Thursday, April 30, 2009

Another Feast at China Road

Last week I found myself in Syracuse and of course made time to feast at China Road. Or rather I went to Syracuse in part because I knew it would mean going to China Road.

The menu included cold spicy cucumbers, soup dumplings (the adult version of Gushers), turnip cakes (pictured above, though not quite as good as those at the International Buddhist Society in Cambridge - mmm!), a "sausage" hot pot, sautéed pea greens (perhaps my favorite veg), and the best ma po tofu I've ever had.

It was a sensible menu for two raging omnivores and a vegan, but it really got good when, still hungry, us omni's ordered the spare ribs with rice powder, for dessert, and ate it with our hands.

China Road was my first introduction to real Chinese food, and it is very good, but I'm amazed to now have something even better right in my own backyard: Sichuan Gourmet II in Framingham.

While Grace Garden is still the tops, the S.G.2 is so good that, weeks later, I can't stop thinking about my last meal there: two kinds of equally porky and garlicky dumplings, cold sesame noodles, dan dan noodles, yu xiang eggplant, twice cooked bacon, fresh bamboo with spicy wonder sauce (the "wonder" was Sichuan peppercorn oil), and cumin flavored dry beef with chili sauce.

Still, I love China Road and will eat there anytime I'm in the neighborhood. At the very least it's always better than the only other meal I've had in Syracuse: a horrible, fatty lasagna I once ate while waiting for a locksmith to let me back into my car.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Weighty Issues

In my class at the Boston Center for Adult Ed, my students have been tackling a different genre of food writing each session. Last week they tried their hand at the fastest and newest: blogging.

The following is the first ever blog post by Jeanine Slater, one of the class. Let her know what you think!

I used to think that healthy food couldn’t taste good too. Brown rice? Sorry, no. Steamed vegetables? Again, no.

I’m a Yankee with southern roots and I love all kinds of food, so you might say I have equal parts clam chowder and fried chicken running through my veins. In high school I joined the track team and ran 10 miles a day, played tennis, ate whatever I pleased and until I was 18 never weighed more than 110 pounds. Then I went to college. You’ve heard of the freshman 10? Try the freshman 30. So began my on-going battle with my weight.

A few years ago, with the assistance of a Health Coach, I lost 55 pounds and have continued to maintain a healthy weight. The basic formula is very simple: calories in, calories out, but of course we all know it isn’t quite that easy. Finding time to exercise and prepare healthy meals can be very challenging. To help me stay on track, I began creating lighter versions of my favorite foods using both fresh and prepared ingredients.

You’ve heard of Sandra Lee? Oh, please. I was creating semi-homemade meals long before blondie appeared on the Food Network - she just got there before I did.

But you would be amazed by what you can eat while still maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Now that Spring has arrived I am experimenting with grilled chicken & fish (thank you George Foreman!) and preparing tasty and filling salads. I rarely use recipes but have created one for the shrimp salad below. It is simple, tasty and a crowd pleaser at large or small gatherings. Feel free to use the reduced calorie dressings or herbs of your choice


Recipe: Peppery Shrimp Salad

1-2 lbs cooked or raw shrimp
1-2 fresh lemons
Herbs - Sweet basil, thyme, oregano (or whatever you have on hand)
1/4 Cup Ken’s Reduced Calorie Creamy Parmesan with Cracked Peppercorn Dressing (this is my favorite)
1/8 Cup Hellman’s Low Fat Mayonnaise (optional)
Lettuce or other greens

Step 1: If using cooked shrimp, remove tails, rinse & drain thoroughly. Proceed to step 3

Step 2: If using raw shrimp, peel and de-vein (if desired); add shrimp to a large pot of simmering water to which a few lemon slices and herbs have been added. Shrimp will immediately begin to turn pink ; stir & cook for 1-2 minutes depending on the size of the shrimp; remove 1 or 2 & taste for doneness; shrimp should be pink & firm but not mushy (undercooked) or tough (overcooked). When done, empty into a strainer and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process.

Step 3: Drain shrimp thoroughly (pat dry with paper towels if necessary); place in a strainer and refrigerate overnight if you are not in a hurry.

Step 4: Place shrimp in a non-metal bowl & add salad dressing, mayonnaise, a few squeezes of fresh lemon juice, and herbs to taste. Refrigerate for 1-2 hours; adjust seasoning & serve on a bed of lettuce or other greens; garnish with lemon twists.

Serves 6-8.

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N.E.R.D. Pretzel

This past weekend I briefly delved back into the world of the touring performer, a world I used to live in and write about here.

I accompanied one of my former touring partners, MC Mr. Napkins, to a show in which he opened for N.E.R.D., the hip-hop ensemble featuring hit machine Pharrell Williams.

On the way out of the show, I stole a bag of pretzels from Pharrell's dressing room. They tasted so much better than if I'd bought them from a gas station (something else I often did on tour).

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Bok Choi and Brazil Nut Butter

Bok choi and Brazil nut butter, or "no ants, different log," is a weird snack, but a good one.

My inspiration to pair a brassica with a nut butter came from Michael Ruhlman, who confessed to eating something equally bizarre: cabbage and peanut butter sandwiches, for lunch, all the time.

Just seeing the photo of his sandwich, and I strongly recommend doing so here, caused me to rethink food more than any spherification or foam could.

I like bok choi. I like nut butters. Though they're rarely paired together (besides in a stir fry with peanut sauce - but do people even say "stir fry" anymore?), the flavors are not antagonist. If you're hesitant to try it yourself than you'll be all the more surprised at how pleasant the combo is.

The bok choi is light, wet, cool, and crispy. The nut butter thick, dry, and salty. The bok choi counteracts that infamous nut-butter-pasty-mouth-syndrome so well that you won't even find yourself wanting to wash it down.

Why bok choi and Brazil nut butter instead of cabbage and peanuter butter, as Mr. MR suggested? No other reason than the fact that I've been on a huge bok choi kick - raw, only - and will buy Whole Foods in-house bulk b.n.b anytime I find myself near or in the store. I always prefer an independent coop or farmers market over the creepily pleasant, dubiously ecological megachain, but they do have their strengths.

I eat it as a snack, but I suppose it could also make for a conversation-starting starter to a meal.

Try it, you'll like it.


Recipe: Bok Choi and Brazil Nut Butter (or B.C. n' B.N.B.)

2 bok choi stalks
4 tbsp Brazil (or other) nut butter
1 pinch daring-do

1. Thoroughly rinse and rub two bok choi stalks free of debris, acknowledging the cruel trick of fate that the base of the stems always have dirt and sometimes have natural freckling that looks exactly like dirt.

2. Trim all but a suggestion of the greens from two stalks of bok choi. Eat them later, or if you're me, feed them to your strange dog who loves bok choi.

3. Schmear the hollows of the stalks with nut butter.

4. Congratulate yourself for having now become a molecular gastronomist.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Kill and Eat: Garlic Mustard

When I last wrote about the edible exotic invasive weed known as garlic mustard - and I know you've all been on pins and needles awaiting further commentary - I concluded that it was not as attractive to me as plain old domesticated garlic.

But why? Why didn't I want to eat something that's edible, free, and threatening the native vegetation?

Fear. That's why.

Fear of the unknown, as in "can I really eat something that you can't buy from a supermarket?" But we all know that I wasn't going to not eat the thing, and that it was just a matter of time. It was the following sentence on Wildman Steve Brill's site that finally twisted my arm:

"The flower bud resembles broccoli, a relative."

I then had the following thought sequence:

1. This stuff looks like broccoli rabe.
2. People eat broccoli rabe.
3. People eat broccoli rabe with garlic.
4. This stuff already tastes like garlic.
5. I'm going to eat this stuff.

Sautéed in olive oil, the buds were a dead ringer for rabe with a hint of garlic. It's no wonder the plant is also known as sauce-alone.

Like autumn olive and Japanese knotweed, this is one invasive plant that should be savored before being slaughtered.


Wild Garlic Mustard With Buckwheat Soba

(serves 2)

About 10 garlic mustard flower buds
1 package buckwheat soba noodles
4 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp soy sauce

1. Pinch the buds off where the stem begins to darken. Rinse and spin.

2. Cook the noodles in boiling water under slightly tender, about 7 minutes. Drain and rinse.

3. Sauté buds in the olive oil until verdant. Add noodles and soy sauce.

4. After dinner, go back and pull up the entire plant, ensuring its destruction.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

On Bitten

Monday's post on Bitten reminded me how much I enjoy reading Mark Bittman's blog posts. Sadly, his blog rarely features them anymore.

Bittman has posted several times on Bitten in the last week or so, which has been refreshing. Until recently, his role seemed similar to that of a deist creator: having set the clock in motion, he then appeared to have skipped town.

Bitten remains a captivating food blog, my favorite, but it's not always the peek inside the kitchen that produced How to Cook Everything that at first it promised to be. Which is understandable - the man is very, very busy.

Bittman often serves us as much Bittman as we can digest, leaving fans like myself satiated if not full to bursting. Every week you get a column, video, five recipes and a handful of other posts, not to mention the occasional Today Show appearance, new book, or TV show featuring Gweneth Paltrow.

The man waltzes between the bowels of professional kitchens and the sun dappled country lanes of Spain as if it were nothing. He is everywhere that pertains to food.

But if his range seems vast, it's nothing compared to depth of his accessibility. Everyone likes Mark Bittman, from serious chefs to home cooks to the little darlings of the food blogosphere. If you google the phrase "I love Mark Bittman," there are 570 results. If you google "I hate Mark Bittman," there are a scant 2.

Which is why I was so thrilled when he added blogging to his repertoire. Mark Bittman, benevolent emperor of food, was now hosting skillet-side chats. But bit by bit Bitten filled up with posts by his friends, colleagues, and readers that weren't me. At first it was novel, but then I realized how little of Bittman was left in Bitten. And how much Ed Levine there was.

A word on Ed. Ed seems like a great guy, and a stellar cook, but I find his tone to be somewhat antithetical to Bittman's you-can-do-it mantra. And they're both aware of it, with Ed referring to himself as a "maximalist," the yang to Bittman's yin.

But Bitten isn't the Minimalist column, and Ed does technically fit into the mission statement listed in the about section of the blog:

"On Bitten, he chews on food and all things connected to it."

Ed's posts fall under the "food and all things connected to it" part, though I had assumed that the "he" referred to Bittman. It all makes me wonder just who's hand is grabbing that carrot.

Bittman wants us to believe that any food, even if it's just vegetables, can be prepared at home without wreaking too much ecological or nutritional havoc. In contrast, Ed enjoys tauting readers with labor intensive, cream laden foreign delicacies, name dropping expensive restaurants he's eaten at in Europe and then mentioning how he's managed to prepare their signature dishes just as well in his own kitchen.

At first glance his posts appear to have that same can-do spirit as Bittman's, but on closer inspection one notices a sort of can't-do, nanny-nanny-boo-boo tone to his writing. Bittman is not only minimalist, but populist. Ed is not only maximalist, but elitist.

And that's part of Mark Bittman's thing. He has values (i.e. no animals during the day), but he refuses to pin himself down to any one label. He's vegetarian friendly, but not vegetarian. He likes locally grown food, but still shops at a supermarket. He remains open to all things edible in the interest of having fun with food and making everyone feel included. I just like it best when it's he that's doing so.

One gets the sense that he isn't able to regularly maintain the blog while trotting the globe in search of pancakes, and so his colleagues cover for him. And a world that includes a Bitten compromised largely of guest posts is still better than a world with no Bitten at all. But no one beats Bittman at writing for Bitten.

As I've noted before, this blog is in large part a response to Bittman. He's been a huge influence and there's no two ways about it: you'll notice in the labels section at right that the frequency of Bittman posts tie with those on fermentation, and I can think of no higher compliment. So in case there's any doubt, despite my criticism, let me make it perfectly clear: I love Mark Bittman.

That should bring it to 571.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009


For breakfast I usually eat cereal. Unlike most Americans who might make the same claim, by cereal I mean actual cereal, not creatively shaped sugar.

The word "cereal" formerly referred to grain rather than the industrial product created by manipulating it into as inexpensive and addictive a substance as possible. As in Ceres, the Roman goddess of grain.

I want to eat the kind of food that a goddess can be goddess of, and it just wouldn't work with Frosted Flakes. But my diet also has a non-exclusivity clause, and no matter how strident my conditions might be, there's always room for an egg and biscuit sandwich. With butter.

Elise has a thing for baking, and while I generally prefer my grains whole (and garlicky), I simply cannot refuse her warm, fluffy creations. Like the one pictured above. She had made her best batch of biscuits ever, thanks in large part to some extra cream we had lying around. The next morning, toasted, with a little butter and a gently scrambled egg, they were the epitome of breakfast. Ceres may be the goddess of grain, but as far as I'm concerned, my girlfriend is the goddess of scrambled eggs in a biscuit.

Would I have thought to make a buttery little breakfast sandwich for myself? Probably not. Was it better than the spartan, boiled grain breakfasts I'm used to? Let's just say that there's a reason McDonalds makes McMuffins and not McMillet n' Miso.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

(Long) Quote of the Day

From the most recent Lionette's newsletter:

The very people who have made our food dangerous come up with marketing campaigns like one fast food chain that claims that its uses 100 percent USDA-certified beef. (Note to nation: All beef legally sold is USDA certified.) Have we just become complacent? Have we given up, and will buy anything as long as it fits some image with which we want to associate ourselves?

Too often lately I hear from the farmers with whom we work that restaurants have cut way back or have completely stopped buying from them, switching instead to cheaper alternatives from around the globe. The economy is ugly right now, but our food supply is much, much uglier than the state of the economy.

Humanity can survive with a bad economy and safe food, but we will not last much longer with a good economy and dangerous food. The more people cut back on their food spending the more we are ensuring a very real devastation to our food supply.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Best Roasted Chicken I've Ever Had

At long last, I've perfected my roasted chicken. The secret is sustainability.

After years of experimentation (meaning inconsistency), I no longer fuss about whether or not I should be stuffing the cavity with lemons, brining, or even which spices to use. I don't use spices. With real chicken, they're irrelevant.

I get the oven very hot and rub a sustainably raised bird with olive oil and salt, roasting breast side down until it almost starts to burn, flipping and doing the same on the b-side, then turning the heat down to let it finish.

But that's just the beginning. The most important step is to stand over the chicken once you've pulled it from the oven and to tear off pieces of the meat with your fingers, dredging them in the fat that collected at the bottom of the skillet and eating them, moaning, despite the fact that you've burnt your tongue.

In the OD, MP uses the phrase "a more chickeny chicken." The chicken I most recently cooked, purchased from the awesome Lionette's in the South End (now with carbon neutral bicycle delivery service), was the chickeniest chicken I've ever had. In tasting such chickeniffic chicken, I realized how misleading it is that the word chicken has come to mean neutral or plain.

See the phrase "tastes like chicken," which has become a mantra for mediocrity. People use it to indicate that something tastes plain, acceptable, and non-threatening. "Tastes like chicken" really means "tastes like nothing."

The flavor of real chicken is a presence, not an absence. We hear time and time again that organic, locally grown, sustainable ingredients taste better than their GMO counterparts, but the fact of the matter remains shockingly apparent every time you get your hands on real food. Industrially produced knock-offs taste no more like food than the Monkees sounded like the Beatles.

A real bird will be more expensive than its supermarket cousin, because it lived a real life. So eat less of it at a time and appreciate it more.


Recipe: Roasted Chicken

1 sustainably raised chicken
2 tbsp sea salt
1 glug of olive oil

1. Pre-heat the oven to 500.

2. Rub the chicken with the oil and salt.

3. Roast the chicken, breast side down, until the back has browned. Then flip and do the same for the other side.

4. Once the breast has browned, turn the oven down to 350 and continue to cook until the meat melts off of a drumstick with the slightest provocation and the juices run clear. (About 50 minutes all in all.)

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Miso Plus None

I've written before about the joys of miso + 1, an equation which clearly proves that miso paste is the most simple and versatile path to soup. Add any one (compatible) ingredient and you've got an elegant and easy bowlful with practically zero effort.

But in thinking about miso + 1, I overlooked the even more minimalist miso + none. Or rather, miso plus water. Yes, that alone is food.

If you have good miso, which is neither hard to find nor costly, you've got soup. What else can you say that about? Miso, in and of itself, has an even more complex flavor profile than a bloody brownie.

The only challenging step is finding the right miso. After years of experimentation with red and brown, I've finally settled on white. I now use Westbrae Natural's "organic mellow white miso" and I'm never going back. I had a mug of it just yesterday, and nothing could have better suited the cool yet sunny Spring weather. The only possible improvement would be if Westbrae came up with a Beck tribute miso called Mellow Gold. (I can just see him staring into a bowl, tripping out on those ever shifting clouds of soy.)

A satisfying -- not to mention probiotic -- bowl of soup that's as easy to make as stirring. I challenge anyone to come up with an faster, healthier, more delicious snack that could still be considered cooking.

Recipe: Really, Really Simple Miso

1 tbsp miso paste per person
1 soup bowl's worth of water

1. Heat the water in a tea kettle, microwave, or under a magnifying glass.

2. Dissolve the miso in a small amount of the water, then add the rest.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Barely Sweet Brownie

Being barely sweet, you might say that this was barely a brownie. But you'd be wrong. A brownie can sing a much more complex song than that single note of sweetness that usually defines it.

So much of cooking, or any art, is innovation. An attempt to make you see the world in a new and different way, thereby shattering the shell of mundanity that normally surrounds you. A good painting, or even a good bowl of soup, can burn through the haze of your day to day existence and, with one glance (or slurp), return you to a childlike sense of awe and wonder.

I'm sure you've had this experience: you sit down to a dish that you've had countless times before but suddenly taste it in a new way. Maybe someone spiked your mac n' cheese with truffle oil, or maybe the chef bought the garlic from a farmer's market instead of from China. And so you taste whatever it is that you're eating as though it was the first time.

Sure we generally prefer comfort food, but every now and then you need a slightly bitter brownie to broaden your horizons. In making this batch, Elise did something which I'm hearing more and more of my baker friends say: "I found a recipe on-line, then halved the sugar."

Even a single ingredient, say a slice of watermelon, has several flavors: the sweetness of the tip closest to the core, the sourness adjacent to the rind, that distinctive melon thing throughout. Yet all too often desserts only taste like one thing, and that's sugar.

Call me crazy, but I don't want diabetes. Sugar is bad for you. That's why every native population that's exposed to it quickly declines in health. You shouldn't eat too much of it, so if you're going to have it, halving it isn't a bad idea.

With less sugar, this brownie was forced to taste like something. The chocolate had nowhere to hide, and so it stood tall, enboldened by its larger role. A heavy pinch of cinnamon was duly noted, and the salt level almost took things from sweet to savory. Not as salty as the sea -- more like blood.

For the sauce we melted a 70% cocoa bar and stretched it out by whisking in some of the red wine we'd been drinking. If the brownie was barely sweet, the sauce was downright nasty, intimidatingly sugarless, and the combo of the two made for an almost somber dessert experience.

Strong, bitter, salty and astringent, this brownie wasn't as sweet as I'm used to, but it reminded me that I'm alive.

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Friday, April 10, 2009

Quote of the Day (Night?)

Continuing on the theme of garlic mustard, this hails from Wildman Steve Brill's delightfully informative entry on the plant's edible uses:
"The leaves contain natural anti-freezes that lower the freezing point of water. Caution: Never put garlic mustard leaves into a car radiator. It's not that kind of anti-freeze."

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Garlic v Garlic Mustard

I'm proud to report that my garlic continues to grow, despite the fact that I never mulched it, though everyone told me I had to.

While I practically cheered when the garlic came up, I have no such feelings for the patch of garlic mustard growing a few feet away.

This invasive plant dominates many yards and wild spaces and is difficult to control; however, it is edible. The pungent leaves can be cooked as a potherb or used raw in salads, and the root is a dead ringer for horseradish.

The garlic required timely planting and grows slowly, yet the garlic mustard appeared of its own volition, as though transported from an alien world. The second that the snow melted, it began a The Blob-like growth explosion that, if left unchecked, will surely take over the world. In other words, the garlic took effort, the garlic mustard did not. (Therefore someone who didn't fully understand English could take "mustard" to mean "effort.")

When it comes to selecting food, humans have historically gone for the highest calorie count per least expenditure of energy. Originally this meant picking the largest berry, though it has come to mean exchanging money for corn syrup.

My decision to favor the garlic instead of the garlic mustard marks a departure from this trend: I'm working harder for less food.

So why eat garlic when I could get garlic mustard, and tons of it, for free? Because I like garlic better and because you don't want to encourage an invasive. Just look at the Burmese python problem in Florida.

Clearly, nature is waging a showdown of garlic v. garlic mustard down in the kitchen garden. Why else would the garlic naturally grown in a "v"?

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Thursday, April 9, 2009

Quail To Go

When I first moved to Boston I seized every opportunity to dive into the labyrinthian playground of food that is Chinatown. In my Brandeis days I would often take a combination of buses and trains just to have dinner at Penang, which became a favorite spot for birthdays.

The food was great and the atmosphere thrilling compared to the sameness bubble of a college campus, though the dish of ice and sweetened beans that came with a sparkler in it - on the house - never quite took the place of a cake.

Paradoxically, once I moved closer to Chinatown I went there less often, rarely tempted to go beyond the inexpensive neighborhood eateries of Cambridge and Somerville. But now that I'm teaching food writing at the new Boston Center for Adult Ed., I find myself a stone's throw from Chinatown every Wednesday. Last night I finally had time to sneak over for a bite, or as it turned out, a quail.

With only ten minutes to find and eat something exciting, I ducked into a small establishment with the requisite smiling ducks and geese dangling in the window. I needed something that I could eat while walking (briskly) to class, and the small, plump roasted quails looked like just the thing. For $2.50 I soon had my own bird, nestled in a palm sized styrofoam dome, unaccompanied but for a drizzle of golden brown, sweet and salty soy glaze.

I ate the little wings, legs and breast while hoofing it, deciding mouthful by mouthful whether or not it was okay to crunch and swallow the bones.

A small, bony bird may not be as convenient as other, more mainstream on-the-go foods, like the Taco Bell "cheese roll-up," but unlike such alternatives, it won't kill me. (Well, maybe the bones will.)

Either way, the bird served as an amuse for the larger feast I intend to have the next time I fully reenter the labyrinth.

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Monday, April 6, 2009

My Other Kitchen Garden is a Tropical Paradise

My apologies for not posting since last week, but I've been swamped. Literally: I'm visiting family in Florida. Yes, like Mark Bittman, my parents live in Delray.

There are many obvious differences between South Florida, where I grew up, and Maynard, MA where I now live. For instance, when I go swimming in Massachusetts, there's nothing in the water that can kill me. In Florida, there are many things.

The windows of my apartment look out over maple, walnut, and beech, none of which currently have leaves. But as I type this from my mom's porch I see palm trees, strangler figs, live oak, and Spanish moss, all cloaked in undying green.

Besides myself, there are some species that somehow manage to thrive both here and there. Blue jays and squirrels, for instance. I even saw elders in bloom at a nearby wildlife refuge, though they also grow on the pond behind my apartment that so recently was skateable. Our elders won't bloom for weeks, but I'm amazed that one variety of the plant can endure sub-zero temperatures while the other can withstand the constant gawking of sunburnt tourists.

But the greatest divide lies in the kitchen garden. As you know, mine has nothing but a tuft of sorrel and a few garlic sprouts. But my mom's has, in various stages of development...



Meyer's lemons.


And the pineapple pictured at top, plus nine more, all grown from sticking the cut-off tops of other pineapples into the dirt. No aspect of life in New England, except being cold, is that easy.

Sadly, despite the drastic differences in locale, supermarkets in both MA and FL are full of the same exact stuff, most of it horrible: hard plums from Chile, flaccid asparagus from Mexico, and tomatoes grown by slave labor.

I dream of a world were regional food is more distinct than just saying hoagie or grinder, and not just for gastronomic reasons (there's also environmental, social, political and spiritual fruits to reap). Thankfully, we're getting closer to it.

Photography Note: You'll also notice a completely different quality of light in these photos than in any I've taken up North. As in the Low Country pics, the light down here is much whiter.

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