New Year’s Eve at a Zoo

Cougars and tigers and spectacled bears, oh my! The Nashville Zoo is small but fun, especially around holidays.

Nashville, Tennessee is a great place to be for the Christmas season; I’ve highlighted some of their special events in a previous post (A year of light). There’s always lots of entertainment and wonderful food to round off your experience. We travelled down there once again on December 27th, for the first time since the COVID pandemic closed borders just a few short weeks after our previous visit. Usually we go in time for Christmas, but the massive winter storm that blanketed much of North America kept us housebound for the big day, watching the snow fly past and hoping our power didn’t go out (it didn’t). By Boxing Day the entire Buffalo area was still closed and digging out, so we went through Windsor/Detroit instead. The roads were clear and dry, but hundreds of other people were doing the same as we were, making up for lost time, so the border crossing from Canada into the US was extremely busy.

Nevertheless, we made it to our cousin’s in good time, and spent New Year’s Eve with him instead. I could live in Tennessee, I think. The weather and landscape looked like late Autumn here in Ontario — lots of dried leaves on the trees and around the sidewalks, and mild temperatures that required just a light jacket. Living in Fall conditions from October to March would make me a very happy camper πŸ˜€

We tried several new restaurants during this visit. Two that really stood out were 1) Hogwood BBQ in Franklin — fabulous Colorado Sandwich (“Certified Angus Beef Brisket, fresh jalapenos, pepper jack cheese, Spicy Red Sauce, and house-made cheese sauce on a grilled potato roll”) followed by Nana’s Banana Pudding (very creamy and rich)…

and Edessa Restaurant in Nashville, almost right across from the entrance to the Zoo. It serves very delicious Turkish & Kurdish food, and is hugely popular as a result. We didn’t have to wait long to get seated though, and the staff are extremely helpful and friendly. We all had the Chicken Noodle Soup to warm up after a cooler-than-expected afternoon visit to the Zoo, and I followed with the Iskender Kabob, with shaved pieces of meat (shawarma) in a rich tomato sauce over buttered bread that soaks up the delicious juices, and thick yogurt to go with it all.

Just what we needed to fortify us for a return to the Zoo for the night-time event! We were glad we’d toured most of the zoo during daylight, though — it allowed us to orient ourselves when we went back later.

The Nashville Zoo emphasizes naturalistic habitats for its denizens. While nothing can replace the wild for the animals, so many species on our planet are critically endangered that zoos may be the last refuge for them. The section called Gibbon Island is a little slice of woody heaven for the siamangs (below) and gibbons, who were in fine singing form.

The meerkats were adorable, either digging in the dirt or sitting in their characteristic sentry pose.

The red pandas, which aren’t actually pandas, but more closely related to weasels and raccoons, were one of the prettiest creatures there…

as was a magnificent Sumatran tiger.

I think the raucous pink flamingos got the most attention, constantly following each other around their enclosure and picking fights. They weren’t bothered at all by the proximity of the visitors, even though we were able to get close enough to see their very beautiful plumage.

Paths throughout are quite lovely, and although relatively small, the zoo is a very pleasant place to spend an afternoon.

But at night, the grounds are completely transformed by Zoolumination, running from November 18th, 2022 to February 4, 2023. Over a thousand stunning custom-made silk ‘lanterns’ in a myriad of shapes and vignettes, light up the darkness, illustrating Chinese lore and legend.

There are illuminated signs describing each scene.

The lighted shapes are incredibly detailed and gorgeous. Here’s a close-up look at two of the cranes.

Even the wooded paths between scenes are decorated.

All the scenes are full of colour and life, glowing vividly against the darkness.

Winged tigers look you in the eye…

silken peach blossoms guide you along,

and sea creatures cavort both above and below the water of a small lake.

A massive Chinese dragon…

leads the way to a breathtaking replica of a 9th-10th century Lantern Festival in Chang ‘an, the ancient capital of the Tang Dynasty. According to the description, on Shang Yuan night, people would stroll the city, “admiring the lanterns, eating sweet rice dumplings, guessing lantern riddles, shooting off fireworks…dancing, stilt walking…and enjoying other folk performances”. Walking the path past the brilliantly-lit scenes was like stepping back in time to a glittering festival.

How wonderful it would have been to enjoy the festival live, centuries ago, amid the grace and culture of the Tang Dynasty.

Beyond the festival, our path continued into North Pole Village, where we enjoyed lovely and traditional scenes to wrap up the season.

It was a truly magical way to spend part of New Year’s Eve, especially for families. The paths are almost completely handicapped-accessible, although one rope-and-plank bridge proved to be a bit tricky for someone in a motorized wheelchair. Standard wheelchairs and motorized scooters are available to rent for a low fee on site, and although they can’t be reserved in advance, there were quite a few in stock.

The photos I’ve posted are just a small handful of all the things to see during this time at the zoo. If you’re looking for a great place to spend some of the December holidays in the future, I highly recommend Nashville. Stay at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center if you can — it’s a special holiday destination all on its own. Maybe a resolution to make for 2023 that’s going to be a lot more fun than most New Year resolutions πŸ˜‰

All photos were taken by me, are posted at a lower resolution and may not be used without my express permission. E. Jurus

Bread of life

Today’s loaf of fresh bread — the Rapid White product

So, hubby and I are self-isolating for a few days. We’ve only been lightly ill; in any other year we’d just be treating this as a seasonal bug, and it’s strange to have to consider that we might have picked up the coronavirus. Provincial health officials stated a few days ago that anyone who has symptoms of a respiratory illness has a high probability of actually having the Omicron variant, such is its transmissibility.

I did a grocery run on Sunday, using all the proper precautions — surgical-quality mask, hand-sanitizer after I left every store, then washing my hands for 20 seconds when I got back in the house.

On Monday morning I started getting chills, aches, a headache, some coughing and possibly a mild fever. None of these are unusual for me by themselves (except the fever) — they’re just a fun part of having fibromyalgia. After popping Vitamin C and acetaminophen all day long, and waiting to see what might develop, by the next morning I felt substantially better. The Omicron variant has a shorter incubation period (as low as 2 days), but I had no other symptoms, so I put it down to one of my worse days with a chronic condition.

By Wednesday morning, hubby told me he was so achy he wasn’t going in to work. That is highly unusual; I can probably count on one set of fingers the number of times he’s stayed home over the decades. He spent most of the day wrapped up in multiple throw blankets. When he remained home again today, we decided to do the right thing and follow the province’s protocol to assume the worst and quarantine ourselves.

There’s no way to tell if we have the virus or not; we’re certainly not ill enough to go the hospital (not complaining!), but since we’ve had symptoms we can’t go out and get a couple of Rapid Antigen test kits to see if we even have the antibodies. So we’re ‘stuck’ at home, sitting by the fire with cups of tea and watching television — not the worst position to be in.

Fortunately we have plenty of the two most critical needs in stock: food and toilet paper πŸ˜‰ We were running low on bread, though, and as a result, today became the day my hubby must stop yanking my chain about how much each freshly-made loaf has cost us so far after we invested in a bread machine last fall.

I began thinking about getting an automatic bread-maker — even though we didn’t really need to add another appliance taking up counter space in our modestly-sized kitchen — after some of my favourite commercial breads started adding barley to their flour mix. For years I’ve had to read ingredient-labels on everything to avoid things like soy and sulfites, both of which give me nasty migraines; after several unexpected migraines I wasn’t happy to be forced to add barley to the list. Barley can add fibre and help the fermentation of the yeast. Neither of those benefits did me any good, and I started looking into making my own bread.

After talking to friends with a variety of machines and conducting online research into features and user reviews, and after hubby suggested we buy a machine as a Christmas ‘house gift’, I made the decision to go for the top-rated brand, the one with the weird name, Zojirushi. The brand has had some negative reviews on Amazon, although most were very positive. I’ve been using it at least once a week for about a month and a half now, and have no complaints at all.

I chose the Virtuoso Plus model for one crucial reason: it makes Sourdough bread, and even makes the starter. My hubby and I were introduced to great Sourdough in California on our first visit. It should be chewy and distinctively sour, and since it’s been hard to find good Sourdough in our neighbourhood ever since, that was the first feature I looked for.

Our machine makes a very good Sourdough. The whole thing takes about six hours: a little over two to make the starter, after which you must directly segue into making the bread itself, another roughly four hours. The bread has a nice crust, good toothsome-ness, and a lovely tart flavour.

I didn’t jump into that at the beginning, though. I tried the easy Italian bread, because it didn’t require dried milk, of which I had none on hand. Carefully measuring the ingredients and adding them to the baking pan in the order prescribed (apparently each bread machine has a specific order it wants you to follow), I keyed in the correct Course on the control panel and nervously pushed START.

When the machine beeped 3 & 1/2 hours later, I was rewarded with a perfect loaf of warm bread.

Here’s how an automatic bread machine works (at least the one I have): After washing and some assembly — basically putting the little beater bars in place inside the baking pan, which mix the ingredients and knead the dough — you put the ingredients in as listed in the handy Recipe Book. If you’re making one of their suggested breads, you enter in which one (with Zojirushi they’re all numbered) and push the Start button. That’s essentially it, until 2 & 1/2 to 4 & 1/2 hours later the aroma of freshly-baked bread fills your house.

The image isn’t the clearest, but this is the control panel of the machine for today’s bread: Course 9, Rapid White Bread, to be finished at 3:45pm

Some breads have added ingredients, like Raisin Bread; the machine pauses and beeps at you to let you know when to add the raisins. I haven’t tried every single standard recipe, but the Raisin Bread is very nice, pleasantly cinnamon-y and tender.

The machine will also just make dough for you, which you can then take out and shape into a number of other bread-based things, like bagels or dinner rolls. For Christmas Eve I found a recipe online for making buttery Parker House rolls using a bread machine, and they turned out perfectly despite the fact that I messed up and put double the amount of butter in. (There must be a saying somewhere that you ‘can’t have too much butter in a roll’, or there should be.) For the Parker House rolls, I used the “Homemade” course, which requires you to manually enter the timing for each cycle of the process by pressing the Cycle button: Rest >> Knead >> Shape >> Rise 1 >> Rise 2 >> Rise 3 >> Bake. Depending on what you’re making some of the cycles may be set to zero, i.e. they’re not being used for your bread type.

I don’t know what other brands have, but there are several things I like about my machine:

a) The Rest cycle, which the machine uses to bring all the ingredients to the right temperature. When making bread by hand, bakers have to be aware of the temperature of the room at the time, and make sure none of the ingredients are too warm or cold. My machine eliminates that.

b) The default setting for the crust is “medium”, which produces the lovely golden-brown crust you can see in the photo at the start of this post.

c) Although the manufacturer states that the machine gets quite hot during the Baking cycle, I didn’t find it too bad. I still pull the machine out from under the cupboard, where it normally sits, to use it (away from my wooden cabinets), and use oven mitts to remove the hot finished loaf, but otherwise I find it not much hotter to the touch than our toaster, and during the preceding cycles it stays cool.

The only suggestion I’d have for the manufactures is to light up the control panel; it’s hard to read without using a flashlight.

I’ve read that many bread bakers find the kneading process quite therapeutic. All I can say is that I find the simplicity of the machine, freeing you to do something else until the incredible aroma lets you know that your warm, fluffy loaf is ready, is very therapeutic — especially on days when you’re under the weather πŸ™‚

Here’s what the machine process looks like:

Choose the recipe;

Measure the ingredients, using the handy measuring cups that come with the machine, and place them in the Baking Pan in the order listed;

I dump my bags of bread flour into a plastic bin — much easier to measure the flour correctly

Place the Baking Pan inside the machine; mine has metal feet that click into place;

One critical tip: you must place the yeast (the darkest brown in the photo) so it doesn’t contact the salt – otherwise the yeast will be deactivated. I tuck the salt into the back right corner.

Close the machine’s lid and program the bread course that you want (as in the photo earlier in this post);

Take out your beautiful finished loaf!

Using oven mitts (the baking pan is hot when you take it out), you just turn the pan over and gently shake the loaf out onto a cooling rack. Then you’re supposed to wait for it to cool down, but I wanted to show you what the bread looks like inside when freshly cut:

A slice of freshly-baked, pillowy white bread

Your loaf will have indents on the bottom where it baked around the beater bars. They’re not the most aesthetically pleasing, but once you bite into the delicious bread, you won’t care.

Bite into a piece of this bread and then tell me whether you’re worried about how pretty it is πŸ™‚

For breads where you take the dough out, let it rest, and shape it (e.g. there’s a great Party Loaf recipe included where you cut the dough into equal-sized pieces, roll the pieces into balls, and stuff the balls with something like cream cheese or chocolate), you can remove the beater bars before you put the shaped dough back in, or bake your dough in a regular oven (as I did with the Parker House rolls).

Our machine makes a two-pound loaf, which typically lasts us about a week. The bread is more delicious than anything I’ve ever bought in a bakery, even a really good one (truly). Plus, you can’t beat a loaf that’s still warm from the oven, but even at that our machine-made bread has taken several days longer to begin going stale than commercial bread does.

All in all, our investment has been an unqualified success. As long as I keep stocked up on a few basic ingredients, I can make us bread whenever we want, which will be delightful during our self-imposed quarantine. The machine will also make things like pizza dough, cake, and even jam, none of which I’ve tried yet, but I did order some whole-grain rye from Amazon to use for my sourdough starter, and I hope to try making a full-on hearty rye bread with caraway one of these days.

Today, since I had a turkey carcass left over from having made a turkey dinner on Monday, I decided a good turkey soup was just the thing to go with a fresh loaf of bread — healthy, cozy and nourishing. By my hubby’s cheeky calculations we’re probably down to about $50 a loaf now, but like any new toy the cost will go down the more we use it, and the pleasure we get from having this resource, as well as the comfort of knowing I can both control the ingredients so that I don’t get a headache and keep us well-supplied even as prices in grocery stores rise this year, have already paid for the gadget long before we reach that break-even loaf. And that will likely happen very soon!

All photos are by me and all rights reserved. E. Jurus

A thankful Thursday

A short post after a crazy week has left me with a few things to be thankful for.

On Monday my laptop battery stopped recharging. I spent all of Tuesday afternoon trying to resolve the issue, which turned out to be a defective charger. The solution seemed simple: buy a universal charger — which Best Buy didn’t have in stock. The unusually tiny prong on the tip that gets inserted into the laptop port was an extra complication.

I won’t go into all the tiresome details of running around to four different stores, but a big shout-out to our local Staples techies, who opened several packages to help me find a tip that fit — not perfectly, but enough to do the job. I really like my Acer SSD laptop, but seriously, what’s with the non-standard charging tip?!

Since then, I’ve been pushing hard to finish my NaNoWriMo challenge of 50,000 words of my second book by the end of the month. Today’s chapters were a challenge. My protagonist and a companion spent some hazardous time in Ukhu Pacha, the Inca Underworld, and I wasn’t sure how they were going to get out of there alive when I started writing. They did, of course, since the book hasn’t come to a dead end, and I’m happy with that pun and with the solution.

Yesterday hubby and I took advantage — along with several of our neighbours — of what looked to be the last mild day for a while to put up the exterior holiday lights. They look beautiful, and though we’ve barely had any snowflakes in our area so far it is starting to feel Christmas-y.

Our new bread machine showed up several days early — I have sensitivities to barley and some other ingredients in store-bought bread, so I’ll soon be able to produce my own loaves of bread in only two hours. The machine makes sourdough as well — our favourite πŸ™‚ I’ll let you know about the results!

This Saturday is Tree Day, something I look forward to every year and my hubby enjoys once we’ve gotten our fresh evergreen securely in its stand. A little help putting the lights on it, and then he can chill while I pull out the boxes of decorations we’ve collected over the years, many during our travels. They tell a story of our life together, from highlights (great moments abroad) to low-lights (the black and gold hearts that represent our beloved dogs who are no longer with us).

I wish a Happy Thanksgiving to our family and friends in the U.S., and hope that all of you have something to give thanks for today.

Carrying the torch

Maple leaves in autumn, by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

Today was Remembrance Day in Canada. Officially it commemorates the ending of hostilities in World War One, also called the Great War. Very few people from that time period are still alive today, and the impact of that event on the world is fading. We have to read a history of it to comprehend how terrible it was — over 8 million soldier deaths, and up to 100 million associated deaths, including the infamous ‘Spanish Flu’ epidemic in 1918 that originated in an American military facility. It spread around the world quickly through troop movements and public events like the Liberty Loans Parade held in Philadelphia to promote war bonds (an outbreak from that event killed 12,000 people alone). As bad as our current pandemic is today, I don’t think we can in any way understand what the world went through during that time.

For a lot of Baby Boomers, World War Two has more presence in our consciousness. My mom was a nurse in Europe during the war, and some of her stories of holding her post in a surgical theatre while bombs were falling are hair-raising. Even though both my parents survived the war, it’s impact never left them, whether via deep emotional scars or medical fallout from food rationing and years of stress. My dad never talked about the war much; his outlet was to write novels about it, which I suspect weren’t entirely fictional, but I imagine it was easier to write as if it all happened to someone else.

And of course there have been veterans of many more conflicts, localized but just as terrible to go through. I have a friend who served as a Peacekeeper for a time; what little he’s told me about it sounds traumatic in a way that those of us back home will hopefully never experience.

The poem written by Dr. John McCrae after a friend of his was killed in the trenches in Belgium during the spring of 1915, less than a year into WWI, has become an icon of that first global battle. In Flanders Fields is deeply moving, as the dead who sacrificed everything to preserve freedom ask us to carry the torch they’ve passed through generation after generation.

Today we’re engaged in our own global battle, even if it hasn’t been given a name. We live in a world of amazing technological and medical advancements, but we’re still fighting greed, selfishness and prejudice — governments and corporations that are destroying the environment for profit, people who put their own desires over the greater need to prevent COVID from causing many more deaths, and people who treat badly anyone different from themselves.

So we carry the torch, continuing the fight against fear, ignorance and oppression a century later. We can’t let our lives be defined by fear, whether it’s of a viewpoint or way of life that’s different from ours, or of an incredible medical advancement that’s allowed hundreds of thousands of people to get vaccinated against the most devastating disease of the 21st century to date, or of doing the right thing, even when it’s challenging. Take up the torch, each of you, and let’s continue the fight to make the world a better place. Together, we can do it.

Lest we forget!