a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Monday, March 28, 2011

Give me the fruit off the vine

The fruit smootie, which I have named the purple slurple

By Scott Beveridge

The like-new fruit smoothie maker came my way 10 months ago in a small inheritance.

I had purchased the white plastic blender nearly as many years ago for my mom when she was first diagnosed with cancer, thinking adding more fruit in her diet would boost her immune system.

She might have used it once, and then left it on her counter to fool me into assuming it had become a useful appliance in her kitchen. She twice beat cancer, though, before dying of complicating factors from the disease and after, instead, choosing green tea as her elixir of life.

Then the smoothie machine sat atop my clothes dryer waiting for me to decide whether to put it to good use or donate it to a charity thrift shop.

The wait ended Friday at the start of a long weekend away from the newsroom. I decided to ingest fruit smoothies as, either a detox, or a road to improving my diet as I approach my mid-50s. A vegetarian diet is not an option because I would need rehab to break my habit of eating an occasional bacon cheeseburger, or deep counseling over a compulsion to toast marshmallows made with seaweed rather than animal hooves gelatin.

I turn to Google to find recipes for the healthiest smoothie recipes only to find many using yogurt as a base. That stuff literally makes me gag, as does tomato juice, no matter how much I want to like those things.

A number of other smoothie detox drinks call raw granola, oatmeal, wheat germ or flaxseed, roughage that sounds better suited for horse feed than a refreshing morning fruit cocktail.

So I decide to concoct the following recipe:

1 lime, peeled
1 large naval orange, peeled
1 unpeeled apple cut into quarters, seeds removed
Small handfuls of frozen blackberries and blueberries
1 banana, peeled
½ cup of Ocean Spray 100 percent cranberry juice
2 tablespoons of confectioner sugar, for good measure

OK. The results. The first glass went down smooth, while the second took a bit of coaxing. Sure. I did feel an energy boost, but not one similar to those crash and burn highs derived from drinking a pot of coffee. On the third day I concluded I’d rather eat fruit the way it comes off the tree, bush or vine. The remaining blueberries and blackberries will taste great atop scoops of Ben and Jerry’s French vanilla ice cream.

So long smoothie maker, and your labor intense route to a healthy diet.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Artists peform surgery on skull masks

A fractured skull sculpture, "Bro," by Specter Studios artist China Horrell. (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

PITTSBURGH – One never knows what creativity will inspire when artists are given a fresh sheet of canvas on which to express their individuality.

It’s another thing altogether when they are handed the same 10 pale fractured skull masks and then asked to transform them into art for a gallery show in Pittsburgh. No doubt fake plasma will flow from at least one of the movie-prop quality masks produced locally at Specter Studios.

“There’s a little something here for everybody,” said Kim Lyons, marketing director for the artist factory.

She is wearing a black and white furry cape to greet visitors at the studio’s Friday opening reception for the mask modification show at ModernFormations gallery in the city’s scruffy Lawrenceville section.

“If you’re into the Halloween blood and guts, there is some of that,” Lyons said. “If you want something romantic looking with roses, there is some of that, too.”

It’s difficult to get romantic over that skull, which has an embroidered rose across its forehead and stitched cobwebs over it jawbone. Titled “Bitches get Stitches,” the work of Leigh Ferraro certainly stands out in the pack if that’s even possible because hers' is situated beside a skull buried in a freaky sculpture shaped like an ice cream cone.

The two-day show, Osteotomy: Mask Art by Specter Studios, is a ghoulish testament to the fine quality of the talent at this business, which strives to give local artists a place to sustain their crafts in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh pediatrician Scott Tyson and his partner, Mark Marsen, purchased the struggling business in 2004. It has evolved into a factory at a former plumbing warehouse in the city’s Sharpsburg section with 17 full-time employees who also hand make masks of such creatures as zombies and frightening clowns. The best-selling item is a half-mask of the big bad wolf with a bloody red tongue appearing to lick its lips.

This is the second attempt by Specter Studios to promote the work of its employees at a fine art gallery, and another show is planned for October. The company is considering asking Pittsburgh artists it does not employ to take on the challenge to decorate a skull mask for the next show timed for the Halloween season, Lyons said.

“It’s amazing what you will get when you give 10 different artist the same palate and they come up with 10 so uniquely different pieces,” she said.

Surely she is speaking with that mask over there in mind, the one with glowing eyes, blood dripping from its ugly yellow tongue and bat wings sprouting from its ears.

"Transistus Fluvii" by Michael Passafiume, another artists at Specter Studios (Scott Beveridge photo)

(This show has its final run from 8 to 11 p.m. today at the gallery at 4919 Penn Ave.)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A touch of Vietnam in Pittsburgh

A bowl of tasty sate soup with peanut sauce special served at Tram's Kitchen in Pittsburgh (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

PITTSBURGH – The host of an established Vietnamese restaurant in Pittsburgh is known for rushing his customers to a seat in his tiny storefront business that, from the outside, almost resembles a steelworkers' bar.

The sign in Vietnamese above the door to Tram's Kitchen in the city's Bloomfield section holds the first clue that Iron City does not flow from the taps here and is served with pickled egg appetizers.

The doors give way to long and narrow walls painted robins egg blue and lined with black lacquer artwork featuring mother of pearl designs of butterflies and fish.

Within seconds of being seated the greeter hands me a menu and quickly recommends the spicy sate soup. I order spring rolls and follow his lead, ordering the sate, even though I had come here with pho on my mind.

Pho is a broth soup featuring chicken, beef or shrimp and served widely across Vietnam, where it is considered the national dish. It's typically better stewed with American meat, which, thanks to hormones and antibiotics, is more plump and juicy than the scrawny chicken and beef found in Southeast Asia.

I was unaware of sate, and more familiar with satay, or skewers of beef and chicken served in a golden brown hot sauce at Thai restaurants. But it's apparently the same flavoring used at Tram's, which is probably the closest thing to an authentic Vietnamese restaurant in southwestern Pennsylvania.

The wait was brief for the food in this restaurant with two rows of tables covered with green and white plastic tablecloths. A small television screams an unrecognizable game show from the counter beside the cash drawer. Then only thing missing from the place is an ancestral altar, something that can be found in nearly every house and business in Vietnam. The altars are where everyone places offerings of fruit and incense to honor their deceased parents and grandparents.

Tram's spring rolls have sticky, not fried, rice wrappers. They are plump and delicious, too, and likely healthier than those served dripping in grease. This raw version is what sets Vietnamese rolls apart from the others. Mine are perfectly filled with pork, shrimp, rice and lemon grass and cost just $1.95 apiece.

I could have eaten a half dozen of them dipped in peanut sauce tinged with red hot pepper jelly. However, it was imperative to save room for that fantastic large bowl of soup, which brought the check to $12.95.

Tram's spring rolls with peanut sauce and red hot pepper sauce. (Beveridge photo)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Chasing the golden eagle

West Virginia University professor Todd Katzner explains his groundbreaking study of Appalachian wildlife focusing on the Eastern golden eagle, using roadkill deer to bait animals to trail cameras. Click here for more of the story.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Craft beer is making this bar a destination

Bartender Devon Keeliher of Beaver, Pa., draws a pour from one of 16 taps that deliver exclusively craft beer at Bocktown Beer and Grill near Pittsburgh. (Observer-Reporter)

By Scott Beveridge

PITTSBURGH – Chris Dilla laughs now about the bankers who looked at her as if she were crazy for wanting money to open a craft beer bar in a strip mall where other businesses were struggling.

“They were not real receptive,” said Dilla, who would eventually win the support to invest in Bocktown Beer and Grill in North Fayette Township. “They just didn’t understand craft beer.”

What they also didn’t get was that beer created by independent, specialty brewers has loyal followers who will travel distances to places, like Bocktown, where such brew flows in great volumes from the taps.

“Beer is making the place a destination," Dilla said. "We’re not just a bar, but a restaurant that just happens to have an incredible beer selection.”

Craft beer tends to be heavy on flavor and made by passionate, creative brewers who are not to be afraid to experiment by adding flowers, fruit and different spices to the barrel, she said.

There are always 16 of them on tap at Bocktown, with such names as Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout, Coney Island Mermaid Pilsner, Rock Bottom Uppity Jagoff IPA and Furthermore Fallen Apple.

“We try to be regional first,” said Dilla, whose Pittsburgh suppliers include the Pennsylvania Brewing Co. and East End Brewery Co. Those made by the big corporations, such as Coors and Budweiser, come here in bottles that are tucked away in a cooler for those rare customers who don’t show up here with a discriminating palate.

The commitment has paid off as her business has grown by as much as 10 percent a year, even during the recession, and the price of a draft does not come cheap.

Dilla said she owes her success to a number of factors.

There has been a trend growing at restaurants across the country of customers seeing a beer list as more important than the wine list. Younger adults have been raised in a food and beverage culture where they have been given many more choices, Dilla said. Meanwhile, the number of craft brewers has been growing since the 1980s, she said.

However, Dilla is especially savvy in the way in which she uses social media – Facebook, Twitter and foursquare – to grow her customer base via smart phone communications.

“It’s a great marketing tool, and it’s free,” said Dilla, a guest speaker at last year’s PodCamp Pittsburgh, an “UnConference” run by and for technology nerds. She is known there as an entrepreneur who has developed one of the best social media business models in the city.

The magic has worked so well for her that customers often encounter long waits for a table.

It’s also not uncommon for two or three kegs to kick behind the bar in 10 minutes’ time.

Bocktown is tucked away at 690 Chauvet Drive in a near-vacant Pool City Plaza, across the parking lot from Target, where four surrounding stores have closed since the bar opened four years ago.

“And our sales have done nothing but boom,” said Dilla, who is about to open a second location at Beaver Valley Mall, and looking to open a third somewhere in Washington County.

Another is under consideration in Monroeville.

She knew her plan would work because she, too, loves a good craft beer and grew tired of driving around looking for a good restaurant with craft beer.

“I would find even (restaurants) in Washington County, where I would say, ‘Oh, thank God they have that beer,’” she said. “And then we’d go back and they were giving it away to get rid of it.

“I just knew the commitment would have to come from within the business rather than the customers coming in and asking for the beer.”

(This story first appeared in Living Washington County magazine, a publication of the Observer-Reporter)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A good eye on Appalachian wildlife

A young Eastern golden eagle bats off a bald eagle in a photo captured by a West Virginia trail camera, one of 40 across Appalachia involved in the first comprehensive photographic study of wildlife in the mountains.

By Scott Beveridge

AVELLA, Pa.  – Dave Scofield keeps his eye on the berm for fresh road-kill deer while he drives to work at a national treasure famous for its archaeological breakthrough.

Scofield looks for small deer carcasses to use as bait at the site of a new trail camera set up to photograph wildlife in a remote location at Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Museum of Rural Life, where he works as executive director.

"It's fun," Scofield said, before retrieving the memory card Feb. 4 from the infrared camera rigged to take photos when a predator moves in to dine on one of the decaying deer. "You never know what you are going to get."

Dave Scofield, executive director of Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Museum of Rural Life in Avella, Pa., right, removes a memory card from a trail camera making a record of the wildlife in this section of Appalachia. The project is led by assistant West Virginia University research professor Todd Katzner, who is checking the roadkill deer used as bait for the camera. (Scott Beveridge photo)

Meadowcroft received the camera in December as part of a five-year, six-state study at West Virginia University to track the winter migration of the eastern golden eagle and create the first comprehensive photographic record of the wildlife in Appalachia. While the camera at the Jefferson Township museum had yet to capture one of the eagles, which nest in Canada, it's the only one in use in Western Pennsylvania for the study.

Scofield did find crows, a red-shouldered hawk, two red-tailed adult hawks and two raccoons among the 44 images the camera recorded over a 24-hour period.

"This is important information for wildlife management folks to know, the distribution of species and statistics on the size of the population," said Todd Katzner, the WVU research assistant professor leading the study.

He was motivated to do the research to determine if the rapid expansion of electric-generating wind turbines in the United States is interfering with the migratory habits of the eagle. At the same time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is circulating a draft conservation plan requiring the wind industry to evaluate impacts on the protected eagles to avoid their colliding with turbines.

So far, the study indicates the size of the golden eagle population might be smaller than first thought. The researchers are among few people who have been banding the eagles. Most of the birds photographed so far wear the bands, which means estimates of a population between 1,000 and 2,000 is inaccurate, Katzner said.

Golden eagles were common in New England until, as with the bald eagle, the pesticide DDT made them extinct in the United States east of the Mississippi River. The pesticide built up through biomagnification in the food chain and caused the eggs of the largest predators to become too thin to survive incubation, Katzner said. The birds are recovering because DDT was banned in the United States in 1972, he said.

"Birds are the first thing to be impacted by industry, pollution," he said. "The eagle population is expanding greatly."

Meanwhile, the golden eagle is lured south of Canada during the winter because the Pennsylvania Game Commission fosters a large white-tailed deer population, which results in a lot of road kill.

"It provides them a winter diet," Katzner said.

The bird is about the same size as the bald eagle, with a body between 30 and 37 inches in length, but has larger, more powerful talons.

The 40 cameras stationed from New York to North Carolina also have been photographing animals that researchers did not know were still in the hills of Appalachia.

One location recorded images of spotted skunks, including one spraying a raccoon.

West Virginia has "almost no information about the spotted skunk," Katzner said. Until this five-year study got under way this year, the only information researchers had about wildlife in the mountains "was from trappers," Katzner said.

"People just love this stuff," he said.

The study also is helping Meadowcroft document how the habitat is being used at the property, where an archaeology dig found it to be the oldest site of human habitation in North America dating back 16,000 years.

"There is a pretty good prehistoric record of what was here," Scofield said.

Among the more than 956,000 artifacts pulled from the rockshelter are remains of passenger pigeons, which were captured and eaten there by animals, he said.

"It's kind of nice to get pictures of the animals that are here now," Scofield added.

(Click here to watch a short video of Katzner discussing his story.)

(This article first appeared in the Observer-Reporter newspaper, Washington, Pa.)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Indian in feathers

BELLE VERNON, Pa. – Lanny Bradley does some amazing art with real feathers.

But the Rostraver Township man's most-ambitious project has to be the 7-foot Indian, shown above, which he just completed with pheasant, snow geese, duck and quail feathers.

Bradley has logged 280 hours of washing, cleaning, clipping and gluing each feather to the model for the Indian.

He is having a hard time deciding whether to sell or keep the sculpture, but admits everything has a price. Send me an email if you want to make him an offer.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Old Brownsville

This slideshow contains a sample of some of the more than 1,000 old, rare photographs of Brownsville, Pa., that have been donated to the struggling borough along the Monongahela River. The Harold Richardson and Norman "Bill" Patterson collection. Check the Observer-Reporter this Sunday for a feature story on the donation to Brownsville Area Revitalization Corp.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Fiesta® addicts are born here

Stacks of Fiesta® dinnerware are sold below retail prices at the Homer Laughlin China Co. factory store in Newell, W.Va. (Scott Beveridge photo) 

By Scott Beveridge

NEWELL, W.Va. – The vibrant colors of the venerable Fiesta® dinnerware offer the most-logical reason why it has remained on the market and manufactured in the United States for more than eight decades.

The vintage look of the China, as well as its quality, simple design and durability also likely contribute to its popularity and having earned the distinction of being "America's favorite dinnerware."

But the hardcore Fiesta® addicts typically are born after one visit to the company's factory store in Newell, W.Va., along the hard-worn Northern Panhandle shores of the Ohio Rivera clerk there explained last week.

"It's a addiction coming here," she said inside the two-room, no-frills store in a company town that built up around the Homer Laughlin China Co., when it expanded and relocated from across the river in East Liverpool, Ohio. "I don't know why," she said.

Shoppers often head straight to the area off the main showroom, to where four long rows of plates, bowls, vases and pitchers are offered well below retail prices found at such department stores as Macy's and Bloomingdales. Some pieces have slight imperfections while others are first-quality put there for fast sale.

A four-piece setting sells here for under $25 and about $2 less than the same packages is selling this week at 30 percent off full price at a Macy's at Century III Mall south of Pittsburgh. And, the factory store gives one set away free when a customers purchases four of them.

"Grabbing up on the white bowl, huh?" the clerk exclaims as I walk it to the cash register, carrying the unusual, short and wide piece. "It's first quality. I've never seen it in white. It's discontinued."

I bought it, having felt a need to purchase something after making the 63-mile drive here from my house in southwestern Pennsylvania. I had thought about replacing some of the inexpensive, all-white dinnerware in my pantry, with some nicer Fiestaware. It is produced in such bold colors as cinnabar, lemongrass and peacock, and paprika, the new one introduced last year.

"You definitely need to add some color to your kitchen," my editor, Liz Rogers, said earlier while we discussed her Fiesta® collection and my boring white plates in the Observer-Reporter newsroom in Washington, Pa.

I quickly change my mind in Newell after realizing it would cost nearly $60 just to purchase six large plates from the discount section of the store. However, I did leave with an $8 shamrock vase that would have sold for $29.99 in a department store, the clerk said.

Rogers apparently is among the Fiesta® junkies, many of whom fill up myriad Internet chat rooms gushing about their love of all things made at the sprawling Homer Laughlin plant.

Homer and his brother, Shakespeare, founded the company in 1871 using $5,000 in seed money East Liverpool City Council awarded them to build a white ware pottery factory. The city was out to compete with the more-sophisticated white China imported from England that had been growing in popularity on the U.S. market, the company's website explains.

The Laughlin company grew so fast that it expanded across the river about 1905, and also built the Newell suspension toll bridge, which is still in open to traffic. Fiesta® was introduced in 1936 by designer Frederick H. Rhead, an English immigrant potter who joined the company in 1927. However, "darkness covers the land ... no Fiesta® production for 12 years!!!" beginning in 1973, a company brochure states.

The years have shown their wear on the plant, as well as East Liverpool, where many downtown stores are vacant and few shoppers can be found on the sidewalks. Meanwhile, a long row of redbrick buildings beside the Homer Laughlin corporate offices appear rundown.

It was a disappointment to find the Museum of Ceramics' doors locked for the day by the time I stumbled upon it after its 3 p.m. closing time. It's located in an ornate former post office in East Liverpool. I likely will return there earlier in the day to visit that place, and also take a guided tour of the Fiesta® factory. Reservations are required at the plant.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Gonna rock for literacy

The Pittsburgh band Mon Gumbo performs at the 2011 Mardi Gras to Make a Difference fundraiser for Washington County Literacy Council, which tutors adults who want to learn how to read. The nonprofit has volunteers teaching English as a second language classes, and also provides free books to babies and children in its service area.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Winkys survives in Beaver?

BEAVER, Pa. – We had driven several times into Beaver, Pa., past a gasoline station that half-resembles a fast-food restaurant that rivaled McDonald's in the 1960s and 1970s.

The next time we are here, I want to stop and take a photograph of the odd little business along State Street, I kept telling a friend, who chauffeurs us around this county seat north of Pittsburgh.

"It looks link a Winkys," I said last December, before we attended the crowded Christmas light-up festivities in this downtown, driving past the place yet another time.

Finally, we stop today, and I walk up to the attendant and ask, "Did this used to be a Winkys?"

"I don't know," answered the guy, who is too young to have remembered the kooky burger chain before looking at me oddly for snapping the above photo.

There used to be one of these restaurants in Charleroi, Pa., near our home in the Monongahela River Valley, and it became hugely popular because hamburgers sold there for 15 cents apiece. One of my uncles with six kids loved the place because he could feed his entire family there for under two bucks. The building since has been demolished.

Back at the house today, we search Google images for Winkys and, sure enough, this gas station fits the description. But, the chain's signature center roof peak is missing from this building.

This mystery is unsolved. 

Jim McKevitt, manager of the former Charleroi Winkys on Route 88, far left, is shown inside the restaurant chain that once rivaled McDonald's. (Doris Lancaster photo)