Thursday, April 16, 2009
New Mexico’s cuisine is still centered around crops grown by its first Pueblo inhabitants: beans, corn, and squash, with the later addition of chilies—green or red, depending on ripeness when harvested. In keeping with regional availability, dishes use less avocado, rice and veggies than Cal-Mex and less jalapenos and cumin than Tex-Mex. Beef is big in New Mexico—cows are easier to grow than vegetables in arid conditions. In Santa Fe I ate Frito Pie, a southwestern chili con carne and Frito mashup, at a bar where I didn’t bother asking about where the beef came from.
Sometimes I tire of irritating servers and sometimes I just don’t want to draw attention to myself. When I was young and vegan I was bursting with self-righteousness but now I can’t help occasionally feeling sort of yuppie-ish and precious about my diet when I ask where the beef came from in a restaurant. It’s fun to strike up conversations about local food in Vermont, but in New Mexico I felt a bit road-weary and mostly kept to myself.
Santa Fe’s adobe architecture was totally alien to me and it was easy to see how the otherworldly landscape inspired modernist painters like O’Keeffe. I drove to Taos looking for the Earthship off-the-grid community on its outskirts but felt wary to trespass and satisfied myself with a walk over the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge and a stroll through the sleepy little hippie downtown.
Back in Santa Fe I went for an early dinner at the 315 Wine Bar. The Santa Fe Reporter’s locavore issue came out on my second day in town. Encouragingly, it focused mostly on Farmer’s Markets, farmstands, and DIY locavore stuff like seed-starting that didn’t apply to a traveler like me, with an emphasis on how local food is not a yuppie fad but a way to affect real change. I read about 315 in the dining issue from a few weeks earlier. A reviewer called the restaurant the “Chez Panisse of Santa Fe,” so I was really excited about eating there. My excitement waned a bit upon entering—the “wine bar” area was cramped and dingy and I was installed at a table right next to the neon-lit, bass-bumping kitchen’s swinging doors. I ordered the pan-fried, sage-dusted Texas quail with green beans, mashed sweet potatoes and dried cherry sauce. The dish was nicely composed, with the sides portioned generously to make the quail a meal. The tartness of the cherries offset the sweet potato and an appealing variety of color was presented on the plate, but with the inattentive service and clanging pans I had a hard time really enjoying the meal, and I pretty much ate and ran.
I left New Mexico feeling guilty about my lackluster efforts exploring the local food scene—I should have devoted extra effort in a place with such unique culinary history. There’s a lot to explore there and I’d love to return to New Mexico and elsewhere later in spring and in midsummer, when it’s cheap and easy to put together a local meal. From New Mexico I headed to Arizona and then sunny SoCal, where the farmer’s market offered a dazzling array of produce…
Monday, March 30, 2009
Austin prides itself on being “weird,” a bastion of liberalism in a cowboy state, so I wasn’t surprised to find an active locavore scene there. The Kerbey Lane Café, a local mini-chain open 24 hours, has served affordable diner fare using Texas-sourced ingredients since 1980. At the South Lamar location, the atmosphere was student-friendly, brightly-painted with “funky” mixed-media stuff on the walls, and the crowd was mixed, too—moms with little kids, lots of students, workers on lunch. I ate the Kerbey scramble (mushrooms, tomatoes, green onions, cheddarjack) with Texas toast and OJ—a satisfying breakfast that fueled me on my hours-long walk through the city. The menus have blurbs about cutting carbon emissions by eating local produce—nice to see in an ordinary diner-style place in Texas.
I wandered down South Congress Street to the Farm-to-Market, well, market, where I bought amazing, tart chocolate-orange goat’s-milk ice cream and picked up a copy of Edible Austin. A pornographic salad photo pointed me toward the insipidly-named Wink for dinner. At about six, the bar area was filling with an after-office crowd and until I had a glass of wine in hand I felt about ten years old in my ratty t-shirt and shorts. I found a cozy corner and ordered two small plates. During happy hour, all bar apps were half price, meaning that I paid four dollars for a generous portion of really good countryside farm chicken liver pate. Peppery at first, then smooth and satisfying with a sweet finish, I felt like I was robbing them. I ordered a roasted chioga and bull’s blood beet salad from the dinner menu, with baby arugula, walnuts and chevre. The beets tasted really fresh, earthy but not dusty, and I learned that they had indeed been picked that morning. Wink one-ups the typical farm-to-table gratitude blurb by thanking not just farmers, foragers, and gardeners but also ranchers and farm workers, which was nice and kind of unexpected. I’d love to go back for a chef’s tasting—with antelope and bison entrees and their commitment to local produce, it would surely be a real taste of Texas.
The super-friendly bartender at Wink directed me toward the Counter Café, and I saw her reading the paper there over coffee and OJ the next morning. The Café is situated in an ordinary diner where literally all of the other patrons knew one another and all were very interested in hearing about my travels. The eggs and bacon and veggies were local (slogan: local food, global love) but the beef was Niman. I found this phenomenon elsewhere as well—naturally-raised, quality local beef just isn’t widely available in most of the country, including Texas.
On my last night in town, a Friday, I planned to eat some Tex-Mex, provenance be damned, but the place I’d been told about was packed with clean-cut dudes and blaring TVs and I just didn’t have the stomach for it. I wandered down to a wine bar (called, I think, Wine Bar) where I ate an exquisite, delicate first-of-the season salad of barely-dressed baby greens, radish, carrot, avocado and feta with a bit of tarragon. The salad made me realize that I’m chasing spring all over the country, and I felt really lucky.
On the way to El Paso the next afternoon, my tire blew out in the middle of the desert, leaving a trail of twisty scraps in its wake and a pile of black sand beside it. While I waited for AAA to arrive, the Border Patrol pulled up behind me and asked to search my car. I guess they aren’t kidding about Texas being “A Whole Other Country.”
Next: New Mexico and Arizona and California and more! (This country, it’s a big one.)
Thursday, March 19, 2009
I arrived in The Big Easy a few days after Mardi Gras. Throngs of fratty stragglers sipped hurricanes from bright bong-like plastic containers on Canal Street, and emerald green and gold beads were ground into piles of iridescent sand throughout the French Quarter. But just a few blocks away from the chaos, adorable Creole cottages and oak trees lined quiet streets. Outside the tourist-ridden depths of the Quarter, I did not come across a neighborhood lacking charm, and I ate well.
Sarah’s sister Callie, who works at the farmer’s market, introduced me to a flourishing local-foods community. The New Orleans Food and Farm Network encourages farming within the city limits and hosts community meals in city neighborhoods. In Katrina’s wake, pockets of green have sprouted throughout the city as one means of rebuilding community. The restaurant scene, unsurprisingly in a city known for its unique regional cuisine, is fabulous. On my first night I went to Mandina’s, a 75-year-old locals place in center city, near the hostel. I liked the old-school vibe of the place--casual but with bow-tied waiters, framed posters from jazz fest on the walls—and the etouffee was solid, very comforting, with a lot of celery and garlic. Crawfish are such a great ingredient, super-tender and succulent, with a unique clean flavor, lacking the ocean’s briny bite. My lunch the next day, though, was a real standout.
Cochon has got to be one of the best restaurants in New Orleans. With a James Beard award and a lot of high-end press under its belt, the restaurant was busy on a weekday at two in the afternoon despite its proximity to Emeril’s. The décor is warm and cozy, with terra cotta, mustard and chocolate walls, a pretty panoramic photo of a farm on one wall, and an open kitchen where four cooks looked remarkably relaxed while they worked. Like Charleston’s Hominy Grill, Cochon’s focus is on regional food using seasonal ingredients—the chefs are frequently spotted at the farmer’s market, and whole pigs are brought in from local farms and used for andouille and head cheese. If I was going to be adventurous, this was the place to do it, so I ordered fried alligator and a pig patty.
The alligator, cut into General-Gau-like chunks and breaded, was coated in a chipotle aioli with surprising kick and garnished with a green chiffonade that I soon discovered was mint. I must admit that I only ate a fraction of the gator. Though the chipotle and mint were really interesting together, the texture was chewy and tough, and when I picked the meat out of the breading it had very little intrinsic flavor. The Louisiana cochon with turnips, cabbage, and cracklins, though, was full of piggy flavor. Shredded cabbage sat in a shallow pool of salty broth, layered with a pork patty, cubed turnip, and big ole’ cracklins on top. What a perfect winter meal. (I could only finish a third of this course.) Because it sounded so amazing, I ordered dessert, too. The gateaux au chocolate (a misnomer, really), with honey, cream cheese mousse and pears, was a thing of beauty. Sour cream cheese, rich dark chocolate, sweet honey, and floral pear…it was, in my opinion, a perfect dessert.
The farmers market bustled at nine the next morning. Strawberries were abundant and cheap, newly in season. Piles of Paleolithic-looking crawfish were piled by tin scales. I ordered tacos, one with blackened fish and one with fried oyster. They were delicious—the oyster garnished with balsamic-drizzled baby spinach, the fish with red cabbage and dill remoulade, a bottle of Sriracha handy. The two pints of strawberries I bought did not last through the afternoon.
The next morning, before heading off to Austin, I sliced open the black sapote I’d bought at the stand in South Florida. It really did look like chocolate pudding and I ate it with a spoon, the other hostel travelers eyeing me warily. When I closed my eyes, though, the flavor was more of a one-note sweetness with maybe a hint of raisin or molasses. Perhaps I didn’t wait long enough for it to ripen…
Next up: Austin, Santa Fe, Arizona, Los Angeles, and more!
Friday, March 13, 2009
South Florida is a long way from Flagstaff, Arizona, where I’m writing now. I’ve crossed the bayou and the desert and now I’m up in the mountains watching powdery snow meander from the sky. It’s so hard to believe that such wildly varying climates and cultures—Cuban, Creole, Cowboy, Comanche—are all part of the same crazy patchwork of a country. Back at the Everglades International Hostel, heaps of fresh oranges and grapefruits, free for the juicing, greeted me from a little outdoor bar outside the kitchen. The Homestead area is home to dozens of farms, from 3-acre organic mom-and-pop joints to mammoth tomato-growing operations with hundreds of employees. After checking in I headed to the Farmer’s Market restaurant, just a few blocks away, for lunch. The restaurant is tucked among several huge produce warehouses—if you have eaten a tomato in January, I read, you have eaten a Homestead tomato. There were no tomatoes, however, on the lunch menu at the Market Restaurant. The menu was straight-up diner fare, using fish and produce from the market when applicable, and the other diners were warehouse workers on their lunch break. The waitress recommended the grouper fingers and they did not disappoint. Four fat chunks of succulent fried fish came with a pile of thick fries and plastic ramekins of tartar sauce and slaw. I’m usually not much of a French fry enthusiast but I was famished and ate every last bite on my plate, even the coleslaw.
On the way to the Everglades National Park the next morning, I passed sprawling tomato fields. Workers crouched in wide-brimmed straw hats and watering vehicles sent massive rainbows shooting into the air. Gorgeous, rosy red tomatoes were mysteriously spread along the side of the road. I swerved to avoid a pack of vultures devouring the first of three dog carcasses I would see that day. In the park, the variety of wildlife took my breath away. Impudent gators sunned themselves on the asphalt paths. Four species of heron and three kinds of egret waded through the marsh, and a cormorant with a big fish in its beak alighted on a mangrove branch. On the way back to the hostel I stopped at Robert Is Here, a flashy fruit stand a couple of miles from the park. I’d read the story of the stand—the owner started selling cucumbers as a boy in 1959, other local farms got in on the action, and now-middle-aged Robert continues to sell local fruit from the same location, with a full staff and a somewhat depressing little zoo out back. Today Robert specializes in unusual tropical fruits. Among the shiny pyramids of heirloom tomatoes and Florida avocados were such rarities as sapodilla (tastes like pear and brown sugar), canostel (“egg fruit”—tastes like custard) and Black Sapote (chocolate pudding fruit). I left with one of each, instructions to wait a week before eating any of the fruit, and a huge canostel milkshake that did indeed taste like a rich custard, with a hint of tangerine.
Back at the hostel I got comfortable reading in the screened-in gazebo among shisha-scented pillows, Moroccan draperies blowing in the breeze. That night I ate a satisfying, locally-sourced eggplant lasagna dinner in the backyard with new friends from all over the country and the world. The next morning, I began my journey up the gulf coast of Florida, with stops in Sarasota and Tallahassee, on my way to the Big Easy.
More to come tomorrow, if not sooner!
Friday, March 6, 2009
My first stop in Florida was St. Augustine, the oldest European settlement on the American continent. The city teemed with tourists. It was hard to appreciate the narrow cobbled streets lined with Spanish colonial buildings—those buildings housed gift shops selling t-shirts for Chihuahuas and rhinestone-studded beach cover-ups. The weather was lovely, though, and I sat reading on the beach for hours. I ate fried shrimp at O’Steen’s, where middle-aged waitresses named Brenda, Debbie and Charlene kept my sweet tea filled to the brim. The shrimp, which I ordered with beets and fried okra, was served with a dipping sauce made with ketchup, mayo, Worcestershire and horseradish. Datil peppers, a Minorcan variety mostly grown in St. Augustine today, leant the homemade hot sauce a peppadew-like sweetness. The hushpuppies were the best I’ve had. Light and fresh from the fryer, they bore no resemblance to the hard little turds I’ve eaten elsewhere. Mostly, though, St. Augustine didn’t seem to care much about fresh food, and I looked forward to Miami, where I knew I’d be connected with some farm-fresh goodies.
On my first night in Miami, Cristin and her brother and sister took me to Red Light on the Little River. Situated downstairs in one of Biscayne Blvd.’s revamped motels, the restaurant has an easy urban charm, with the river gurgling below and fresh herbs growing near the door. The seafood at Red Light was excellent—a delicate conch chowder got a gentle kick from paprika, and the grouper, served with wilted spinach, was allowed to speak for itself—barely seasoned and pan-seared, it tasted like the Atlantic on a sunny day.
The next day I checked out an indoor farmer’s market which, oddly, resembled a high-end hair salon’s waiting room, complete with magazines. Two vendors sold produce from nearby farms and a handful of others sold prepared foods—ravioli and tamales. The vibe was kind of awkward so I left empty-handed, but my next dinner out was fabulous.
Cristin’s sister Meg forages produce for Creek 28 in Miami Beach. She also cooks there several nights a week, and she designed and planted a vegetable garden in an adjacent lot. In her capable hands, I knew I was in for a real taste of South Florida. We sat on a quiet brick patio lit by candles, the scent of flowers wafting over us. Meg amused us with sweet chestnut and fig ravioli, tastefully adorned with single blossoms from the garden. We shared a classic Mediterranean-style tomato salad, the salty feta crumbled over a mound of fresh red tomato chunks and fresh parsley, and a decadent (decidedly not-local) phyllo-wrapped baked chevre drizzled with (local) honey. I ordered a comforting pozole entrée. Fragrant with oregano and cumin, the stew was homey and satisfying, the flavor punctuated with the freshness of radish, onion, and cabbage and the spiciness of chile de arbol. In all of our pleasantly simple dishes, I admired the kitchen’s restraint with spices and its un-showy use of local produce when available. Miami is still Miami and isn’t consumed by localvore mania, but even in a city known for glitz and decadence, a growing appreciation for local foods allows lovely places like Creek 28 to thrive.
From Miami I drove a quick hour to Homestead, near the Everglades, where many of the veggies I ate in Miami were grown. The Everglades were amazing and so was the fruit and I will write about it all momentarily...
Thursday, February 26, 2009
If Charleston has a pedicure and perm, Savannah wears a well-loved vintage dress, wrinkles and all. I checked into the Thunderbird Inn, a recently renovated 1960s motel. The exterior was colorful, the rooms surprisingly plush and luxurious, the staff friendly and helpful. Savannah contains an astounding twenty-four gorgeous public squares and a mix of Federal, Georgian, Gothic Revival and Italianate architecture spanning centuries. I took a self-guided walking tour of the city and daydreamed about moving there. The art school breathes life into the city—it’s just as beautiful as Charleston, but less of a museum. I ate a spectacular lunch at Cha Bella, a restaurant at the forefront of the Savannah’s farm-to-table movement. The owners of Cha Bella ripped out part of their patio to plant herbs. They own a farm a few minutes away where all of the restaurant staff, from dishwashers to servers to chefs, work cultivating and harvesting vegetables. They even have swings in the yard! I started with a cup of roasted mushroom and leek soup. With no distracting chunky texture, the thin, delicate puree captured the core of the mushrooms’ earthy flavor. Then, lo and behold! Actual fresh vegetables! A simple veggie sandwich on fresh focaccia was such a delight after all those weeks of meat eating. I would have preferred the local goat cheese that came on the salad, but the gorgonzola on the sandwich was good, and seeing some bright color on my plate for a change made me ridiculously happy.
The next night, I walked to Local Eleven Ten on the edge of historic Savannah. The space was distinctly urban, airy and loft-like with lots of black lacquer and white-painted brick. I ordered two starters, local oysters on the half shell and the house charcuterie. The oysters, served in a champagne broth with a tomato tapenade, were a bit of a disappointment. The tapenade looked and tasted like gazpacho—it drowned out the delicate briny flavor of all but the biggest oyster, which, interestingly, looked more like a jagged prehistoric rock than I’d ever seen before. The charcuterie, too, was much more appealing on the menu than on the plate—the “pickled vegetables” were jarred cornichons, and the salami, prosciutto, and bresaolo were uniformly dry and bland. I enjoyed myself anyway. The Chateau Pesquie rose was floral and delicious, the bartender capable and friendly—I suspect that, had I asked her for suggestions, my food would have been much better.
On my way out of town the next morning, I stopped at the health food store to get provisions for the Hostel in the Forest, in Brunswick, GA. A variety of local greens were on offer but I stocked up on apples and yogurt, anticipating communal dinners at the hostel.
The Hostel in the Forest is such a remarkable place that I struggle to summon words to describe it. It’s easy to see why hippies describe everything as “magical” when they live in places like this. I arrived as a guest, intending to spend three nights. I reluctantly left ten days later, having attended a staff meeting and taught a workshop, promising to return for a longer stay within the year. I could write a book about the Hostel in the Forest (perhaps I will) but I’ll aim for a degree of brevity here.
The term “hostel” seems inaccurate when describing The Hostel in the Forest. The main hub of the hostel is a geodesic dome, with nine guest tree houses spread throughout the property. Another dome is being rebuilt as a library. Though the place is partly supported by travelers, it has the feel of a utopian intentional community, with some volunteers staying for months at a time to work and live. After my three days as a paying guest, I found a niche working in the garden in the morning and cooking vegan feasts in the afternoon. I spent a day cleaning out the chicken coop. On Valentine’s Day I taught a wine-tasting workshop for guests. Work-exchangers are expected to work four to six hours a day but almost always do more because they choose their projects and the work is rewarding and fun. The hostel teaches sustainability with its composting toilets, organic garden, use of solar energy and sourcing of forest wood for building. It was such a pleasure to harvest herbs and greens, then serve them to an appreciative crowd hours later. Each night before dinner, guests and staff join hands around the fire in a circle of thanks, reciting their names, where they’re from, and a few things they’re thankful for. The hostel’s peaceful atmosphere, lush beauty and loving people made it difficult to narrow it down to a few.
Next up: sunny Florida.
Thursday, February 19, 2009
Myrtle Beach is a pancake town. Pulling into the city, I passed Harry’s Breakfast Pancakes, Woodhaven Pancake House, Omega Pancake and Omelet House, Plantation Pancake House, Golden Egg Pancake House, Pan American Pancake and Omelet, Southern Pancake House, Omega Pancake House, Golden Griddle Pancake House, Garden City Pancake House, Dino’s House of Pancakes, Tar Baby’s Pancakes, and Applewood House of Pancakes. Pancakes are one of the few foods I really don’t care for. As it turned out, I really don’t care for Myrtle Beach, either. I’d read that motels on the beach were cheap on the off-season and I thought Myrtle Beach would be a sort of campy, fun spot to hunker down and write for a day or two, so I checked into the Sea Breeze and felt immediate trepidation, then regret. As I mentioned, it was scary. I spent a lot of time in my room, but felt totally uninspired and watched cable until I numbed myself out enough to sleep. I read on chowhound that the best she-crab soup was in Murrell’s Inlet, 20 miles south, so on my second day there I took the back roads to discover a pretty fishing town--a lot of little waterfront houses on stilts and live oaks swathed in Spanish moss. But between Superbowl Sunday and the off-season, every last crab shack was closed. Even the gas station was closed. Early the next morning, I took a peaceful eight-mile walk on the empty beach, then drove down to Charleston.
Charleston’s opulent beauty was so refreshing after Myrtle Beach. I parked and walked for hours, passing block after block of grandiose, perfectly maintained eighteenth-century mansions with perfectly manicured gardens. It’s a college town but seemed to lack any bohemian culture of any kind. Brooks Brothers, Dockers, and Nantucket reds are the norm for men young and old, with such a peculiar profusion of bubblegum pink in the young women’s clothing that I thought it stood for something. (It didn’t.) The city didn’t beckon me to move there but it sure was a nice place to visit. As luck would have it, I got sick again, but I ate at such a great restaurant when I felt better that I don’t feel I missed out on anything at all. The Hominy Grill was just two blocks away from the hostel where I stayed. My first experience with boiled peanuts happened there, and I felt like someone eating sushi for the first time. Alone in the restaurant with no example to follow, I pulled the nuts apart and picked the meat out with my fingernail. Boiled peanuts…are not for me, but everything else in the restaurant was perfect—simple lace curtains, warm cream walls, candlelight, butcher paper on the tables, and great service even though I got there late. The Hominy Grill specializes in traditional low-country foods made with fresh local ingredients, and I wanted to try Chicken Country Captain or Purloo, a low-country rice dish with Middle Eastern roots, brought to the south via African slaves. My stomach, however, had other, less adventurous ideas, so I ordered fried chicken with two sides, green beans and sweet potatoes. This simple meal was breathtaking—the first on my trip where, had I had a dining companion, I would have put down my fork and laughed with disbelief and pleasure. The sweet potatoes were a silky, custardy mousse, the green beans succulent in a ham broth, the chicken salty with a light crust in a pool of buttermilk gravy. For dessert I had buttermilk pie. Smooth as silk, with hints of clove and cardamom and a distinctly un-lemony, buttermilk sourness, it was, as my mom would say, divine.
On my last day in Charleston I sniffed out a casual little sandwich shop off Charleston’s tourist track, in the West Ashley neighborhood. I read that The Glass Onion, a no-frills place where you order at the counter, was more fiercely committed to localism than anywhere in Charleston. Refreshingly, the only evidence of this was a refrigerator case on the far wall containing local greens and eggs for sale. I ordered a shrimp and oyster po' boy with a deviled egg. (For years I’ve wanted to open a restaurant with a deviled egg of the day, so this was exciting for me.) What a difference fresh shrimp makes. The thin membrane gives with a gentle pop, releasing a rush of flavor right from the ocean’s floor that lingers at the back of the tongue. In keeping with the unfussy vibe of the place, the sandwich was made with store-bought mayo on a deli roll, but the Boston lettuce and ripe tomato were totally fresh and delicious. Plus, the guy brought me a lip-smacking peanut butter cookie when I waffled on dessert, free of charge.
On my way to Savannah the next morning, I drove about ten miles out of town to check out a plantation. It was really cold walking around the Magnolia Plantation but some camellias and azaleas were still hanging on and the grounds were gorgeous. Two egrets and a heron waded in the swamps. The plantation is still owned by the same family that owned slaves there and I couldn't believe how that aspect of the property's history was glossed over. The slave cabins were being refurbished and I sneaked into one and got chased out by security guards. It was a pretty haunting place.
Next up: Georgia
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
It feels like years since I was in North Carolina. I got swept away in a jungly utopia in southern Georgia for more than a week, more or less ignoring technology but meeting wonderful people and learning a lot about food and sustainability. (Much more on that later!) Since Asheville I’ve stopped in Myrtle Beach, Charleston, Savannah, and Brunswick. Now I’m in the sunshine state, eating fresh oranges with sand in my hair. But for now, I’ll jump back in time to Asheville…
What a lovely town Asheville is, all elegant turn-of-the-century architecture and mom-and-pop joints, the Blue Ridge majestic in the distance. Asheville felt familiar, with an outdoorsy-crunchy vibe that instantly brought Burlington to mind. The city seemed to outdo even Burlington in the localvore department; the newspaper was crammed with ads for restaurants specializing in locally-sourced veggies and mountain trout. I suffered through a brutal stomach bug my first day there but ate as well as I could when I felt better. My first meal was pan-fried mountain trout and grits at the Early Girl Eatery, a sunny, cozy spot with homey, eclectic décor, bad art by local artists and chalkboard specials—eerily reminiscent of my beloved Penny Cluse in Burlington. Then, lo and behold! Biscuits with herb cream gravy, just like at the Cluse. The trout was tender and pink, mild enough for my delicate stomach to take. I asked where the eggs came from and the server didn’t know. “I know they’re organic and all that good stuff,” she said. The restaurant manager in me suppressed mild irritation with her nonchalance; the Vermont in me suppressed mild disgust at the Sysco butter. Then the generous populist in me wagged its finger at the pompous ass in me. I was still a little bit grumpy and sick. The place was cute, though, and I’m sure I’d be a regular if I stayed in Asheville longer.
That afternoon I drove to the Biltmore Estate on the edge of town. The largest private home in the United States, the Biltmore was of particular interest to me because of its Shelburne Farms connection—both are former Vanderbilt mansions landscaped by Frederick Law Olmstead. Both estates were initially conceived as self-sufficient and both continue to grow vegetables and raise livestock for their restaurants. I took the audio tour, and the house really was impressive. It’s four acres inside! At Shelburne Farms it was always a joke that the mansion was the family’s summer cottage, but the Biltmore made Shelburne look quaint. I drove to the winery, formerly a dairy that provided milk to hundreds of families in the Asheville area. I tasted six wines. More than ninety acres of vitis vinifera are planted on the estate’s west side, but only two of the wines were estate-grown. The 2006 Chardonnay was overpoweringly oaky, with apple and apricot flavors and a bitter finish. In the “premium” room, I tried a North Carolina Blanc de Blancs. With nice, soft bubbles but no toastiness, the sparkler really wasn’t bad. I made my way over to the bistro for lunch. Four miles from the beautiful house, the restaurant looks like an Olive Garden inside, with leatherette banquettes and fake wrought-iron chairs. When I asked the waiter, a smirking flirt with a goatee, what entrees were sourced from the property, he recommended a lamb special. The plate looked a little dated, with slices of lamb sitting atop a bowl of oily orzo dotted with pearl onions, sautéed spinach and cubed turnip and red pepper. The sliced lamb was good, a satisfying mid-winter lunch, but the Biltmore is definitely a tourist trap and not a dining destination—anyone from anywhere in America would feel right at home there, and the menu isn’t pushing any culinary boundaries. After lunch I poked around the garden a bit. Greens were just getting started in the hoophouse. I thought they would be producing hearty winter greens all year in the Carolinas, but then again, I really know nothing about growing vegetables down here.
Vegetarian folks I met at punk rock karaoke the night before recommended Rosetta’s Kitchen for local eats. By dinnertime I could think of nothing more appealing than a simple vegan meal. Ascending the stairs to Rosetta’s, I was greeted by the familiar smell of hot nutritional yeast. The same Farm Sanctuary pamphlets that I handed out in my vegan days were stacked at the top of the stairs. My favorite Johnny Thunders record from high school was playing on the stereo, and the clientele mostly looked like versions of my younger self. The menu was just the kind of stuff I wanted to serve when I dreamed of a vegan restaurant years ago—fake ribs, vegan mac and cheese, and other processed versions of traditional foods, with some healthier curries and salads. I ordered the (local) kale and cornbread bowl with veggie gravy. The huge hunk of cornbread was tasty, with some nice grit to it, but the kale was cooked down to a muddy brown, the gravy a thinned-out nutritional yeast and miso dealie that gave the dish a homogenous, lingering saltiness that didn’t allow me to finish it. I always want places like this to succeed, and in college towns like Asheville they often can. This kind of processed vegan stuff just isn’t for me anymore—give me Angelica Kitchen any day.
I hoped to hit up the farmer’s market on the way out of town, but found that it shuts down in winter. What a bummer—even Burlington has an indoor farmer’s market now. So I hit the road, on my way to Myrtle Beach. Tomorrow I’ll write about Myrtle Beach and Charleston. I hope to get caught up before I meet up with Cristin in Miami.
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
I got pulled over on my way to Hilary’s in Virginia. It’s been years since I’ve been pulled over and when I saw those manic lights in the rearview I nearly hyperventilated. My interaction with the police officer was my first encounter with a gin-u-wine Southern accent on my trip. I was so nervous that I actually laughed out loud when he called me ma’am. I’m really in the South, I thought.
The Charlottesville area, like Burlington, is a hotbed of localvore activity, with its agricultural history and thriving student community. For lunch, me and Hilary and her sister, Courtney, took the baby to the Take It Away Sandwich shop near the university for ham sandwiches. Smithfield, a small town near Williamsburg, is world-renowned for its salt-cured ham. Smithfield ham is cut from peanut-fed hogs raised in the peanut belt of Virginia or North Carolina. Our sandwiches were intensely salty, the meat pleasantly chewy on the soft white bread. Courtney ordered Brunswick stew, a thick, tomato-based soup originating in Brunswick County. Initially made with squirrel or rabbit, the version we tasted was made with chicken, okra, lima beans and corn. It was heavy and somehow gamy-tasting—one could easily imagine the stew being made with any kind of pulled meat.
For a real Virginia barbecue experience, we drove thirty miles out of town to the Pig-N-Steak in Madison. Seated in a cozy booth, Hilary said, “I hired these actors to give you a real sense of what it’s like around here.” Looking around, the other patrons really were straight out of central casting—big burly guys in overalls (!) and turtlenecks. Here I encountered the meat-and-two phenomenon for the first time (pick your own meat and two sides). We had pulled pork and mac-and-cheese and collards and ribs, with french fries for the baby. The pork was deeply smoky but clean-tasting and not greasy. It hardly needed sauce but I tried a bit of the sweet Virginia-style condiment. The baby loved the bland, buttery mac and the sweet sautéed collards complemented the smoky meat nicely.
The next morning a half-inch of slushy snow had fallen. Hilary and I, like typical northerners, had a good laugh at the fact that school was closed for the day. We drove to Monticello—it, too, was closed. A couple of miles down the road, the Jefferson Vineyards didn’t look too promising, with only one car in the lot. Just as we pulled in, though, a guy was heading out the door to shovel. We did a tasting, and the wine was pretty good! (tasting notes to be transcribed when I am reunited with these notes later)
In Crozet, a cute rural town near Charlottesville, we hunted down the Our Lady of the Angels monastery, where nine nuns live a monastic life in log cabins and make gouda as their main source of income. We drove up a winding wooded road along a stream, arriving at a stark brick structure reminiscent of one of those institutional public schools built in the sixties. Again, no signs of life anywhere, just an ugly building with some cows hanging out nearby. We rang a doorbell and waited a few minutes. A nun in a hairnet and a blue and white apron eventually poked her head out the door. They were sold out of cheese, she said, since Christmas. The new batch wasn’t aged enough to sell. Dear lord!
Monday, February 2, 2009
Since my last post, I’ve traveled South hundreds of miles. I’ve taken copious notes but it’s been hard to find time to get to the computer. In Baltimore, I was catching up with Meara and Josh and James. In Virginia, I was running around with Hilary and her husband, James, and baby Henry. In Asheville, I had a crippling stomach flu for 24 hours and scrambled to get the lay of the land in my remaining 24. Now I’m in a shady motel in Myrtle Beach, avoiding the buggy-eyed vagrant types with 40-racks of MGD and the dirty kids who love my car, hoping to get some work done before I head off to Charleston.
I didn’t focus on local food in Baltimore—I was there to visit with friends. We ate good crab and corn chowder at the joint around the corner from Josh and James’s place. In the grocery store near their apartment, we found cheddar from Hawk’s Hill Creamery with a “Maryland Grown” sticker. I paused over the clothbound but bought the cheaper, Old-Bay seasoned flavor. The cheese was mild and smooth, a pleasant foil for the robust flavor of the Chesapeake Bay spice (bay leaf, celery salt, paprika, red pepper flakes…?). Eddie’s is a local chain with a pretty hip staff from the art school nearby. I looked around in the market for other products with the “Maryland Grown” seal, but I didn’t find any.
I did have one memorable dining experience in Baltimore, at Ixia, a fabulous restaurant where James bustles around looking officious and debonair as general manager. Ixia’s décor is opulent but not overly designed; a fine, eclectic collection of contemporary art hangs on blue walls and crystals are draped from the ceiling. Perfect red roses festoon each table. I asked the server what was local on the menu. She passed my question on to the chef, who told her “not much, this time of year.” It was, once again, the middle of a weekend rush, and I assume he thought I just meant produce—certainly some of the seafood came from Maryland. Another staffer told me that the owner grew the chard in her backyard. Wow, I thought, I just read an article about Boston chefs growing herbs in their private rooftop gardens. “Yeah,” he said soberly, “we all shit in it as often as we can. You know, for fertilizer.”
Ixia was great—eating a decadent meal with Josh and Meara was a rare treat. The food wasn’t locally-sourced but the chef is skilled and the plates looked gorgeous and tasted as rich and decadent but refined as the surroundings.
I’m finally learning the ins and outs of my camera so the photos should improve—the Ixia ones were pretty blown out and didn’t do the gorgeous meal justice so I’ve left them out. Instead, here are me and Josh and Meara looking cool.(Meara took the photo with me in it)
Yesterday I went to the icky suburban mall in Myrtle Beach to use the internet at Starbucks. I bought a tea, sat down with my computer, and was asked to pay four dollars. So I waited another day, for free wi-fi here at the Charleston hostel. I have so much more to report—Virginia and Asheville were fantastic.
Monday, January 26, 2009
My meal at Fette Sau in Brooklyn was, quite simply, incredibly fun. Meara and Laura and I were in good spirits and eating meat with such abandon still feels new and a little forbidden to me, regardless of its provenance. Barbecue is bound to be a major part of my eating journey as I travel through Virginia and the Carolinas, then later in Texas, but the northeast doesn’t offer much produce in winter and we were cold and found ourselves contemplating dinner from across the street at Spuyten Duyvil over mulled wine, so we headed over, shivering. We were in just the right mood for a place with communal tables and cafeteria trays. Rolls of paper towels and unlabeled squeeze bottles of sauce are handily set at each table. It was a Wednesday but we waited for seats; the buzz hasn’t worn off of this place yet. We ordered spicy Berkshire pork sausage, boneless beef ribs, baked beans and brisket, with German potato salad and broccoli salad sides. The guy slinging the meat was a skinny, hip jokester with weird, perfectly round patches of white in his beard. I asked him where the meat came from. He told me that the beef came from Pineland Farms upstate. The pork, he said was Berkshire pork. “Berkshire, like, from Western Mass?” I asked. “It’s all organic. I know that,” he said.
“Berkshire Pork” refers to the Berkshire breed, not to the hills of western Massachusetts. Descended from English herds, these black pigs are known for their tender, juicy flesh. American Berkshire pigs, or kurobuta, can be from anywhere in the states. Of course it’s no big deal that the guy serving us didn’t know this—he’s not a chef. It’s interesting, though, that so few people have asked where the meat was coming from. Organic, it seems, is enough to assuage most recent-vegetarian consciences, and I’m sure that many recent converts break edge at this place. I certainly enjoyed my meal. We all went caveman on the piles of fatty meat and picked at the sides. What you see is really what you get at Fette Sau. All the meats were cooked properly and the pork sausage, while not very spicy, had a nice caraway flavor. The broccoli, though overcooked and doused in vinegar, was a comforting palate-cleanser between bites of different meats, and the potato rolls provided a nice, chewy sponge to soak up the grease. We had a half-gallon jug of their house beer and a tasting flight of American whiskey. By the end of our meal, we were singing Brooklyn’s praises with a couple of Brits at the end of our table. Meara demonstrated some James Brown dance moves. I’m so glad that I got to go to this place with good friends—as a solo traveler, it wouldn’t have been such a standout.
Next up: Baltimore, then Charlottesville.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
Here I am in Brooklyn, having spent a mostly lazy week at my parents’ house in Concord, MA, ostensibly preparing for my trip but mostly reading, eating, and drinking coffee in my bathrobe. On my second night in town, I went out in search of local chicken and root vegetables for that night’s dinner. I read about a small farm in Concord, Pete and Jen’s Backyard Birds, and I drove to Verrill Farm on Route 117, hoping to find a bird. Verrill Farm sells produce from their own 200 acres and also from neighboring farms; they were also one of the first farms in the area to deliver to local restaurants. In September of last year, the farm stand was destroyed in an electrical fire, and the stand is temporarily housed in a large trailer. I found frozen meat from Vermont and eggs from Pete and Jen’s but no chickens. I pulled some red onions from a basket labeled “from our farm,” and headed to Deb’s Natural Gourmet in West Concord, where I found “naturally-raised” frozen birds from Pennsylvania and carrots, turnips and parsnips from the Pacific Northwest. With no time to defrost a chicken, I picked up some Bell and Evans breasts at the supermarket and we had a simple winter meal, delicious but not farm-fresh.
Last year ‘locavore’ was the New Oxford American dictionary’s word of the year. Living in Vermont, it was easy to see why. You couldn’t throw a frisbee without hitting a “localvore,” Vermont’s idiosyncratic take on the term. (Meara says, “It’s so annoying how people say ‘locAvore. Let’s put the L back in local!”) City Market developed a special logo for local products, the farmer’s market was a social hub, and the best restaurants in the state boasted lists of locally-sourced products on their menus. The confluence of an agricultural past, a smattering of back-to-the-land hippie types from the seventies and batch after batch of earnest college students each year make Vermont the perfect climate for the localvore trend to really erupt in full. I expected to find a similar enthusiasm for local food in Massachusetts. My parents’ friends have maintained an organic vegetable farm in Concord since the seventies, and the Boston area is arguably as liberal and certainly as affluent as anywhere in Vermont. What’s missing, I found, is a certain rugged earthiness. Boston suburbanites seem to lack Burlington foodies’ singular youthful vigor; while folks are happy to spend an extra quarter at Whole Foods for organic bananas, few are willing to spend summer evenings canning tomatoes or to forego avocados all year long. Of course, few people anywhere are willing to trade the comfort of familiar eating habits for the small pleasures of forging food communities or the abstract idea of saving a few “food miles.” I expect to encounter a proliferation of locavores in college towns and a measure of skepticism elsewhere.
I’ve been thinking a lot about class as I embark on my trip. A lucky minority of Americans can afford to consider both the nutritional content of their meals and the ecological impact of what they consume. I started my journey dining in the kind of restaurant I’ve worked at in the past several years, the kind I can rarely afford to eat at. Hamersley’s Bistro is a Boston institution. A longtime supporter of local agriculture, the restaurant threw a benefit for Verrill Farm after the fire. My mother, my aunt Carol and I went to the restaurant on a frigid Friday night. I expected to be impressed by Hamersley’s; our meal exceeded all expectations. Our server was a real pro—knowledgeable and enthusiastic without condescending when we asked questions. I asked where they sourced their seafood, and she told me I was free to ask Gordon, the chef. I made my way from the small front room where we were seated to the main dining room, where an open kitchen overlooks an elegant, understated collection of tables and chairs. Six tickets perched in the window but the chef chatted with me for a few minutes. The seafood, he said, came mostly from Captain Marden’s, a family-owned wholesaler in Wellesley.
We ordered a Chablis to go with our first course. Like most fine-dining restaurants in the northeast, Hamersley’s commitment to localism is motivated by taste and therefore does not extend to the wine list. I haven’t tried a really refined glass of wine from New England, but I’d certainly love to. While we waited for our first course, I was pleased to notice an older couple at the table next to us asking where the meat was sourced. The three of us, my mother, aunt, and I, shared a pear salad and duck confit with roasted shallots and rosemary. The pear, stuffed with Spanish Cabrales blue cheese, did not stand out, but the duck confit was perfect--tender and rich but not oily, salty and sweet with honey. The seafood main dishes did stand out—for main courses, my aunt had a spicy halibut and clam roast and I had a stuffed lobster, while my mother had a grilled pheasant from Vermont. My lobster was stuffed with mussels, hazelnuts and spinach, and glazed with a sherry beurre noisette. The hazelnuts and butter brought out the lobster’s delicate sweetness without smothering it—it was, quite possibly, the best lobster dish I’ve ever had, and I really love lobster. The halibut, flanked by tender black trumpet mushrooms and bacon-braised white beans, hit a similarly excellent balance of spicy and sweet. In all three dishes, the spices were easily discernable while still allowing the intrinsic flavors of the ingredients to shine. What a great dining experience to kick off my trip. As I go south, I look forward to getting my hands a little dirty, but meals like this are really memorable. Thanks, Mom!
Now I’m in Baltimore with Meara at Josh and James’s place. Tomorrow I’ll post about Fette Sau in Brooklyn and then Ixia, where James works. Future posts will, I promise, be briefer and more frequent. I still can’t believe my trip is already underway.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Ten years ago, I saved some money and set out on a trip across the country. Spencer’s parents bought an RV from a neighbor of theirs in rural New Hampshire, and the three of us, Spencer, Easy, and I, packed our things in the station wagon and headed up to Dublin from Boston with no set schedule, no jobs or leases to come back to, elated. On the way, Easy got spooked by something crawling over his foot in the passenger seat and we pulled over. The boys screamed manically at a walnut-sized mouse I caught between pieces of paper and dropped at the side of the road, and we cried laughing the rest of the way up. In the dirt driveway, we were giddy getting in the vehicle. Our dreams were coming true! Our destinies awaited! Spencer got in the driver’s seat while I lounged in an armchair in back. We were taking it for a test run, a trip to the insurance company in Keene to get our affairs in order. Spencer tapped the gas and the RV roared, lurching forward into a tree branch. The passenger-side window shattered and we froze—silent, solemn, uninsured.
We would not laugh about the RV episode until a year later, when Spencer and Easy moved to New York on a whim and I planned another trip across the country, this time with S., who’d bought a perfectly maintained raisin-colored 1988 Monte Carlo to make her brother jealous. Our first stop was Buffalo, where we stayed with her mother, who she hated, for five days. The weather was cold and we didn’t do much. I smoked in the driveway while S. and her mother fought. The only color I remember in Buffalo was the Indian food we ordered each night. S’s mother reached out to her by respecting her veganism and ordering accordingly, without comment or apparent judgment.
S. and me were both vegan: she had an abiding preference for animals over people; I had an adolescent desire to fit in while setting myself apart. S’s ethical convictions inspired me and I longed to be a part of a community—better still, the victim of a perceived injustice! Having recently recovered from the trauma of High School, I wasn’t fond of people, myself. (The myriad of excellent ecological and ethical reasons for eating low on the food chain was not apparent to me at the time.) I hoped to open a vegan restaurant one day.
Pulling into Bloomington, Indiana, the beautiful car sputtered to a halt and we were stranded for ten days in a house with six straight-edge boys in their late teens and Abby, a friend from Boston who’d landed there and reluctantly put us up. We sped across the rest of the country in a few days. Kansas never ended. By the time we arrived in Eugene, Oregon, S. was as tired of my wishy-washiness as I was of her brusqueness. I half-heartedly looked for work and ate a lot of vegan nachos and rice dream. By the time I broke my ankle in a bicycle accident six months later, we were barely on speaking terms. I flew back to Boston and never looked back. Six months later, I was going to college in Burlington, Vermont.
I started eating cheese within a year of my arrival in Vermont. I didn’t really know any vegans and I was happy and saw no reason to deny myself all the pleasure food could bring. But all those years of meticulously checking labels for rennet and lactic acid had left me unable to blindly consume and I mostly avoided pre-packaged foods with long lists of unrecognizable ingredients. I fell in with a lovely crowd of ethical foodies. Meghan and Gahlord had monthly potlucks for friends and acquaintances. J.B. grilled moose meat. Others brought ripe heirloom tomatoes from their gardens and fiddleheads from the farmer’s market. Everyone seemed to be thinking about where their food came from. After living briefly in New York, I returned to Burlington and began working at Smokejacks, where the food came from mushroom foragers with muddy pants and heavy accents, from rosy-cheeked farmers with bright red and gold bushels of beets. Waitstaff took written tests on local cheeses. We were proud to be a part of a food-based community. The food looked beautiful and tasted delicious.
Around the time Smokejacks closed, I took a job as AM dining room manager at The Inn at Shelburne Farms. The cows I saw from my bedroom window produced the farmhouse cheddar in the omelets. The eggs came from hens in the farmyard a mile down the road. Every day I ate salad from our market garden. Prepared with loving care, the food at Shelburne Farms was some of the best I’d ever tasted. I spent my free time walking the grounds, drinking wine, generally enjoying my spectacular surroundings and daydreaming about my next move. Living at work, I saved money in a way I hadn’t managed since living at home in Massachusetts. I had a car. I decided to take a road trip, alone.
I plan to travel down the East Coast, across the South, and up the West Coast, with detours for anywhere that sounds exciting. I’ll take my time and visit friends and eat and drink and have adventures. Now seems like the perfect time to start the food blog I’ve considered doing for years, though I’m sure there will be digressions aplenty. I’ll go to farmer’s markets and restaurants and vineyards and farms. I’ll post a lot of pictures. I’m going to leave the day after the inauguration. This year is going to be delicious.