21 September 2009

Swiss Chard

After our unhealthy snack at Crystal Beach, Al decided I should eat something leafy and green. So, she paid a visit to a local farm and brought back enough Swiss Chard to feed a family of eighteen. Along with collards and kale, it's one of my favorite greens and makes a great end of the summer treat. Apparently Aristotle praised it as a source of stamina and physical dynamism. I can't find a direct quote, but you can bet your boot that it packs a pretty percentage of Vitamin A, C, and K. Not to mention the healthful fibers, which will help you form large, soft stools! According to The World's Healthiest Foods, it "truly is one of the vegetable valedictorians with its exceptionally impressive list of health promoting nutrients."

So, the World's Healthiest Foods website doesn't recommend cooking Swiss Chard with bacon, but that's how I do it. Below is a photo of George, the website's founder, who, as you can see, could use a little pig fat to bring him back to life.

In any case, I started with half a pound of bacon chopped into the bite-size squares you see above. After it began sizzling, I tossed in some garlic, black pepper, a dash of vinegar and let that cook for another five to ten minutes. Then I put the chard in the pot, sprinkled it with water, added just a pinch of salt and covered the whole thing. I let it cook that way for about ten more minutes, stirring occasionally. Taking a tip from my mother, I'd planned to add a little brown sugar. Unfortunately, I realized too late that I was out. Instead I used a bit of honey and that seemed to deepen the flavors well enough.

That's all it takes! And in addition to the health benefits and excellent taste, the pot liquor from Swiss Chard is a lovely pink due to the colorful stems.

19 September 2009

Crystal Beach, Fort Erie, Ontario

Here it is getting late in September, school is in full swing, there's a chill in the air, and I haven't even mentioned the Labor Day Parade. Partly that's because school is in full swing. I really haven't had time. But it's also because I missed the Labor Day parade that I came so close to seeing. Since Labor Day is, after all, a Canadian holiday, I went to Crystal Beach in Fort Erie, Ontario just across the border from Buffalo with some friends, Al and J. Ray. According to Google Maps it's only a 24-minute drive from my apartment, but it took us about three times that long because the border was so backed-up. Luckily, not everyone at the border was going to Crystal Beach and, although there were quite a few people hanging out on the waterfront, we managed to park nearby along the parade route. The procession wasn't scheduled until 2pm, but we planned to stay at the beach long enough to see what the staple of their "End of the Summer" festival looked like. Then, as it came rolling down the street, Al screamed, "We'll be stuck forever!" She shoved J. Ray and me into her car and drove off. Oh well. The real highlight of the trip was a Chip Truck we passed in the little town just north of the beach.

On the whole the town looks quaint, but the cutest establishment, and probably the hardest on the heart, is a little red truck selling the best fried potatos in all the... well, at least in the Buffalo/Niagara region. I made Al pull over so we could have a snack before doing homework on the beach. Fortunately she had a few Canadian dollars, because J. Ray and I were unprepared for the sort of quaintness that does not accept Visa or Mastercard. While trying to guess how to best spend her small reserve between the three of us we guessed at what sizes people in front of us were buying. Two gentlemen bought what we guessed was the "family" size, which was a typical styrofoam take-out container overflowing with fries. After them, a group of women each bought what I guessed was a "medium." It looked as tall as a 12oz styrofoam coffee cup, but considerably wider. So we figured we'd get one small cup of regular chips and one small cup of poutine. As we were discussing our options, one of the women turned around to inform us that they had in fact ordered smalls. So, I guess there's no way to get just a taste. That was fine by me. It was my first time trying poutine, a Canadian favorite, and I was happy to have plenty.

I'd heard a lot about poutine, of course, but had never come face to face with it. I must say, I was a bit nervous. It consists of brown beef gravy and cheese curds poured over a bed of fries. I don't think greasy is too strong a word to use in describing the dish. It wasn't nearly as gross as I'd guessed, though, and every once in a while eating trash is actually good for the heart. My heart, anyway. Here's Al looking at the menu and wondering why this Chip Truck advertises "mazzio" fries, instead of poutine. Or, why they advertise fries at all. Maybe consistency isn't as important for Anglo-Canadians so close to the border.

In any case, they were happy to to see young Americans getting a Canadian cultural education. In 2000 comedian Ric Mercer noted and then exploited America's ignorance on that front when he asked Bush during his first presidential campaign if he was excited about Prime Minister Poutine's endorsement. Indeed, he was excited. US-Canada relations are very important, after all. You can see the short interview here, just skip to 3:30 if you don't feel like watching the rest of that embarrassing footage. Next door to the truck was a building with this very attractive and seemingly out of place sign.

After reading on the beach, and subsequently escaping the parade, we drove around the countryside a bit. It's a really beautiful area during the summer with lots of green pastures, old houses and lush vegetable gardens. We saw lots of corn and some really beautiful tomatoes in one yard; a variety of peas in another. We tried to return to the commercial area north of the beach and wander around there for a bit, but most everything closed by 4 or 5pm. We did see this Laughing Sally, which must have been part of the amusement park that was located in Crystal Beach for 101 years (1888-1989). The Mechanical Museum in San Francisco has one that was built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company of Germantown, PA during the early 1930’s, which is where I'd guess the Laughing Sally we saw was also built. We went into an antique furniture store across the street and the lady said Sally was original, but that her owners had updated her wardrobe for the new season.

Before leaving town we bought sandwiches at a weird little place that grouped each menu item into one of four boxes, then offered confusing combo meals based on where the items were placed. The sandwiches weren't good, but we did have a laugh when a group of Canadian adolescents came in and started exclaiming about the Buffalo chicken sandwich. "Hot sauce and chicken fingers on a hoagie roll? That sounds delicious actually," said one young man.

11 September 2009

Knowing Where to Draw the Line

While driving home from school today a well-dressed mannequin standing in someone's front yard caught my eye. Behind her were piles of old clothes, accessories, luggage and a friendly woman welcoming people to peruse the collection. Nothing had price tags, but she (the woman, not the mannequin) said that she could part with most anything for under ten dollars. That seemed fair enough, so I dove in and soon discovered that Buffalo's best vintage store had sprouted up overnight in my residential neighborhood.

I found a few fashionable ties, two of which have tags from Buffalo retailers that outfitted the city's finest dressers in more prosperous times. One tie, for instance, came from the Kleinhans Company, which opened in 1893. My first Kleinhans find came from this AmVets about a year ago and it still makes me smile every time I see it in my closet. Needless to say, I was pretty happy to find another one today. I was also quite pleased to find a few fifties-looking sharkskin blazers and a couple of decent shirts. But by far, the most exciting find was a denim jacket with an embroidered caricature of Aerosmith on the back.

Can't believe your eyes? Here's a closer look.

A little Internet research revealed to me that the image comes from their fifth studio album, Draw the Line (1977). According to an uncited bit of trivia on the album's Wikipedia page, the band was so famous at that point that they didn't even need to put their name on the cover!

Indeed, the caricature came so close to the reality that Columbia execs felt confident in its instant recognizability.

In the end I admitted my failed confidence in the efficacy of ironic dress and left the jacket behind. C'est la vie, say the old folks. So obviously I'm not going to post Draw the Line here at Lucky Mon-gol, but if you get a hankering to hear the strange sounds of a Yankee blues rock and 70s glam train wreck, you can find it at the blog of a dedicated fan. I will, however, leave you with one last intriguing photo to ponder.

06 September 2009

Cincinnati Showdown

Taking the most direct driving route between Chattanooga, TN and Buffalo, NY put me in Cincinnati, OH at just about lunch time. It was a happy situation to find myself in because Cincinnati is home to a unique style of chili that, even while maintaining allegiance to the Texas variety, I enjoy. Unlike proper chili, Cincinnati chili does not involve chilies. Or, if it does, it involves them in an oblique way, in the form of powdered cayenne or something. But what it lacks in the originary ingredient, it makes up for in what was for me an ass-to-head-composure-inverting surprise: allspice, cinnamon, cocoa.

It sounds sort of funny for the uninitiated, I know, but it really does work in sort of the same way mole works even when it doesn't have all the proper ingredients. And to add to the fun, they provide several options for eating the stuff. To begin with, you have up to five "ways" to choose from. Order it 1-way and you get just a bowl of chili. 2-ways and your bowl of chili comes poured over a plate of spaghetti. 3-ways and they'll add kidney beans to that mix. 4-ways means you can expect fresh chopped onions on top. And ordering it 5-ways will get you a pile of cheese to go with it that nearly out-weighs the chili itself. Now, if you happen to be in the mood for finger food, Cincinnati chili makers accommodate that craving, too, by offering a chili coney-dog. No spaghetti, no beans, but you still get the onions and cheese.

The whole experience turns out to be pretty exciting. As is the case with most regional culinary treasures, however, finding the right purveyor demands careful consideration and sensitive tastes. Tradition, method, freshness, ambiance (and more!) all factor into finding the best place. On this front, Cincinnati makes life difficult.

To begin with, the most soulless and expansive chili chain in Cincinnati, Skyline, is actually pretty decent. That is, if you don't mind the sterile atmosphere of a fast food restaurant. In a pinch and without other options, though, Skyline's chili really is tasty. Take it to go and you avoid the risk of regurgitating your lunch on one of their sports promos.

If Skyline is somewhat paradoxical, however, things get really complicated when venturing out to Colerain Ave. Just northwest of downtown, Colerain Ave. runs more or less parallel to I-75 for about a mile. Situated across from each other on that stretch are two of Cincinnati's best chili parlors: Camp Washington, named after the neighborhood, and U.S. Chili, named after the entire country. Anyone can see which is the more ambitious restaurant, but that doesn't necessarily make deciding between the two any easier.

Camp Washington is older. It started serving up Cincinnati style chili in 1940 and runs around the clock, 24-hours a day, six days a week. I think it serves the better tasting chili, but in 2000, after 60 years in the original building, it moved into pre-fab-looking shit shack, not so different than any "retro" dinner you'd find in a suburban mall. Across the street, U.S. Chili operates in an old bank. The building has been slightly renovated to fit a kitchen, but retains its charm and still proudly displays the old vault, now protecting the men's bathroom. The chili isn't quite as flavorful as Camp Washington's, but the ambiance easily trumps its modernized neighbor. Furthermore, U.S. Chili opened its doors only 23 years ago, well after Camp Washington had established itself as Cincinnati's premier chili parlor. Now, normally age bequeaths a certain feeling of authenticity, but in this case, by stridently exercising the underdog audacity it takes to open shop across the street from a firmly entrenched institution, U.S. Chili takes first place for "keepin' it real."

I first visited Camp Washington in the summer of 2005, while on a road trip with CMS between Asheville, NC and my father's hometown, Michigan City, IN. We spent a couple days in Cincinnati visiting the amazing Contemporary Arts Center, walking around the historical neighborhood Over the Rhine, and eating across the river in Covington, KY. Before leaving town we paid a visit to Colerain Ave. to eat dinner at Camp Washington Chili. We noticed at the time that sitting across the street was a rundown sort of place called U.S. Chili. My best instincts told me that was the place to be eating, but unfortunately, they close early. So Camp Washington it was and Camp Washington was good. So good, in fact, that I insisted on stopping back through on our way home to Asheville.

I hadn't been back to Cincinnati since that trip, but plotting out my route back to Buffalo I realized my good fortune and made plans to visit U.S. Chili. It was a lot quieter than their neighbor/competitor across the street. Two guys sat drinking tea over empty plates of chili, talking about work or gossip or both. They seemed to know the owners by name. For a while it was just the three of us in the big dinning hall. Then it started pouring rain and in came an itinerant looking man with a bicycle. The gentleman owner came out from the kitchen, looked at the guy but didn't say anything. After shaking off a bit, the man with the bicycle looked up and said, "Schenz's lets us sit under his awning when it rains. He's a humanitarian. What are you?" "A business owner." "You think you own this street?" "Yeah, my name is Colerain. You want something or what?" "You know what I want..." And then, setting his bicycle off to the side, he walked straight toward the owner and past him, moved behind the counter and poured himself a cup of tea. "So, how's it been around here? Pretty slow?"

You won't see that sort of thing across the street, which is why I come down on the U.S. Chili side of Cincinnati's chili parlor showdown. I am still confused, however, about what to do with the tray after finishing lunch. At Camp Washington they make it clear that you are to bus your own table, just like at a fast food place with Thank You trash cans that have a space for trays on top. At U.S. Chili there was no place to put dirty dishes or trays, but the dinning room looked pristine. Probably that was because there weren't very many people there, but I hated to sully the image by leaving stuff on the table. So, feeling pretty homey, I gathered up my lunch detritus and sauntered over to the counter where I planned to put my tray off to the side. The owner and the man with the bike each gave me a crooked look, which sent me teetering and spilling some stacked cups full of ice. I apologized quickly and ran out the door, calling over my shoulder that I'd see them soon.

Not soon enough, I suppose, but I'll definitely make an effort to get through Cincinnati between 6:00am and 4:45pm on my next trip South. If I arrive early enough, perhaps I'll try the goetta for breakfast.

Chattanooga, TN

On my way back to Buffalo I stopped in Chattanooga, TN to visit a dear friend who recently relocated there to work at Lupton Library. Preparing for the visit, I worried that it might not be such a cool place and that my time there would be occupied by an extended commiseration with CMS over her unfortunate circumstances. Where did I get such an idea of Chattanooga? It is, after all, the home of my favorite mass-produced dessert snack, The Moonpie. And it shares a state allegiance with my favorite city in the whole world, Memphis. Not to mention that it was once home to one of my favorite musicians, Bessie Smith. Well, despite all that, I managed to maintain some unsubstantiated misgiving about the very idea of life in Chattanooga.

It seems that even after several years of celebrating and adoring the South, my boundless theoretical love has some practical limitations. In theory, mid-sized Southern cities excite me to no end. Yet, the thought of a friend having to live in one made my palms sweat. I don't know why I harbor such a nasty prejudice, even after what I considered a thorough self-reeducation, but there it was, rearing its ugly head as I hit the road to spend a weekend in the "City of Lights." As tends to happen, experience of the thing itself seriously complicated my ignorant preconceptions. It's no utopia by any means, but during my visit there Chattanooga carved out a home at the bottom of my heart, where, incidentally, it has a clear view of my stomach.

My first night in town, CMS took me to one of the coolest places I've ever been, Larmar's. They serve a variety of fried fare, but we were interested in the chicken. As anyone can see, the sign looks promising, but it didn't prepare me at all for what we walked into. Chic mid-century lounge decor, leather booths and clothed tables, the lowest lighting legal in a Tennessee restaurant, a jukebox full of favorites from Aretha Franklin to Talking Heads, and not a soul in sight. Scraps of music and conversation echoed out of a dark hallway off the main dinning room. We waited for a few minutes before a tall gentleman materialized out of the ambient noise and asked how we were doing. Alright, we said. Are you still serving dinner? Sure. Here or in the back, he asked? We decided on the livelier sounding backroom. We had to produce our photo IDs and then he led us down the hall to the Chrystal Lounge, where he was tending the bar for a total of four people.

Apparently Lamar's is an after hours spot known for serving the stiffest cocktails in town. We were a bit early for the late crowd, but wanted to get there in time to eat. We both ordered the fried chicken dinner, which came with half a chicken, french fries and a salad. I'm no aficionado, but I do know that chicken was damn delicious. To enter it into my fried chicken cosmos, I'll have to constellate it with a couple of other notable places. First, Lamar's seems to be in the style of my Auntie's favorite fried chicken joint, Gus's downtown Memphis location. The breading is light and crispy, flavorful but not spicy. On the other hand, one of my favorite places, now defunct, was located in Austin and was part of a far-reaching New Orleans Diaspora. Gene's served a denser batter, seasoned with plenty of black pepper and a number of other spices. I hear the denser, spicier batter is representative of the New Orleans style, epitomized by Willie Mae's Scotch House. Lamar's stands up to all those places and should be considered seriously the next time Bon App├ętit decides to start making declarations about the best fried chicken in the country.

Unfortunately, I couldn't get pictures of the food because it was too dark. But here you can sort of get a sense of what the Chrystal Lounge looks like.

That blue haloed thing in the distance is the jukebox coming to life automatically and asking to be played.

The next evening we sought out some barbecue. CMS had been asking her colleagues for a few weeks where she could get good barbecue, what the regional attributes were like, whether or not there were any hot debates. Nothing of the kind. Apparently, Chattanooga isn't a barbecue town. That does not mean, however, that good barbecue can't be found. In fact, venturing out to the Red Bank / Signal Mountain area just north of downtown Chattanooga, we found a wonderful chopped pork sandwich at Petunia's Silver Jalapeno. Petunia's is an Airstream that serves a wide array of cook-out style foods, including their famous fish tacos and an impressive burger. The menu looked lovely, but as a rule, burger and taco places fail on the barbecue front. It's a matter of dedication, I suppose. No rule without an exception, though, because Petunia's does it right, smoking their pork butt over a hickory fire for a full 24-hours. To compliment our sandwiches, the very friendly lady taking our order recommended a fresh peach milkshake that tasted like the edible embodiment of summer. Here you can see our twin orders.

And here you can see the sandwich in a more intimate setting.

In case you don't have time to follow the link to check out the menu, let me note that the exciting pork sandwich pictured here costs only $4.50.

Sunday in Chattanooga is market day, so we went down to see what the farmers had on offer. The Chattanooga Market bills itself as the largest outdoor market in the region. I don't know what the "region" is, but it certainly is big and bustling. My first stop was at the boiled peanut stand, where I got a small cup of cajun peanuts. While I was taking a picture, the vendor offered to let me take a picture of his boilers. I work hard for this, he said pointing to his stand, so I don't mind that, he added pointing to my camera. I took him up on the offer. The peanuts were first class.

Walking around happily with my peanuts, I encountered the most extreme examples of the Chattanooga Niceness that CMS had been telling me about all weekend. One vendor gave us a basil bunch and a head of lettuce when we asked if she sold basil plants that CMS could plant. She did not, but rewarded us handsomely for our inquiry. Another vendor sent us away with a couple of hot peppers to try when we asked, "What in the world are those?" Cousins of the Habanero, apparently, although mine was considerably gentler than any of the Habaneros I've ever worked with. We also bought some interesting little eggplants that I'd never seen before and some really, really, really tasty heirloom cherry tomatoes.

And here are some other lovely looking fruits from the market.

The whole visit was pretty great, although all our gluttonous adventures left little time to see some of Chattanooga's other important attractions, including the African American Museum, The Hunter Museum of American Art, the Coolidge Park Carousel, and the Tennessee Aquarium. We did take plenty of time to walk around the City, which is an excellent activity in such a pretty place with so many opportunities for caloric intake. I can't wait to go back.