Always to the frontier

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Wednesday Filler: The Capture Of Philadelphia

One of the nicest features about a tourist side trip to Pat's King of Steaks, which we featured two days ago in a post, is that one gets impressive views of the city skyline from that location.


Right next to Pat's is a large park dominated by a baseball diamond.  Since a fence was in the day, I tried to zoom through the links the best that I could.  The end result was almost artistic, a look at a city that has had as many historic ties to dominating financial structures and Federalism as it has to religious liberty and progressive democracy.  Here we look from the working class neighborhood around Pat's, through a fence, higher up into intermediate businesses, all past floodlights meant to illuminate a baseball diamond, and finally resting in a city above all that, one of corporate finance and upper management.  Meanwhile, next to the fence, all members from all layers were chowing down on the same steak sandwiches. 

Lots of potential social commentary in one convenience-oriented photo... 

Anyway, you decide what it means.  I was thoughtful at the time, but still largely conquered by lunch.  This is south of the city center looking north; colonial Philadelphia, including the original banks and exchanges which steered the city in this landscape direction, would be to the right of those tall buildings. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Other Blogs: Jim McCormac

Just after finishing our post tonight, I stumbled into my reading list on blogger for the first time in forever, and found a delightful gem of an article:

http://jimmccormac.blogspot.com/2014/12/spring-grove-cemetery-and-braun-sisters.html

Of particular note, Emma Lucy Braun was one of the past scientists who first inspired me to take a second look at the natural world, way back in seventh grade when my amazing science teacher, Ms. Williams exposed us to women in science.   Despite my many years of reading classic works on North American ecosystems, I regret to say that I have yet to read her classic work on eastern North American deciduous forests, probably because I am such a grassland and boreal forest snob.  Thankfully Mr. McCormac is not, and goes to explore all sorts of places in order to find nature at its finest.  I've actually shared his blog before, and if the article above strikes your fancy, give some more of his pages a read.  In that post, I also made note of his book, which is hands down the best nature tourist book on Ohio out there. 

Go.  Read.  Enjoy pretty photography!

Gyros In The Mojave

If you thought the end of the last post was either a crazy, desperate attempt at making junk food sentimentally patriotic, or just crazy silliness, then you are well prepared for something truly insane that will be shared today: The Mad Greek.  This is a restaurant that has all the charms of what one would expect from a Greek-American eatery that does its best to compete with the house in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Click on the image for a higher resolution version, or even save this and let your computer zoom it in for you on your image viewer.

Sadly, I don't have too many more pictures of the place, or at least none that I find readily accessible.   This one gives the glamor shot though, complete with as many Olympian statues as one can handle.  Inside, the place feels like a tourist visitor center, had one just landed at the airport at Athens.  They are pretty much a fantastic road trip stopping point, offering good air conditioning in one of the hottest places in California (Death Valley and only about a thousand and change feet of elevation lies northward, and the road to get there, California 127, actually is the left turn at this pictured intersection) as well as free public restrooms and... until 2014, the best gyros I have had in the United States of America.  The Fleetwood in Ann Arbor, Michigan, recently trumped this, but as I have not been back to Baker, California, where this wonderful pit stop is, since 2010... well...  Let's just say I want to go back.  Baker pretty much being almost as dead center into the Mojave as one can get, I think I have a pretty good excuse.

But again, the food.  The gyros are massive.  This is one of those times where I was so into the food that I failed to take any actual pictures of it, but trust me when I say that you will not need fries or even a drink to feel full.  The meat is excellent, the veggies are better, but what really makes this one stand out is the sauce.  They must put ambrosia in it or something, because it tastes amazing.  So what does it all mean, and why would I turn the blog into something resembling a lousy junk food review?  Well, the Mad Greek, like Baker itself, is something that pretty much only exists because of the American notion of transit.  When the railroad left, modern roads like I-15 moved in, and what you have is a crazy restaurant in a small crazy town in the middle of sand flats which were once lakes and rivers.  On the negative side, it is also a distraction, a man-made oasis that makes people remember their creature comforts and forget how truly awesome the North American deserts are.  Instead of enjoying traveling past ancient volcanic features and through Joshua Tree (Yucca Brevifolia) forests, the modern driver is convinced to speed through the place as fast as possible until one sees signs of "civilization", however crazy and fun they might be.

In fact, you'll have no problem at all trying to get to the Mad Greek, as the billboards are everywhere, starting mostly in Vegas heading south.

This is actually right outside of Baker, and you can see what amazing beauty lies all around Baker.  Those green larger bushes are Creosote (Larrea Tridentata), lovely little things that are probably also incredibly ancient.  They smell amazing, especially after a rain, one of the reasons to go visit the desert for its own sake. 

Instead of the wonders of the desert, one finds comfort in a rest stop or even a road sign and is immediately drawn to something garish like said billboard.  I say this because such was the reaction of many of the other patrons in the gyro palace, happy that they had been rescued from the "monotony" and "lifelessness" of the place they had to drive to get between Las Vegas and Los Angeles.  Don't get me wrong, the sauce and even shakes are worth the drive, but they are pretty much a minor bonus feature to the privilege of being in a land the 'Aha Makhav (Mojave) have long considered a pretty amazing home.  If you find yourself passing through Baker, stop on by for a gyro or a salad (and get some iced tea with some amazing fresh lemons), but also consider taking a few minutes to drive up 127 or back up the nearby Cima dome to enjoy the various easy access vistas this destination dining can lead you to. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

Philadelphia: City Of Brotherly Sandwich

Part of the fun experience of traveling is to find lodging and food that is local flavor.  Its nice to see the mundane as an evolution from ages of cultural development, and how particular regions and even cities and towns have produced both high and low culture with their own touches as a result.  Sometimes it can be hard to find something that is not overly "tourist", but sometimes you have to sit back, laugh at the kitsch, and dive right in.

Philadelphia, like any destination city, is full of things drawing tourists into the bright, sparkling lights.  It manages to do this in a way that very much blends in with the normal reality of the city, however, and even though some places feel like a museum packed into a modern mess of skyscrapers and freeways, she does so out of concern for the past while moving on with the future.  "Out with the old, in with the new" does not apply here.  That's a tangent for a different time, but the lesson holds strong in the living example of finding a place to eat the local flavor.  When I was last there in 2014, I had a choice between going to some re-invented gastro pub that was a recreation of some colonial era tavern, or... Pat's King of Steaks.


This was not a hard decision to make.  What might have been hard was choosing to go there, or to Geno's, right across the street.


But, being a traditionalist, as Pat's claims they started the whole thing, and far more attracted to the particular smells coming out of Pat's (not to mention the faster moving line), I went for it.


Despite what some reviews might say, Pat's gives you a pretty impressive sandwich.  That, some fries, and a coke (9-10 bucks total) was more than enough to sate me for some time, and it was a pretty active day walking around much of the historic core of the city.  The steak was definitely better than what is offered for the sandwich in most other places, the cheese was pretty delightful (but honestly, as much as it sounds gross, traditionally I would have been better off going with cheese-whiz than with American, at least according to my traveling companion, as it melts and fills the thing so much better), and the bread was pretty good.  The most refreshing feature, however, was seeing the options in a nice grill from which one could self serve.  There were peppers, more onions, etc. piled together with condiments.  You can see one of the wee green peppers behind my sandwich.  Normally I'm not much of a pepper guy, but... amazing little things.  Grilled to perfection.

All in all, a pretty enjoyable experience, with a caveat: Know what you want (use the website for instruction) when you order, or else they kick you to the back of the line.  They serve people fast, and don't like to mess it up.  Seating is somewhat limited, but the tables were moving pretty fast, like the service.  In terms of accessibility, the steak shops are off the beaten path, decently south of the historic core.  Some people have said that the neighborhoods are scary, which I suppose is true if you have lived in a cave outside of some no name town in North Dakota your whole life.  As a reward for braving the non-tourist actual city, you get to see a small slice of how the normal folk live.  My take?  Pretty clean, pretty open and airy, fairly laid-back compared to New York or Washington. 

Passyunk ave and Wharton st., looking south, right across from Pat's.
Really, the neighborhood is one of families and working people, ethnically diverse and with typical urban east coast atmosphere.  We went at lunch time and the place had quite a few suits milling about.  Multiple bus lines are in the area, and if you drive, you just need to sneak a few blocks away and find a parallel parking spot.  Tip: try it off of the main eating hours for easier access.  Otherwise, be prepared to find a space in this:

South along 10th street, beside Capitolo Park/Playground, a block walk from Pat's.

Now, as for the sandwich itself, I would say that the Philly is a pretty average street food for something from an east coast city.  You get the sandwich, something European if not downright traditionally English, then you get the American spin on it turning it into something huge and more than just a snack, and then you get really good meat, lots of it, and on a superior bun, representing the Italian blessing on most east coast street and deli cuisine.  It's a democratic sandwich that has evolved in a city born of liberty, that has survived total transformation by government and high finance, and ended up as a place where you can get relatively greasy, cooked with gusto, here-enjoy-this eating.  You had suits next to tourists next to construction workers, and no one gave off any attitude or got in anyone's way. 

Next: Greek food... in the desert?!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sunday Afternoon Post: Poutine

I decided to make this first of bad-for-you destination food posts on our perennial heart-stopper, monsieur poutine, short and sweet.  I have written about him before:

http://americanvoyages.blogspot.com/2012/07/poutine-mes-amis-poutine.html

Alas, then I did not have a picture to share.  I warned the timid readers out there before that it might look disgusting, and to quite a few people it does.  Voila!

Come closer.  It won't bite. 


Yep, that's the real deal, from Riverview Snack Shack in Mattawa, Ontario.  Coincidentally, they have the best hamburgers in the world there as well, but I can save that for a more detailed post.  Today, just enjoy the thick gravy, melted curds, and amazing fries sitting together in French Canada's answer to the query "and what shall your street food be?"  In our next post, the gravy train goes to visit Philadelphia, home of the cheese steak sandwich. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Real Maple Syrup: Finale

Not too much today, just a little bit on the actual goods themselves.  Much of it speaks for itself, and the best way to now truly get to know maple syrup is to try some!  Despite my warnings as to what constitutes good, holy, and amazing syrup, give your local producers a shot first, or at least as close as you can get, because nothing compares with the taste of home, or at the very least, familiarity.  If you have trees of your own and the previous year was of average to generous precipitation, consider tapping one yourself once you learn the basics!  The sap, the most basic product, is very much edible and pretty much one of the best "flavored waters" you can get from mother nature, at least where they grow (I'm still learning to like coconut water).  It's pretty pure stuff, at least if the land on which your maple grows is.  As normal, never tap or consume anything wild unless you know what you've got.

As far as the syrup goes, keep in mind that you may sometimes find varieties ranging from really thick and dark stuff (awesome for baking and cooking) to medium (your average, good for pancakes syrup, what most default options will be) to light (which is nice to drizzle on desserts).   One recommendation I cannot help but make, regardless of "grade", is source simplicity: keep it from one place.  Unless your source is so far south or west that the syrup needs a boost from elsewhere, let your syrup be the child of a single sugar bush.  If they only have blends available, maybe... just move on.  There is usually no reason for a Quebec or Vermont maker to draw on blends from outside their territory, so if you see such a thing, definitely go running or stick with their single source stuff.  That goes for wine, too.  Sure, that blend of grapes might be tasty, but you're a sinner for drinking it.  I'm not a snob, or anything, just a picky traditionalist.

Anyway!

The syrup can provide a candy like treat in and of itself, when drizzled on snow.  This is best after it is freshly boiled up, and sugar makers love to give out free samples if you happen to visit them at this time of chilly bliss.  This is obviously usually done far enough north where snow persists well into March and even April, depending on harvest and production time.  In Quebec, this culinary art is practically a required event for citizens and visitors alike.  This can also be done even with the raw syrup, which I have only done once, on the Seneca nation reservation south of Buffalo, NY.  While the syrup gives you something more of the consistency of candy/taffy, the sap gives you a veritable snow cone, be it a very watery one.  Experiment!  Make ice-cream!

Oh, don't forget the actual sugar.  It works just as well if not better than cane or beet sugar.  I have never tried it in tea or coffee, but I am sure it would work fine.  The best part, though?  The candies!


They are not for everyone, but give them a chance.  They taste amazing.  Let them melt in your mouth!  If you feel unpatriotic about the maple leaf shape, have no fear, I have even seen Ethan Allen-shaped candies, and even various native hero candies.  Speaking of which, if you get the chance, find such a native hero.  Sometimes tradition tastes really good. 

Coming up next, a slew of posts on various other destination foods, domestic and imported!   

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Real Maple Syrup: Part Four

Though no tree can really compare with the noble Sugar Maple for excellence of syrup, there are three minor contenders at least passing mentions, all of which are largely bottomland species, preferring the lush damp world of the shoreline and riverbank to the upland home of the Sugar Maple.  We start with a species we have already been introduced to, a tree of incredible habitat diversity and stunning beauty:

Red Maple (Acer Rubrum)

A map for this species was already given in the first post of this maple series.  Click that link to find it!

The Red Maple produces what is probably the next best maple sap for getting syrup after the noble Sugar Maple.  It has a similar sugar content, but a distinct problem in that Reds break dormancy before most other trees, and they do it fast; the window for sap collecting is very short when compared to even the lesser maples.  This should not be surprising coming from a tree that is equally ready to face brutal northern winters as well as some brief passing of a seasonal dip in Southern Florida (and theoretically even the Sierra Madre Oriental in Mexico, but don't hold me to that until I find the trees and get famous and stuff).  Sure, the trees are probably not reverse hardy by any stretch, but what's important is that Mr. and Mrs. Red Maple hail from a powerful evolutionary tree line; while you are most likely to find one down near the drink, you would not be shocked to find one up in the hills or in an abandoned field.  I could make a small fortune in the nursery trade off of some that appeared in various gardens I have tended, more so than any other "weed".  Like any good "weed", they grow pretty quickly, at least until they are 10 or so.  Other trees which can then get established in their pioneering wake or are slow to wake up then usually overtake them, and they seldom tend to dominate forests.  Perhaps this is for our viewing pleasure, as they sure do look nice making passers by ignore the rest of the forest.

They look simply amazing, the equivalent in red that the Sugar Maple is in orange.  Except for the sumacs, no tree, even in flower, produces such a vibrant red.

This picture, and no picture really, does this tree justice.  This was taken somewhere in SE Michigan.  I have very few pictures of them on hand, even though they never fail to capture my attention and camera.  The yellow tree to the right is actually a female.  They turn yellow!  In the background are Sugars. 
They are often also provided with a reflecting pool, being rather fond of life at the water's edge. 

Cedar Lake, Algonquin Provincial Park.  This was a hazy day, in August of 2012.  As you can see, the tree has already turned, as many trees on the edge of waters which have been cooled by cold nights will.  This makes our showman stand out even more.  Those other shrubby things are Speckled Alders (Alnus Incana) and some Myrica.

What's more, they have one more trick up their sleeves: the females turn yellow!  This can be seen in the neighboring tree in the first photo, in case you missed the caption.  They sometimes grab a little orange in the mix as the color game comes to an end, as can also be seen.  Anyway, it is no wonder that the tree would warrant more scrutiny and eventually be selected for harvesting by our first syrup and sugar makers.  Beauty and accessibility combined make for an attractive package.  Why wander through a forest when the trees are usually right at the edge?  That said, the Reds are just a bit more intense in flavor than the Sugars.  This actually makes for better straight sap consumption (yes, this can be done, as boiling into syrup essentially does not cook the product so much as concentrate the sugars) than the Sugars, at least to my taste buds.  Again, however, the window is small on getting the sap while it is running.  These trees flower insanely early in the waking season, and waste no time in arising after the winter slumber.  While repeated freezes can make sap run again, anything even over a week makes them taste... well, gross.  In terms of terroir, I have tasted sap from upland northern species and find that the rare loam-growing upland Red has reliable taste, while those growing in clay further south are actually even better, but the variability of the waking season further south makes for a difficult tapping.  I have never sampled any riparian tree sap, probably because it is easier to tap a tree on land than from a canoe.

Silver Maple (Acer Saccharinum)-Yes, the Latin name looks suspiciously familiar!

This is an entirely different animal, not being found much on uplands at all, being dominates instead of the river bottoms (they can't take shade in the uplands but can handle it with the extra nutrients of the waterside).  They can be flooded, like the reds, and make for a beautiful scene with the more southerly Baldcypress (Taxodium Distichum), which likes to play even closer to the deep end of the pool.  They break dormancy and bloom even faster than the Reds.  They are beautiful (no I don't have pictures, which is odd because they are everywhere, including in my brother's backyard of his previous home) and despite their natural wet home, often get planted as ornamentals; trees in parks in central Toronto have been there for some time and reached incredible girths.  In terms of syrup, I am told (but have never had personally experienced) that they taste like the Sugar Maple, but apparently the sugar concentration is so low that the process is not worth it. 

Thanks, USGS!  If you were wondering where to find them that far south, its usually in the microclimate of the waterside. 
Since they have roughly the same range as the Sugars, with the exception that they grow two hundred or so miles further south in both directions of the compass, one is probably best off using a Sugar instead. They are amazing trees, however, and are planted as noted because they shimmer in a breeze, their leaves being silvery underneath and pale green above.  In the fall, they turn a less than brilliant yellow. 

Boxelder (Acer Negundo)

This one is a bit... weirder.  It grows amazingly well from Guatemala to the far northern plains in Alberta, as well as in the east. 

Many thanks as usual to USGS and the original map maker, Mr. Elbert Little.

It does not have normal leaves as we imagine most maples to have, as they consist of multiple little maple leaves in a giant compound leaf, arranged in a palmate pattern.  I have never taken a picture of a Boxelder, even though I have seen them in the most incredible places, including in little depressions and valleys in the high plains.  They are never far from water, and are often a good sign that it is near, be it high in the mountains or across the otherwise treeless plains.  Like our other two featured maples in this post, they break dormancy early and quickly, and are mentioned here not because they make powerful syrup, which they can, albeit worse than the others, but because they can be found in the north well west of the other maples.  I have had this maple treat me once, as the raw sap, tapped by an Ojibway woman in northern lower Michigan.  She told me that her people, and other First Born from farther west, including the Lakota and Black Foot, only have this maple to draw from, and they usually don't even boil it to a syrup, but drink the sap straight, mostly mixed with the sap of the Sugar Maple which out west they had acquired in trade from further east.  The stuff I tried was such a blend, and it was probably the tradition and respect talking instead of the actual taste buds, but it was pretty decent.  Sometimes the best taste just really comes from the trees where are found home... even in Vermont.

There are other trees capable of producing syrup from sap.  These, however, are the four genuine articles for honest-to-goodness maple syrup and sugar, with the orange majesty of the Sugar being the true real deal.  Next: the finale.  Then we can move on!