Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire

Well, it’s the Christmas season and many years ago while attending the Dickens Faire in San Francisco we walked out and found a guy selling roasted chestnuts. This of course brought back to my mind the old song line Chestnuts roasting on an open fire… so I had to try some to see what they were about. I think we paid about $2 for  a newspaper wrapped cone of them. I was lucky enough to be able to try them again because some friends of mine dropped by last night and handed me a bag of them  That they had gotten from Skyline Chestnuts that they wanted to share with us.

Now I haven’t had a chance to roast these yet, but I have to say after looking at these nuts before they’re in the sellable form they’re pretty ugly. They look a bit like a hairy scrotum to be honest and to understand the reason why people would want to pop one of these in their mouth is kind of like my old question about broccoli, why would anyone be interested in eating something that smells like ass when it’s being cooked? Well chestnuts are different. After being roasted they have the consistency of a baked potato, but with a nutty and buttery flavor that rather interesting and no to shocking in taste. They don’t taste like ass one bit, but can actually be rather enjoyable.

I never had learned how to roast them as my family never got into them so I did some research and found that the trick is to first split them in a X shaped pattern prior to roasting them. Then pop them in an oven at about 425° for about 20 minutes turning them halfway. If you want them to have a more moist texture you should cut the X then soak them in water. Salted or not. I’m thinking salted water soak is the way I’ll go for these.

Christmas is one of those holidays that I don’t associate with Jesus being nailed to a pine tree. I just like the tree with the ornaments and lights and the warmth of your home in the winter cold that is hitting San Francisco this year. This time of the year is a time to celebrate the fact that we’ve made it through another year and hoping for ourselves and our friends that next year will be even better. If sticking a few hot salty nuts in my mouth helps bring this about, well then so be it.


The Camera Obscura, Relic of the Golden Era

Go into a very dark room on a bright day. Make a small hole in a window cover and look at the opposite wall. What do you see? Magic! There in full color and movement will be the world outside the window — upside down! This magic is explained by a simple law of the physical world. Light travels in a straight line and when some of the rays reflected from a bright subject pass through a small hole in thin material they do not scatter but cross and reform as an upside down image on a flat surface held parallel to the hole. This law of optics was known in ancient times.

The earliest mention of this type of device was by the Chinese philosopher Mo-Ti (5th century BC). He formally recorded the creation of an inverted image formed by light rays passing through a pinhole into a darkened room. He called this darkened room a “collecting place” or the “locked treasure room.”

Aristotle (384-322 BC) understood the optical principle of the camera obscura. He viewed the crescent shape of a partially eclipsed sun projected on the ground through the holes in a sieve, and the gaps between leaves of a plane tree.

The Islamic scholar and scientist Alhazen (Abu Ali al-Hasan Ibn al-Haitham) (c.965 – 1039) gave a full account of the principle including experiments with five lanterns outside a room with a small hole.

In 1490 Leonardo Da Vinci gave two clear descriptions of the camera obscura in his notebooks. Many of the first camera obscuras were large rooms like that illustrated by the Dutch scientist Reinerus Gemma-Frisius in 1544 for use in observing a solar eclipse.

The image quality was improved with the addition of a convex lens into the aperture in the 16th century and the later addition of a mirror to reflect the image down onto a viewing surface. Giovanni Battista Della Porta in his 1558 book Magiae Naturalis recommended the use of this device as an aid for drawing for artists.

Thus are the words to describe a little known artifact of San Francisco history. Perched on an outcropping behind the Cliff House is a piece of San Francisco history that few people ever visit. It’s a shame because the Camera Obscura is an inexpensive place of wonder. For $3 you get to enter a 25′ x25′ box that has a couple or rotating lenses housed in a pyramid that shine down on a white parabolic disc in the center giving you a stunning view of the ocean and rocks of Ocean Beach and there’s no time limit on your stay.

I never went there are a kid, but oddly enough I suggested it to a friend from Texas when we took a trip out to Land’s End to see the ruins of Sutro Baths. At the time it was a dollar to get in which even in the 90’s seemed like a deal. As we entered, it felt like we had walked into some sort of ancient ritual chamber. It was quiet and there was some ambient music playing. We gazed into the disk and something old and magical happened. We were looking into something old, sort of Victorian in nature. There was no CGI involved here it was all a definitely what you see is what you get sort of thing. At the time there were still a few sea lions on Seal Rock and they looked so big that we imagined that one of them would reach out and bite us.

For those who get bored easily the walls contained a holograph gallery. It was a nice addition for those who are of the short attention span theater in nature, but not entirely necessary. We felt transported back in time to the late 1800’s when life was much more simple. We were much more aware of the world around us because this Camera Obscura was bringing what felt far away right up into our face. We walked around the central disk for about an hour mesmerized by the sights we were seeing even though we could have been outside and dropped a quarter into a telescope and seen the same thing. This was more real to us because it was so much bigger.

As stated above the Camera Obscura was noted in a book called Magiae Naturalis. Those words translate into the magic of nature. The Camera Obscura is truly a magic of nature and you should experience it when you get a chance. This weekend would be a good time to do so.

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49 Mile Drive: Stop Four, Haas-Lilienthal House

The Haas-Lilienthal House is San Francisco’s finest Victorian house museum, and is open to the public year-round for docent-led tours. In addition, it houses the offices of San Francisco Architectural Heritage and functions as residence and popular event rental site.

Built in 1886 for Bavarian immigrant William Haas and the family, it was occupied by 3 generations of his family until it was donated by them to Heritage. The Haas-Lilienthal House was opened to the public for tours in 1972. It is the only intact private home of the period that is open regularly as a museum, complete with authentic furniture and artifacts.The House beautifully exemplifies upper-middle class life in the Victorian era. Considering its age, the House has never been significantly remodeled or modified and remains one of the very few examples of its era in the neighborhood. Built of redwood & fir, the House withstood both the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes with only minor damage.

Designed by Peter Schmidt, it is an exuberant example of Queen Anne style, with its prominent open gables, varied styles of shingles and siding, and turreted corner tower topped by a “witches cap” roof. The original cost of the House was $18,500 [significantly more than the average for the day, which was $700-2000] Because it was the house of a merchant and not the mansion of a millionaire, it is an informative illustration of how early San Franciscans might have lived at the turn of the 20th century.

William Haas was born April 24, 1849, in the village of Reckendorf, Bavaria, to a family of modest means with many children.

In 1865, sixteen-year-old William and an older brother, Abraham, sailed for New York City. He arrived in San Francisco on October 9, 1868, and joined the grocery firm of Leopold Loupe and Kalman Haas. His first recorded address, in Langley’s San Francisco Directory of 1869, was the Nucleus Hotel, on Third and Market.

The Haas-Lilienthal House tours are every Wednesday, Saturday [noon-3pm] and Sunday [11am-3pm]. Tours leave every 20 to 30 minutes and last about 1 hour. All visits to the house must be guided. Reservations are not required. General admission is $8, and admission for seniors and children under twelve is $5.

You can also rent out the house for special occasions. If you are interested in renting the house [you can get it for 8 hours for $2950 January-November, $3400 in December] You can visit the SF Heritage Site for more details.

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Sutro Baths: The Glory Days

I missed out on the Sutro Baths. A major fire in 1966 pretty much gutted the place and I was too young to have visited there let alone remember this place that through pictures was a glorious place to visit.

Opening in 1896, the Sutro Baths named after former Major Adolph Sutro who financed the build as well as the Cliff House next door created a natatorium similar to the old Roman baths, only well, bigger. We’re San Francisco and we have to one up everyone including the Holy Roman Empire. It was the largest indoor swimming pool establishment in the world at the time with one freshwater pool and six saltwater pools. You had hot pools, cool pools, tepid pools BIG pools and small pools, but it was more than just the water.

Sutro Baths was also home to the Musee Mechanique that I’ve written about before as well as a museum, concert hall that could hold up to 8000 people and an ice skating rink not to mention the obvious food vendors all around the place.

This was the type of place you would have expected to see young gentlemen in suits and hats with long mustaches and canes walking around with young ladies at their arms walking through the imported tropical palm trees gazing in amusement at the novelties that Adolph had brought back from his travels around the world. They even had their own Cliff House railroad to bring people from, “the city” to the outside lands more easily.

During high tide the pools would be refilled with roughly two million gallons of water within an hour and at low tide they would use a large centrifuge pump to do the same. It was like an 8th wonder of the world to many and it was know around the world. Sadly the operating costs got out of control and by the start of the 60’s only the skating rink remained.

[mappress mapid=”35″]Now it is a shell of what it used to be, but there is still some interesting things to find in that shell. The high tides bring up deep dwelling fish and invertebrates that get deposited in the remaining ponds. There is one specific area that you have to break the law by climbing a metal fence and walking down some rickety stairs to a small observation deck that was built on a rock that is home to thousands of sea anemones. There is a little bridge area that goes into a now sealed off cave where people where found dead inside with no apparent cause of death. In the pool on either side of the bridge at night you can see the phosphorescent flashlight fish as they are commonly know glowing in the pools. It has a very H.P. Lovecraft feel to it.

There is also the remains of the rock bridge that took you out to fisherman’s rock. It was destroyed because too many fisherman would be out there oblivious to the tides and get swept away. There is also Seal Rock which was famous for its seals and seal lions prior to their vacating for more upscale digs at Fisherman’s Wharf. It has been said that groups of Satanists and Black Magicians have even gathered in this place to hold rituals. Who knows? It would be fitting for this place.

Now if I only had the chance to go back in time to experience it in it’s heyday. Any Black Magicians out there want to lend me a hand?

The House of Shields Returns!

Way back when [1908 to be exact] the House of Shields opened its doors to customers. It was a place I last got to visit sometime in the late 80’s early 90’s. It had a feel to it like a Bogart movie. Over the years it retained some of the Victorian dusty feel with a bit of an art deco upgrade from the 20’s.

The food was old school. I remember my meal there. Pork tenderloin medallions with mashed potatoes and gravy and some sort of sauted vegetable that was probably there more for decoration than eating. When was the last time you saw that on the menu. I also remember our waiter, “Vinny” in his tuxedoed waiter’s uniform suggested them. He was right. They were great and I think that might have set me off on my now well developed love of pork.

House of Shields was classic San Francisco, Herb Caen and Charles McCabe used to write about it frequently in their columns, yet when it closed it didn’t look closed. It looked more like, “we aren’t open yet.” I haven’t been back since it opened in mid-December, but I think I might make a trip back for old times sake. While I hear a lot about their chef in the press I don’t see any menu on their website and it seems they’re mostly focused on the bar which has now been taken over by retro hipsters ordering appletini’s instead of the old days of, “Gimme something big and strong”  which meant a double scotch, no ice. You didn’t call out a brand name, you didn’t even need to call out what kind of liquor your were ordering.

During prohibition what is now their private dinning room served as a speakeasy that dinner guests could sneak off to for “something big and strong” in between bites of their meal. I have a sneaking suspicion that while the House of Shields is back in operation and the inside has been restored, the new hipster crowd might just kill off that old Bogart movie feel, but you never know.

I noticed that they feature live music on weekends and the bands get to keep 90% of the $5 cover charge at the door. Not too shabby for musicians and definitely not like the pay to play of the 80’s for bands.[mappress mapid=”8″]