Friday, May 29, 2009
At The General's Kitchen: House of Chipped Beef, the house specialty is—as the name hints—a dish called Creamed Chipped Beef, which sounds about as terrifying as it actually is, and slightly less terrifying than it actually looks.
It comes on a white plate, accompanied by either grits or hash browns, but you will hardly notice them when it arrives, because it is the other pile—the chipped beef pile—that will draw your attention and refuse to let it go. It's hard to describe. The cream mentioned above is not quite cream. It is probably some combination of Bisquick and dairy, fried with a small mountain of chipped beef and served over biscuits or toast. If you get it on biscuits, like I did, it is sort of like eating a biscuit on a biscuit. It is salty and meaty and biscuit-y and remotely delicious, and I add the qualifier only because, at some point, it stops being delicious and just starts being excessive. I repeat: Your $7.50 will buy you a small mountain of it. Let's just say that if I had a cholesterol check scheduled any time this week, I would reschedule. But really, any pretenses about health should be checked at the door of the The General's Kitchen. That's not the point. This is throwback dining at its finest.
We visited The General's Kitchen on a Sautrday morning just in time for the breakfast rush. Indeed, we waited 20 minutes for a table and were subjected to the restaurant's weirdly strident waiting rules. (At least one person in your party needs to wait on the ramp outside or you risk losing your table. This despite the fact that there were only three parties waiting.)
The carpet is filthy and the walls are covered in fire fighter memorabilia and a vast array of baseball caps. The General himself passed away several years ago and now his wife now walks around the dining room during the breakfast shift, checking on patrons, unsmiling in a velour track suit. Our waitress, however, was quick to take our orders and to refill our coffee.
It's worth mentioning that several members of our party opted for another breakfast option: the chipped beef omelet, in which creamed chipped beef is both spread out over the top of an enormous omelet and inside it, for double your beefy, creamy pleasure. In that case, your biscuit or grits comes on the side.
The General's Kitchen: House of Chipped Beef serves its many loyal patrons at:
7032 Coastal Highway (at the Beachmark Hotel)
Ocean City, Maryland 21842
Thursday, May 28, 2009
Along the New Jersey Turnpike between exits 7 and 7a, there is a rest stop where we got stuck once because the brakes went. Well, they didn't go, but they made a grinding noise that we felt in our teeth and we got scared. We got especially scared because Amanda, our driver who was from Vermont, told her parents we were having a fun weekend seeing a band in nearby Montreal. We did see the band. In Baltimore.
The grinding grew louder than our conversation by the time we reached the Maryland border, but it wasn't until we were on our way home two days later—after we'd seen the band, of course—that our collective fear grew jittery and swollen enough in the confines of Amanda's sea green Civic that we finally pulled over.
The service station at exit 7 consisted of a gas station and a single garage manned, because it was Sunday, by a single mechanic. There was no fancy fast-food mega station with its side-by-side array of pizzas under lights and wrapped burgers. No machine to print an impression of the Statue of Liberty on a flattened penny. The service station at exit 7 was a service station, period, and a small one at that. We called AAA hoping for assistance, but you can't use it on the New Jersey Turnpike, which requires the autoclub to funnel all calls to state-run services, didn't we know?
So we were stuck. But Brian, the mechanic, seemed particularly eager to save the day for five forlorn young women, and promised us new brake pads, if we waited around a bit. He could send someone to get us the parts on the other side of town. Still, though, we had to get home. We had classes, jobs. And we were still so far from New England.
“If we left right now,” I asked, “Would the brakes keep working until we got home?”
“Maybe.” he said, “If you pump them.”
The thought of pumping brakes being sufficient enough to terrify all of us, we decided to wait. So we waited. We bought potato chips and gummy fruit in the tiny convenience store. We lounged across a sidewalk, reapplying sunblock, recounting every band story we could think of. The boredom became excruciating, the sun relentless. We took photos. Of Amanda's poor car, helpless up on the jack. Of each other looking bored. In one photo, taken from a low angle, my sister stands in a blue t-shirt with her index finger extended upward so it looks like she's touching the bulbous top of a green water tower in the distance. Under her giddy smile lurks a touch of frustration. Aren't we having such incredible fun. As though she wants, more than anything, to extend the other finger.
Brian fixed the car. We took a photo with him, too.
The first thing I recognize is the water tower. Or maybe it's the only thing. I unfold myself from our rental car and my feet touch the pavement and I'm starving, post-work, Friday afternoon exhausted in a black dress coming from New York City on our way to Ocean City, Maryland for the holiday weekend. We're halfway across the parking lot, and I'm already deciding what I want. A fast food cheeseburger? A rare thing, a treat reserved only for road trips. Or TCBY yogurt full of sprinkles, a frisbee-sized, single-serving pizza from Pizza Hut.
The rest area teems with food and services, with drooping American flags, with a staff of hundreds. You can sit, watch Fox News on the monitors on the ceilings, change a baby, press a penny into one of several shapes: The Statue of Liberty, a flower, or a tiny imprint of The Lord's Prayer. Everyone else is bewildered by the array of food, overwhelmed by their choices, by the stalls lit up in blaring primary colors, branding to the extreme. I'm starved. I want a cheeseburger.
I unwrap it on the way back to the car with my friends, who are sucking on shakes and picking beef jerky out of a bag. And then, it rises up in front of me, the green bulb of that water tower, and I an nearly knocked off my feet by a drowsy wave of deja vu.
It's been nearly a decade. I haven't heard from Amanda in years. I am tempted, for a moment, to go into the service station, to ask for someone named Brian. I miss my friends, my sister who lives far away now.
I do what I can in her honor. I pull out my digital camera and put my hand into the frame, extend my index finger. It's not the same, of course. There is no capturing that low angle, the look on her face. I touch the water tower. Well, I “touch” it.
The Woodrow Wilson Service Area (the side with the water tower) is located between exits 7 and 7A on the New Jersey Turnpike. The Richard Stockton Service Area (the one with the Burger King) accommodates the southbound lanes in the same location.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Recently, someone made a really good point about this blog, and about travel blogs in general. As a writer of a travel blog, I probably should, in fact, tell people a little bit about how to see and do the things I describe here. Fancy that.
Although some things in this travel blog are probably great examples of things you should avoid while traveling, I will, in the future, include things like addresses (online and off) and phone numbers. If you stumble across an old entry that doesn't include this information and you want it, give a holler. I can add it, or send the information along to you. If I still remember it. Which I may not.
Incidentally, that photo is from Les Puces—the flea market—at Clignancourt in Paris. To get there, take the Metro 4 to Clignancourt, which is pleasantly difficult to pronounce.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Macky's is our second choice, but it becomes our first choice once we get inside. The other bar, Seacrets—which, I'm sorry, sounds more like an oceanside adult entertainment complex—teems at 4 in the afternoon with dudes who are draped in gold and peeling from their spring tans, the bikini clad girls on their arms universally and uniformly tramp stamped, like cattle. I had been concerned about the bouncers letting us in with sandals instead of proper shoes. I need not have worried. So. Next bar.
Macky's is the choice because Colin knows someone who works there, but in reality, Colin and Candice know someone who works in every single bar in Ocean City, Maryland, and about half the patrons, too. Alas, something I experience only rarely: Travel with locals.
The bar's back wall is open to the ocean and tables spill out onto the sand. Inside, the high ceiling is hung with bowling trophies Ocean City ephemera, and TV screens. Potted palms abound. The crowd is pleasantly all over the map—families with sticky-fingered little kids, couples drinking pre-dinner Coronas, rowdy packs of twentysomethings, senior citizens watching the game. Macky's don't serve Maryland's most famous dish--blue crabs--but the TV screens encourage you to “Embrace the All-Carb Diet” with a pasta dish and to try their grilled shrimp. Food, however, was not our mission. That would come later. But we did order creamy/icy margaritas and the house specialty—an enormous cocktail called an Orange Crush, which is served in a sand pail with five straws and a plastic shovel. Having tried other macro cocktails—enthusiastic and brain-wrecking drinks served in fish bowls, etc.--let's just say that this one, like most, is more about quantity than quality and appeals to a specific crowd. Like, the one I was with, for example. For future reference, it also comes in grape.
They played the soundtrack from my senior year of high school—Chumbawumba, Third Eye Blind, Weezer—and we drank as the sun set, as the day-to-evening crowd shift began, as summer inched closer.
And then we went for crabs, because that's what you do in Ocean City, Maryland at the beginning of summer. We choose Higgins.
Having grown up on lobster and steamers, I come prepared for a mess, but I am still a little surprised when a bus boy arrives and promptly tapes sheets of brown paper to the table in front of us. The air is humid, the sun disappeared. We're famished, so we all order the same thing—the Number 1—which includes all-you-can-eat blue crabs, fried chicken, corn on the cob, crab soup, cole slaw, and french fries. Other options include Alaska king crab legs instead of blue crabs, baby back ribs, shrimp, or all of the above, together or separately. The Number 1 costs about $25.
And then the waitress dumps a mountain of food on our table. Literally. The fried chicken comes on plates, thank God, but the crabs are served dire
ctly on the table along with an assortment of little tools—a pointed knife, a small plastic cracker that looks nothing like the stainless steel lobster crackers of my youth, a fork, and (my favorite) a wooden mallet. She also gives us tubs of vinegar, melted butter and Old Bay seasoning, a mixture of salt, paprika, and chile powder. The crabs are a little bigger than a hand, their backs steamed an angry orange, Old Bay sticking to their claws. The mountain of them is gorgeous, a chaotic tangle. Candice gives the lesson.
She picks up a crab and flips it over.
“First you pull up the penis.”
She aims the point of her knife under a narrow piece of the shell in the center.
“It's the penis. It really is. This is a boy. If you get a girl crab, it looks different.”
She shows us how to split the body, clean out the gills and goop on the inside, hit the claws with the mallet. It is about four thousand times more work than opening up a lobster, and for a third of the meat. After much cracking, splitting, prodding, and picking, we all realize that we haven't looked up from the table in twenty minutes. Our beers sit mostly untouched. The crabs are delicious and, amazingly, so is the corn. Usually corn served in roasdside seafood joints—again, I speak from experience—is wrinkly and flavorless. It is simply not a priority with all that incredible seafood around. This corn is truly amazing—golden and sweet and perfectly cooked. If only we had room for more of it with all of our crabs. I lose count of how many I've eaten after an hour—maybe 6? By then, my hands are filthy, my lap full of shell fragments. We unwind paper towels from the roll two and three sheets at a time. The bus boys clear the trash buckets on our table every ten minutes. We make a colossal mess.
By the time we're done, the paper in front of us is soaked through, strewn with bits of shell and meat. It looks as though dinner exploded. We will smell like crabs for hours. No one seems to mind very much.
Macky's serves copious amounts of alcohol every day and night until 2 am and food at other times. You can find it at:
54th Street on the Bay (5311 Coastal Highway)
Ocean City, MD 21842
Higgins Crab House is happy to give you more paper to tape to your table, if you ask, at two separate locations. We visited the one at:
31st Street and Coastal Highway
Ocean City, MD 21842
Thursday, May 21, 2009
It's warm in New York City. I'm happy about that. A couple of travel-and-blog-related updates:
- I wrote a little piece for TravelBlogs.com recently about what you should leave home when you travel. I wrote about one of my gorgeous-but-useless scarves. Or, useless isn't the word. Superfluous. In this circumstance.
- I'm really happy to report that my blog posts are now appearing on the awesome site WorldReviewer. Please nose around there and read some of the other excellent writing. I think you'll enjoy.
- I'm heading off to Ocean City, Maryland this weekend with some friends. Look out for posts about that little trip, plus more on Croatia and Sicily (as always) and maybe even a few tidbits about the lovely Apple herself.
- I'm going to be moving this blog soon. I'll warn you in advance, don't worry.
Saturday, May 16, 2009
In Dubrovnik, Croatia, in a city literally paved in gleaming white marble, there is a jewelry store just off the main drag, nearer to the city's Pile Gate than not. I don't know its name and I don't know the name of its bearded, bespectacled owner who opened up his dark wood cases for me with tiny little keys so I could peer closer, but I wish I did.
I visited on a day when it didn't rain but pour, when the marble paving stones were slick and the tourists crammed the cafes and pizza joints.
Now, there are the splashy jewelry stores nearby that offer enormous knots of beads and flashy cut stones for the cruiseliner crowd that slides in and slides out of the city each day, but this jewelry store is dark and small and crammed with nothing but traditional Croatian pieces, all of them pinned neatly to felt boards and hanging off delicate trees in the single storefront window. My favorites are the necklaces and earrings hung with hollow, detailed little spheres of gold or silver. They're called botuni, and they're part of the traditional costume along the Dalmatian coast.
I choose a pair of earrings in antiqued silver, wishing I could have one of everything in the store. As the shop owner meticulously arranges them in a box, I ask how late the shop is open and he explains that he's closing early because his political party is voting today in a city election. So, then, it's time to go home. The city of Dubrovnik stops me from returning and spending all my money on trinkets, on a strand of winking little spheres.
Sunday, May 10, 2009
The swimming pool at the Hotel Kastel at the very top of the hill in Motovun, Croatia is glassed-in and bright in the morning with the green of the garden just beyond the windows. Pieces of the original medieval stone have been used in the construction and you will see them—a stone beam here or there, the outline of an old window—as you float from one end to the other, disrupting the surface at the same sleepy pace as the stone water spigots, which pour into the far end.
I fall in love with it instantly, literally at first glance, standing there in jeans and sneakers as we are given a tour of the hotel's basic but inviting wellness facilities. I think, I must swim in that pool.
And I do. I wake up early the next morning when I don't need to. And even as my eyes open to watery sunshine, to the view across Istria's rolling hills, I know exactly how I want the day to be. I want to think about and do nothing difficult. It's my last morning in Istria. All I want is to float.
I take the glass elevator downstairs wearing a cotton dress and leggings, the comfort food of my wardrobe, and hope that being an early bird will payoff. It does. In the off-season, in spring, at that hour of the morning, I enter the pool and I am blissfully alone. The spigots haven't even been turned on, so the surface is an unbroken blue sheet and the room is silent, the air still and softly humid. I think to ask the spa technician if it's OK to swim, but I can't find her, not that I try very hard. A white board on one wall lists the water temperature and pH and I consider this an official invitation.
I change, dropping my stuff in a locker. I break that perfect surface. I am empty-headed, toes above the surface, doing easy laps. This is more or less my favorite thing to do on earth.
The jacuzzi seems like a great idea until I slide into the curve of blue tile at one end of the pool and press the button and my calm surface erupts into spurts of foam and bubbles and the silence dies, chased away by the hum of the hum of the motor. I want it to stop immediately, annoyed with myself. I swim away from it as though it were a bratty kid splashing and screaming in the shallow end, hoping that it will stop. After what seems like an eternity of gurgling and humming, it does, and my peace comes back. The laps continue. I am suitably solitary, prune-y at the fingertips, on vacation.
Travel provided by the tourism board of Istria, Croatia.
Saturday, May 02, 2009
The theme of the trip is pigs. For the flu, maybe, which is on every television screen we pass. But mostly for the ones on the agritourism farm in Istria, Croatia, which we visit on a day full of cloudy skies and cold rain. A day on which we are supposed to hunt for truffles on the same farm, but because of the rain, we don't.
On this day, the truffle dogs shift in their houses, poking their heads out, restless, while the house dog barks—a yipping little thing with stickup hair—at our shifting ankles, mocking our poor thwarted plans.
The farm is called Agriturismo Toncic, and you need a car to get there from Pula or from Rovinj, but I would say that it makes a car worth getting, even in the rain. If you can drive one, which I can't. But on this particular day, I am happy for company and a van that is driven by someone who understands the street signs, who is not me. I am happy just to go.
But thankfully for us, this farm does more than truffles. Probably, given the finicky nature of truffles, thankfully for them, too.
We see the prosciutto first, moldy and pungent-smelling on hooks in a cool back room that also contains glimmering aluminum wine tanks. The legs are beautiful, seasoned with nothing but pepper, drying in the air, less fatty than Italian prosciutto, and just different. Less greasy. Lighter.
The farm is family-run, and the son shows us around—first the older legs and then the younger ones in a different room, which hang on the same kinds of hooks, but beside other sausages and pigstuffs. Perched above the door is an animal skull with a delicate rack of antlers. Butchering equipment sits on shelves, at the ready. The son wears bright blue work coveralls that stand out against the colorless day and describes the family business—some olive oil, some wine, some prosciutto—in a way that makes it seem humdrum and everyday, but all of us city folk drool, a little bit, envious. We want farms. We want to know where everything goes.
I put up my hand. Ask a Dumb Tourist question.
“Do they use all the parts of the pig?”
The son laughs. They use everything.
Even on a rainy day, the land surrounding the tiny farm is a blinding green, the buildings red and white. They take us out to show us the pigs.
The pen that houses them is spotless and warm and animal-y smelling, and they squeal and oink as we enter, pressing their rubbery noses against the walls. There is something weirdly elegant about them, the taught layer of fat across their backs, the division and order of the tough little hairs that cover it, parted precisely down the middle—all the hairs on one side going one way. They are pink and squirming and floppy-eared like cartoon pigs, like what artists dream of when they go to draw cartoon pigs. They scramble on little hoofs when the son throws them feed. And these are small ones—about 200 pounds each—about half of what they should be when it's time to butcher them, to hang their legs on racks in the next spotless room. (The prosciutto, we are told, are hung and organized differently depending on whether they're front or back legs.)
Someone in our party even suggests that they be given toys—something, anything—to give them a quality of life. And I almost see what she means, admiring their alert eyes, their splendid color. (It is a creamy, uniform kind of pink. Like Pepto Bismol.) But these are prosciutto pigs. And, to continue with our piggy theme, if you're going to eat the prosciutto, you should see the thing that it comes from, look it in the eye.
We are then ushered inside to a dining room filled with long wooden tables and a tiled fireplace on one side. Someone has built a fire and we fight for the spots in front of it, holding our chilly hands up.
Dinner is served by the daughter and cooked with the mother, who remains in the kitchen for the duration of our visit. But this is how it goes in every place we visit. Mom in the kitchen. Dad in the fishing boat. Son with the butcher knife. Daughter serving, explaining, cleaning, welcoming. It's cozy at the table, the bunch of us in front of the fire. The dinner starts with the family's wine, the same stuff in the tanks outside.
Before dinner is served, Kerrin sneaks off into the kitchen to say hello to Mamma, to snap photos of the magic behind the scenes. She comes out with a satisfied smile, holding a basket of sooty black truffles, one of them halved to reveal its pure white core. These aren't white truffles, which are extraordinarily valuable, but they are beautiful and still costly. We are promised truffles with our meal—and we get them.
Lunch is noodles with shaved black truffles and ravioli with two kinds of cheese—one cow, one sheep—with the delicately flavored spring asparagus that's in season. The main dish is roasted lamb, pungent with olive oil and spices, roasted potatoes, and a light salad. We groan under the weight of it, silent except for the sound of our munching. And there is, of course, dessert too. A sugar-sprinkled cookie with a hole in the center. Another cookie, a coiled spiral of dough with cinnamon. And a cake with a cream layer.
We are told afterwards that there is accommodation available too. That you can sleep, eat, hunt for truffles, all for not very much money. All in one place, against green rolling hills and amidst little medieval towns and the yelps of the truffle dogs. And really, what you can see is how a family lives, how food grows, and how your vacation is really just a glimpse into a system that works. A system that's always there, whether it's on a farm in Istria, Croatia, or one in your town or state. And if you go to relax or to eat or to hunt for those elusive truffles, you will be able to draw the line. Pig. Prosciutto. Dinner. Food. Sustenance. Livelihood.
Travel provided by the tourism board of Istria, Croatia.