Musings, travel, Uncategorized

Black and White — or Shades of Brown?

When my son was about two-and-a-half, we found ourselves at JFK Airport waiting for a flight. He has always been a good traveler and we managed to keep ourselves busy for a little while people-watching. After about ten minutes of a never-ending stream of passers by, he turned to me and gave me one of those looks that only a two-year-old can muster — so very serious, but overwhelmingly curious. 

“Mom,” he asked, “why do we say people are black and white?” 

WOW! How do you answer a question like that? I didn’t want to influence his thought, so I answered his question with a question: “What do you mean?”

“Well,” he pondered, “there are lots of people here and I’ve been looking at them, but I haven’t seen anyone who is black or anyone who is white.”

I responded with another question, “What color are all these people?”

His response was quick and perfunctory, “Brown.” Nothing more, nothing less. His innocent observation of probably a few hundred people was that everyone was brown.

I was proud. JFK Airport is an endless variety of people. International travelers from every corner of the world passed by our seats. We’d seen people with every shade of brown you could imagine. I asked him to explain what he meant by brown.

He said, “well, some people are really light brown – like you, and some people are darker brown – like dad (his father is part-Hispanic), and some people are really dark brown – like the chocolate you like. 

OK, that gave me a little chuckle, people described as the colors of food was a great two-year-old observation.

We spent a couple of minutes wondering why anyone would say black or white to describe a person and never really came up with an answer. I explained that people from different places have different color skin and they also have different cultures and music and food and wear different clothes. He asked if the kids play with different toys. “Yes, they do,” I answered. He asked if he could play with other kinds of toys and I noticed the topic had returned to more typical kid conversation.

That conversation has stuck with me his whole life. He is almost 30 and still has the same wild curiosity about life and people. I am still proud.

I wish everyone could see the world through his two-year-old eyes. I wish everyone could see differences as fascinating instead of scary. I wish people could see the world in a never-ending number of shades of brown and not black and white. 

After all, there’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored … it’s thrilling and different and brilliantly colorful … go see it!

Food, The World A to Z, travel

Boston’s “Politically Incorrect North End Food Tour”

A quick google search of food quotes and travel quotes shows how closely these two things are connected. That’s one of the reasons I try to take a food tour or cooking class everywhere I go. Boston was no exception.

The bread bakery stop was a tour highlight.

There are a myriad of food tours in nearly every major city in the world. Boston’s includes many in the Italian food mecca known as the North End. Here in the shadow of the famous “Old North Church” where lanterns illuminated Paul Revere’s warning of the British invasion from the steeple, you can sample everything from pizza to pastries. I decided to go for food and humor and booked the “Politically Incorrect North End Food Tour.” 

Anthony was born and raised in the North End and explains he is one of only two TRUE natives operating a food tour here. Others, he scoffs, came here 10 or 12 years ago, but didn’t grow up here and don’t know the neighborhood stories. 

The menu at Umberto’s

The tour didn’t disappoint! Interspersed with tales of families who have been in business for generations, he walks us to Umberto’s for a slice of pizza to kick off the tour.

Inside Polcari’s Coffee

From there it’s off to Polcari’s Coffee — a very European-feeling general store where we were surrounded by the smell of coffee and spices while we sampled a classic piece of Italian candy.

Sandwich at Monica’s Mercato

A few blocks up the street we came to Monica’s Mercato Pizza. It wasn’t pizza we sampled, though, it was a hearty slice of a classic Italian sub. The flavors lingered deliciously on my tongue as we made our way to the Old North Church listening to Anthony’s stories of the neighborhood and how he got his nickname, Flash. 

One of the bakery cases at Modern Pastry

Next stop – the bakery! The tour description promised a cannoli, but Anthony had warned us that our cannoli would not be the typical bakery version. His Pops had made fresh ricotta cream filling the day before, so we would be getting the homemade version of the classic Italian treat. Never fear, the bakery case at Modern Pastry included dozens of cookies and pastry options. Our sample was something Anthony called an Italian macaroon. It was a shiny doughy ball filled with almond paste … WOW!

Key ingredients to making Italian bread.

A couple of doors down we turned up a little alley and came to a small flight of stairs into the heavenly aroma of baking bread. The list on the wall  of Bricco Panetteria shows what goes into true Italian bread – culminating with passion. Clearly, from the flavor of the slice of authentic Roman pizza I enjoyed, this bakery includes a generous portion of that essential ingredient.

Back on the neighborhood streets we passed restaurants, bakeries and a florist that may very well have been owned by some distant relative. As we stopped again, I noticed a familiar name on the sign at our next stop: Monica. Monica’s three sons each own a food shop of some sort in the neighborhood. At the pasta shop featuring her name, we tried a completely different kind of sub.

The Abruzzo section in the wine shop.

A number of my fellow foodie tourists and I pontificated about how simply changing the bread and condiments on a sandwich could so utterly change the flavors. Anthony warned us not to fall too much in love with this homemade mayonnaise-based dressing. This son was keeping the spread off the market. Our guide said he often tried to buy a jar to no avail.

A quick stop at a wine shop before our final destination left me dazzled with choices. This shop has an entire ROOM of Italian wines, sorted by region. It turns out the tour did not include beverages, but we were encouraged to pick out something we would like to sip with lunch. I left with a nice bottle of Montepulciano D’Abruzzo to sip with my bolognese. 

Mama’s homemade pasta bolognese.

Finally we arrived at Mama’s house. Passing through the kitchen, we settled around the dining room table while Anthony asked Alexa to play some Italian classics while he opened our wine bottles. The rigatoni was brilliantly al dente. The bolognese light and flavorful and the company fun and lively.

Homemade cannoli caps off the tour.

As we finished our pasta, Anthony steps into the dining room holding a silver tray bearing the promised homemade cannolis. The tour couldn’t have ended on a sweeter note (pun intended). Pops’ homemade ricotta filling was not as sicky sweet as the bakery version. The shell crunched with perfection. 

We toasted Anthony and newfound friends before parting ways with very full bellies and bright, shining smiles on our faces. 

 Food, travel and laughs are easily three of my favorite things to combine. There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored … taste the flavors wherever your travels take you and don’t forget to laugh a lot.

Food, travel

A Tale of Cannolis

When I found out Greg and I would be spending a week in Boston, I started asking friends what should I see, do and eat there. I got a good variety of suggestions, but nearly every single person talked about either the North End’s Italian food scene or lobster and chowder.

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Boxed cannoli from Modern Pastry

For those of you who may not know, Italian food is my favorite. In fact, there is not even a close second. “OK,” I responded to the food suggestions, “what EXACTLY should I try in the North End?” The overwhelming response was, “Get a cannoli!” Then each person offered up a different bakery as the best option. A google search for “best cannoli in Boston” offered up a trio of bakeries, too. Faced with this dilemma, my choice seemed simple: Get a traditional cannoli from each of the top three bakeries and have our own taste test. 

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Bakery boxes are tied with string

Luckily, the day I snagged the cannolis I walked in, walked straight up to the counter at all three places and had cannolis in hand in short order. With my boxed and tied packages, I made my way back to the Convention Center where Greg was attending a conference. 

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Modern Pastry

As fortune continued smiling on me, I arrived during a rare break in his schedule. He was informally meeting with a pair of coworkers in the hotel lobby lounge. I walked up, got hugs from all three gentlemen and, grinning broadly, announced that all three were conscripted into taste-testing service immediately.

Hearing no complaints, I opened all three packages and we passed the cannolis around, taking big, flavor-packed bites of pastry and ricotta cream-filled deliciousness.

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Mike’s Pastry

The results: all three men chose the cannoli from Mike’s Pastry. This is, perhaps, the most famous of the cannoli bakeries and it’s fairly clear why based on the results of my unscientific study. I preferred the cannoli from Modern Pastry. I felt the shell was lighter and crispier. Mike’s, we all agreed, seemed sturdier and thicker. The cannoli from Bova’s Bakery was soggy. I had been warned to always get a freshly filled cannoli for that very reason. I didn’t specifically ask for one, so apparently got a cannoli that had time to lose it’s tasty crunch.

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“Mama’s” homemade cannolis

The following day, I had signed up for a food tour: “Boston’s Politically Incorrect North End Food Tour.” This tour ends at the home of our North-End-native tour guide’s mother’s house. Mama serves up true homemade pasta bolognese. Anthony, aka Flash, announced that “Pops” had whipped up some homemade cannoli filling the day before so we would also be presented with Mama’s cannoli. 

It was no contest. Mama’s was head and shoulders above the bakery versions! 

I believe one of the best ways to truly experience a place is through local food. Boston is no exception. There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored … taste the flavors as you go.

The World A to Z, travel

Q is for Queen of European Rivers … Part 2

The boat … or is it a ship? 

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The S.S. Maria Theresa docked on the Danube.

The boat … or is it a ship? 

Arriving at the quay to board the S.S. Maria Theresa, a couple of things become quickly apparent… most river boats (or ships) on the Danube look a lot alike on the outside: long, low and almost sinister looking with two rows of darkened glass, usually broken by the maw of an entrance approximately amidships. We quickly learn there are highly practical reasons for this look. One, there are A LOT of river boats on the Danube, which means they must often “raft” (tie-up alongside each other) at the quays, such that the passengers on the outside ship must also disembark through the other ship. Having entrances in the same place makes this easier.

The deck of the S.S. Maria Theresa as we approached a low bridge.

They are low because many just clear some of the bridges that cross the river. When on deck, crew will often lower sun awnings and implore you not to stand, lest you lose your head in a most unpleasant fashion. Even the pilothouse from which the boat is steered raises and lowers!

The common spaces were completely uncommon, with marble floors and walls, rich carpets and drapes. I’ll come back to those in a minute.

The marble bathroom has heated floors for warmth.

The over-the-top luxury continued in our stateroom. While not large by any means, the accommodations were sumptuous … Even the bath was all marble with top-of-the-line fixtures and floor heating. The darkened window opened electrically, letting in fresh air (our weather was unseasonably warm for October). Other staterooms featured French balconies that let the passengers sit outside on a tiny deck; friends we would meet later on the cruise opted for the suite, which offered a larger sitting area and bath, along with round-the-clock butler service.

Inside, however each cruise line brings its own flavor to interior decorating. Uniworld ships are among the most luxurious with a gilt-edged baroque style befitting the Austro-Hungarian Empress for which our ship is named.

Now, about those common spaces, there was a small gym and a place to grab coffee at any time on the lower level…you could even book a massage down the hall! Upstairs there was a large dining room and two bars (our kind of place!). The main bar was staffed most of the day and featured entertainment nightly. The smaller bar at the stern had more of a reading room feel to it, offering board games and books in a free lending library. Next to the bar was a small pool that unfortunately, was a bit too cold for our liking.

Let’s face it, one of the most important aspects of any cruise – river or ocean – is the food. Uniworld and the crew of the Maria Theresa did not disappoint!

Even the appetizers at dinner were spectacular.

Breakfast offered any number of American and Continental fare, including omelets made to order and a great selection of fresh fruit. For lunch, there was always a choice of at least two great soups, a wide variety of hot and cold dishes (with new varieties each day) served right – the pasta was perfectly al dente and meats were moist and perfectly done. And bread … there’s nothing in the world quite like European bread with real European butter!

Dinner … well, let’s just say don’t eat too much at lunch. Every night we were offered a chef’s choice of four courses, or you could order a la carte from an offering of meat, fish or vegetarian selections. Wines from the particular region we were sailing through were featured, described aptly each evening by the sommelier. Moreover, deserts were NOT to be missed!

When dinner was over, most of us retreated to the lounge to chat with friends, enjoy an aperitif, and listen to the excellent entertainment. Then, to bed, where the gentle lap of the water against the hull lulled us into a deep, restful sleep each night.

There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored. Go see it … from a bed with a view on the water!

Distractions, Diversion, Musings, The World A to Z, travel

Meandering … and Impatience

EDITOR’s NOTE: I wrote this several months ago, but recently realized it was never posted. The thoughts are still relevant, however. As they say …  better late than never.

I have come to appreciate meandering. For most of my life, nearly everything I did was rush, rush, rush. About the same time Greg and I got together, I learned how to slow down. Along the way, we created road trip “diversions.” As a reader of this blog, you’ve seen us write about these stops that are not on our plan, but rather something that caught our eye and intrigued us enough to check it out.  

The rush of my youth was great for me. I’ve never really had any patience and hurrying here and there is perfect for someone who just can’t seem to find a way to wait for anything. Yet, somehow, here I am appreciating wandering, lollygagging, dilly-dallying. 

Often, when we land after a long flight, we make our way to a favorite restaurant for a bite to eat on the way home. The fridge is not stocked; we are craving a little nosh; and friends beckon. 

Today, though, I find myself wanting to get home. My impatient inner-child longs to rush through the next few weeks as we make final preparations for our permanent move out west. I want to go home, get packed and move sooner. I’m anxious to start the next chapter of life in a new home, in a new world (the desert southwest), with new friends. I know the benefits of taking our time to get through this next phase. We will be more careful, forget less, be more attentive to the details of a cross-country move, but I am still anxious and excited. 

I like to think of it as youthful – a sort of childlike fascination with what’s around the corner – the same kind of sleepless excitement that you get on Christmas Eve when you know you will awaken to the thrill of gifts, laughter and joy. 

I laugh a little as I think of the memes about deciding not to adult – “I’ll be in my blanket fort with cookies and milk” or “I’ll be outside running through the sprinkler.” Waiting, planning, packing, counting the days – adulting is hard! The benefit is, when you’re an adult you know the reward at the other end with be worth it and the waiting and working for it make it all that much sweeter.

EPILOGUE: We have now completed the move and are living in our new home full time. The anticipation was, indeed, worth it. Everything I had hoped for is coming true and I find myself relaxing and enjoying a slower-paced lifestyle. Of course, I am also constantly looking forward to my next trip. After all … there’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored!

Food, travel, Wine/Cocktails

A Group Tour that Won’t Leave You Whining

Long-time readers know I’m not generally a fan of group tours, but exceptions can and should be made when traveling with friends or those with a common interest. Here’s what I mean:

USC DC-area Alums
USC Alumni Associated members at Gray Ghost Winery

Recently, the USC alumni association in the DC area (Greg is a member) put together its annual group winery tour in Northern Virginia. We’d been on one of these winery tours with this group and enjoyed it enough to actually sign up and do it again We even traveled back to the Nation’s Capital in order to participate!) Group tours of wineries, it turns out, aren’t like “tours” of cities or travel destinations.

This event gets you a designated driver (in a mini-bus) so you can sample the wines without fear of going too far. It gets you behind-the-scenes tours at wineries. It gets you discounted tastings and bottles. It lets you hang out with a small group of fun people who all have something in common – a connection to Southern California.

Gray Ghost Winery
Gray Ghost Winery’s owner shows us the vineyard

In short – it was amazing and fun!

The day started with a stop at Gray Ghost Vineyards. From the moment we arrived we felt like VIPs. The owner took us to the vineyards and shared stories of how the winery got started. 

Gray Ghost Library
The wine library at Gray Ghost Winery

We went through the wine-making process within arms reach of casks and steel tanks where wine was being aged. He took us down a small slope and into a door where we entered a grotto-like, dark, cool space. He turned on the lights and the entire group gasped — he smiled and welcomed us to “The Library.” It was an underground room stocked with hundreds of bottles on beautiful wooden racks. 

Narmada Tasting
Tasting glasses and wine descriptions are lined up for our group.

From there we moved on to Narmada Winery. As a reader of this blog, you probably already know Greg and I are members of Narmada’s wine club. We’ve eaten wine dinners in the barrel room. We’ve chatted and become friendly with the owner. On this particular sunny Virginia day, we followed our guides down the stairs to a back patio space to sample wines in the breeze and shade. 

Our final stop is a perennial favorite of wine tours. Barrel Oak Winery is popular among locals and tourists. 

Pizza at Barrel Oak Winery
Fresh from the oven pizza makes for a great afternoon nosh

It’s proximity to DC, expansive views, and picnic-like setting are family (and dog) friendly and festive. Barrel Oak offers stone-fired pizza in the summer. Our visit was perfectly timed for an afternoon nosh.

You’ve seen that Greg and I are wine lovers. We make it a point to stop and try wines almost everywhere we go. We’ve even sampled wines in an old converted church in Oklahoma off Route 66. Wineries can be small, newly-opened, quaint and cozy or huge, professionally-designed and award-winning. You can visit as a couple, with a small group of friends or on a tour. If you keep an open mind, it’s hard not to enjoy yourself. It’s a fool-proof way to have a fun day. 

There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored .., grab a glass of wine and toast it with friends.

Here's to wine tastings
Tour members toast the afternoon.

wine glass and menu
Food, Road Trip, travel, Wine/Cocktails

Luck or a Nose for Good Food and Wine?

If you’re a regular reader of our blog, you have probably noticed we often seem to find really fun and interesting places to eat and drink. This past weekend was no exception.

Friday afternoon we decided it was time, once again, to jump in the car early Saturday morning and hit the road for a day trip. New to Arizona, we have a long list of places we want to see in a day. This particular Saturday, with the forecast for the Valley of the Sun calling for high temps over 100 ˚F,  we opted to head for the hills.

Prescott is in Arizona’s Bradshaw Mountains and at just over 5300 feet, it tends to be a nice cool getaway on a hot summer day. Saturday was no exception. As our neighbors hid in air-conditioned comfort, we strolled the adorable historic city center under sunny skies at a pleasant 82˚.

Arizona wine region map
A state map shows the wine growing regions of Arizona

While hopes for cool temps helped choose the destination for the day, luck, karma or instinct had us drive right into the town’s celebration of “Territorial Days.”  It turns out Prescott was the capital of Arizona before it became a state and the annual celebration includes dozens of artists selling their crafts  on the town square. Families wandered easily past the displays. Children played in the grass. One vendor offered face painting. Musicians fiddled. It was a fun, festive party!

Wine tasting
Two whites and three reds are featured on the tasting menu

After a bit of shopping and enjoying the scenes unfolding around us, we saw a sign advertising “Wine Tasting. All Arizona Wines” pointing to the Back Alley Wine Bar. What a great find! Lindsay walked us through five wines from our new home state and dazzled us with her knowledge.

wine glass and menu
The menu offers a refill as I near the end of a delicious red blend.

We ordered another glass each and continued to sip and share stories as other customers came and went.

As the time ticked away, our stomachs noisily reminded us we should eat something, so with Lindsay’s suggestion, we headed three blocks away to Farm Provisions. WOW! A robust farm-to-table menu enticed us with mouth-watering choices. We marveled over the fresh burrata on crostini with slow-roasted tomatoes and aged balsamic. 

Farm Provisions scallops
Farm Provisions scrumptious scallops

The farm fettucini with pancetta, wild mushrooms, Arizona-sun-dried tomatoes and aged pecorino was exceptional. The incredible day boat scallops were drizzled with a pomegranate gastrique and Arizona lemon beurre blanc while floating on a bed of butternut squash puree. Roasted Brussel sprouts, roasted baby beets and pomegranate seeds added color and perfect taste pairings. With our taste buds celebrating flavor perfection and our tummies happily full, we made a decision to schedule another trip to Prescott just to try the dessert!

As we drove out of town with the sun setting behind us, we wondered how we always seem to find these food and drink havens. Sure, we typically ask a local for options, but there is more to it than that. We asked each other, “Is it luck or is it some sort of nose for good food and wine that we are lucky enough to be blessed with?” Whatever leads us there, we plan to keep finding these amazing spots.

After all, there’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored … follow lady luck or your nose and go see, eat and drink it all in.