Sunday, March 29, 2015

Travelogue: Bowers Museum and 85 Degrees C

Location: Santa Ana, CA
Date: Sunday, March 1, 2015
Company: Michelle Knowlden, Kris Klopfenstein

The Bowers Museum

Museum Admission: $13 for an adult

Museum Parking: $6.00

The Bowers Museum wouldn't have been so crowded, except that it was the first Sunday of the month and, as such, admission was free. Parking was not so free, but that didn't stop both lots from overflowing. Michelle didn't want to park a half a mile down the road. For a minute, it looked like our trip would be canceled. But then we spotted a car pulling out, and Michelle maneuvered into place.

My first impression of the museum building was that of a giant wicker basket. Strips of interwoven metal created texture along the front wall. Inside the courtyard, olive trees mingled with statues, and fountains flowed into metal basins filled with pebbles. The sound of Irish music wafted in from inside, which was sort of funny, because the museum covered every culture but European.

Kris had actually come for the Celtic Festival and spent most of her time at the lobby where the stage was set up. I had come for a different reason. I wanted to set my newest fantasy novel, Counterfeit Diamond, in a magical version of Dutch-colonized Indonesia, and I was attempting to do some research on the country. Michelle, who had been to the museum before, vaguely remembered an exhibit on Pacific Islands. She tried to bring me into the "Spirits and Headhunters."

I declined. We'd just come from lunch at Maru Sushi, where I'd consumed a bowl of sukiyaki and three tall glasses of water. I needed a pit stop.

Lucky I did, because as it turned out, the only Indonesian artifacts in the Bowers Museum were right outside the restrooms. Both the humanoid Tao Tao figures and the elaborately carved erong were used for Torajanese death rituals. As I looked more closely at the erong, or coffin, I noticed a representative buffalo head rising from the side.

I'd read, in a children's book, that one ethic group of Christians in the Sulawesi region of Indonesia offer up their buffalos as sacrifice and construct effigies to the dead. It occurred to me that this might be them. I felt a twinge of triumph for remembering my research, quickly followed by a wave of despair. The Torajanese were all very interesting, but I was interested in Java. It occurred to me how impossible it was going to be to learn about one kind of people on an island chain that claims over 400 local ethnicities.

My frustration was compounded when Michelle and I entered the "Spirits and Headhunters" display, and I realized the focus was on the Polynesian and Micronesian isles on the Australian side of the Wallace line. I tried to enjoy the crocodile boats and sago pots, but my heart wasn't really in it. I was feeling the limitations of the museum. Seeing the culture of a people from object was like trying to understand animals by staring at their dead carcasses. You miss the movement, the voice, the soul.

After buzzing around the display, Michelle and I wandered to an exhibit of the Lost Culture of Sanxingdui, which was free, and had some interesting giant masks with bug eyes and elephant ears. Then I went to the gift shop. The books cheered me up.

The Chinese exhibit was easier for me to connect with; I knew some of their history and was more familiar with their art. I gazed enviously at a scholar's desk flanked by cranes statues, with a ink painted back drop of misty mountains, and a jar of fat brushes. This must be the reason everyone wanted to past that scholar's exam. Nice stationary. I peered at Terra Cotta horses and a shy porcelain girl. But what I liked best was the Western chess set made up of Chinese figures. The pawns were based off the 8 Immortals, legendary figures, each atop their own different animal.

* * *

85 Degrees C Cafe

On the way home, Michelle decided to stop at 85 Degrees C Bakery. I'd never been there before and had no idea what to expect.

When I lived in Japan, I would come across a kind of bakery found near stations or inside grocery stores, where all sorts of breads were laid out in easy-to-access plastic cases. Some breads were normal, some were bizarre, but most were pretty cheap. You'd grab a plastic tray and a pair of tongs and start scooping up anything you fancied, trying hard not to buy up the whole bakery. Whenever I went on vacation, I'd hunt down these bakeries and buy my breakfast for the next day.

There was another kind of bakery in Japan, one that sold fancy cakes and desserts in glass cases. I'd gaze at white-frosted cakes garnished with glistening strawberries; fruit tarts perfectly arranged with blueberries, raspberries, and kiwi; and golden custards in clay cups. If you wanted a birthday cake--and were willing to spend $35 for the privilege--this was your shop.

85 Degrees was like both kinds of bakeries smooshed together. Plus it sold coffee and boba. Novelty breads sat warm in plastic cases: Hawaiian Chicken Brick Toast, Chocolate Chip Bowl, Portuguese Egg Tart, Rose Cheese rolls, and a Giant Brioche that looked suspiciously like melon pan (a kind of sweet roll with a crust of sugar on top). Delicate desserts modeled in the glass showcase: Chocolate Pearls dipped in ganache, Strawberry Tiramisu, and Cheesecake decorated with a rainbow of fruit.

I could have bought the whole store. But I resisted and bought only two rolls and a cup of sea salt coffee.

The store was popular and seats were scarce, so I had to enjoy my treats at home.

* * *

Sea Salt Coffee
$3.00 for a small

For a small coffee, it seemed pretty large. The top two inches were nothing pure, thick cream, lightly sprinkled with cocoa powder. Since the drink was vacuum-sealed shut, I had to puncture the plastic film with a sharp-ended boba straw. Sipping it, I noticed that the coffee wasn't overly bitter or sweet and that the salt flavor was light. It tastes refreshing.

Since I didn't mix it, I ended up slurping up the coffee first, leaving the cream to sink and the drink to become creamier and saltier. At last I'm left with ice on the bottom and some cream clinging to the plastic. I removed the plastic and tasted it. Yeech. Might as well be drinking whipped butter. Although, I probably could stick it on the bread.

Marble Taro

A flaky sugar crust of purple and white swirls sat atop the small loaf marble taro. As I picked it up, it felt hefty in my hand. As I ripped it, something in the middle of the bread stretched and oozed, like the best kind of melty cheese. This was, presumably, the taro, and it tasted like sweet bean paste with the added texture of gooey mochi. The taro melted into the bread to create a carb extravaganza. It felt like clay and stuck to the back of my teeth in the most pleasant way.

Calamari Stick

Neither a stick nor made with fried squid, these black rolls had the same circumference as a sand dollar, though obviously they were a good deal thicker. Made with squid ink, filled with mozzarella, and topped with garlic, they tasted like something out of an Italian restaurant: garlicky and cheesy and just on the verge of being too salty. I couldn't detect the taste of fish at all.

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