feature a performance by the popular Pittsburgh band, Donora. Drop me an e-mail to get in touch with the appropriate party planners to arrange a quick wedding on this bridge. It might be wise to pack a lunch before you turn out for this excitement.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Comb-over questions

Donald Trump Signed Photo, originally uploaded by trishautographs.

By Amanda Gillooly

It was more than a comb-over. It was more like a swirl-over. Think Donald Trump, minus the millions.

Clearly balding, the gentleman in question was apparently trying to hide the shiny spot by parting his remaining strands severely to the right, swooping it up and around.

Yes, I was definitely staring, mouth wide open. But I swear my gaze wasn’t as much critical as it was quizzical.

As I watched the dude, a number of valid questions came to mind. I hope that any comb-over enthusiasts will kindly e-mail me so I won’t lie awake each night, pondering the majesty of the ‘do.

Here goes:

1.) How long does it take to construct those things? I have no idea how early one would need to wake up to for a properly coiffed comb-over. Does it take 30 minutes? Twice that long? I also can’t help but wonder what type of styling products need to be employed to achieve the necessary bald-spot coverage, and what the lifespan of the ‘do is. Do the men sporting this look have stock in Aquanet? Dunno.
2.) Very much like many men wonder what PA pop princess Christina Aguilara looks like when she wakes up in the morning sans-makeup, I need to know what comb-over aficionado’s look like when they get out of the shower. Considering that one side of their hair has to be much longer than the other, I can’t image it being a pretty sight.
3.) What are the ethics involved with this hairstyle? Don’t these guys have any friends? Wives? Girlfriends? They do? For real? Because I’ve seen way too many wilting comb-overs to believe that for a second. Friends shouldn’t let friends have a pile of hair sliding unctuously down their foreheads. Much like I would expect one of my close friends to tell me if my fly was down or if I had some sort of food product between my teeth, I’d think these men in question would want someone to say: “Uh, dude? You’re hair has become undone. You might want to give that hair awning a little volume.”
4.) What kind of conversation do these poor bastards have with their stylists? Enough said.

So please, if you are a man trying to cover up your receding hairline and you are privy to the answers to any of these questions, please leave me a comment. You can do so anonymously and it would really be helping a sister out.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Donora, the music

Really, there is a band as well as a borough named Donora.
The band, though, isn't from the town in southwestern Pennsylvania. Its members just likes the name.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Hey, I'm not done with that plate

Yummy!, originally uploaded by valalikb.

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – The server at Pittsburgh’s version of an Italian wine bar took one gander at my finished plate and giggled.

“It looks like you really liked that a lot,” she said, after taking away a white piece of china from me that appeared as if I had licked it clean. The only think it held was a thick pork chop bone stripped of its meat at Dish Osteria and Bar in Pittsburgh’s South Side District.

Truth be told, I had to restrain myself from gnawing on that bone to get from it every last morsel of pork before she left with that plate.

That’s the real way to judge a good meal and identify a redneck from a not-so-cosmopolitan bend in the middle Monongahela River valley in southwestern Pennsylvania.

From the small menu, I selected the Costata di Maiale Ripiena in bold print and thankfully above its English translation: pan roasted pork chop stuffed with prosciutto, truffle cheese and basil served with a parmesan mashed potatoes and broccolini.

I was drawn to this corner bar at 128 S 17th St. after smelling good grub cooking while walking along the inner streets of the South Side Flats. I looked in a window and decided to take a seat at the copper bar just after dusk on a Saturday night and before the crowds arrive in this bar-filled party town.

Foodie reviewers have been good to this restaurant since it opened in 2001. Believe what they have said about the quiet little place that is a perfect destination for a great romantic meal.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Introducing the "next" secretary of state

Hillary Clinton probably has the job lined up. She is shown here at California University of Pennsylvania in advance of the 2008 spring primary, before she suspended her race for the White House.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Pioneer dude with spikes

WEST NEWTON, Pa. – Those who use a popular hiking and biking trail should be glad it got a rifleman from the quirky sculptor Bill Secunda instead of the giant steel cockroaches he crafted for Texas.

The self-taught Butler, Pa., artist designed 12-foot likenesses of those pesky bugs for the ABC Pest Control building in Dallas. Secunda also planted a giant fire-breathing monster in a swamp in Alabama, his Web site indicates.

His new statue at the Yough River Trail entrance along Route 136 in West Newton, Pa., seems tame in comparison. It’s an odd caricature of a squatty pioneer man forged in railroad spikes.

To earn the commission, Secunda had to come up with a piece that is reflective of the heritage of this small town along the Youghiogheny River.

His subject apparently pays tribute to a band of pioneers under Gen. Rufus Putnam that briefly stopped here in 1788 to build boats before continuing on to explore the Northwest Territory. The rusting spikes Secunda used to build the guy speak to the abandoned rail line that was ripped up to create the 43-mile trail that is among the best sections of the Great Allegheny Passage.

We’re so lucky to have this trail in my part of the woods. I guess we’re lucky to have the Secunda statue, too, but it kind of reminds me of Big Jim, the giant folk art cowboy in Bentleyville, Pa.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

President and Mrs. Cardboard

I have a new conspiracy theory: President and Mrs. Bush have already left the White House. Truth be known, the Obamas were actually greeted Monday at the front door to the presidential mansion by life-sized cardboard likenesses of the first couple.

Much to the surprise of the Obama posse, this is how it found the keys on the computers:

(Presidential photo: USA Today, Mandel Ngan, AFP/Getty Images.)

Monday, November 10, 2008

A sea of blue

WASHINTON, Pa. - South Strabane Township Police Officer Nathan M. Burnfield was remembered Monday for his humor and compassion at his funeral a week after the 27-year-old man was killed in a freak accident on a Pennsylvania interstate.

"He loved what he did ... whether it was a burning building or flying bullets," the Rev. Gary A. Gibson said while giving the officer's eulogy in Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church in Washington.

Burnfield was struck and killed Nov. 4 while attempting to remove a loose tire from Interstate 70 near Bentleyville. More than 175 police cruisers joined the funeral procession from as far away as Philadelphia, Aberdeen, Md., and Brooke County, W.Va., city police said.

"He truly saw himself as a public servant in every sense of the word," said Gibson, pastor of pastor of North Buffalo Presbyterian Church.

(Captions: Nathan Burnfield's coffin leaves Immaculate Conception Church in Washington Monday after his hour-long funeral. Canton Township fireman Joe Lucas leaves church Monday with the jacket and hat Burnfield wore as a volunteer fireman.)

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Tribute to Veterans Day

War stories from two veterans:


Under orders to take a hill and move up the Ruhr Valley in Germany during World War II, Santo Chimento heard bullets and fell to the ground for protection.

“The Germans had us surrounded,” said Chimento, 84, of Canonsburg, recalling the day in September 1944 when he became a prisoner of war.

“I felt a gun on my back. I put my hands up. That was it,” he said.

The rifleman with Company B 180th Infantry would spend the next nine months in a prison camp, working for the enemy clearing bomb craters or laying railroad tracks.

“It was up and down. The food wasn’t good at all, enough to sustain us. They worked us very hard.”

Prior to being taken prisoner, Germans surrounded his unit in Italy, forcing Chimento to survive by spending an entire month in the same foxhole.

“The only time we could go out was at night,” he said.

But by early May 1945, the situation began to improve after German forces surrendered in Italy. The same German command operated the prisoner camp near Salzburg, Austria, where Chimento had spent the past month.

“We liberated ourselves,” he said. “We took over the camp. We started disarming Germans and they became our prisoners.”

Chimento turned 18 his senior year at Canonsburg High School and immediately volunteered to join the U.S. Army. He was discharged honorably before his 21st birthday.

“We should make it known that freedom is not free. Thank a veteran. We’d all be speaking German or Japanese if it weren’t for us. They were good fighters.”


Retired Lt. Gen. William “Gus” Pagonis was far from being a media sensation during the first Gulf War.

The Charleroi native worked behind the scenes to supply more than 500,000 U.S. Army troops while Gens. Norman H. Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell faced the cameras.

“The troops loved getting their pictures taken with Schwarzkopf and Powell,” the 67-year-old Pagonis said. “The kids would actually line up 100 deep.”

One particular photo op stands out as his favorite story from America’s six-month conflict that freed Kuwait from the grips of Saddam Hussein.

While in the shadows of those generals that day, Pagonis felt honored when a young soldier from his hometown area asked to stand beside him for a photograph. Somewhat surprised, Pagonis asked the man for an explanation.

“The kid looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Your line is a lot shorter.’ He gave me the straight-ahead, honest truth.”

Commanders of that 1990-91 war broke military tradition by mingling often with soldiers in the field.

“These generals, including myself, went out with the troops all the time. Everybody had a camera. It was just one of those things. Every war has its funny little traits.”

Pagonis became highly respected for his ability to maneuver supplies, especially during Operation Desert Storm. Another story has him sleeping two nights in the back seat of a rental car when he first arrived in Saudi Arabia in advance of the military strike because he couldn’t find a hotel room.

He later wrote a book, “Moving Mountains: Lessons in Leadership and Logistics from the Gulf War.” In it, he describes his mission that has been likened to relocating the entire population of Alaska to the other side of the globe.

He retired from the Army in 1993 and worked 11 years directing logistics for Sears.

Today, Pagonis works for his wife, Cheri, who decided to purchase an Arabian horse farm in Butler County “after following me around,” he said.


Thursday, November 6, 2008

A slam dunk for newspapers

With all the newspaper doomsday talk, Obama's win is a fundamental victory at The New York Times and for the print media in general.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Aiming in the right direction

We need more people like Kathy Leonardi in this part of town.

The assistant librarian in Washington, Pa., gave up her time Saturday to reach out to some of the poorest kids in this small city.

A Citizens Library employee, Leonardi went to Washington’s Hill District to launch a story hour for the Washington County Literacy Council. Just two kids showed up at the LeMoyne Multicultural Center that morning for the family reading program that received little advance promotion.

Six-year-old Justin Gilbert didn’t mind one bit. He had her undivided attention. More children are expected at 11 a.m. Saturday at what is expected to become a weekly event at the center at 200 N. Forrest Ave. that opened in 1956 to offer black families hope for a better future. The place, though, has fallen on hard times in recent years.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The original Donora smog service

A small service was held a year after more than 20 people died over two days in October 1948 from breathing zinc mill fumes that were trapped by stagnant weather in the Donora area.

Fewer than 50 people gathered in a Webster, Pa., schoolyard to commemorate the deaths in a service dominated by church hymns and prayer. Someone painted a memorial on a sheet of plywood containing 26 names of people whose deaths locals attributed to the smog. It the focal point for the audience that afternoon in this southwestern Pennsylvania village that was downwind of the smokestack pollution.

It’s a bit surprising that so few people came to recognize the casualties of America’s deadliest air pollution disaster. This was an area where more than 16,000 people lived at the time.

But then again, most of these folks depended on the culprit, American Steel and Wire Co. of New Jersey, for paychecks. And this service was sponsored by the newly formed Society for Better Living in Webster. The word was spreading that its members were urging folks to file federal lawsuits against the mill to put an end to the poisonous air they were breathing.

Dr. J. B. Laughrey of nearby Sutersville delivered the key speech, according to a type written program book covered with a black folder. I’m going to dig into some old newspaper files to find out more about the guy, and ask around to see if anyone knew what he said that day.

These photos are among of the papers of Allen Kline of Webster, who was a leading member of the society, talented newspaperman and local expert on the smog.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Old bridge having a birthday

The folks who are immediately joined by the Donora-Webster Bridge in Pennsylvania are going to come up with something to celebrate its 100th birthday next month. Stay tuned. In the meantime, here is a story about its inspection this year reported by the Observer-Reporter in Washington, Pa.:

DONORA, Pa. – James Hibbs and his crew of four suspend themselves under the old steel bridge on a plank for an eight-hour shift, hooked to ropes and cables high above the Monongahela River.

They are inspecting the century-old Donora-Webster Bridge in Pennsylvania, using hammers to pick away rust and chipping gray paint to look for fractures in the metal.

"We take a picture of every little defect we find," said Hibbs, a subcontractor carrying out the work for the state Department of Transportation.

And these men are facing many challenges while going over this historic span, inch by inch, to help determine how much longer it'll be strong enough to bear the weight of cars.

Inspectors typically haul a supercrane onto bridges to carry out an inspection while safely standing in a moveable bucket at the end of the crane's arms.

But the tight, criss-crossing of steel that makes up the arches above the Donora-Webster's deck would get in the way of a supercrane. Worse yet, the bridge has a three-ton weight limit that makes it impossible to drive such a vehicle onto its deck.

"Anytime that you inspect a bridge that is this large and this complex, the size of the bridge itself makes it a time- consuming project," said Don Herbert, PennDOT's district bridge engineer.

The arches that span the river channel are the tallest, rising seven stories above the deck. Workers with good balance and nerves as strong as steel have to climb to their highest peaks during the inspection, with nothing more than a rope to hold onto.

In case of a fall, the company has to post a rescuer in a boat to circle the river under the bridge, 67 feet below the deck.

This bridge connecting Washington and Westmoreland counties must be inspected annually because of its age and lower deficiency rating. Regardless, it's been placed on the National Registry of Historic Places because of its age and style, but that distinction isn't enough to protect it from being demolished.

PennDOT wanted to demolish the span in the 1980s, but the plan changed after residents demanded that it be saved.

The place has a special significance to local residents, partly because it's been the site of three weddings, and another may be arranged this summer to mark its 100th birthday. Children also have been known to lull themselves to sleep at night by counting the hums each time a vehicle's tires roll across the open grating.

"Number one, it cuts down the travel time to Pittsburgh," said Dr. Charles Stacey of Donora, a retired school superintendent.

"The people from Webster who don't have all the ... facilities that Donora has can get over here," Stacey said, adding that people in his town use the bridge as a shortcut to Pittsburgh.

The day the bridge opened proved just how much these two towns wanted to replace the wooden ferryboat they were using to cross the river.

At least 15,000 people converged in the two communities on Dec. 5, 1908, to welcome the toll-free bridge across the Monongahela. They also came to attend the wedding of John Charles and Harriet S. Binley Whitherspoon of Webster.

The businesses of the tiny village catered the affair, preparing an ox roast and 4,000 buns for sandwiches. However, more than twice that many people were turned away when the food ran out.

"Those who were unable to get a sandwich, begged a bone and many went away gnawing at a hunk or rib," the Donora American newspaper reported at the time.

Donora was a boomtown because of a new U.S. Steel mill that opened here in 1901. By contrast, Webster was an aging farming and steamboat-building center that was quickly becoming overshadowed by its industrial neighbor.

But the bridge offered Donora quick and easy access to Webster's coalfieds, which supplied the fuel to heat the many new homes in the area.

As a tribute to both towns, the bridge was painted gray for the smoke created in Donora and black to symbolize Webster's coal.

PennDOT no longer uses black paint for bridges because the steel would fade into the night and increase the chances of vehicle accidents, Herbert said.

He declined to predict the life span of the bridge, and will await the findings of the week-long inspection before making any recommendations.

It could prove too costly to rehabilitate the bridge, and tearing it down and not building anew is always an option, Herbert said.

"I think that would be terrible," Stacey said, when confronted with the possibility of the bridge being eliminated from the landscape. "It would be a great mistake."

No decision, Herbert said, will be made without PennDOT first holding public hearings.