February 7th, 2017

Hidden Figures

On Sunday, January 22nd, we went to see Hidden Figures, the movie that tells the story of three black women who, each in their own way, contributed to the success of, first NASA’s Mercury program, and then later projects up to and including the Apollo moon landings. We found it to be very well done, and truly inspiring.

In those days, much of NASA’s engineering and support operations were based in Virginia, which, pre-Civil Rights acts, was unrepentantly segregated. (Not that Florida or Texas would necessarily have been any better--.) I found it really painful to see segregated drinking fountains, segregated bathrooms, segregated bus seats, and to see that all those things existed at NASA, which should have been one of the most forward-thinking workplaces in the world. Instead, NASA employs a group of black women as their own “computing” unit, set off in a separate building except for when on particular individual assignments.

Gradually, the wall begins to break down, as Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) gets assigned to the unit engaged in orbital calculations. Johnson was a mathematical prodigy as a child, and as an adult can perform calculations in her head that make the male engineers’ eyes bug out. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) becomes NASA’s first black female engineer, and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) stakes a claim on the future by teaching herself Fortran and becoming an integral part of NASA’s new electronic computing division.

These events don’t necessarily happen smoothly, and a good part of the story deals with overcoming—or undermining, or working around—casual, institutional racism and sexism. Although racism is there—in one scene, someone anonymously brings in a separate coffee pot, labeled “colored” to the otherwise white office she is working in—I don’t believe I heard anyone at NASA say words to the effect of “black people can’t do that,” although, “women don’t do that” is a common theme.

The plot is interesting and engaging, especially to those of us for whom that history is also memory. I remember staying home from school to watch Mercury launches, and knew that it was a dangerous and daring thing at the time, but of course had no idea of how many people were required in how many ways to make it happen. The plot had drama, but wasn’t “juiced up”—I kept expecting one of the women to be menaced or roughed up, but that didn’t happen, although tension is there.
The Golden Globe award for best ensemble cast was well deserved. The three principal ladies were excellent, and very well supported by the rest of the cast.

I’m pleased and proud to report that my company, AT&T, along with other “tech” companies, is paying for school groups to see this inspirational and uplifting movie. Highly recommended.

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Dining at Café Grace

On Saturday, February 4th, we went to Café Grace, the new bistro-style French restaurant opened by the Bartolotta Group at the “Mayfair Collection” shopping center. We were quite pleased with the experience.

The restaurant is bright and spacious, with décor touches, such as the globular lamps, referring to the Belle Époque. We joked that the restaurant is bigger and roomier than any actual French restaurants we ate in in France.

I had decided to attempt to re-create our experiences in France as best I could, and began by ordering an aperitif, which I usually don’t do. I asked the waiter if the restaurant had Ricard, an anise flavored liquor that I had enjoyed. The waiter replied that they had both Ricard and Pernod. I was favorably impressed that he knew what both were, and ordered the Ricard. However, he then had to come back and report that they were out of Ricard, so I went with Pernod instead. I was a bit concerned when he asked how I wanted it, with ice or without, but told him water only. I was a bit surprised when the drink came back in a snifter glass like brandy, with the water already mixed in. Since Ricard is similar to absinthe, but without the “wormwood,” the proper way to serve it with the water on the side so you can mix it yourself. As it was, there wasn’t enough water in it, so I resorted to adding some from my water glass.

Things turned up from there. As starter, we had the Pate de Campagne, a slightly coarsely ground pate of pork, which we found very tasty and compared favorably with the similar house pate that we had had at Les Bacchantes in Paris.

For main course, Georgie had the Gigot d’Agneau, or leg of lamb, served with braised flageolet beans (I hadn’t know you could braise beans?) and roasted cauliflower. Georgie asked for it to be a bit more medium than the recommended medium rare, which was good, since she would not have wanted it more rare than it came. The slices of lamb were edged with traditional rosemary, something you seldom see these days, almost, but not quite, too much of it in this case. Georgie pronounced everything very good, but opined that the lamb, by Strauss, was not as flavorful as the lamb she had had in Rouen (which was probably a matter of terroir, or the feeding of it).

For my main dish, I ordered the Coquilles St. Jacques, (scallops) served with a chickpea cake (something that seems to be a signature item, as it is also on the starter menu), Swiss chard, golden raisins, and beef jus. The dish I had also had some root vegetable in it also, perhaps parsnips (?). The beef jus gave the vegetables a very nice flavor which made them the best part of the dish. The scallops were fine, typical sea scallops, but very fresh and perfectly pan-seared. Other than that, they were very plainly prepared. The chickpea cake is nothing to write home about. A rectangular hunk of fine textured white starch, a bit lighter than an equivalent quantity of potato, the only flavor it had of its own was along the browned exterior, although it was good when dredged in the jus, something the scallops also benefited from.

The wines were nice. Georgie had a French rosé, which had a bit more authority than the domestic rosés we drink more often. I had a very good French white, which went nicely with the scallops.
For dessert, we decided to sample the mousse au chocolat. My eyebrows raised a bit when the waiter brought us forks instead of the expected spoons. What then appeared was a rectangular piece of dark chocolaty material, generously garnished with crème fraiche and raspberries. It looked a lot more like flourless chocolate cake than conventional chocolate mousse, but had a lighter texture than the cake would have had. The flavor was quite rich and very good.

Despite the eccentricities, we had a very good and enjoyable meal. There are other items on the menu that interest us, so we will definitely eat there again.

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