How Moosewood Was Lame While Niagara Falls Was Awesome

Recently I went on a road trip to Niagara Falls, Canada. I’ve been wanting to go to Niagara Falls for a long, long time, but never seem to make it. Frequent readers know that I’ve been bouncing back and forth between the East and West coasts for most of my life, and every time I bounce East I dream of Niagara Falls. And every time I try to go, something goes awry. This time around, while I was packing up my Maryland apartment, I wistfully thought of Niagara Falls and, optimistically, pulled out the Toronto tour book I bought back in 2002 when I first tried to plan that trip. Maybe, just maybe this summer…

It wasn’t until weeks later when I was settled into temporary family digs in Pennsylvania, and it was clear I wasn’t going to be getting any temping work that I thought about Niagara. I hopped online, found a great deal, and realized in a crystalline moment that my passport was packed up tight in my file cabinet in the back of one of my three packed-to-the-gills moving-pod-container things resting comfortably in some warehouse 150 miles away. Sigh.

I wanted that passport. I was going to Niagara Falls, and it was going to be the Canadian side. I wasn’t driving all the way up north to stand on the boo-boo side of the Falls (sorry, USA, but you know it’s true).

So, after much hassle, expense and tapping of family goodwill (thanks Pam and Karen!), with passport in hand (and, believe me, that sucker could not have been packed any further from the door of the pod than it was unless it came out the other side), I was off to Niagara Falls.

I was happy to find this little bugger.

I was happy to find this little bugger.

And it was amazing. Here’s a slideshow. You should definitely go. It’s unbelievably beautiful. And, I have to give a shout-out to my new heroine, Annie Edson Taylor, a school teacher and the first person to go over the falls in a barrel. With her cat.

Plus, Niagara-on-the-Lake, about 20 minutes north, is known as a wine region in its own right, and I was there just before harvest.

Niagara Falls isn’t known for its food so I didn’t expect much by way of food tourism — although, I have to say, my hotel had a wicked seafood pasta —  and I’m not known for mapping my route much before I go on a trip, so I was surprised to see as I drove north that I was going pretty much almost right past Ithaca, New York. Of Moosewood Restaurant fame. Score! What a happy circumstance. I determined to stop there on my way home. Turns out I was also going right by Seneca Falls, of women’s rights fame, so that got added into the itinerary, too.

Plus, I ran into a couple other cool local delights. I got clued into a Binghamton, NY specialty by a Binghamton expat now in Maryland.   Spiedies, a local specialty of cubed, marinated meat in a soft sub roll, have their own Wikipedia entry, their own balloon festival in August, and were featured in an episode of The Food Network’s “Unwrapped” (if you find the episode, let me know — I lost an hour of my life browsing their labyrinth website looking for it).

I also found this delight of a local eatery, Doug’s Fish Fry, in beautiful Skaneateles, NY, which is part of the Finger Lakes region. Very charming place.

The fry at Doug's Fish Fry

The fry at Doug’s Fish Fry

Now, on to the bad news: Moosewood Restaurant. Sigh. What can I tell you? Bon Appetit magazine named Moosewood Restaurant as one of the most influential restaurants of the 20th century. Dog-eared copies of their numerous cookbooks can be found in every used bookstore in Berkeley, CA. When they opened in 1973 they were cool, they were alternative, they were a collective, for goodness sake — they helped bring vegetarian cuisine into the spotlight. So it should be amazing to pop in for lunch if I’m in the area, right? Check it out for myself?


The recent reviews didn’t bode well. People complained of poor service, bland food, mediocrity in general. Surprising, but yelpers can be obnoxious so I do not let grumbling reviews dissuade me from going somewhere.

3.5 out of 5 stars for one of the most influential restaurants of the 20th century?

3.5 out of 5 stars for one of the most influential restaurants of the 20th century?

Sadly, my experience was lacking. Moosewood and I got off on the wrong foot when I arrived, due to dilly-dallying on my ride down from Niagara Falls, at 3:00 in the afternoon. I was starving. They were closed.

What? What kind of groovy, college town restaurant closes between lunch and dinner? I didn’t see that coming, but that’s my fault. It’s weird, and kind of lame, but still ultimately my fault. The front door was open, though, and there were a few people inside, so I popped in to ask if they were open. The guy behind the bar stared at me for a long second and then said they were open for dessert and drinks only.

Ok, dessert it is. Anything is better than nothing.

It went downhill from there. The staff was exceedingly unwelcoming and I was the only customer in there. The place was quiet as a tomb, which made me feel very awkward, like I had just walked in on a staff meeting or something. I had read something about their vegan chocolate cake, so I ordered that, along with a side of the ice cream of the day, banana frozen yogurt. I wanted to order a coffee, but since the server had already turned his back to me before I even finished speaking, I didn’t bother. It was all too weird.

The cake arrived cold from the refrigerator. Yuck. I don’t like cold cake unless it’s meant to be cold, like a mousse or cheesecake. The plating was pedestrian and it had whipped cream on top. I thought that whipped cream was highly improbable on a vegan cake, so I tasted it. Tasted like whipped cream, but I couldn’t believe they would serve dairy on top of vegan cake without mentioning it, so I asked. My friend behind the bar stared at me doubly long this time like I was an idiot to ask if it was whipped cream when it was so obviously whipped cream, then asked me if that was all right.

Um, yeah, it’s fine, I guess. Just wondering…

Awkward, and awkward. Good thing I wasn’t vegan or I’d have been pretty bummed right about then. I probably also wouldn’t have ordered frozen yogurt, either.

I ate my cake, which was average, and my banana frozen yogurt, which was not bad, and beat it out of there. While I was paying the bill (I had to stand there for a few minutes while the bartender made himself a coffee), I snapped a quick picture of what looked to be a draft of the dinner menu.

Here’s what I would have had if things had gone better:

A server's draft of the dinner menu -- hard to read since I was snapping the picture quickly and furtively.

A server’s draft of the dinner menu — hard to read since I was snapping the picture quickly and furtively.

As nonplussed as I was about my Moosewood experience, I was amazed by the beauty of the region: farms, lakes, wineries — and I know I barely scratched the surface.

As for you, Moosewood: yikes. Sounds like you might need to get over yourselves. You might have had it going on at one time, but people don’t seem to be happy now. I compare this experience to a trip I made last year to Greens, in San Francisco, another vegetarian icon open since the 1970’s, and it’s like night and day: Greens was classy, the service was great, and the food was stellar. Way to keep it rocking, Greens! That’s how you stay on top.

And as for you, Niagara Falls: love you. You were worth every mile.

Niagara Falls Trip Sept2013 (5)

Things I Learned at the Grange Fair

These cows know things are about to get jiggy at the Grange Fair.

These cows know things are about to get jiggy at the Grange Fair.

I took a little trip to the 65th Annual Middletown Grange Fair in Wrightstown, PA. I’ve never been to a Grange Fair, but I figured it was probably a little like a County Fair, and I love a County Fair so I was sold. Plus, there was an article in the newspaper’s weekly food section about the baking contests at the fair, so naturally I was curious.

The baking entries were all lined up on tables and already under plastic covers.  They are kind of hard to see that way so it wasn’t super interesting at first — I was just kind of looking at the blue ribbons to see what won. Then I noticed that some of the entry cards had handwritten comments on them, so I started looking at them more closely. And then I just started laughing.

Now I had to read them all (as best as I could through the glare of that crazy plastic).

The handwritten comments — written in tidy print and cursive like a postcard from your Great-Aunt Agnes — were criticisms! The judges were taking shots at the competitors! Here’s the first one I noticed:

Ouch!  But, you need to know, right?

Ouch! But, you need to know, right?

Yikes. That’s embarrassing.  But, you need to know, right? I guess you also need to know that your bread was undercooked, your jams were under-filled and had a bad seal, and — one of my favorites — the cryptic and ominous, “Something went wrong in cooking.” (Click on photos for larger versions.)

By now I was incredulous, and laughing to myself regardless of who was around.  It was like watching tiny little baking train wrecks happen one by one and I was the prurient rubbernecker. Granted, the critiques all seemed valid; it was the baldness of the publicity that had me cracking up. You think being judged in person by your chef in culinary school is nerve-wracking? Try competing at the Grange Fair. You will need to have nerves of steel. Keep in mind that these entries had people’s names and hometowns printed on them (which I erased or otherwise obscured for this part). So, not only did they not win, but they had the pleasure of receiving their constructive feedback directly on their entry card for all their happy fair-going neighbors to see.

I was mesmerized. Let’s see some more! (Click on photos for larger versions.)

I was jolly well enjoying myself but the next few entries sent me over the edge. I actually thought for a second I might be being punked. Why on earth would people submit burned or under-baked goods for competition? Either bake another batch, or throw in the towel and wait for next year’s Grange to roll around.

I'm pretty sure the dill isn't the first thing I would notice about this entry.

I’m pretty sure the dill isn’t the first thing I would notice about this entry.

I know this photo, below, has a lot of glare on it and isn’t easy to read, but might the judges be sounding a bit exasperated at this point?

A brownie you can barely cut through? Now that's a serious burn.

A brownie you can barely cut through? Now that’s a serious burn.

But it’s the next photo that really, ahem, takes the cake. This one, below, was my favorite comment of the night.

Oh, snap. But pretty funny, right??

Oh, snap. But pretty funny, right??

When I saw this one I knew I was done because it couldn’t get any better than this — such wit! Such audacity! Scratch that — there is one thing that could make it better: if the judges’ notes were in the forms of a limericks.  But, that wasn’t likely to happen so I left the baking section and moved on to other exhibits — things like afghans, and sheared wool, and vegetables. Here are some of the best (click for slideshow):

What I learned at the Grange Fair is that beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder.  I also learned that if you want to compete at the Grange Fair, you need to be prepared to take your lumps. I applaud everyone for entering regardless of the outcome but I admit to being flummoxed by some of what I saw. Perhaps I need some of their moxie.

And the judges. Oh, the judges! To be a fly on the wall of that sampling circuit!  Perhaps I need more of THAT moxie! I thank them heartily for providing me much merriment as I made my way down the exhibit hall.

Oh, wait, there is one more photo: a picture of a winning cupcake. After all this hoopla you’re thinking it must be pretty special, right? Well, the judges certainly thought so. This time you be the judge.

This cupcake won a blue ribbon for its taste and appearance. Appearance? Really?

This cupcake won a blue ribbon for its taste and appearance. I’m sure it tastes divine but I confess I was a little surprised by the high marks for appearance.

Cro-Nots and What-Not

Cro, No-Cro or Faux Cro - -whatever you want to call it, it's a fried croissant

Cro, No-Cro or Faux Cro  — whatever you want to call it, it’s a fried croissant

The air has been rife lately with talk about the Cro-Nut, the Cro-Not, and the myriad of imitators and imposters — what I’ll call the Faux Cro’s.

The Cronut, a cross between a croissant and a donut, was started in New York City by former Daniel pastry chef Dominique Ansel at his bakery, Dominique Ansel Bakery. In May, they trademarked the name and officially added the cronut to the regular menu. What started in New York City in May quickly spread to faux cro’s in  Philly, Baltimore, and all points west with Eater SF covering the San Francisco versions by the first week of August.

Now that’s fast.

I like an adventure and I don’t mind following a gimmick trail as long as it doesn’t entail me standing outside in line for five hours (two hours, yes — love you Totto Ramen! – but five hours for a cross between a donut –which I adore — and a croissant — which I could take or leave? Nah.), so when I read that the knock-off had come to Philly in the form of a Swiss Cro-Creme, I decided to jump on the bandwagon.

The Eater Philadelphia article describing the Swiss Cro-Creme from Swiss Haus Bakery suggested reserving my Cro-Creme up to two days in advance, which I shrugged off. I was just going to mosey on down to Center City Philadelphia (the bakery is by Rittenhouse Square) and pick one up. No big deal. Like picking milk up from the store, right?

But, cronut hysteria seemed to be growing and my aunt, who is a prudent, cautious gal, kept encouraging me to call the bakery first, so to humor her I called the bakery to inquire about Cro-Creme reservations the afternoon before I planned to go down there. And they were full up. Yup. Completely sold out. No more pre-orders. But, I was invited to go stand in line at the bakery on the morning of the day in which I desired my Cro-Creme. Cro-Cremes are ready by 10:00 AM and the bakery reserves a handful for the poor jerks who didn’t make a reservation.

What? Really? But, I didn’t have anything better to do, so I resolved to get up early for the trek.

That’s right: I’m a real Cro-Getter.

So I hoofed it down there at the cracka cracka dawn (9:00 a.m.) from the wilds of Bucks County and found a parking spot smack dab in front of — where else — the Shake Shack! Fate? Probably. I had a good feeling about this. Then, I get to Swiss Haus and NO LINE! Not a soul standing out front. Hurrah! The  faux-cro fates are with me.

The place was so calm and quiet inside that I almost felt foolish. Then, I saw them on the counter looking all sugary and humble as you please. One tray.

What appears to be the only tray of non-reserved Cro-Cremes

What appears to be the only tray of non-reserved Cro-Cremes

As I order, I am told that the maximum is five (five? Who would want five of these? Especially at $5.00 a piece?). The man behind me, also hot on the Cro-Creme trail, asks if he can have the rest of my unused allotment.

Goodness, people, it’s a fried croissant, not the keys to the kingdom.

I took my two boxed up Cro-Cremes and beat it out of there.

Ready for the Big Reveal

Ready for the Big Reveal

Well, so here it is in all it’s glory. I have to say, it was tasty, but very, very rich. It took me three separate sittings to finish mine. Pairing it with a hot coffee would cut the richness and bring a nice balance to it. (Click on photos for close-ups.)

I can see why people are going Cro-Nuts: fried dough and sugar is a tried and true crowd-pleaser however it comes down the pike. This is like fair food for grown-ups. Look for it soon at a Renn Fest near you.

Have you tried it? Liked it? How far would you go for a cronut? Let’s see what the people say (poll below).

On The Road Again. Kinda.

After two seriously hectic weeks I closed up shop on my apartment in Maryland and decamped to Pennsylvania for the summer. Time to work on my tan. And my resume. And my interviewing skills. And, oh yeah, that independent study class I should be a quarter of the way through by now, so I should get on that. Manana. (That word would make more sense if I knew how to put the tilde over the “n.”)

I’ve been so busy processing and reflecting on the semester which just transpired that I haven’t had a chance to look to the immediate food future but in my present digs I am now a short drive from Philly and a fairly easy day-trip train ride from Manhattan. The food future looks bright!

So, what is on my Summer 2013 Good Eats Bucket List? I have some ideas, but nothing conclusive yet. I’ll throw some NYC stuff out there to start the idea ball rolling, and rely on my Philly peeps to give me the inside track on good eats in their neck of the woods:

1.) Baohaus. I’ve wanted to check this place out ever since Rolling Stone magazine called chef Eddie Huang “The Bad Boy of Pork Buns.”

2.) Definitely some ramen in Manhattan. I have to see if anything can beat Totto Ramen. Remember how I was so happy there that I practically marched in place?

3.) A friend and I have been talking about going to Prune for a while now — ever since we both read Gabrielle Hamilton’s autobiographical book, Blood, Bones and Butter. Maybe we’ll make that happen.

4.) A visit to Shake Shack and Zabar’s for obvious reasons (nostalgia, in case it’s not so obvious).

5.) I’m curious about Milk Bar,even though baking-wise it’s really not my jam, and I’d like to go back to Momofuku Noodle (both of David Chang’s mini-empire) because it was so tasty delicious.

6.) A deli. Katz? Carnegie? Some other deli gem?  I have no idea, but I want to feel the fever of pastrami on rye.

I’d look for a pizza place, but my aunt has long maintained that DeLorenzo’s in New Jersey has the best tomato pies hands-down, and this claim has been corroborated by other avid fans, so maybe it does. Note that their customer base is so intense that even though their website lists two locations which no longer exist, DeLorenzo’s is still packed full like sardines at every turn. They are doing something Jersey folks like.

Basically, if it noodles, slurps, or gets dipped in sauce, I’m in. If it’s crowded with locals, only seats 30 people, and I can’t really read the menu, I’m in. If it’s fresh, authentic, and basically pretty cheap, I’m in.

And suggestions are most welcome!

Take this poll to chime in on my #1 Summer 2013 Good Eats destination:

Ann’s Dari-Creme

Ann’s Dari-Creme, Glen Burnie, MD

I was joking around about local hot dog spots (see “What’s So Great About Ben’s Chili Bowl?“) and mentioned I might check out Ann’s Dari-Creme in Glen Burnie, MD — a tiny little place which looks even tinier since a shopping mall sprang up behind it. I had heard about it years ago when I first moved to the Annapolis, MD area from a friend who had grown up in that area, but I never bothered to check it out. I wasn’t inclined to go out of my way for a hot dog.  But, after I mentioned it in my other post I had to look it up to create the website link (they don’t have their own website, but I linked to the section about them) and I discovered that it’s considered quite the little local gem. There’s an article in the Washington Post that I never could get to load, and allegedly an article in the Washingtonian that I couldn’t actually read because I refused to sign up and make an account just to read about hot dogs. (Clearly my research strategies are rather lazy on this topic). I can provide, however, the link to the reviews, the format of which I used to be very fond of back before I consigned myself to the endless grind of student-dom and signed away any possibility of having the time or money to do anything fun or actually travel somewhere more than 25 miles away.

I heard it can get nutso in there so I went to check them out on a quiet Wednesday night. The sign outside declares they’ve been there for over 62 years. It’s a small place, very intimate, and I had to step right up to the counter without preamble. There were people waiting for their food all quiet as could be. I was not prepared. I got flustered.

This is how confident Ann’s Dari-Creme is: there are only three mains on the menu – six, if you count ordering something with or without cheese as a separate choice – no descriptions, no elaborations. I ordered the Famous Foot-Long and when she asked me what I wanted on it, I blanked.

“Everything?” she prodded.

Ummmm. I looked at the sign. No clues. Onions? Relish? Ketchup? What’s “Everything”?

I didn’t ask.

Seconds ticked by as I imagined how you could put ketchup on a dog and then fry it. I pictured them dressing the dog and then putting the whole thing in the fryer, like a deep fried Twinkie. Impossible. I couldn’t make it add up, and she was waiting. I blurted out “relish and mustard” which is weird since I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a hot dog without ketchup before, and then I wondered if I was sweating. And why was it so infernally quiet in there? I also ordered, for market research purposes, a half a cheesesteak — another oddity since I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve deigned to order a cheesesteak outside of the Philadelphia area. There must’ve been a funny moon out that night.

I sat at the counter waiting for my order and listened to everyone else who came in. They all knew what was up. They sounded like they had been ordering the same thing for 30 years. I quickly realized I had made a mistake — I should’ve gotten “Everything” since “Everything” meant chili. Rats! Now I was just getting a stupid old dog. Without ketchup, no less. Lame.

My dog came and it looked mighty lonely wrapped up in that big bun without any chili on it. A foot-long sounds big, right? They’re actually not very big. They are about the diameter of my index finger, max, not like the hot dogs you get at a ballgame or picnic. And I have a thing about excess bun on things, so I cropped all the excess bun off my dog and thought about how to get my order right next time. My new plan: The Double Dog, Half Order. Yes. Think about that for a second. But, a half a double dog is like just getting a single dog, right? Right. Same amount of dog, half the bun. It’s genius! Now, on to the cheesesteak.

I can be real snotty about my cheesesteaks, but I have to tell you something about this one hit me the right way. The bread wasn’t Amoroso’s, of course, but they used thin minute steaks, so that worked for me. You know how some places try to jazz it up by using thinly sliced ribeye or some such nonsense? Nope, give me that shaved beef, preferably pressed into an unnatural sheet of meat so that when you throw it on the flattop you have to chop it up again with your grill spatula. Then give me those fried onions that still have some bite to them and shove it in a soft hoagie roll…That’s the business. It was tasty.

After I got home I revisited the reviews on TripAdvisor and realized everything I had needed to know had been there all along: order an “Everything” or an “Everything, no onions” or everyone will know you are a loser. Sigh. Next time.

Fast forward to: Next Time

This time I’m sure I’ll get it right. It’s daytime, so I can see they have a sign outside — a newbie cheatsheet- that breaks it down for you about how to order (so that’s how those TripAdvisor reviewers had it together so fast!). I discover you can request your hot dog onions grilled, so I do this, but it appears I used too many words for that request because the counter gal looked at me very tiredly and shorthanded it back to me. I was so consumed with getting the fried onion lingo down that I forgot my clever trick of ordering the Half Double. Sigh. Oh well. Next time. Practice makes perfect.

Foot-Long with Everything, Fried. Next time I’ll get the Half Double with Everything, Fried, which will put the whole hot dog in just half the bun. Perfect!

Ann’s was crowded this time and I sat at the counter waiting for my dog watching the ladies sling hot dogs. These gals are serious. Nobody writes anything down. The one taking the orders, Lady A, tells the one working the grill, Lady B, as she puts out the right numbers of rolls for her. Everything (that I saw ordered each time I was there, anyway) goes on the same roll, a sub roll, so that certainly doesn’t help them keep it straight. At one point the lady at the grill, Lady B, had fifteen — yes, I counted them — identical rolls laid out in front of her and she just kept on keeping on. Over the next five minutes she filled every one of those rolls without saying a word. Then Lady A takes them back, bags them up — I have no idea how she knows which thing goes with which order since they are all wrapped in the same white paper — calls them out, the people pay and everyone is happy. It was fascinating to watch.

I learned a lot sitting there. For instance, I learned that you can get a gigantic soft serve cone with rainbow sprinkles (“jimmies”) for $2.45. I learned that people in Glen Burnie love their Double Dogs with Everything. And I learned I would never be able to work there since I can’t remember any order for more than 5 seconds. Those ladies must have photographic memories. Like I said, practice makes perfect.

Just so you know, Ann’s also serves french fries in a cup (“boardwalk”-style), shakes and those soft-serve cones I mentioned. They also have soft-serve sundaes and one of the toppings is wet walnut, which you don’t see much these days. That might be a trip all its own.

Would I trek to Ann’s from afar? No. Would I go back if I was cruising by and got a bee in my bonnet for a hot dog or (kinda) cheesesteak? Totally. And next time I’ll slide in and out like a Dari Creme pro.

Cash only. Or, you can use the ATM inside.

What a happy dog!

What’s So Great About Ben’s Chili Bowl?

Ben’s Chili Bowl, a Washington, D.C. staple.

There are certain places you grow up with that become frozen in time and space as favorites — even if they no longer deserve it.  I found this out the hard way when my aunts came to visit me a few years ago in California. They arrived after dinner time and were hungry, but not in the mood for a meal. I knew just the place to take them.

Ask anyone who grew up in Berkeley the abbreviated question, “Blondie’s or Fat Slice?” and they should, if they’re legit, answer you immediately.  For me, it was always Blondie’s so I drove my aunts to Telegraph Avenue – and met the cliche, “My how the mighty have fallen.” Telegraph at 9:30 p.m. on a weeknight was empty and forbidding. When did it become so ratty? There was an active disagreement in progress between Berkeley Police and a homeless man on the sidewalk outside of Blondie’s, but we went in anyway and ordered our slices. I saw everything through the eyes of a visitor, one who hadn’t grown up here, hadn’t taken the bus here with high school friends on a Saturday night when being out of the house was exciting and the collective energy was pumped up. I’m sure my aunts were wondering why on earth I would bring them to this place as their entree to California’s sparkling reputation as all things vibrant and cool.  It was a grim experience.

Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C., consistently makes the list of must-eats for D.C. but I have never gone. Travel all the way to D.C. for a hot dog stand? I love hot dogs, but I don’t consider them a main event. Hot dogs are the kind of things you eat when you’ve been at a barbecue all day and are peckish but not hungry enough for another hamburger. I wondered if Ben’s was to D.C. what Blondie’s was to the East Bay — just a nostalgic memory suspended in time. But, they DO keep making the Must-Eat lists, so…let’s give it a whirl.

Ben’s Chili Bowl Menu.

I trekked out the the NW (D.C. addresses are divided into quadrants) on a beautiful September day to experience this hot dog mecca. And it was good. I had the Original Chili Half-Smoke, Bill Cosby’s favorite, and an order of the Chili-Cheese Fries (I swear I wouldn’t normally order these both in one sitting, but I wasn’t driving all the way back out there just for chili fries so I took one for the (blog) team and thought about the long, heart-healthy treadmill session I’d be doing to make up for it).

There was a long line (which boded well) but the good thing about that is that I had plenty of time to stare at the the hot dog griddle, which was lovely.

Griddle me this, Batman.

My half-smoke was quite tasty, as were the chili-cheese fries, and if I were in the area I would definitely go back for some good grub. Plus, I have to say the employees were SUPER nice. I think that might have impressed me most of all, actually — they were so polite and professional even though the place is very casual and was crazy crowded. The manager even came by our table to see how things were going! Nicely done, Ben’s.

Original Chili Half-Smoke

Chili-Cheese Fries

I can see why Ben’s holds onto its place in the hearts of D.C. locals. There’s nothing like a hot dog to make you feel young again. I still think of them as street snack food, like when you grab one from a street cart in Manhattan, but when a chili dog is done right it really hits the spot. Makes me want to check out this local place I’ve driven by for years but never gone to…here I come, Ann’s Dari-Creme… I hear they do a mean fried hot dog.

Of Shore Food, Which Is Great Fun, And Hermit Crabs

I went to the shore again. Last time, in my post “Of The Shore, Which Is A Weird Place” I found some strange and tantalizing road-trip goodies, like the funny-but-possibly-ominous chicken farm sign (click here if you’d like to revisit that trip), but I never got to salt water taffy or hermit crabs, so let’s start there.  Or, rather, let’s start on the way there.

There are two main ways to get to Rehoboth Beach, DE from Maryland. Last time I went one way. This time, I went the other.  The way I went this time is actually the way I am used to going (the way I went last time was kind of an accident. Any who know me will not be surprised) and I was looking forward to stopping by my “favorite” farm stand. I’ve only been there twice so I guess the criteria for “favorite” isn’t very high but the two times I went there they had a most prodigious collection of local honeys so I wanted to see what was going on with all that.

So I’m driving along, minding my business, if you will, and I begin to see the  “chicken bbq” signs I was telling you about last time and I thought to myself, “Oh, here we go again” and then a sign that said “pit beef” which, if you read my post on Maryland Pit Beef where I started out cautious but ended up in fandom, you’ll know that kind of sign would catch my eye. Then I see the pit beef cart, all locked up (bummer!) and in the next breath I see a storefront (sweet!) so I pull over rather dangerously and careen into the parking lot which was, fortunately for all involved, rather empty. And there, in all it’s glory, is Hot Off The Coals. They don’t have a website (although, it looks like one is in the works), but they do have a Facebook page, which you can see here.

Hot Off The Coals, MD Rt. 404 & Rt. 309, Queen Anne, MD

You’ve got to love a place where the pit is in the front parking lot and it’s guarded by a kicking bull with flaming red eyes. Better still, this pit beef shack is annexed to a gas station — win win!

Guess you don’t want to mess with the bull!

The pitmaster happened to be tending the pit at the very moment I approached and he very obligingly opened the pit for me to photograph. Sadly, the flames were kind of off the hook and he had to close it again rather quickly, but the smell was phenomenal.

What good timing! Thank you, Pitmaster.

I only had a second before the lid had to come down again…

I had a good feeling about this place. And I was right. The pit beef was delicious. Signage states they use apple and hickory wood, and it was a smoky delight. Done up with some sauce, horseradish and onions sliced so thin they were actually dainty, the sandwich had me humming. Or maybe that was partly the ringing in my ears from the horseradish, with which I was a little too enthusiastic (you can see it in the photo, below). For a few seconds I was actually crying a little, which seemed to faze my neighbor a bit. He was from Pennsylvania and wasn’t real sure what to expect.

Horseradish sure can surprise you…Stacked Pit Beef on a Kaiser roll

I liked this place so much that they got me coming, and then when it came time to drive home 9 hours later, they got me going, as well. That time I got the Stacked “Slaughterhouse” Beef Brisket on a Kaiser roll, and it was actually amazing. I highly recommend it.

Brisket on a Kaiser roll. Fantastic!

So, that was Hot Off the Coals. What a lucky find. Check ’em out. Now, on to the produce stand! While they seem to have scaled back their local honey collection (only 1 kind to be found), they had some very lovely produce and a basket I could buy to put it in to make me feel very Nantucket. And an elixir I wasn’t quite brave enough to try.


Tiniest little sweet potatoes! Aren’t they adorable?

Like Little Red Riding Hood!

Some of my finds. I bought some clearance basil plants — did you know there is a bush basil, too? — to try to plant them and get one more flush out of them before the weather cools.

You are probably wondering if I am ever going to get to Rehoboth and if you are, then you and I are on the same wavelength. But, as I like to remind myself, “It’s the journey, not the destination,” right? Right. So now that I am all kitted up, I can roll into town and catch a few rays. I came prepared this time with my backpack lounge chair and a fresh new roll of quarters.

And the beach was delightful and the water was cold. You should try it. And when it comes time to stock up on souvenirs, here’s what should be on your shortlist: salt water taffy, Fisher’s popcorn, and hermit crabs (although some may not appreciate the last one as much as the first two).

Dolle’s rules the roost on salt water taffy in the DelMarVa area.

Nostalgia decrees one eats certain foods while in certain places. At the carnival, it’s cotton candy. At the fair, it’s funnel cake. And at the beach, it’s salt water taffy. In Rehoboth, Dolle’s rules the roost in salt water taffy, but I grew up going to the Jersey shore, so for me it’s Fralingers. Fralingers and Atlantic City go hand in hand. Sometimes I’d ride along with my grandmother, Nona, on chartered bus trips to Atlantic City where you’d buy your bus ticket and they’d give you a voucher for  X amount of “casino quarters” back to cash in at the Taj Mahal, or Harrah’s, or whatever casino was booked for that day. Nona and I would play our $10 in quarters, then walk through the casino to get to the boardwalk and spend the day making our way up and then back down the boardwalk poking around in all the bizarre, cheesy knick-knack stores which constitute boardwalk shopping. We always came back with a box or two of taffy from Fralingers. You had to, really.

Fralingers Salt Water Taffy, Atlantic City, NJ

There were two salt water taffy shops on the Atlantic City boardwalk: James, and Fralingers.  When I was reading up on Fralingers, I learned that one family bought and now owns Fralingers, James, and a boardwalk chocolate shop called Bayards. There is actually an interesting video on the history of the three stores on You can also find it here, on YouTube. Fralingers also has a Wikipedia entry. If you’ve never had salt water taffy, try to imagine a candy with the chewy texture of caramels but with the fake fruity flavors of jelly beans. Kids love it, of course, and if you go on vacation a box of salt water taffy better show up in the office break room when you get back. It’s that kind of thing.

Rehoboth also boasts a rather tasty caramel corn from Fishers Popcorn. It’s made fresh on site and dumped hot into the front window case of the stores. Hot sugar is an interesting thing to me, so I always pay special attention when they are scooping it up to order. When it’s hot, it’s very malleable — think Rice Krispy Treats before they harden — but it firms up in no time flat so by the time they pack it and seal it the container, it’s on its way to a solid mass. Anyone who has made popcorn balls at Christmas knows what I am talking about. But, before that happens, there are those few glorious minutes where it’s soft and chewy at the same time. If you like buttery caramel, that 5-7 minute window is definitely worth trying for.

Two Delaware Beach favorites, side by side.

My affection for soft-serve was probably pretty evident in my first shore post, but here’s one shot just to show you how pretty it is:

It was plenty hot that day, so this didn’t stay upright for long.

Some say a trip to the shore wouldn’t be complete without boardwalk fries. Again, boardwalk fries, like caramel corn, wasn’t something I was particularly dialed into until I met Delaware beaches. But, people love them! And I can see why. Malt vinegar shaken down into the cup cuts the salty goodness.

Boardwalk Fries

Thrasher’s take the cake for boardwalk fries at the DE and MD beaches. There’s usually a line. For french fries.

If, at long last, you’ve sunned yourself and eaten your fill, consider a final parting gift: the hermit crab. Hermit crabs are a beach staple, and whether you think they are a good idea or not, hermit crabs happen. They practically fly off the shelves. Half these hermit crabs probably don’t even survive the car ride home, which is a shame because they are very interesting little creatures.

Hermit crabs are crustaceans with soft bodies that need to be protected by shells which they do by inhabiting the discarded shells of other creatures! Sea snails, for example. That’s right, they don’t come into this world with shells of their own and yet they need shells to protect themselves. Isn’t that odd? And, when hermit crabs outgrow their current shell, they step into the next size up so they’re always on what I like to call the shell hustle.  Also, since they effectively scavenge their shells from other creatures, if there are not many creatures available to “donate” their shells…well, you can imagine what happens if push comes to shove.

Hermit crab. Hello, buddy!

Hermit crab accessories, Rehoboth Beach, DE

Wikipedia describes what happens when a bunch of crabs living together decide it’s time to change shells: “Several hermit crab species, both terrestrial and marine, use “vacancy chains” to find new shells: when a new, bigger shell becomes available, hermit crabs gather around it and form a kind of queue from largest to smallest. When the largest crab moves into the new shell, the second biggest crab moves into the newly vacated shell, thereby making its previous shell available to the third crab, and so on.”

A “vacancy chain”?? How cool is that? Just picture all the crabs lined up in descending order by size waiting to step into their new shells while their current shell gets handed down to the little guy.  Like the Jeffersons, they’re moving on up. This image makes me laugh.

The social hermit crab. At the height of the season, these cage walls would literally be covered with hermit crabs waiting to go home with you.

Hermit crabs are social and it’s really cool to see them all bunched up together happy as…well, clams, I guess. While these “beach vacation” hermit crabs probably don’t live too long — they do require more effort to keep alive than the average 8 year old would probably be interested in providing — some species of hermit crabs can live in the ballpark of 23 years! Plus, hermit crabs are just cool. It’s fun to watch them scrabble around in their cages, and in your hand if you can handle it. You have to watch them a bit since they will latch on to you with their big claw, which can surprise you, and nip you enough that you could drop them if you’re not expecting it.

Most of these shells have hermit crabs living in them.

Hermit crab getting ready to change his shell.

Seeing a hermit crab change his shell is like waiting for paint to dry — good luck. This little fella kept doing the shell-change fake-out — he’d lift himself out, then slide back in.  You can see the new shell is much bigger than he needs — a real hermit crab McMansion — so maybe that is the reason he never quite made the jump. Or, maybe he is just a ham — he had several of us dancing on a string waiting for him to change. He was really working us. I had to give up after a while.

Yes, the shore is indeed a weird place. Then again, what place isn’t weird? But, any day where you can find pit beef, baby sweet potatoes, sand, sun, and salt water taffy is a good day in my book.

The Ice Cream Man Might Drive Me Crazy

There is an ice cream man who drives his truck around my area every afternoon around the same time. He plays all the standards — “Happy Birthday”, “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” —  but he adds in some some new stuff, like “Guantanamera” for ethnic flair. I thought this was charming the first few times, like the folks who play the Peruvian pan flutes to Simon and Garfunkel songs in the subway station. Now I just want those kids to get their ice cream and move along.

Because of this, apart from distracting me from Very Important Things, like checking Facebook, I find I think about ice cream much more often than before. I like ice cream, so this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And, I have dabbled in making ice cream in the past, but I’ve never thought it prudent to consume a high enough volume of ice cream that I could justify making it more than once every other month or so and by the time that time rolls around I’ve usually impulse bought some Ben and Jerry’s or Haagen Daz on sale and the space in my freezer reserved for ice cream is full up.

But ice cream has been on my mind again since Maryland rolled out an official Ice Cream Trail map a month or two ago. As reported in an article by NPR’s food blog, The Salt, it seems there are a handful of local creameries who have turned to small batch ice cream making. Yum. This is the kind of trail I can get behind.

Also on my radar is something new Mount Vernon is trying out. Mount Vernon, for those who don’t fancy the historic homes of the Founding Fathers like I do, is George Washington’s estate. It’s located outside of Alexandria, VA, and is just a hop, skip and a jump (and about an hour via the D.C. beltway) from where I live in Maryland. I like to go there, and I insist that every out-of-towner who falls into my grip go there, too.  I’ve been a few times. But, I hadn’t been to Mount Vernon since I returned East-side last summer, so when I saw they were doing a Colonial Ice Cream Making demonstration, I knew it was time. So, I bought my annual pass (oh, yes I did!) and off I went.

One of the cool things about Mount Vernon is that it receives no state or federal funds. According to Wikipedia, Mount Vernon  “is owned and maintained in trust by The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.”  The name alone kills me — The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association — what spunk! I could go on and on about Mount Vernon, but for now I’ll just stick to ice cream…

So, from August 4th-September 1, 2012 from 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 noon visitors can watch as costumed staff members recreate the 18th century ice cream making process on reproduction pieces. I arrived at 11:30 (naturally!) and they were on their last go-’round. They seemed vaguely surprised at the turnout. They had a table set up with a brazier for roasting cocoa beans, a metate for grinding the shelled nibs into a paste, various spices, etc., for flavoring, and the ice cream making device — a bucket tucked into another bucket — itself. You can click on the photos below to see them larger, and in slideshow format.

It was a pleasant, short (about 20 minutes) demonstration that made me marvel at the amount of muscle power cooking and baking — and everything, really — took back then. It made the sheer volume of entertaining the Washingtons did that much more impressive, especially after seeing the kitchen, which is relatively small. It definitely made me want to go back and take the Dinner for the Washingtons Walking Tour, a special tour of the estate from a culinary angle which includes a trip to the basement (NOT part of the regular mansion tour!) and concludes with a tasting in the greenhouse. I was so busy with the regular mansion tour, and the gift shops, and having lunch at the Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant, that by the end of the afternoon I hadn’t finished touring to my satisfaction and will need to return. Thank goodness I got that Annual Pass!

They also have an exhibit running through August 2013 called “Hoecakes and Hospitality: Cooking with Martha Washington” which walks you through some of the recipes, instruments, tableware, etc. that the Washingtons used for entertaining. Also available are a handful of recipe cards of favorite dishes and drinks of which I have a mind to recreate at some point in the near future (I’m still pondering whether or not to tackle sturgeon). For now, I’ll keep my eye on the ice cream prize: touring it via creamery, making it, eating it and, if it’s any good, sharing it, so stay tuned.

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The Aisle of Ham, not The Isle of Ham, even though that does actually sound like my kind of destination vacation

Those of you with me since Easter will remember the fresh ham caper. This investigation led me on a merry chase from store to store to Amish Market and ended with moderate disenchantment when I realized that a fresh ham is just a big pork roast. The culinary balm to this bother was the discovery of the thing called “Maryland Stuffed Ham” which I fully intend to get down with next Easter.

But pork is a year-round preoccupation and right now I’m all about barbecue. Since my aunt programmed my t.v. guide to show only the five or so channels I actually get with basic cable I’ve discovered this show called “BBQ Pitmasters.” It seems to run on a virtual loop but it’s really only 16 episodes so far and I can’t wait to watch every one of them. Each episode involves three contestants trying to outdo each other’s bbq for a shot at the Kingsford Cup. The show is 46 minutes of pork porn. You just sit back and watch meat being injected, rubbed, and then basted til it is shiny plate of heaven. These contestants have dead serious conversations about things like “the money muscle.” Plus, It’s pretty funny to listen to them talk smack about racks and smokers and rubs and whatnot. I know it is not fashionable to say this but as a Northerner, I find their accents adorable!

It was BBQ Pitmasters that turned me on to a local festival called Pork in the Park right here in Maryland on the Eastern Shore. It’s a Kansas City Style competition held in April and I’ve already got it on my calendar. You’ve got to love a festival whose website counts down the days, hours, and minutes until its next festival. The website claims it is the “second largest Kansas City Barbeque Society Competition in the nation.” No word on who is first.

Obviously these people know how to party.

Who wouldn’t love a show with judges named Tuffy Stone and Myron Mixon? How could you resist the tagline, “Bring the Heat or You’re Dead Meat”? These kids aren’t foolin’.

As mesmerized as I am by watching bbq being made on t.v., I don’t really make it myself. I don’t have a smoker and my grill skills are remedial. As such, I like to avail myself of other pork products and, as such, I was at the market noodling around the meats when ham hocks caught my eye. And ham hocks led to salt pork. And salt pork led to smoked pork jowls and then I realized I was standing in front of a wall of ham. These are the jewels of the South. This is the perk to living just this side of Virginia: ham.

Aren’t they pretty? I resolved to familiarize myself with as many of these glorious products as possible. That is a tall order, so I better get crackin’. To begin, I picked smoked pork jowls and smoked pork chops.

Pork Jowl Bacon

The jowls I figure I will use like hocks and make some beans and hot boiled rice.  The smoked pork chops I picked because while I was standing there dilly-dallying and artfully arranging hams for my camera phone photos like a weirdo a lady came along and helped herself directly to several packs of the chops. She just grabbed them casually like she gets them all the time and all the while explaining to her husband how she’s going to throw them on the grill but she only has one pack at home so they need some more, etc., etc…

This is kind of my modus operandi in the meat aisle. Any time I’m attracted to some strange cut of meat that I don’t know what to do with, I stand around loitering, essentially, until some lady comes along and picks up the meat I’m interested in. Then I pounce on her and ask her what she’s going to do with it and I get her to explain it as much as possible before she edges away from me. I’m sure it’s an unsettling experience for those ladies involved and for that I apologize, ladies. Fortunately, because of her running chatter with her husband, I got the information I needed today by simply eavesdropping — a moderately less invasive procedure for which everyone involved was grateful, I’m sure.

After she moved away, I saw the package claims these chops are ready in two minutes. I’m fascinated by this, so I’m in. I decide to make them with sweet corn and grilled peaches. We’ll see. It could be the start of something good.

Fluffernutters, or as some call them, “Liberty Sandwiches”

I found myself making the strangest care package the other day, and decided it was time to chronicle The Fluffernutter.  I’ve never heard anyone call them Liberty Sandwiches, but Wikipedia lists it as an alternative name, so it must be true.

Quite simply, a fluffernutter is a peanut butter and marshmallow creme sandwich on white bread. I used to eat them all the time growing up in Pennsylvania. I haven’t had one in ages, but I found myself hankering for one after trying to explain to someone what they are. I guess they didn’t have them in Berkeley circa 1980, which makes sense since they are, by nature, almost completely artificial and the parts that aren’t unnaturally contrived are highly processed. But still! Give it a whirl!

These basic components travel well. Sorta.

Here’s the thing about fluffernutters: you have to make them on white bread if you want historical accuracy. You need that soft, squishy texture that only gen-u-ine white bread can provide. This is one of the two times that this sort of white bread is my preferred starch. The other is summer tomato sandwiches — the kind of love affair between sweet, heavy, homegrown beefsteak tomatoes right off the vine, mayonnaise, and white bread. If you have ever had one of these, you are nodding in agreement right now. If you haven’t had the pleasure then put that on your white bread bucket list, too.

Here is a visual aid, in case you find the assemblage at all confusing.

Yup, pretty simple. Lay it on, though, don’t skimp!

And the finished product…hello, childhood…

And the twist I wish I had known about a long time ago:

Now that’s taking it to the next level.

Marshmallow creme was invented in the early 1900’s in New England and a recipe for Liberty Sandwiches, using marshmallow, peanut butter, and oat or barley bread, was published during World War I. Other Liberty Sandwich recipe variations walk on the savory side by pairing marshmallow creme with things like sliced olives or chopped nuts, but it’s the peanut butter combo that really seemed to stick.  The sandwich wasn’t called The Fluffernutter until 1960 as part of a new ad campaign by Durkee-Mower, the company which sells the product Marshmallow Fluff and trademarked the name Fluffernutter.

Lest you think this is all, ahem, fluff, it’s worth noting that Fluffernutter has some political intrigue. Durkee-Mower has sued Williams-Sonoma for trademark infringement (I love it when the big boys fight!), and in 2006 a Massachusetts senator went nuts when he thought that the public school cafeterias made fluffernutters available to school children, including his son, every day. A Massachusetts State Representative fought back by swearing to fight for Fluff  “to the death,” and tried to make fluffernutters the state sandwich. Twice.

If you need to know more about Fluff, consider a trek to Massachusetts for the annual “What the Fluff?” festival in September. You can see highlights from last year’s festival (no joke!) here on the festival’s official website. I haven’t been to Massachusetts lately. Anyone??


Last winter I happened upon this sweet old-school Tupperware jello mold. How could I pass this up? I walked by TWO Tupperware devilled egg carriers to claim it. I just knew I had a jello mold somewhere in my future.

It has been hot as blazes here in Maryland, which got me to thinking about Creamello. Or maybe it’s Cream-ello. I’m not sure since it’s not a real word.

My grandmother, Nona, used to make creamello in the summers, particularly on the 4th of July, which also happened to be my grandfather’s (Bob) birthday, which means we would have creamello, chocolate cake (Bob’s favorite), and then probably a pie or non-chocolate cake for the rest of the crowd. Multiple desserts. That’s how the Hodgkinsons roll. It ain’t your birthday unless there are at least two cakes. We like variety.

So, creamello. I’ve never made it before and Nona has been gone for over 10 years now, so there’s no asking her, but how hard could it be? Doesn’t the name say it all? It’s Jello and some kind of cream, right? So, it’s either whipped cream or ice cream. A quick internet search showed me a “recipe” (can something with two ingredients, one of them from a box, really be called a recipe?) using one large box of Jello, 2 cups of boiling water, and a quart of vanilla ice cream. Here it is:

Strawberry jello with 2 cups boiling water

With a quart of vanilla ice cream mixed in, and molded

Now it’s in to the fridge overnight…

Dipped in hot water and ready to unmold

And viola!

Pretty, right? But, with all the mold seams, I wasn’t sure if this was the presentation side, so, I flipped it over.

I don’t claim to know molded jello but common sense tells me that can’t be the presentation side. So, back to the other side, and done.

Naturally, I tried a piece. It wasn’t bad. A little bland — not the Creamello I remember, so there’s work to be done there. I do vaguely remember Nona beating something into the partially set jello (the guesswork on the timing of which is what sometimes produced lumpy creamello), so I think I’ve narrowed down the process to the whipped cream version. I think this will produce a lighter, creamier, fluffier product which will suit my tastes better, anyway, so that will be my next try.

I’d like to tell you that I am going to try making my own jello, and I may, but in case you get tired of waiting for me, here are some links on how to do that. It looks pretty easy and I am sure it’s worth it if you like jello that much. This link describes the process as similar to getting fruit ready for jam or jelly. This link has a YouTube video showing you how to make regular jello (seriously? it’s boiling water and jello mix), but then it goes on with a recipe for your own fruit juice jello (crazy easy), and a recipe for vegetarian jello (also easy — just use agar agar flakes).

I don’t recall ever making jello (jello shots don’t count), let alone using a mold, but now I’m all about it. I am both attracted and repelled by the idea of adding things to my next jello mold — not the Creamello, of course, I’m not messing with that memory — but, friends, expect jello molds to start turning up at your parties. And don’t worry, I’ll try both sweet and savory so I’m sure there will be a jello mold for every occasion.

Maryland Pit Beef

I’ve known about pit beef since the last time I lived in Maryland, and I had eaten it a couple of times back then. My response? Meh. It wasn’t smokey, like barbecue, or saucy, like barbecue. I confess, I didn’t get it. The few times I had pit beef it seemed like a dry pile of shaved meat on way too much of a bland roll. But, when someone I was talking to in California knew more about a pit beef place in Baltimore than me, someone currently living just outside of Baltimore, I decided to take the bull by the horns. So, I went to Chaps Charcoal Restaurant to find out what all the fuss was about.

Chaps Charcoal Restaurant  sits in the parking lot of a, um, nite club called The Gentleman’s Gold Club. This is just a discreet way of saying strip club. The story, as told by Chaps, is that the owner of the strip club gave the pit beef shack to his daughter when she married because her new husband liked to cook so much. And pit beef gold was born. Both of these businesses have quite a bit of confidence in their abilities: Chaps alleges they have the “best pit beef, turkey and pork” in Maryland, and The Gentleman’s Gold Club claims to be Baltimore’s only “Upscale Gentlemans club” [sic]. The Gentleman’s Club goes on to note on their website that they are perfect for birthday, bachelor, and divorce parties.

As for Chaps, it has been featured on the Food Network show “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives,” and also on the Travel Channel’s “Amazing Eats.” While I personally found the Travel Channel segment more interesting, Chaps seems more connected to their visit from Guy Fieri. Here is what you see when you walk in:

What a great time Guy seems to be having!

I was warned by my dining companion that Chaps meant serious business and that I better have myself together before I got to the counter. This included keeping my order simple, and to the point, so no When-Harry-Met-Sally-salad-dressing-on-the-side nonsense, you dig? Naturally, I poo-poohed this advice, but signage did decree “No split checks between 11:00-3:00,” which I couldn’t make sense of and since I had plenty of time while waiting in the long line, I puzzled through this, out loud, making friends all along the way, I am sure. The puzzle went something like this: why would they have a sign like that?  Split checks are for people at tables who want to pay individually, not collectively, and yes, split checks can be annoying when a server is busy. But, since at Chaps you order at a counter, why would you split a check? You order and pay for what you want, and then the next person goes. That’s the point of a counter.  How could Chaps have a big enough problem with split checks to necessitate a sign against it? I never did figure it out and since it was literally 100 degrees outside while we were waiting in line I figured I better let it go since that kind of heat produces a general fretfulness and fraying of tempers.

After I ordered — very quickly and clearly, mind you, I noticed another sign by the pick-up counter which said, “No Sniveling” which annoyed me because I don’t like it when pit beef shacks try to tell me how to behave. I think Chaps could try a little positive reinforcement instead, but I suppose they don’t need any advice from me when they have Guy Fieri on their side.

Pit Beef Combo: pit beef with Italian sausage on a Kaiser roll.

Here’s the thing: the food was good. I ordered a Pit Beef Combo, medium rare. The combo part is that they throw some Italian sausage on top. It’s served on a Kaiser roll, which was not too bready, much to my relief. I dressed it with some sliced raw onion and some tiger sauce, which is horseradish sauce mixed with mayonnaise. And it was very delicious.

One of the specials that day was called the Richman which I assume is a reference to Adam Richman from the Travel Channel. This sandwich was beef, turkey, sausage, and corned beef on a sub roll. Here it is, along with their fries:

The Richman: pit beef, turkey, sausage, corned beef

A quick look on Wikipedia (I know, I know) confirms that Baltimore pit beef is indeed different from barbecue because even though it is grilled over charcoal, it uses no rubs, marinades or sauces. Pit beef uses top round shaved very thinly and served on a Kaiser roll with the sliced raw white onion and tiger sauce mentioned before.

Well, Chaps, I have to say that even though I was predisposed to dislike pit beef because of my prior experiences, and predisposed to dislike you because you like Guy Fieri so much, I did thoroughly enjoy my pit beef combo. I would definitely do it again, which means I am on the hunt for more Maryland pit beef places to explore. Readers?? Please chime in!

Of The Shore, Which Is A Weird Place

As you know if you have ever talked to me for more than five minutes, I am almost fanatically in love with Northern California. I love Berkeley like other people love their sports teams, but without the numbered jerseys. Even so,  there are many things I genuinely like about the East Coast. One of the things I have always admired is the annual pilgrimage to the beach. Or, what they call going “down the shore.” Going to the shore IS the summer vacation. You rent a house for a week and decamp to Jersey, or Delaware, or Maryland, or even as far north as Rhode Island (hey, Little Compton!). It’s fascinating.

It’s an intimidating process: the people, the traffic, the cost, the hassle. Everybody from all points west is trying to get to the main shore points, due east, on the same few handful of roads at about the same time of day on a Friday afternoon. But, once you make it, I have to admit it’s pretty awesome. You put on your suit, stuff your big canvas bag with towels and magazines and cold water that will quickly become warm and gritty with sand, and head out for the day. You roast in the sun, go brave the water, then roast in the sun, then go in the water, then go “walk the boards,” get a slice of pizza or some soft-serve, and go back to your towel which is now covered in kicked up sand from other people tromping by, and lay back down for another turn. That’s a day at the beach. A night at the beach is a whole other ball of wax which I actually don’t know much about. As a voyeur, I’m generally almost always a day-tripper.

City of Rehoboth Beach plaque with boardwalk, then ocean in background.

Fortunately, I went down mid-week in late June — the calm before the storm. The gloves come off right around the Fourth of July, so I made sure I squeezed in a quick visit before the real mayhem of summer. Rehoboth Beach is about 100 miles from where I live in Maryland, so it’s a bit of a haul for a day-trip, but I happen to enjoy that drive. I usually find some odd, interesting scenery, even if it’s just to marvel that in a road lined with signs broadcasting roadside BBQ chicken,  they have always, mysteriously, either happened just before I rolled through, or are about to happen right AFTER I roll back out. Hmmm. The ever-elusive BBQ chicken stand.

This time, since it’s been three years since I made the drive, I went (unintentionally but predictably) off the beaten path and found this truism:

Then I found this lovely little bit:

And then this funny little bit:

Which I thought was either a tongue-in-cheek or an ironic/sardonic comment on the state of farming today, until I saw read the rest of the sign:

…which I then just found confusing and a bit ominous. The Eastern Shore has a long history of chicken farming, and Perdue Chicken plays a huge part in that history, for better or worse. And it’s mostly worse, from what I hear anecdotally. I’d like to look into this more in a later post, perhaps on another day-trip.

The tractor store I passed a few miles later was a very busy place which shows how big a part farming still plays in the economy of the Eastern Shore.

I only wish I could have taken a photograph of what I saw in my rear view mirror driving behind me as I passed this store — it was some sort of tractor, but up high off the ground with enough space underneath it through which a small car could pass! It looked like I was being pursued by some kind of tractor spider. This machine probably has a real name of which I, being urban — or, if not urban, at least not rural — know nothing about. That’s part of what I like about going to the shore: it’s weird to me. There’s always some funky store or funny road sign or strange man with a metal detector and head gear on to stimulate the imagination. You just never know what you’ll come across on these day trips.

Once you wander your way through these scenic photographic tangents and broach the Coastal Highway itself, you just need to find a good parking spot, so bring a roll of quarters — YES, QUARTERS, I kid you not, no credit card slots — for the parking meters — the TWO-HOUR parking meters, by the way, so don’t stray too far from your parking spot searching for the perfect quadrant of sandy heaven since you will be feeding the meter every 120 minutes.

For the uninitiated, the learning curve on the beach itself can be steep. The Atlantic waters are actually warm enough in summer that you can swim in them so, naturally, I thought the ocean was my friend. This is not necessarily so. I’ve gotten sucked underwater hard enough to lose my sunglasses on two separate occasions in water not much deeper than my knees (and that was 0 for 2, by the way: I did it the first time, then did the exact same thing the very next time). Lesson: don’t wear sunglasses into the ocean. Also, “undertow” is a real thing. Hmm.

But, if you can manage to keep yourself in one piece, you get rewarded by the sun beating down on you and the sound of the waves crashing into the sand, and the gentle call of shore birds circling above (or, un-gently,  very, very close if some yahoo near you decides to feed them a piece of bread and suddenly you are surrounded by, no joke, three dozen gulls ready to peck your eyes out for a soggy piece of hoagie roll. DON’T FEED THE GULLS. You’ll start a bird war and they are really not as cute when they are all up in your face.).

And, sometimes you get lucky. You see things like a school of dolphins arcing by. Or, around happy hour, you’ll see extremely fit people lap-swimming — yes, lap-swimming! – freestyle through the ocean four times further out than anyone you were bobbing around blowing bubbles and doing dead-man’s floats with. Watching their smooth, efficient, horizontal strokes slice through one of the most powerful bodies of water on earth is really amazing, along with the respectful realization that it’s people like that who save people like me when we do foolish things like swim out too far or some other such nonsense.

Rehoboth Beach, DE

That is the recompense for your drive: a sunny day, gulls wheeling overhead, and the fun, happy feeling that comes from people relaxing. And soft serve. You could argue for salt water taffy, pizza slices, caramel corn, fudge –there are lots of things that come to mind when you think of beach boardwalk food, but for me, it’s soft serve. And in Rehoboth, it’s Kohr Brothers.

Kohr Bros., Rehoboth Beach, DE.

It was a rather (understatement) hot day, so my strawberry rainbow sprinkle cone incarnated quickly from this:

Pre-rainbow sprinkle bath

…to this…

Not even out of the hands of the soft-serve server and it’s beginning to slide…

…to this!

This cone/cup hybrid is a concession to the midday heat…

Ooh la la! Now, that’s hot. No matter, it was dee-licious.

In any case, more on food later (see my upcoming post “Of Shore Food, Which Is Great Fun”).

So, if you live within a few hours of the shore and you need to get away and clear your head, consider Rehoboth Beach for charm, or Ocean City if you want to get real about walking the boards, with all the rides and arcade bells and whistles that go along with that. You’ll meld into the crowds and watch generations of cultural legacy unfold around you as you become part of the undulating wave of another summer day at the beach.

And, if you do it, do it right: get a low-slung beach chair that you can wear as a backpack, bring a boatload of quarters for the parking meters, leave your sunglasses on your beach towel, and enjoy.

Sunset along Rt. 404 home from Rehoboth Beach, DE.

When Opportunity Knocks…

I went to, and walked away from, the Baltimore Food Truck Rally tonight. There were two cupcake trucks there, but that’s not why I left.  I left because the lines were hecka long. There was a South Carolina BBQ truck there that I had wanted to check out. I heartily wanted a pulled pork sammie. So, I did actually get in line, but then I had some time on my hands and it got me to thinking about how when I was parking the car I had seen a place I hadn’t known existed: a place called HarborQue. And it just happened to be Carolina style BBQ. Some might call that Coincidence. I call it Opportunity. So I waved goodbye to the trucks and off I went.

The place was crowded with other food truck refugees. We are an impatient people. Of course Harbor BBQ had the pulled pork sammie, but after watching three people walk past me with the Loaded Carolina Fries, I changed my ordering tune. Pulled pork with bbq baked beans, cheese and jalapenos over french fries? Whaaaat? Is this how they roll in South Carolina, or is this a Balto. hybrid? Either way, they had me. And the pulled pork was delicious; tender and smokey, which I love. I sat out on their deck while other food truck people poured in. I listened in on their tales of long lines and sold out food while I made a somewhat respectable dent in this DelMarVa delicacy. I’m glad I found this place they call the “best  barbeque on the Chesapeake.” I will definitely go back and I might do the Loaded Fries again, but next time, hold the cheese.

P.S. Did I mention that the last four numbers of their phone number spell PORK? I’m charmed. And, to make it even better,  it is a BYOB — an East Coast concept that really grows on a person…

More to love about HarborQue: Hickory smoked pit beef, pit ham, brisket, chicken-and-ribs and a bbq sundae of which I’m not sure how I feel yet. Here’s their menu (click). They do tailgating and catering, too.