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No Longer the Pits: Birthday in the ‘Burgh July 31, 2009

Posted by jeffclef in Uncategorized.
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Primanti Bros. Sandwich Pittsburgh Style (Photo credit: seriouseats.com)

Primanti Bros. Sandwich "Pittsburgh Style" (Photo credit: seriouseats.com)

Pittsburgh, land of steel and smoggy skies. Wrong. Welcome to the land of fries, robots, and birthday dreams come true.

No matter how much you hate birthdays, no matter how hard you fight them, you’re no match for the ingenuity of close friends. The night of my 27th birthday, I get a phone call from….let’s call him Drago per his request. Distance has separated us, but Drago and I go way back, having played violin together in orchestra through middle and high school. We used to eat lunch together and read Calvin and Hobbes on the lawn as though we were the spiky-haired kid and his best tiger themselves; one Halloween, Drago even dyed his hair orange. He invites me to Pittsburgh, offering to pay for airfare provided I fly out the next day. I hem and haw, being the unspontaneous person that I am, but the offer is sweetened by the fact that….let’s call her Satsuki, another violinist from orchestra, is already there visiting. The moment is as exhilarating and terrifying as a frat house initiation. The only difference is that there’s no sack over my head. Twenty hours later, and it’s a middle school reunion at baggage claim.

In return, I make dinner the first night. Pork chops for Satsuki and myself, shrimp couscous for Drago. It is not as successful as I had hoped. Drago proves the better chef, executing delightful batches of homemade belgian waffles one night and sweet and savory crepes the next. The menu at home is refined and elegant. When he takes us out to sample authentic Pittsburgh fare, the menu needs a larger belt.

Drago makes homemade waffles with fresh fruit, whipped cream, and salted-caramel coulis

Ordering “Pittsburgh Style”

Chicago has deep dish. Philly has cheese steak. Pittsburgh has the pirogi. The regional specialty gives its name to a race in which contestants dress up as potato ravioli and hop their way to victory. While we didn’t have the chance to munch on these buttery East-European treats or witness this pastime unfold, we did have them in pizza form featuring mashed potatoes, garlic, and cheddar cheese. The venue is the Church Brew Works specializing in hand-crafted ales and lagers. Formerly the St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, this popular eatery now stages another kind of conversion. The nave is a dining room with the center aisle that leads towards the altar of a distillery. Organ-like pipes perform the transubstantiation of hops into ale while the bar along the left wall functions as a confessional for the thirsty masses. I don’t drink beer that often, but the sampler featuring nine special brews is worth every shot. My favorite is the banana flavored Millennium Trippel.

Not only though does Pittsburgh have a reputation for pirogies, it also has a reputation for fries—or rather the number of dishes served with them. The city is home to ketchup king Heinz, and as Drago informs us, supermarket shoppers who buy any other brand risk wading through a sea of scorn. “Pittsburgh style” means with fries on top, but it isn’t something you request; it’s the default option.  Restaurant salads come with an inexplicable layer of fries on top of everything else, and don’t even think of saying hold the fries unless you want them thrown in your face. In the Strip District at the flagship Primanti Brothers, each sandwich is, as the sign points out, “stacked high with fries and coleslaw.” The fries absorb the vinegar from the coleslaw, ensuring that the bread never goes soggy. When we get home, we shed the extra pounds by playing Wii Sports; hours of Portal, an agonizingly tricky first-person shooter game, reawaken our appetites. As I soon find out, it’s only appropriate that we should be playing a game involving robots in Pittsburgh.

Art and Nature Join Forces: Phipps and Fallingwater

Chihuly: Morning Glory at the Phipps Conservatory

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens

Pittsburgh’s hearty fare is what remains of the Steel City’s past. Primanti’s stacked sandwiches represent Pittsburgh’s answer to New York’s garbage plate piled high with macaroni salad, homefries, and redhots and slathered with tabasco. Both dishes were invented during the Depression to satisfy the gaping appetites of hungry truck drivers and steelworkers. But with the collapse of its steel industries in the eighties, Pittsburgh now relies on the strength of its bioengineering and robotics industries. This coming September, Pittsburgh will welcome President Obama and nineteen of the most powerful world leaders for the G-20 economic summit.

Of course, it’s the industrialists that make some of the city’s cultural venues possible. The Mellon family gives its name to a number of visual and performing arts venues while the Heinz dynasty is to thank for the Steeler’s home field. The large Schenley Park and the newly landscaped Oakland provide pleasant settings for hiking, biking, sunning, and reading. Most remarkable though about some of Pittsburgh’s amenities are the way they integrate nature and art. Among the attractions we visited were Carnegie Mellon University, the Carnegie Museum of Art, and the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. An hour drive to Mill Run, Pennsylvania took us through Ohio-Pyle to Frank Lloyd Wright’s modernist marvel, Fallingwater.

The Carnegie Museums include the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History, the Science Center, and the Andy Warhol Museum, but we only have time to hit the Museum of Art. The art collection is somewhat small, but there are some notable pieces from American (Sargent, Homer) and European Masters (Monet, Sisley, Pissaro). Currently on show is a photography exhibit “From Digital to Daguerreotype,” retrograding from the most modern to the earliest techniques used to produce pictures: daguerreotype, cyanotint, sepia-tone, etc. However, while the exhibit does well to emphasize processes, it is somewhat lacking in thematic cohesion. Portraits sit alongside collages alongside landscapes. Nonetheless, some arresting Depression era photography holds my attention as do some oddly angelic portraits of Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol (taken with his mother).

Chihuly: Paintbrushes

Chihuly: Paintbrushes, at the Phipps

What the Carnegie Museums keeps separate, the Phipps Conservatory brings together, integrating plastic art installations with displays of interesting botanical specimens. As you enter through the front façade, you are greeted from the ceiling by a tangle of glass vines created by Dale Chihuly, a name some may recognize as the artist behind the spectacular glass flower ceiling at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. But the installation I find most fascinating is a cross between E.T. and Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas. Fräbel’s Longfellow series features elongated glass figurines walking amidst a natural diorama of greenery and fish ponds. The fantastical fusion of botanical art and natural life seems to me a creative way for the conservatory to court return visitors.

Fräbel: The Longfellows

Fräbel: The Longfellows, at the Phipps

The most consummate integration of nature and art, however, is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Just an hour drive from Pittsburgh, it’s the first thing we see during our stay. Two of Drago’s friends drive us there. The estate is the former weekend retreat of the Edgar J. Kaufmann family, former rivals to department store giant Macys. I’m struck by the economy of it all, how Wright achieves an almost musical unity through the development and distribution of a single motif: the cantilever. A cantilever is a horizontal beam supported at a single end by perpendicular force. A recognizable application is a diving board. Apply the same principle to furniture, and it is possible to create couches, wardrobes, and desks that seem to levitate because they have no legs. Apply the principle to entire floors, and you can suspend a home over a waterfall.

F. L. Wright: Fallingwater, Mill Run

F. L. Wright: Fallingwater, Mill Run

These sweeping horizontals answer for the low ceilings, though Wright heightens the illusion of space through his signature use of “compression and release.” Walking through Fallingwater is like pushing oneself through a pinhole. The doors are unusually narrow. As one enters a room, it seems to expand as low ceilings terrace another foot upward and pushes your eye towards the panoramic glass view. An exemplar of organic architecture, the house is coextensive with its surroundings. Follow the edge of kitchen counter or floor or fireplace, and you discover the plane of rock from which it originates. Paintings by Picasso and Pribble elucidate Wright’s modernist inheritance while Hiroshige prints and Buddhist statues point towards the structure’s pervasive Japanese influences. Furnishings and decor in warm reds, oranges, and yellows complement the green foliage enveloping the estate. The building has great aesthetic and intellectual appeal, and after getting a taste of how the rich and famous live, we end the day with a round of 18: in the middle of nowhere, the five of us club it out over miniature golf. Best Birthday Ever.

Drago, I owe you one.



1. drago - August 3, 2009

Drago wishes to thank the good doctor for such a positive writeup of his temporary (10 years and counting) home. Nothing gets Drago pumped up more than the exquisite use of vocabulary/bamboo to describe himself and his adventures. In fact, if Drago had known his little vacation with the Writer of Light(tm) and Satsuki would receive a written account on the most prestigious of all blogs, The JeffClef Times Ltd., he would have provided Mssr. Clef with more than just a sofa to sleep on so as to better circulate the flowering fajitas of fortitude within his veins. Say what?

Drago wishes to thank the Clefster for the good waffles and great times. He knows they will meet again…perhaps over a screening of El Jefe’s newest favorite movie, My Neighbor Totoro.

As they always say in the Latin:
Aio, quantitas magna frumentorum est

jeffclef - August 4, 2009

Flattery will get you nowhere. Will you write me a letter of recommendation when I go on the market?

You know what else they say in Latin: In fajitas veritas. (Actually, they’d say in fajitatibus veritas, but that’s not as tattooable).

2. Satsuki - August 18, 2009

Satsuki enjoyed the addition of a reunion from middle school. It really was a wonderful to see the sights and enjoy the cooking in the kitchen and see you overcome the game portal. I am sure you will succeed in finishing the game in the near future when we all meet again. 🙂

Till we meet again next time take care!

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