Book Review: The Devil’s Picnic by Taras Grescoe

Author: Taras Grescoe
TitleThe Devil’s Picnic : Around the World in Pursuit of Forbidden Fruit
Publication Info: New York, NY : Bloomsbury Pub. : Distributed to the trade by Holtzbrinck Publishers, 2005.
Previously Read By Same Author: The End of Elsewhere: Travels Among the Tourists and Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile


In Grescoe’s travel books he seeks out a specific theme for his travels.  In The End of Elsewhere he deliberately sought ought the most touristed spots across the Eurasian landmass and in Straphanger he rode the world’s best metro systems seeking solutions for cities.  In The Devil’s Picnic, the theme is prohibition and Grescoe travels the world to make a meal of food, drink and other consumables that have been banned or severely restricted in different parts of the world.  The menu includes moonshine in Norway, poppy seed crackers and chewing gum in Singapore, bull’s testicles in Spain, smoking in San Francisco, absinthe in Switzerland, mate de coca in Bolivia, and assisted suicide in Switzerland (the one thing the author does not sample).  Many of these items are banned out of concerns of morality and health, but Grescoe notes the arbitrary nature of prohibition and the damages on society and individuals that arise when resources are dedicated to legal enforcement rather than treatment, and forbidden fruits are only available through criminal organizations.  Similarily, there’s the hypocrisy of some substances such as caffeine being considered “harmless” and commonplace, something Grescoe attributes to it being a productivity drug that benefits a capitalist system. At times Grescoe comes off as a jerk, like when he deliberately chews gum in Singapore trying to provoke a reaction, knowing that a white Westerner will not be punished like a local.  But largely this is a thoughtful book on where the lines should be drawn between self-determination and societal protection.
Recommended books: Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser and The Global Soul by Pico Iyer
Rating: ***1/2


Photopost: Wake Up The Earth 2013

Spring descended on Jamaica Plain this past weekend with the annual Wake Up the Earth Festival presented by Spontaneous Celebrations. This was the 35th annual festival, an event that grew out of the “highway revolt” of the 1960s & 70s when local activists opposed the construction of highway infrastructure in Jamaica Plain & Roxbury, leading to the creation of the Southwest Corridor as a system of train lines, bike paths, and parks that we enjoy today. Ironically, some people who want to create new prioritized highway infrastructure for cars marched in this year’s parade which I guess shows that this festival takes all kinds.  The festival itself was home to many tents of activists of many causes, food, games, and musical performances.  My family and I sang a few songs with the intergenerational chorus SingPositive, JP in preparation for our concert on May 19th.  We also danced to Maaak Pelletier’s jam band the Mystical Misfits as they played Grateful Dead classics.  Finally, the potato sack slide down the hillside was great fun for everyone.

A peace sign and yin yang grow out of the hillside at Jamaica Pond’s Sugar Bowl.
Peace and flowers!
The Brendan Behan quote seems appropriate to the occassion.
Spanish banner for the festival.
Here comes the parade.
The stilt walkers always impress.
I’m pretty sure this woman participates every year.
The theme of the year is snakes and these folks won the Best Family Costume award.
Hula hooping is another big highlight of the festival.
Mobile percussion unit.
The wolf and the lamb dance in the street.
A rocking marching band and dancing stilt walker.

Scholars from my son’s school march.
Getting brassy.
The Mystical Misfits lead the dance.

More photos from the parade and festival on Universal Hub and JP Patch.


Food Meme

Here’s a food meme with a list of foods that apparently every omnivore should try at least once, via the Desert Librarian.  I’m a vegetarian (that is don’t eat anything from the animal kingdom but do eat animal products like milk, eggs, honey & cheese….mmmm, cheese), but I haven’t always been so I can check of a few meaty things on this list too.

1. Venison
2. Nettle tea (this isn’t Nestea apparently)
3. Huevos rancheros
4. Steak tartare
5. Crocodile
6. Black pudding
7. Cheese fondue (fromage et pan, mmm)
8. Carp
9. Borscht
10. Baba ghanoush (so much fun to say)
11. Calamari
12. Pho
13. PB&J sandwich
14. Aloo gobi
15. Hot dog from a street cart
16. Epoisses
17. Black truffle
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes *
19. Steamed pork buns
20. Pistachio ice cream
21. Heirloom tomatoes
22. Fresh wild berries
23. Foie gras
24. Rice and beans
25. Brawn, or head cheese
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper
27. Dulce de leche *
28. Oysters
29. Baklava
30. Bagna cauda *
31. Wasabi peas
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl
33. Salted lassi
34. Sauerkraut
35. Root beer float
36. Cognac with a fat cigar *
37. Clotted cream tea
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O -Shots
39. Gumbo
40. Oxtail
41. Curried goat
42. Whole insects (not intentionally)
43. Phaal *
44. Goat’s milk
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more *
46. Fugu
47. Chicken tikka masala
48. Eel
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut
50. Sea urchin
51. Prickly pear (I accidentally had the cactus spines stuck in my tongue, does that count?) *
52. Umeboshi  *
53. Abalone
54. Paneer (mmm…cheese)
55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal
56. Spaetzle
57. Dirty gin martini  *
58. Beer above 8% ABV
59. Poutine
60. Carob chips
61. S’mores
62. Sweetbreads
63. Kaolin (clay?)
64. Currywurst
65. Durian *
66. Frogs’ legs
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake
68. Haggis (vegetarian haggis in Edinburgh)
69. Fried plantain
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette
71. Gazpacho
72. Caviar and blini
73. Louche absinthe *
74. Gjetost, or brunost *
75. Roadkill (maybe I’ll try it if it’s a dead apple or something)
76. Baijiu *
77. Hostess Fruit Pie
78. Snail
79. Lapsang souchong *
80. Bellini
81. Tom yum
82. Eggs Benedict
83. Pocky
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant *
85. Kobe beef
86. Hare
87. Goulash
88. Flowers (like roses, daffodils, and violets?)
89. Horse
90. Criollo chocolate *
91. Spam
92. Soft shell crab
93. Rose harissa *
94. Catfish
95. Mole poblano
96. Bagel and lox (just the bagel, no lox)
97. Lobster Thermidor (just the lobster, no thermidor)
98. Polenta
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
100. Snake

What I learned from this list is that if I had to look it up, it’s something I’ve never eaten.  There are some tasty things on here I’d like to try though.  I’ve marked those with an asterix.  So I’ll never eat all these things, but I can definitely improve on the score of 47 out of 100 that I have now.

Book Review: New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg

Following up on Ric Burns’ New York, I read New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg (2007) edited by one of the stars of that series Marshall Berman and Brian Berger.

This collection of essays looks back with some nostalgia and some disgust at the City in the 70s, 80s, & 90s.  For most of the authors, New York once was full of crime, sex, and drugs, yet the rents were low and the City maintained its own character.  Today they sneer that interlopers have moved in, built luxury lofts, priced out everything that made New York unique and replaced it with typical American suburbia. Most of the essayists to some extent sink into insufferable self-importance which makes this book hard to read at times.

There’s a lot of hyperbole, but there’s truth mixed in.  And there’s still a lot to love about New York.  Each borough gets its own tribute, with the one on Staten Island being the most illuminating since I know little about that area.  There are also great stories on graffiti, civil rights, art, rock music, and ethnic foods.  If you love New York, this book is worth checking out.  If you hate New York, this book isn’t going to change your mind.

New York calling : from blackout to Bloomberg / edited by Marshall Berman and Brian Berger.
Publication Info. London : Reaktion, 2007.
Description 368 p. : ill. ; 25 cm.

Book Review: In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008) is Michael Pollan‘s follow-up to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which he answers the question the most readers of that earlier book have when finished “Ok, so what should I eat?”

Pollan’s simple answer is: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”  A simple phrase, but it requires this slim book to explicate, especially in this era where the prominence of processed food products make it difficult to determine what food is.  A good portion of the book is a set of rules for identifying foods and how to enjoy them.  I’ve listed the rules below for my own memory, but it is important to read the book for Pollan’s explication of each rule.

At it’s heart, In Defense of Food is an indictment of nutritionism.  This is the process where by scientific reductionism food is broken down into it’s basic nutrients.  In nutritionism, it is at the nutrient-level where “foods” are recommend for their healthful benefits or condemned for their ill-effects.  Pollan contends that a lot of these recommendations are made under pressure from food processing companies and government agencies without thorough research on how the food (or food products) acts at the macro-level.  This lack of understanding about how food works leads to the contradictory recommendations that a food is healthy one year and deadly the next (and vice versa). Furthermore, it ignores how whole foods act as a nutrient delivery system.  For example, a plant leaf may dissolve in the digestive system releasing nutrients in a healthful way, while the same nutrient as an additive to a food product can flood the body in unhealthful ways.  Additionally, Pollan states there is little research how nutrients act in balance with one another.

The processing of food often removes the nutrients needed, even when the cartons make claims to the healthfulness of what should be inside. As a result, we live in a country where people are eating and eating and eating in search of nutrients they cannot find.  Thus the oxymoron of a people who overeat but are still undernourished.

On the one hand this book is a vindication.  I always felt better eating real butter, sugar and other whole foods when everyone told me it’s healthier to consume margarine and aspartame and the like (ok, I could cut back on the sugar some more).  I  never trusted high fructose corn syrup.  The way people glom onto fad diets withouth much evidence that they’re healthful drives me crazy.  I would add to Pollan’s rules: “Never trust a diet with a name (ex. Adkins, South Beach, et al). On the other hand I live on a supposedly healthy vegetarian diet, but I don’t eat nearly enough leafy plants and I rely way too much on processed foods even if they’re supposedly healthy meals from Trader Joe’s.

Pollan often refers to the traditional nutritionist we should trust as “Mom.”  Unfortunately, he fails to acknowledge that Mom is now working 40+ hours out of the home. So is Dad and sometimes the kids are too. The time crunch many Americans face that put real pressures on the time available to select, prepare and eat food. This is not to be critical of Pollan, but I’d like to come up with extra rules that would help people incorporate healthy relationships with food into their busy lives. It seems it would need to be a cultural change as well as individual.  It could be as simple as teaching someone like me what to look for at a farmer’s market:  which type of produce should I look for, how should I judge it’s quality, how much do I bring home, and what do I do with it when I get home?  It sounds dumb, but I really need such remedial training, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

A good book to pair with In Defense of Food is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, in which author Barbara Kingsolver and her family spend a year eating locally, organically, and sustainably.  It come recommended by my sister and is central to this great episode of Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippet called The Ethics of Eating.

Professional reviews:

Favorite Passages

How a people eats is one of the most powerful ways they have to express, and preserve, their cultural identity, which is exactly what you don’t want in a society dedicated to the ideal of “Americanization.”  To make food choices more  scientific is to empty them of their ethnic content and history; in theory, at least, nutrionism proposes a neutral, modernist, forward-looking and potentially unifying answer to the  question of what it might mean to eat like an American.  It is also a way to moralize about other people’s choices without seeming to.  In this, nutrionism is a  little like the institution of the American front lawn, an unobjectionable, if bland way to pave over our differences and Americanize the landscape.  Of course in both cases unity comes at the price of aesthetic diversity and sensory pleasure.  Which may be precisely the point.  – pp. 57-58

When most of us think about food and health, we think in fairly narrow nutritionist terms — about our personal physical health and how ingestion of this particular nutrient or rejection of that affects it.  But I no longer think it’s possible to seperate our bodily health from the health of the environment from which we eat or, for that matter, from the healt of our general outlook about food (and health).  If my explorations of the food chain have taught me anything, it’s that it is a food chain, and all the links in it are in fact linked: the health of the soil to the health of the plants and animals we eat to the health of the food culture in which we eat them to the health of the eater, in body as well as mind.  So you will find rules here concerning not only what to eat but also how to eat it as well as how that food is produced.  Food consists not just in piles of chemicals; it also comprises a set of social and ecological relationships, reach back to the land and outward to other people. – p. 144

But meat, which humans have been going to heroic lengths to obtain and have been relishing for a very long time, is nutritious  food, supplying all the essential amino acids as well as many vitamins and minerals, and I haven’t found a compelling health reason to exclude it from the diet (That’s not to say there aren’t good ethical or enviromental reasons to do so).

That said, eating meat in the tremendous quantaties we do (each American now consumes and average of two hundred pounds of meat a year) is probably not a good idea, especially when that meat comes from a highly industrialized food chain.  Several studies point to the conclusion that the more meat there is in your diet — read meat especially — the greater your risk of heart disease and cancer.  Yet studies of flexitarians suggest that small amounts of meat — less than one serving a day — don’t appear to increase one’s risk.  Thomas Jefferson probably had the right idea when he reccomended using meat more as a flavoring princinple than as a main course, treating it as a “condiment for vegetables.” — p. 165-6


  • Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
  • Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting
  • Avoid food products containing ingredients that are:
    • Unfamiliar
    • Unpronouncable
    • More than five in number
    • Or, include High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Avoid food products that make health claims
  • Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle
  • Get out of the supermarket whenever possible


  • Eat mostly plants. Especially leaves
  • You are what what you eat eats too
  • If you have the space, buy a freezer (to preserve cuts of meat)
  • Eat like an omnivore
  • Eat well-grown food from healthy soils
  • Eat wild foods when you can
  • Be the kind of person who takes supplements (but don’t waste your money unless you’re over 50)
  • Eat more like the French.  Or the Italians. Or the Japanese.  Or the Indians.  Or the Greeks.
  • Regard non-traditional foods with skepticism
  • Don’t look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet
  • Have a glass of wine with dinner


  • Pay more, eat less
  • Eat meals
  • Do all you’re eating at a table (a desk doesn’t count)
  • Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does
  • Try not to eat alone
  • Consult your gut
  • Eat slowly
  • Cook, and if you can, plant a garden

Pollan, Michael.
In defense of food : an eater’s manifesto / Michael Pollan.
New York : Penguin Press, 2008.
244 p. ; 23 cm

Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

When I was a kid, my grandfather grew string beans and tomatoes in a planting box on his balcony 23-stories above a major elevated highway interchange in Brooklyn.  My sister and I would smirk as my grandmother proudly stated “Your grandfather grew these himself,” as she ladled the limp, brownish-green string beans on our plates.  My mother had better luck growing bumper crops of green beans in the Connecticut soil of our backyards as well as all the vegetables necessary to make a delicious spaghetti sauce.

Reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) by Michael Pollan it occurs to me that these may be the only meals I’ve eaten that don’t come from the chain of industrial monoculture.  And even then both my grandfather and mother relied on the seeds and fertilizers sold by big agribusiness.  Pollan’s conceit in this very important book is to trace the chain of events leading to four very different meals:

  • a fast food meal from McDonald’s
  • an “organic” meal from the industrial suppliers of Whole Foods
  • a meal from a “beyond organic” symbiotic farm in Virginia
  • a meal made entirely of food gardened, foraged and hunted by Pollan himself

For the fast food meal, the central crop is corn grown in sturdy rows and harvested with industrial efficiency.  While corn may not obvious in many meals it is a key ingredient in feed for cattle (even though by nature they eat grass) and corn-derived additives and foodstuffs are the integral to many foodstuffs (especially in the form of high fructose corn syrup).  Pollan demonstrates how this industrial form of agriculture is destroying the earth through overuse of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides.  The corn products and corn-fed beef are less nutritious than they would be otherwise, not to mention the incalculable suffering of the feed lot.  Plus industrial agriculture’s reliance on government subsidies and fossil fuels adds a great cost to this supposedly cheap crop.

By comparison, the “big organic” meal from Whole Foods is tastier and more nutritious by comparison.  Organic farmers proudly proclaim that they’re protecting the earth by not using fertilizers and pesticides.  Yet by following the agribusiness industrial model, these farmers are still creating unsustainable food networks whether they’re unaware of it or simply greenwashing.  Pollan points out the energy required to import out-of-season goods from distant regions plus the additives used to preserve them.  Free range animals rarely live the pastoral live imagined by organic food lables and instead are not all that different from the non-organic factory farms.

Pollan spends a week on a farm of a farmer whose philosophy goes beyond organic and into the symbiotic relationships of plants and animals.  While he calls himself a grass farmer, he’s raising cattle and chickens as well in innovative ways where each being supports the cause of the others in a cruelty-free way.  The farm also serves only local customer, the importance of food networks where buyers know their suppliers are stressed.  While this philosophy is critiqued as inefficient and elitist, Pollan illustrates how it is in fact more efficient in food production as well as cost when the hidden costs of agribusiness are added in.  The benefits to plants, animals, and humans are high as well.

Finally, Pollan creates a meal himself from his garden, finding mushrooms with some of Northern California’s most obsessive foragers, and hunting for wild pigs.  At one point in this section Pollan experiments with vegetarianism using as a way to debunk animal liberationist theologies.  This is the one section of the book I had trouble with since as a vegetarian myself I feel Pollan tied together all vegetarian philosphies with the most extreme adherants and the benefits of vegetarian lifestyles weren’t given a fair shake.

I looked forward to reading this book because I previously enjoyed reading Pollan’s Botany of Desire. Like that previous work, this book is written in Pollan’s engaging style that is both alarming and compelling without being preachy.  The Omnivore’s Dilemma is worthy of the hype it has received and I recommend reading it.  Anna Clark of Isak sums it up best: “This is an astonishing, engaging, hilarious and revelatory book that should be required reading for every American. At least every American that eats.”

Online resources mentioned in the text:

Favorite Passages

It’s difficult to control the means of production when the product you’re selling can reproduce itself endlessly.  This one of the ways in which the imperatives of biology are difficult to mesh with the imperatives of business. — p. 31

I’ve oversimplified the story a bit; corn’s rapid rise is not quite as self-propelled as I’ve made it sound.  As in many other “self-made” American successes, the closer you look the more you find the federal government lending a hand — a patent, a monopoly, a tax break — to our hero at a critical juncture. In the case of corn, the botanical hero I’ve depicted as pluck and ambitious was in fact subsidized in crucial ways, both economically and biologically.  There’s a good reason I met farmers in Iowa who don’t respect corn, who will tell you in disgust that the plant has become “a welfare queen.” — p. 41

For corn has been exempted from the usual rules of nature and economics, both of which have rough mechanisms to check any such wild, uncontrolled proliferation.  In nature, the population of a species explodes until it exhausts its supply of food; then it crashes.  In the market, an oversupply of a commodity depresses prices until the surplus is either consumed or it no longer makes sense to produce any more of it.  In corn’s case, humans have labored mightily to free it from either constraint, even if that means going broke growing it, and consuming it just as fast as we possibly can. — p. 56

So this is what commodity corn can do to a cow: industrialize the miracle of nature that is the ruminant, taking this sunlight- and prairie grass-powered organism and turning it into the last thing we need: another fossil fuel machine.  This one, however, is able to suffer. — p. 84

I’d always thought of trees and grasses as antagonists — another zero-sum deal in which the gain of the one entails the loss of the other.  To a point, this is true: More grass means less forest; more forest less grass.  But either-or is a construction more deeply woven into our culture than into nature, where even antagonists depend on one another and the liveliest places are the edges, the in-betweens or both-ands.  So it is with the blade of grass and the adjacent forest as indeed, with all the species sharing this most complicated farm.  Relations are what matter most, and the health of the cultivated turns on the health of the wild. — p. 225

A tension has always existed between the capitalist imperative to maximize efficiency at any cost and the moral imperatives of culture, which historically have served as a counterweight to the moral blindness of the market.  This is another example of the cultural contradictions of capitalism — the tendency over time for the economic impulse to erode the moral underpinnings of society.  Mercy toward the animals in our care is one such casualty. — p. 318

Author : Pollan, Michael.
Title : The omnivore’s dilemma : a natural history of four meals / Michael Pollan.
Published : New York : Penguin Press, 2006.

Food Lust

Monday night I was walking through Harvard Square and stopped short at the window of the Z Square Cafe.  There in front of the plate glass I watched a man in full chef’s regalia making a crepe.  Not just any crepe though.  He was spooning, nay ladling, the creamy chocolate-hazelnut delight that is Nutella.  I stood there drooling in a moment of pure animal lust not unlike what my friend Craig went through at his gym, albeit mine was for food not women.  This felt like the glutton’s equivalent of a sailor on leave in Amsterdam window-shopping in the red light district.  Luckily, I had some Nutella at home to gorge upon.

This reminds me that Nutella Day is coming up on February 6th, although I don’t know if the originators of that holiday are planning to do it again.

Trip to Southern California: San Diego

I returned to Southern California after a 27-year absence in order to add to my collection of ballparks and see the New York Mets play in San Diego and Los Angeles. I visited Los Angeles when I was six years old. This was my first visit to San Diego.

View all of my photographs from Southern California.

I flew to San Diego by way of Cincinnati. The last leg of the flight passed over desert, including Death Valley. Being a Northeastern boy this is the closest I’ve ever been to a desert. As we approached Lindbergh Field, the plane flew low over the city of San Diego. I caught the swift 992 bus downtown and dropped my bags at my hotel, 500 West.

After grabbing a sandwich, I boarded the Blue Line trolley to the border: Tijuana. I was surprised that the city and the suburbs extended all the way to Mexico. In fact near San Ysidro I saw dense urban settlement on the distant mountains only to realize later that it was Tijuana itself. Both countries are built up to the border with no frontier between them.

Crossing the border is rather humorous as all about are signs that say things like “Left Lane for Mexico,” “U Turn For US,” and “To Mexico and Parking Garage.” I followed that last sign where a long line of pedestrians entered a fugly building of corduroy concrete that straddles the highway crossing the border. I walked up a long twisty ramp, crossed the highway, came down a twisted ramp on the other side, passed through a revolving gate and voila! I was in Mexico. On the southern side of the border I was greeted with a concrete plaza surrounded by concrete buildings that resembled parking structures. These buildings contained shops selling prescription drugs without prescriptions and lots of tourist tchotchkes. More carts staffed by aggressive vendors and cute children lined a ramp up to the bridge crossing the dry Rio Tijuana. At last I made it to the main tourist zone in the Avenida Revolución. Here were more aggressive vendors for me to shake off, Mexican zebras (sad donkeys with stripes painted on them), shady bars and “erotic dance” locales. It was all overwhelming. Even when I walked over to the less tawdry shopping district for the locals, I felt so crowded that I could not even stop to look at my map.

My guidebook recommended visiting the more upscale Zona Río so after getting my bearings I walked over that way by way of a desolate warehouse and auto parts district. At least I was away from the crowds. Avenida Paseo de los Héroes is relatively more elegant than La Revo but it is merely a palm tree lined boulevard of strip malls and office buildings similar to many a suburb in Southern California. Unlike the tourist area, the locals were business people chatting on the sidewalks during lunch break. Tijuana is actually one of the wealthiest cities in Mexico which is all relative based on the decrepitude and poverty I’d seen overall.


I found myself evaluating why had I come to Tijuana in the first place. Basically I wanted the novelty of crossing the border by foot and then wandering around to see what’s here. With that in mind I chilled out a bit. Finding nothing of interest open on Avenida Paseo de los Héroes I decided to return to the La Revo area to visit the cathedral and then return across the border. Having had time to acclimate I found it much more entertaining to wander around on the second visit. I stopped in the busy cathedral — a dark, cool, glistening place on a hot day — and then bought some postcards. Before crossing the Rio Tijuana I stopped at a sidewalk bar and had a bottle of Pacifico beer. I was liking Tijuana a little better. Perhaps if I came with my buddies when I was 19. Of course I didn’t have buddies like that when I was 19.

Crossing the highway on the Mexican side I felt rather smug looking at all the cars backed up at the border crossing (where they had a last chance to buy tchotchkes from vendors on the side of the road). Then I saw the line of pedestrians waiting to get into the United States. For the busiest border crossing in the world the twenty minute wait wasn’t so bad.

I took the trolley back to San Diego, checked into my hotel, and grabbed supper and beer at Karl Strauss Brewing Company (which feels like the Boston Beer Works with different signs). Then I walked to Petco Park. The ballpark is located right in the revitalized downtown area and has nice local touches such as sand-colored walls and palm trees. Most famously the Western Metal Supply Co. building is incorporated into the stadium and from the exterior it looks like just another old building fronting the street. Beyond center field there are bleachers with a beach for kids to play at and even beyond that a grassy knoll where people can watch the game or look at the stars. There’s also a wiffle-ball park where a tired looking Padres employee pitches and dozens of children attempt to field. It’s a very walkable park with open concourses and for the first night I spent a lot of time walking around seeing the game from different angles (and no one stopped me nor made me feel like I shouldn’t be there). You may read about the game itself in my Mets week in review post.

Post-game I walked through the Gaslamp Quarter which seems to be mostly restaurants and hotels with the bars being on the chi-chi side. With nowhere else to wet my whistle I settled on Ghiradelli’s for a chocolate malt.

Day 2 in San Diego began with a trip to the San Diego Zoo. I love zoos and I’ve heard great things about San Diego since I was a kid. The staff tried to sell me the full package which includes the bus tour around the park but I preferred to walk so I purchased the cheaper admission. Inside it seemed at first that many of the roads were dedicated solely to the double-decker safari buses and like Southern California cities, pedestrians were marginalized to a narrow sidewalk. Then I discovered the central part of the zoo where there are paths going up hills, down ravines, and over exhibits on skywalks in a way that was not only great to see the animals but just a wonderful landscaping design overall. Best yet no motor vehicles could get into this part of the zoo at all. I saw many animals I’d never seen before at other zoos such as koalas, pandas, and meerkats and so old favorites like polar bears, gorillas (and boyillas), and big snakes. I really enjoyed this zoo.

Continuing through Balboa Park I was sorely tempted to visit the San Diego Museum of Art and San Diego Model Railroad Museum but I decided I needed to keep my time and money budgeted. I did pay a quick visit to the Botanical Building and the small art collection in the Timken Museum. Then I walked across the western part of the park where planes fly very low en roue to the airport. I continued my walk into Little Italy where I visited the small Our Lady of the Rosary church and admired the paintings on the ceiling. Then I had supper at Filippi’s Pizza Grotto where chianti bottles hang from the rafters. The food was good and the chianti divine.

After working out at the YMCA attached to my hotel, I attended another Mets-Padres game at Petco Park, walked down a different street of the Gaslamp District, and visited the Princess Pub in Little Italy that sadly had no cask-conditioned ales on tap. The next morning I had plans to stroll along the waterfront, exercise the Y, update my blog at the web cafe, and eat breakfast. I fell back to sleep and the maid service awoke me at 9 am so I only had time for the latter eating at the Grand Central Cafe in the hotel. Then I went to the spiff mission style Santa Fe Depot and bought my Amtrak Pacific Surfliner ticket for Los Angeles. The clean, smooth double-decker train hugged the coast for much of the trip and made stops at places like San Juan de Capistrano and Angels Stadium in Anaheim. Had I known this ahead of time (and the Angels were playing at home this week) I would have incorporated those two stops into my itinerary. Good to know for future reference that they are accessible for the car-free traveler.

Another Weekend in New York

For Christmas, my mother generously gave Susan and I tickets to see Madama Butterfly performed by the New York City Opera at the New York State Theater in Lincoln Center. My friend Mike M., an Atlanta Braves fan, and I have a tradition of catching a Mets-Braves game at Shea Stadium each spring. Fortuitously, the Mets-Braves series and the opera fell on the same weekend and a plan was hatched!

My photos from the weekend.

We drove down early Saturday morning in Mike’s Truckasaurus. From past experience and the many warning of Mets announcers about the lack of parking at Shea, I was worried we’d be stuck in traffic and have to park in a remote region of Long Island. Despite many bathroom breaks for Mike, we arrived about an hour before game time and got parking close to the stadium, so all that worry was for naught.

We sat in the Upper Deck boxes behind home plate. There was a great family of season ticket holders in front of us. Both the man and woman kept score and compared notes during the game. They were die-hard scorekeepers as the man kept a baseball-shaped pencil sharper on hand for mid-game sharpening. The man didn’t like the Wave at all and I have to agree with him. Twenty years ago fans at Shea did the Wave during a Met rally as a coordinated effort to cheer on the action on the field. Nowadays, the Wave seems to happen when the fans are bored, and it’s a pretty tired activity at that.

It was a big day at Shea. First it was Luggage Tag Day (almost as exciting as Mets Ice Cube Tray Day) as all fans received a classy leather tag upon entering. Next it was Earth Day and volunteers from the EPA made a token appearance to collect recyclable cans and bottles (they didn’t stick around too long after the game though). The best part is that it was Dog Day in the Park and Mets fans walked their pooches around the warning track prior to the game. A lot of cute dogs in Mets bandanas out there. This brought much delight to Susan.

The highlight of the day was the on field action between the Mets and Braves. Young Ollie Perez pitched beautifully, including 20 straight strikes at one point. I got to rib Mike a lot about all the 0-2 counts on the Braves batters. I also got to see the most exciting player in baseball, Jose Reyes, doing what he does best: getting on base and then stealing bases.

The Mets broke the game open with a series of home runs over the 5th & 6th innings. I didn’t see any of these because I was attempting to get money by waiting in line at the slowest ATM in the world, and then waiting again to buy ice cream. I didn’t mind too much because I think I was getting too much sun on a warm April day. Spending so much time packed like a sardine within Shea’s interior makes me appreciate the need for constructing a new stadium with extra wide concourses.

For more on the Mets v. Braves, see my latest baseball post Meet the Mets.

After the game, we spent some time under the elevated tracks with a drink and a snack. I was impressed with how quickly and efficiently most of the other fans were moved away from the park. By the time we were ready to go there was no wait for Mike to drive out of the parking lot nor for us to board the 7 train. We zipped downtown to Times Square and then transfered uptown to our hotel in the Upper West Side. The Hotel Riverside Studios promotes their plaid bedspreads and matching drapes, but something about the corridor makes it look like the kind of place where artists go to shoot heroin. We came up with a slogan for the hotel “You’ll come for our plaid bedspreads, you’ll stay for our shady corridors!” The neighborhood was lovely with lots of colorful, stone-front row houses.

After a nap which I couldn’t shake off right away, we headed out for dinner. An excellent soul band played on the crowded platform at 72 St. Station. The lead vocalist had one of those powerful, throat-shredding voices and the guitarist and drummer offered lovely harmonies. They made the rather crumby Commodores’ song “Easy” sound really, really good. I was a bit thrown by the subway not making local stops, grumpified more as I groggily made along the packed sidewalks near Times Square, and positively mortified when I knocked over a candle and broke a glass as we were seated at the restaurant. I was soothed by the delicious Indian food and the friendly staff at the former Nirvana 54.

We strolled down 5th Avenue to the Empire State Building which Susan wanted to visit on recommendation from our nephew Cassidy. The wait was long though, so we took a pass. It was a nice walk and maybe we’ll return and go up when Cassidy is with us. Back at the hotel Susan searched unsuccessfully for a Tom Hanks movie, her New York tradition. Then we went to sleep.

On Sunday we ate breakfast at a cafe on the corner of 71 St. and Broadway. We strolled down to Lincoln Center, but it was far too early, so we made our way over Central Park to get out of the sun. New Yorkers celebrated the warm weather by taking all their cute babies and dogs to the park. We watched for a long time as a young lad played baseball with his dad, always running the wrong way when he hit the ball. Topping off our park experience, we ate Ferrara’s pastries by the USS Maine monument.

We walked around the Lincoln Center complex which really is an amazing complex. This is what Modernism looks like at it’s very best. I especially like the railings in the New York State Theater which look like Jackson Pollock paintings formed into class. Upon entering the Fourth Ring to find our seats, Susan said “Wow!” which I think sums it up. The couple sitting in front of us seemed more inured to the opera house experience. During intermissions he read a book and she did the Times crossword.

For more on the performance read my post Opera Review: Madama Butterfly.

After the opera we strolled up Amsterdam Avenue to Fred’s Restaurant. This place is pretty much a dog-themed bar based on the story of a female lab named Fred who wasn’t able to work as a guide dog for the blind, but was lovingly adopted by the restaurant owners. The walls are lined with autographed photos of dogs from around the world. Susan loved it. Fred’s appears to be a good place to take your children as the other tables were teaming with adorable young’uns. Come to think of it, I think our entire weekend was dominated by dogs and children. Anyhow, the food and staff at Fred’s are great too.

After that we took a long, hot bus ride home and arrived groggy and grumpy. And that was our weekend.

Speaking of New York City, this online gallery of photos of New York from 1964-1969 contains many great images of the city and its inhabitants by Irwin Klein. While this is a little bit before my time, it’s still nostalgic as the city and the people in the photos remind of New York when I was a child.

Book Review: The Secret Family

The Secret Family: Twenty-four Hours inside the Mysterious Worlds of Our Minds and Bodies by David Bodanis spends one day in the life of a typical suburban family – mother, father, teenage daughter, 10-year old son, and baby. The family wakes up, eats breakfast, putter around the house, visit the mall, return home and go to bed. Bodanis focuses on all the details of well, just about everything. Much of this is microscopic — what microbes are crawling around the shafts of our eyebrows, what poison gases are welling up under the sink, what the hell are they putting in our food (big thing with Bodanis that gets huge gross-out points), and what germs are floating around the shopping mall. Bodanis also focuses on our human behavior, the things we do without even realizing it, and what qualities are predictors for that behavior. Technology, how it works, and how we work with it is also one of the many things explicated. Often Bodanis brings in brilliant if esoteric historical connections that are reminiscent of James Burke’s Connections. Each page is filled with fascinating details and this book is well worth the read for a quick insight into everyday life.

Kudos for Dudos

This week’s Boston Phoenix cover article “Choosing Our Religion” is a fun historical and sociological analysis of Boston’s favorite chain Dunkin’ Donuts. The franchise dominates New England so much so that it is frequently cited in directions: “Take a left at the first Dunkin’ Donuts, pass through the rotary, and then at the second Dunkin’ Donuts take a right, but not a hahd right!”

“Good puzzle would be to cross Dublin without passing a pub,” mused Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. A better one would be to traverse the Hub without passing a Dunkin’ Donuts. There are 269 Dunkin’ stores or kiosks within a 15 mile radius of Boston proper. Indeed, it often seems there’s one on every other corner. Across New England, there are nearly 2000 Dunkin’ outlets: that’s one for about every 6000 people.

I grew up with Dunkin’ Donuts. No school, church, or community gathering occurred without a box of Munchkins. My friends in high school referred to the Dunkin’ Donuts on the Post Road in Greenwich as Headquarters. Sadly, now that the doughnuts are baked offsite they are often stale and tasteless compared to the fresh yumminess in their “Time to Make the Doughnuts” days. Of course, it’s not about the doughnuts, it’s about coffee, and thus Dunkin’ Donuts finds themselves in a battle for brand loyalty and identity politics with Starbucks.

Fair or not, these are the stereotypes. Starbucks is fancy, indulgent, haute-bourgeois. Dunkin’ is simple, unpretentious, to the point. One encourages lounging and relaxation, one encourages getting in, getting out, and getting on with your day. Look deeper, and it’s fascinating how these conventions play out.

I have to say I’ve never heard Dunkin’ Donuts referred to as Dunkies. If the name’s shortened people call it Dunkin’s or less commonly (but my preference) DuDos. Also the article makes no mention of Dunkin’ Donuts acquisition by the evil Carlyle Group. Oh and don’t ever, ever order a Dunkaccino®, it is a foul, sickly-sweet concoction.

Further commentary on this article at The Bostonist.

What do you do if you’re a meat-eater living with a vegetarian?

A lovely article in The Guardian has great suggestions for meat-eaters on how to relate with vegetarians. Lucky for me I live with a conscinetious omnivore, but the article is useful for anyone you know and may take a meal with. I wish I had this article twelve years ago. I could have given it to all the people in college who told me I could pick the pepperoni off the pizza (heck, I once had someone tell me I could pick the meat out of a soup!).

Best Holiday of the Year

February 6 is World Nutella Day!

World Nutella Day

Ok, I try to avoid being a corporate shill, but were I famous and offered an endorsement deal for Nutella, I think I’d have to take it. Whoever invented Nutella should be commended for making a perfect product – chocolate and hazelnut in a creamy spread. And you can eat it for breakfast!

I’m pretty sure I had Nutella as a kid, but my Nutella adiction did not begin until I was an adult. I confess I’ve spent many a night slathering Nutella on crackers and when I run out crackers on fruit and when I run out of fruit, I’ve licked the knife. On a visit to Salzburg I was overjoyed to get packets of Nutella with our continental breakfast. A good creperie like Mr. Crepe in Davis Square will put Nutella on a crepe. In Greenwich Village I once had two great flavors in one sandwich — a peanut butter and Nutella sandwich at Peanut Butter & Co. The Boloco wrap and smoothie joint chain offers the delicious Nutella smoothie. I love Nutella in all it’s forms.

Susan does not like Nutella. It doesn’t make sense since she loves chocolate. I think she confuses it with curd or Vegemite or something else gross she ate in Belgium, but I can’t convince her otherwise. Oh well, more Nutella for me.

Weekend in New York

Susan had to attend a conference in New York City over the Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend. Instead of staying home eating pizza, drinking beer, and listening to lonesome blues music, I decided to travel to the City with Susan. She was pleased to have my company and know that I’d be able to entertain myself. I believe I’ve visited New York at least once a year since my birth so it is good to keep the streak alive early in the year.

We chugged down to New York aboard Amtrak, I napped most of the way, but awoke to watch my old stomping grounds of Connecticut pass by. We checked into the La Quinta Inn amid the Korean barbecues and 24-Hour Spas of Korea Way. Some of my Mets fan buddies from The Crane Pool Forum were gathering at Virgil’s in Times Square so we joined them for a couple of beers and Mets talk.

With Cranepooler Edward, Susan & I marched up town to take advantage of Susan’s corporate pass to the Guggenheim Museum. En route, I satiated my blood sugar levels with a hot pretzel and Susan and Edward tried the chestnuts roasted on a open lightbulb. Neither of them enjoyed their chestnut experience much and Edward left most of his for the squirrels of Central Park. Susan and Edward chatted merrily while I pondered why I was sweating profusely in what was allegedly January.

The exhibition on display at the Guggenheim is called Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth, and History. The exhibition is not arranged by chronology or artist but by themes like “Knights and Ghosts,” “Virgins and Mothers,” and “Monstruous.” Thus, regal portraits by Goya and Velasquez are mingled with surrreal landscapes by Dali and Picasso’s disturbing images of the Spanish Civil War. We started at the top of the rotunda which was actually the opposite direction of the exhibition so we learned about the themes after we saw the paintings. We arrived only an hour before closing so we’d only made it about halfway down the corkscrew before we were evicted. It was nice that Susan’s company provided the comp passes since it’s a rare treat that we can visit a museum for just an hour and not worry about rushing through to get our money’s worth.

The three of us walked back downtown and got some pizza for supper. Edward caught a train to Long Island and Susan & I returned to our hotel. I was exhausted and fell asleep swiftly while Susan watched a Tom Hanks movie.

The next morning while Susan attended sessions in the windlowless basement of the Javits Center, I began my day with a tour of Central Park. The topic was Views from the Past, a historical overview of the heart of Central Park: The Dairy, The Sheep Meadow, The Mall, and Bethesda Terrace. The guide was a bit dry but had some good stories. I particularly enjoyed his amusement with the Love-ins and Be-ins once held in the Sheep Meadow (“great events but bad for the grass”), the in-line skaters who perform impromptu dances by the bandshell, and the pet boa constrictor he once saw swimming in the Bethesda Fountain (“I don’t know if it’s legal but I did notice everyone pulling their dogs out of the fountain”).

After the tour I did some strolling on my own through the Ramble, the Great Lawn, and along the Reservoir. I also discovered something called the Pinetum. I didn’t know what it was at first, but since it was full of pine trees I assume it was an arboretum exclusively for pines. I left the park near the Ancient Playground. Why that name — is it because it’s the oldest playground in the park, named for the Ancient family, or because it’s near the Metropolitain Museum of Art? The last answer is correct and the playground is full of pyramids and obelisks modeled after the museum’s Egyptian wing. The playground also contains the Ancient Comfort Station which contains classic floor length urinals. Stop by and take a pee in them now before they renovate and put in those crumby seeing-eye toilets.

I left the park and strolled down the charming Madison Avenue since I’d walked up and down Fifth Avenue on Saturday night. Begging the forgiveness of my sisters and brothers in organized labor I paid my admission and entered The Frick Collection. Mr. Frick’s mansion full of conspicuous displays of wealth contains mainly European art from the 16th to 19th century. Frick apparently was not one of those wealthy people who supported modern art although I did see a Cezanne, a Renoir, and a Monet. One gallery called the Boucher Room is described by my guidebook as “not to 21st-century tastes” with its depictions of cherubic children engaged in various arts, sciences, and professions. I’m of the opposite opinion since people who collect Hummels and Precious Moments figurines would probably love this room.

Whatever you may say about Henry Clay Frick, he collected some beautiful art. I’m particularly fond of Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert and Turner’s Cologne: The Arrival of a Packet-Boat, Evening. A special exhibition of Old Masters from the Cleveland Museum of Art included this David painting of Cupid looking proud and ready to do strut after a night with Psyche. The house was a bit gaudy for my taste but I did like the Garden Court, I could live in a house with one of those. In fact I could live in a house that was just a Garden Court with a kitchen in one corner and a bed in another.

On my way out the door my visit was spoiled a bit by a man throwing a temper tantrum at the securtiy staff over the museum not allowing children into the museum. I was proud of a woman who was visiting the collection who spoke up in favor of the guards. The man’s five-year old boy would’ve been bored to tears in the Frick. I couldn’t bear to watch the end of the argument so I got my coat and strolled down Lexington Avenue to the subway and rode back downtown to Herald Square. I attended Mass at the pretty little Church of St. Francis of Assisi and then returned to the hotel to meet up with Susan.

We dined out in Greenwich Village in a restaurant called Souen. This restaurant was perfect for us since the menu has a large number of vegetarian dishes for me and fish for Susan. The staff was very pleasant too. Souen goes on my list of restaurants to remember in New York City. For a digestif, we visited the dark and stylish Belgian Wine Bar Vol de Nuit. We shared a small serving of frites and I drank a glass of La Chouffe (delicious but pricey).

On Monday morning, Susan and I ate breakfast together at the Skylight Diner and then I walked Susan over to the Javits Center. I decided to stroll up town along the river since I’d never spent much time in that part of town. Not a good idea since the fog and buildings on the piers blocked my view of the Hudson and the neighborhood was industrial and dull. I did get to witness fleets of UPS and FedEx trucks getting ready to rumble in a contemporary version of West Side Story.

For this trip, I most looked forward to commemorating Dr. King’s day with a special Big Onion tour of Historic Harlem. I took the train up to Lenox Avenue and 135 St. and was there at 11 am but no one else was there. I thought maybe the tour was really starting at 125 St. so I boarded a bus and rode it downtown but there was nothing doing there either. I learned later that I got the time wrong and the tour was actually at 1 PM. Bummed, footsore, and tired of being out in the wetness, I stayed on the M102 bus all the way downtown to the East Village, enjoying a tour of the City’s many neighborhoods along Lexington Av.

Since I was in the East Village and it was lunchtime, I went to Curry Row on 6 St and ate at Gandhi Restaurant. Having rearranged my day to touring the East Village, I went to the Merchants House Museum which I’ve long wanted to see. The tour of the 19th-century house of the Tredwell family is self-guided and the docent gave me a thick binder full of descriptions of the various rooms of the house. This is perfect for history geeks like me so I could sit there and read the whole thing in its entirety. Afterwards, I wandered into the NYU area of the Village to pay my respects to the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire.

In the evening, I returned to the hotel and once again joined up with the love of my life. Susan picked out a restaurant for dinner in the vicinity of the Port Authority and we walked up town. The West Bank Cafe turned out to be a lovely albeit expensive restaurant and I felt a bit underdressed. I have to note that the restrooms are classy and the dessert was wicked good. After that Susan walked me to the Port Authority and I took a bus back home to Boston.

Photos from this trip are available at

Yumminess Returns to Davis Square

The Somerville News reports that Mr. Crepe is once again open in Davis Square. Susan and I were fond of noshing on their sweet and savory crepes in their old location on Holland Street and took to calling it Monsieur Crepe. It’s good that Mr. Crepe is open once again in a more central location.

On the other hand, that location was home to the legendary Someday Cafe coffee shop. Although I often found the Someday too crowded to go into, it was a great meeting space and subject of a Jim Infantino song. Real estate concerns forced the Someday out last summer. However, the Somerville News also has happy news to report about the possibility of Someday Cafe reopening within Sacco’s Bowl Haven, an intriguing if odd combination. If both these local businesses can reopen and succeed in new locations it will be the happiest moment for me since The Globe Corner Bookstore reopened in a new and larger location in Harvard Square.

This whole issue has me thinking of all the great local businesses that have gone away in the short eight years I’ve lived in the Boston areas. I started jotting down a few names and came up with this list.

The Necrology of Boston Area Businesses
Denise’s Ice Cream – Davis Square
Disc Diggers – Davis Square
Union Square Bistro – Union Square
Eat – Union Square
Tir Na nOg – Union Square (closing on January 30)
hardware store – Magoun Square (just because I can’t remember its name doesn’t mean I don’t miss it)
WordsWorth Books – Harvard Square
Billings & Stover Apothecary – Harvard Square
Sage’s grocery store – Harvard Square
Johnny’s Luncheonette – Central Square
Kendall Cafe – Kendall Square
Curious Liquids – Beacon Hill
Cafe Marliave – Downtown
The Littlest Bar – Downtown
Irish Embassy Pub – West End
Mike’s Doughnuts – Everett
Juicy Lucy’s – Watertown

I suppose people of a certain economic bent would just say that’s the way of the market economy and that businesses like these just didn’t have what it takes to succeed. But each of these businesses provided something to me, something of high quality, and in most cases something I’m not finding in surviving businesses. I’m certainly not finding it in the chain stores, banks, cell phone stores, and condos that are popping up everywhere the local businesses used to operate.