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.