Road Foodie

Some people drive simply to arrive.

My name is Brigit Binns, and I write cookbooks (23, and counting; ten of them for Williams-Sonoma). Each winter, I drive from New York to California. Every spring, I drive back. Along the way and throughout the year, I eat, think, drink, listen to location-appropriate books and music, and meet the locals.

For family reasons, Roadfoodie's Time in the West went on far longer than usual this year. While there, I managed to squeeze in two cookbooks (on slow cooking and soup, both good wintery subjects even in sunny California). Now I'm back in the Hudson Valley and embarked on three new projects. Way too busy, as usual—but a girl's gotta eat. To that end, I'll explore the sociological, gustatory, and inner life of the upcoming seasons in upstate New York, as well as Baja California and wherever else my peripatetic, porcine-focussed life should lead.

Braised in Tears

Posted By on October 17, 2009

Stella wasted little time before corralling the Eskimo in the Poolhouse for swimming fun.

Stella wasted little time before corralling the Eskimo in the Poolhouse for swimming fun.

Brentwood, California

Twenty-four hours before arriving in Los Angeles I landed a book deal—welcome indeed, but brutal in its timeline. (Hey—be careful what you ask for, and when.) As soon as I calculated the number of recipes into the days remaining before deadline, unpacking the trusty, insect-flecked Toyota took a backseat to a trip to Costco. Multiple bulk bags of onions, gallons of organic chicken broth, and a gaggle of peeled garlic jostled with my cookbook box, non-cookbook book-box, and shoe bag (who has time to peel garlic?). Luckily, I have many wonderful and hungry friends in Los Angeles. I also have a mom who still loves to eat, even if the quantities are far less than they were in the days of First Class travel on the Italian Line (and the list of can’t-eats seems to grow daily). Plus, she has a nice new freezer which, in the past three weeks I have come close to filling with diminutive and laboriously labeled food containers. I am a little over two-thirds finished with the project.

Mom watches Stella and the Eskimo with guarded enthusiasm. I am unloading the car.

Mom watches Stella and the Eskimo with somewhat guarded enthusiasm. I am unloading the car.

The level of work-work has left little time for the relationship work I came here to tackle. But in the end, my work ethic (surprise, mom) has done more to endear me to this tough audience than any number of bedside heart-to-hearts. It is lucky that when one is braising, a little extra salt (in the form of tears) is a fine thing.

Being that I’m (lucky for you) too busy earning a crust to wax on eloquently about the food of Los Angeles, instead I’ll post a recipe which I was born to write, being that steak—and all meat, really—have been as mother’s milk to me (in the absence thereof). Just check the wildly enthusiastic comments on my Palm Restaurant Cookbook: at Amazon. I know from steak. And when life throws you a curve ball—in the form of unseasonably cold weather, a bank account the size of a pea, or a mother who views you as a creature from another planet—it’s time to drop a bundle on a great steak. And, lest you screw it up, here’s how to cook it.

Pan-Grilled Rib Steak with Blue Cheese Butter (aka Monster Steak)
Serves 2, and whoever else it is will be your slave for life; choose carefully

This technique gives a smoky, crusty result, very similar to grilling, but don’t even think of attempting it unless you have the right pan. It must be big enough to allow plenty of clearance around the steak, and it must be made of heavy-duty cast aluminum, or, in a pinch, cast iron. Otherwise, you’ll just burn this rather pricey piece of meat. Nonstick pan, you say? Sorry, can’t hear you…the high temperature will melt the coating, duh. If you don’t have a rack, use a small plate, placed upside down on top of a larger plate, to stop the steak from resting in its own juices.

* 10-inch cast aluminum or other very heavy-duty pan with stainless steel interior
* Cake rack or other small, flat rack

The Adventure Club:
* If your 401(K) is in better shape than 90% of everyone else’s, find yourself a dry-aged steak

1 (16-ounce) best-quality, bone-in rib steak, slightly over 1 inch thick, patted dry with paper towels
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 oz salted Irish butter
2 oz blue cheese
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Rub the steak with the olive oil; then let stand, uncovered, at room temperature in a dog-free place, for 1 to 1 1/2 hours (inside the turned-off oven, for instance).
In a small bowl, combine the butter and blue cheese. Let stand until softened, about 30 minutes, then blend together with a fork.
Place a large, ovenproof sauté pan over high heat. Sprinkle one side of the steak generously with salt and pepper. When the pan is very hot, after about 4 minutes, place the steak in the pan with tongs, seasoned side down. Do not move or press down on it (this makes it important to get the placement in the pan right the first time—once it’s in, you’re not moving it until you are ready to turn). After 2 1/2 minutes, season the uppermost side of the steak generously with salt and pepper and turn over. Cook for 2 1/2 minutes more. Transfer the steak to a rack set over a plate, and let stand at room temperature for at least 30 and up to 60 minutes. I know this seems wrong. Trust me.

Thirty minutes before you plan to finish the steak, preheat the oven to 425F. Return the steak to the same pan in which it was seared, and finish cooking in the oven for 6 minutes for a warm red center (medium rare), or 8 minutes for a pink center (medium). Cooking to the well-done stage is not recommended.
Let rest for 5 minutes on the rack, uncovered and away from any drafts. Carve into thick slices and serve on hot plates, dolloping each portion with a big chunk of blue cheese butter. Flip a coin to decide who gets the bone.

Bone appetit.

What Happens in Vegas

Posted By on September 28, 2009

Taffy, a third-generation melon-farmer in Green River.

Taffy, a third-generation melon-farmer in Utah.

Green Valley, Utah to Las Vegas: 410 miles. Three states: Utah, Arizona, and Nevada.

Stella and I are up early because, although it may be a perfect morning, this day promises to be a scorcher; in spite of the costly last-minute repairs, I have little faith in the air-conditioning of the trusty but about-to-cross-115,000-mile car. Green River is luminous in the crisp morning light. The aspen trees glitter and the sun glints off water and rock with the heartfelt promise of a glorious rafting day, the splashing of water against heavy rubber, white-water thrills and lukewarm tea from a camp-stove. But that day is not to be my day.

Wait - where am I today? Green River is the Melon Capital of it.

Wait - where am I today? Green River is the Melon Capital of it.

At a rest top just west of Grand Junction, a lady who became an instant best-fried of Stella had told me that Green River is the melon capital of, um, somewhere. The West? And last night on the way home from Ray’s I spied a shadowy but promising ghost-farm stand. Now, it is anything but ghostly, with a multitude of multicolored orbs being offered to the motor-home and motor-cycle drivers assembled, oohing and aahing over piles of watermelons, cantaloupes, and honeydews. I heft three lovely (50-cent!!), cantaloupes to the check-out table, where Taffy, whose grandfather—she tells me—has been growing melons here since 1958, is presently holding court (a little sign says “If no one is here, put the money in the box.”).

Taffy is apologetic: “I’m afraid they’re really $1.35. Um, is that OK?” I allow as the price seems reasonable, and fork over the four dollars. Taffy is thrilled by the symmetry: “Did you plan that?” she asks breathlessly. I intuit that Taffy doesn’t like making change.

One hundred and fifty miles later, the outside temperature is kissing 104 and I’m nursing the thermostat so that the fan never gets to level 5; as soon as it does, I crank up the the inside temp by a degree: 74F. 77F. 79F. Every few minutes I switch off the present book (which has my mind distractedly believing I’m in Cornwall in either 1913, 1975, or 2005) to listen to the straining compressor, which according to my car repairman could—in spite of the new filter—be flooded by microscopic flecks of metal at any time. (“Thanks,” I had told him, less than 24 hours before blastoff, as I handed him $1500.)

North Las Vegas is not a place of deep and resonant beauty. I’ve chosen Las Vegas for my final night purely because of its position on the map, and the availability of a free night at La Quinta. Inadvertently, while trying to avoid the clusterf**k of the Riviera, I chose the “Nellis” La Quinta, ie right across the street from Nellis Air-Force base, in a neighborhood where people evidently pump themselves $4 worth of gas. If you think about Las Vegas at all, and I try not to, you might imagine that people keep themselves in air-conditioned prisons. But I’m here to tell you that there are an awful lot of people who can’t afford to. And theirs is not a particularly comfortable lot.

In our energy-efficient room (the a/c doesn’t come on until you insert your key-card into a green-lit slot on the wall), I resolve that we will stay put. Hard as it might be, I resist the urge to go out and watch blue-haired, slurred-word ladies hopefully pump their last few quarters into obscenely-lit machines, while all around people behave as though what happens in Vegas can be wiped from their brains with some sort of cosmic Delete button.

After all, I’m not here to have “fun.”

The Far Horizon

Posted By on September 26, 2009

When I finally reach the west, in all its expansive glory, my soul breathes free.

When I finally reach the west, in all its expansive glory, my soul breathes free.

Paxton, NE to Denver: 291 miles. Two states: Nebraska and Colorado.
Denver to Green River, Utah: 346 miles. Two states: Colorado and Utah.

The news from Los Angeles is not good, and I must brush aside the thinly-veiled pretense that this is a pleasure trip. My goal is to get across the country as quickly as possible; if there is decent food to be eaten, sights to see, and a soft bed for Stella and I to rest upon along the way, so be it. On other trips, the journey itself was a celebration, here it is just a means to an end. Yes, certainly, I could have flown from New York to Los Angeles to be with my mother, but then I would not have had Stella (so far, I haven’t met an airline who could be trusted with this dog), my books, or my car. And, I reasoned, perhaps this time on the road would give me a healthy perspective with which to enter, again, My Mother’s House. This time with the intention to stay.

And so it is that the miles drag by, soundtrack provided by my latest book: The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton. (This Aussie and Brit-centric book couldn’t be more location-inappropriate, but I revel in its knife-sharp evocations of lands not in my front nor rear-view mirror. Pure escape.) My original plans, already messed-with back in Iowa, had called for a sharp jog south from Denver to Albuquerque, to avoid that little thing called the Rocky Mountains. During my all-too-short visit with Fred and Kitty Koch in Denver (soon to be repeated, with more time for chatter), they advised me that it was ridiculous to worry about crossing Loveland Pass, on I-70, in September. So, mindful of the total of 250 miles this shift would shave from my remaining drive, I changed plans once again and headed due West out of Denver. Up past Genessee, where I had spent all of December—in, I think, 1974—camping in a house with no electricity along with my first college boyfriend. Past Vail, where in about 1980, I—a non-skier—had somehow hurtled down from the summit, twice, and lived to tell the tale. It sometimes seems that every road in this country meanders past my memories. Especially since C and I keep making more. But this time its only me, alone with Stella, the voice coming from the ipod, and the one in my head.

There. Purple Mountain's Majesty. And I am now on the other side.

There: Purple Mountain's Majesty. And I am now on the other side.

On the far side of Eisenhower Tunnel, signs flash “Ice on The Road!!” and I momentarily doubt my impulsive choice. We commence a 6% downward grade and I’m pumping the brakes so I won’t have to ride them, while semi-trucks thunder past me in a flurry of snow. Yes, snow. Not a lot, but it’s definitely sticking. And then, suddenly, I am through the hairy bit and stopping, thanks to my Facebook buddy Dorette Snover, in Edwards for a brilliant lunch at Sato Sushi (although they are out of the promised pork belly). This change of route was inspired and absolutely correct: Had I gone the other way, I wouldn’t have been able to marvel at Glenwood Canyon’s towering, striated rocks, witness the aspen trees turned luminous gold and yellow among the evergreens, and then been spit gently out of the Rockies into the familiar red-rock bluffs, peaks, and mesas of Utah. Another time, I really must come this way with nothing on my mind, or schedule.
In the absence of research, intuition comes into play.

In the absence of research, intuition comes into play.

I have done absolutely no dining research on Green River. At first, there doesn’t appears to be much choice. “Tamarisk” advertises “family dining,” always a bad sign. And as I drive past in the rosy mellow glow of a just-set sun, I see that the crowded riverside room is overly, even obscenely bright, perhaps trying to banish the out-of-doors that I feel so very at home in. Ray’s Tavern trumpets “Food for Everyone,” and I decide that that includes me. Inside the laminate-paneled, pool-table-equipped room, t-shirts festoon the walls: “Rafters Keep You Wet All Day,” “Go With the Flow,” and the intriguing—if mysterious— “Sclerosis of the River.” Soon, an excellent bacon cheeseburger, complete with hand-cut fries, is soon safe on the seat beside me as I head back through the darkening night, over the Green River, to Stella, our little home for the night, and the last of the Iowa chardonnay.

Ole’s Big Game Steakhouse and Lounge

Posted By on September 24, 2009

Grass-fed steak! Frozen beans. So whaddaya want?

Grass-fed steak! Frozen beans...hmmm. So whaddaya want?

Plans change. That’s the beauty of driving.

Instead of laying my weary head down in Des Moines and Kearney, NE the last two nights, as planned, Stella and I bunked down in Council Bluffs, and then Paxton. There were various reasons for the change of plan (which necessitated several on-the-fly reservation changes); one of them was the heads-up thrown my way by one of my very best college buddies, Fred Koch. I’ll be staying with feisty Fred and his adorable forever-wife, Kitty, at their posh pad in Denver after the agony of Nebraska is but a wispy memory in my rear-view. But about 48 hours before that, he calls with a 911 question:
“Have you been through Nebraska yet?”
“No, I’m still in corn-world No. 1, ie Iowa.
“OK, you HAVE to go to Ole’s Big Game Steakhouse, Lounge, and Restaurant in Paxton, NE. It’s less than five miles off I-80. They have 200 animal heads on the wall.”
I’m pretty easy when it comes to a challenge like this.

Ole's, which is on it's second owner in 76 years, opened at 12:01AM the day Prohibition was repealed, in 1933.

Ole's, which is on it's second owner in 76 years, opened at 12:01AM the day Prohibition was repealed, in 1933.

Ole opened the place because he and his hunting buddies needed someplace cozy to showcase their dead animals, tell one another tall tales, and throw down cocktails (perhaps shots of whisky would be more accurate, but you get the picture). When Ole retired, a similarly-minded local man took over, and the place is now a de rigueur stop for anyone savvy that passes this way.
My companion at the bar at Ole's. We chatted for hours.

My companion at the bar at Ole's. We chatted for hours.

Not to be unkind, but perhaps Nebraska is not at its best on the days I am driving through it. Sitting at the old wood bar with a glass of wine and my journal, and anticipating the arrival of a grass-fed boneless rib-eye from their very own Nebraska beef company, Hehnke’s—and then greedily consuming it—almost (but not quite) makes up for the cold, gray desolation of almost three whole days, across western Iowa, Nebraska, and eastern Colorado. I listen to and sing along to West Side Story to speed the hours past.
In the last post, you saw my drive-ironment. This is my preferred non-drive-ironment.

In the last post, you saw my drive-ironment. This is my preferred non-drive-ironment.

Just as I’m getting ready to leave, my trusty bartender grudgingly allows as there’s something a little, well, risque, in the back room. OK, I’ll bite. Turns out serious, circa 1940’s, cheesecake festively festoons the walls up above the foosball. I am instantly transported back to the forties, and wish I’d worn my bobby sox. (Not really—what bobby sox—and anyway, she’s not wearing any.) How serendipitous that Fred should have alerted me to this time-machine of a place! But please, please, pretty please: Bring on Denver!
One of the girls in the back room at Ole's.

One of the girls in the back room at Ole's. Sans sox.

Rules of The Road

Posted By on September 23, 2009

Corn. All you can eat.

Corn. All you can eat.

Chicago to Council Bluffs, Iowa: 463 miles. Two states: Illinois and Iowa and
Council Bluffs to Paxton, Nebraska: 312 miles. Two states: Iowa and Nebraska

Check it out! Two days and almost 800 miles flew by while you weren’t looking.

But I was. Looking, that is. Out through the windshield. At corn. There is a reason I usually take the southern route across the country, and it ain’t ALL about the weather.

Roadfoodie's drive-ironment.

Roadfoodie's drive-ironment.

Back in my Euro-trash days, my first husband and I drove all our worldly goods from London down to the southern coast of Spain, in a very large truck that had air-brakes. I almost killed us both during a hair-raising game of chicken with a tractor-tailer in the Pyrenees, but that’s another story. On that long-ago drive, you could look out at rows of olive trees, doze off for an hour or two, and wake up to see rows of olive trees. It was like being in a stationary camera-car with an endless loop of olive-movie playing in the background. (My life during this period is best viewed as a movie anyway, a comedy). Iowa is like that, except that it’s corn instead of olives, and when you stop for the night dinner does not come with thick slices of jamon serrano and a never-ending carafe of rustic, dry rose.
An Iowa moment with no rain.

An Iowa moment with no rain.

And, of course, instead of searching out dinner opportunities in the Michelin, you go to But I am in something of a hurry on this trip, and didn’t do the kind of in-depth homework that normally occupies a solid week of my productive hours before departure. Thus, I’m incredibly grateful to chow down on Meathead’s carefully-packed leftover, award-winning maple and chipotle ribs (aka Pig Candy) in Council Bluffs, complemented by a take-out green salad from a local (yes, non-chain!) Italian restaurant, and some Beringer Founder’s Reserve chardonnay from the Hy-Vee.

Behind-the-wheel boredom is kept at bay during these two monotonous days via a combination of distractions: I do a little phone bidness with the coast, listen to Life Sentences, plus podcasts of KCRW’s Good Food Show and This American Life, and attempt to find myself near a rest stop when it is not raining, so Stella can run around a bit before she turns into a lovely black-and-white dog-statue (Stella won’t get out of the car if it is raining).

Note that, apparently, Nebraska is a wannabe Western state. Many cowboy-oriented roadside attractions trumpet this notion. Sorry. I’m not in The West yet.

This driving across the country thing doesn’t get old, exactly, but I do find it helpful to keep to a certain code of conduct. Every once in awhile I remind myself of the Rules of the Road:

* I will Not Patronize Any Chain Restaurants. (In extreme circumstances only—see suburban Birmingham AL, 2007—exceptions may be made for Outback Steakhouse.)

* One appreciates one’s creature comforts, but will not leave anything behind in a hotel room or friend’s house. This includes jewellry, phone and camera chargers, dog bowls and toys, fluffy blankies and pillow. (See 2006, when I left my favorite barn coat and silver teaspoon at an Oklahoma La Quinta. In defense, I’d just realized a biblical blizzard was about to sweep across my proposed route.)

More to come…


Posted By on September 22, 2009

This family, in their classic El Dorado, is enjoying a Sunday at Superdawg.

This family, in their classic El Dorado, is enjoying a Sunday at Superdawg. (Photo by Craig Goldwyn)

Toledo to Chicago: 220 miles. Three states: Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois

I have slept well, because the most comfortable bed in the world is at my sister-in-law’s house in Toledo. Not to mention the loving, warm feeling of I get when pulling into a real home instead of an impersonal hotel. In this case, there was a long-standing family reunion elsewhere in Toledo, so I happily puttered alone in Nancy’s big and well-equipped kitchen, simmering fresh-from-the-Ohio-dirt sweetcorn, mixing up a salad, and popping large quantities of the yellow tomatoes so generously offered by Farmer Lee Jones. For dessert, two of his neighbor’s incredibly ripe, dripping, summer-perfect peaches. Stella and I were tucked up by the sophisticated hour of 9:30, putting us in prime condition head out early, refreshed and recharged in a way that only family can provide. (Not, of course, before snarfling up a large handful of Charlie’s sizzling bacon and a few more drippy-good peaches.)

Presumably, the male-and-female representations of hot dogs here reflect the two original owners, Maurie and Flaurie Berman.

Presumably, the male-and-female representations of hot dogs here reflect the two original owners, Maurie and Flaurie Berman.

September is a luscious month, especially here in America’s heartland. From the Turnpike, I can’t see the effects of our current recession; from my isolated perch here, whizzing by at this golden time of year, it’s tempting to forget our country’s troubles and simply celebrate its fertile promise. Then I switch over to CNN. Oh, well. Briefly, I am in Indiana, and the ambling landscape sports gleaming white barns and burnished steel silos. I drive through Gary and feel compelled to call C (only our third conversation of the day) and sing GaryIndiana GaryIndiana, GaryIndiana…a la Music Man. Within a few hours, I am approaching the Sears Tower.

At Meathead's prodding, I go for the Superdawg with everything—even hot peppers.

At Meathead's prodding, I go for the Superdawg with everything—even hot peppers.

Today is a very short day because I’m heading for a lunch date with Craig “Meathead” Goldwyn, who is—among other things—the prolific author of, the huge and hugely instructive website that goes oh-so-far beyond just ribs. In fact, I’m a recipe-developer/cookbook-author (twenty-one books, and counting), and have never seen such comprehensive and clear instructions for preparing and cooking lots of tasty meat (one of may favorites: the chart “Anatomy of a Rib”), building fires correctly (note: it’s not the way the Weber people have always told us to), plus finding the very best hot dogs all across the country (a subject obviously near and dear to this heart). In my ongoing love/hate relationship with Facebook, I must declare that meeting Meathead ranks high on the plus side. When he discovered that I would be driving through Chicago on my first-ever trek-across via the Northern Route, he kindly offered to personally meet me for some meat—specifically, a terrific dog, for which Chicago is justly famous. But in much the same way as the French argue about which cassoulet is the finest, the most representative of the region, Chicagoans debate the desirability of their various dogs. After some protracted correspondence (of the kind that regularly prevents me from actually getting any real work done), we decided on Superdawg. (6363 N. Milwaukee Ave. Where Milwaukee, Nagle, and Devon intersect. 773-763-0660.)
The Superdawg comes with fries, whether you want 'em or not.

The Superdawg comes with fries, whether you want 'em or not. I'm on the fence.

In Meathead’s helpful round-up of Chicago’s best hot-dog stands, we learn that that he ranks Superdawg as Number Two in Chicago; Number One, Hot Doug’s Encased Meat Emporium, is not open on Sundays and will have to wait for a future trip. This throwback joint, complete with car-bays and bell-hops, has been open since 1948, when Maurie and Flaurie Berman set up the stand much as it still appears today. (Travelers will be happy to note that there is an outpost in Midway Airport, on Concourse B.) This dog is skinless (shock) and all-beef (standard here, according to Meathead), but its defining characteristic is its lush plumpness. And of course, the toppings. I am instructed that it is de rigueur to nestle the pickle inside the bun with everything else that’s already in there—including the electric-blue relish—and this doesn’t work so well for me until I realize it must be nestled with the skin-side-down.

Mmmmm. Happy. This is a dog worth driving for, although the fries are strangely taste-free. (But, why do I need to eat the fries anyway? Just because they are in the box?? After all, isn’t it long past time to start slimming?)

Lake-Effect Veggies

Posted By on September 21, 2009

Farmer Lee Jones, of Huron, Ohio and The World.

Farmer Lee Jones, of Huron, Ohio and The World.

Erie, PA to Toledo, OH: 218 miles Two States: Pennsylvania and Ohio

Today is a short day because I’m headed to C’s family in Toledo for the night. Stella was disgusted with the 400-mile day yesterday, so I hope to butter her up with a lackadaisical day today. And I have a surprise in store for both of us: It’s not all about the white lines on the freeway….

About an hour east of Toledo, I pull off the Ohio Turnpike and head for my scheduled rendezvous with Farmer Lee Jones, at The Chef’s Garden. The passing countryside has been stunning for several hours now—waving fields are golden and/or green, just on the verge of putting on their winter colors—and the artistically scattered barns are red, hipped, and immaculate. The sky is blue, vast, and tranquil, soothing my soul in the way I’d previously thought only a Texas sky could do. When I pull into the gravel drive of Lee’s family farm, I’m instantly rewarded with the boundless enthusiasm, infectious grin and sparkling blue eyes, and signature red bow tie of the life force known as Farmer Lee, who has become emblematic of responsible, sustainable farming—a man who, incidentally, counts some of the world’s best and most influential chefs amongst his friends and vociferous supporters.

Green and purple cabbages--no corn in sight!

Green and purple cabbages--no corn in sight!

Lee’s family has been farming this corner of Ohio, with a break here and there, for six generations. He grew up in a farmhouse right around the corner from The Chef’s Garden, where, he says, he crawled in and out of his bedroom window more than once, headed for a romantic midnight rendezvous somewhere on the Jones’ family’s 1200 acres. But in 1983, a combination of events— a precipitous drop in food prices and a catastrophic hail-storm—wiped the completely family out. Within months, they were left with no choice but to sell literally everything they owned. Lee was a teenager then, but he grew up fast. Watching your mother and proud father sell their home, and land, including the tractors you grew up riding on, will have that effect on a person.
Pretty veggies in a state-of-the-art facility designed to move 'em out in optimal condition.

Pretty veggies in a state-of-the-art facility designed to move 'em out in optimal condition.

But the young Lee had some new ideas, and his father—who felt that he’d personally failed the family—was more than willing to listen. The entire Jones family began to think outside the box, and they haven’t stopped since. Eventually, and with a great deal of hard work, setbacks, and tiny steps forward that gradually became a gallup, the whole family now cultivates literally thousands of varieties of vegetables, on 300 acres, in a way diametrically opposed to the way they used to—and ninety percent of their neighbors still do—farm. Around us, as we tour the various different non-contiguous fields that make up the current holding (which is still increasing), we are never out of sight of the vast, undulating oceans of corn and soy that represent the region’s predominant crops—not to say monoculture.

This land basks fortuitously in the benign shadow of Lake Erie, the shallowest of the Great Lakes. Most of us who watch the weather channel are familiar with the term “lake-effect snow,” but what I certainly never knew is that on the western side of Lake Erie, the lake effect creates a substantially warmer microclimate. Being shallow, the water gets warmer in the summer than in, say, Lake Michigan. And stays warmer, longer, extending the growing season far beyond the that of the surrounding farmland. In fact, Lee can cultivate certain cultivars outside all year-round—unheard-of in most of this region.

Veggie U lures in young farmers while they're still green.

Veggie U lures in young farmers while they're still green.

About five minutes after the Jones family made their non-traditional farming business successful (many of the neighbors still think they’re crazy, and none have been tempted to follow their lead), they began to “give back.” Veggie U is one of the results: middle-school classrooms around the country are supplied with soil, compost, vermiculite, vegetable seeds, a propagator and a grow-light, along with growing instructions. Pictures of ecstatic students with their small, green plants testify to the joy that results from this simple, elemental success, one with which far too may of our nation’s children are unfamiliar. The program is helping to grow the next generation of farmers while they’re still green behind the ears, and if you happen know a teacher, or have a child in or approaching middle-school, I can’t think of a finer favor than to spread the word about this program.
Farmer Lee and me.

Farmer Lee and me.

Above the chilled, immaculately clean and high-tech packaging facility which ships the lovely produce out across the country and the world, the walls of the office are lined with pictures of Farmer Lee Jones with everyone who is or was anyone in the high, heady reaches of the restaurant world: Palladin, Trotter, Bocuse, Blanc, Achatz…and the list goes on. And although there is no one around, on a Saturday, to snap our picture together, I‘m not about to let this rare photo-op slip away.

NOTE: Five Roadfoodie-reader suggestions for “The Question” have been posted over at “What’s the Question?” linked to over on your right. I’d love more. The ideas are great, but I still don’t know what it is.

A Chatty Charlie

Posted By on September 20, 2009

This is my first foray to a Great Lake. It is eerily large.

This is my first foray to a Great Lake. It is eerily large.

I imagine that Erie, Pennsylvania is not considered the Jewel in the Crown of the Great Lakes region, because to do so would imply something too terrible to contemplate. I’ve elected to spend my first night here purely because it is 400 miles from home. In searching—last minute, so unlike me—for a dining option, I chanced upon Smuggler’s Wharf (obviously a wannabe Fisherman’s Wharf, right?). Driving down toward the waterfront, I tour the epitome of a depressed Northeast urbanscape. It is grey, empty, dirty, post-boom, post-industrial, and post-happy. And it’s not even winter yet.

Down at the waterfront, however, I see water. A great deal of water. And seagulls (are they lost?), plus a patio festooned with some of the best-looking late-summer potted plants I’ve ever seen. Yes, it’s my chosen dining destination; clearly I’ve hit the jackpot simply by employing my usual googling gambit: “fine dining, erie, pa” (and then reading—with, regrettably, copious cynicism—between the lines).

Inside, at the long, boat-shaped bar, I take a pew and am instantly bathed in the kind of setting-sunlight that evokes Chianti, or Bali, or my favorite movie of all time: Stealing Beauty. I just love it when golden rays pervade a place where wine is about to be poured for me. This is the mystical majesty of a Magic Hour. How could I have uttered a disparaging word about Erie?! (Note to self: Drive home with eyes closed. Or, not.)

At Lake Erie, the waterfront is a world apart from the nearby inner city.

In Erie, the waterfront is a world apart from the nearby inner city.

Whenever I’m alone (or with somebody), I dine at the bar. This makes for great conversation, if not quiet contemplation. The latter is slated to be in short supply tonight, because just across the prow of the bar from me sits an exceedingly Chatty Charlie. This guy has waved seventy buh-bye, and sports a cap proclaiming “American Navy: Retired.” He starts talking even before I’ve unfolded my paper napkin and begun to peruse the laminated menu. (Oh goody, something new: “Steaks-Pasta-Salad-Seafood” – ok, and a “She-Crab Soup”.)

My new buddy, Robert James Altzstead, is a smart, opinionated guy, but unfortunately his memory has begun to recede. So our rat-a-tat chat consists mostly of him evoking a thought: “What’s that really big magazine with the great big pictures?? It’s really famous—come ON, Mark!” (the bartender), while Mark, the hostess, and I fire off possible answers: Travel and Leisure? Conde Nast Traveller? According to this big, mysterious magazine, the sunset in Erie PA is considered one of the Ten Best in the World, says CC. “They have pictures of tribal women without their tops on,” he cajoles.
Ahhhhh. “National Geographic!” “Right!!”

I apologize: the golden sun screwed with my only shot of the Chatty Charlie.

I apologize: the golden sun screwed with my only shot of the Chatty Charlie.

“Who’s that black sidekick of Bing Crosby’s?” he now yells, having moved on at light-speed to some other topic. I’m stumped, being that Bing is hardly rat-pack material. “With the gravelly voice?” calls out Charlie. The blond hostess, picking up a tray of drinks destined for a party of blue-haired ladies by the wrap-around windows, prompts “Louis Armstrong!” Charlie is thrilled: “Yep!!” Wow, that one passed me right by. The staff seem to have been playing this game with Charlie for, possibly, decades.

“Where do you think this lady is going, Mark?!” CC challenges the bartender, after he persuades me to part with my travel plans, “I’ll bet you can never guess in a million years!”

“Away from you?” mutters Mark, darkly. But I’m taking notes as fast as I can, because Chatty Charlie is a font of information about this historic lakeside manufacturing town, now fallen upon hard times just like Detroit, and the whole state of Michigan. The ship that (arguably) won the war of 1812, “Niagara,” was made in Erie. Now, the local industry focusses on locomotives, but this year there was not one domestic order. Just yesterday, 1480 people were laid off from GE. No wonder the town feels so sad.

In this conversation I don’t get much of a chance to talk, so I’m unable to ask CC my Big Question. But he does share with me one of his deeper concerns: “You know that Mark Darcy? What’s the actor’s name?!” (“Colin Firth,” I supply.) “Well I would never wear those tight pants like he did, ’cause you know they don’t leave much to the imagination. Like a ballet dancer, you know what I mean?!”

I’m terribly afraid that I do.

Ready or Not

Posted By on September 18, 2009

This dog would really prefer to stay at home.

This dog would really prefer to stay at home.

Catskill, NY to Erie, PA: 401 miles Two states: New York and Pennsylvania

My heart is breaking.

For the past few weeks, our hands have been like heat-seeking missiles, snaking out to find one another whenever the rest of us was close enough for access. Just like when the yellow pages required your fingers to do the walking, ours crept across the distance. We cleave together, sharing the same air, memorizing the close-up territory of the other’s face with a soft black and white muzzle in between. Eight-and-a-half years into our life as a couple, the prospect of a long separation pulls at the heart-strings until they twang in rueful protest.

Five years ago, when the bi-coastal lifestyle came into being, we always intended to make both drives together. And for about three years, we did. Then life—mostly work—began to get in the way. Quarter-, and half-trips were increasingly made by me alone. And now I am setting out to do the whole drive solo with no firm return date in mind. So much depends on so much. I used to trundle down the driveway in the expertly-loaded Toyota with wanderlust coursing strong in my veins. Now it just feels wrong. Perhaps when I hit the highway and cue up some road-centric tunes, I’ll get my road-legs back.

Everything is in its place. Except my partner.

Everything is in its place. Except C.

I’m on the way to Buffalo on I-90, and the U.S. Marines are a presence. I see proud bumper stickers and the following license plates: OOH RAH, and TEN HUT. I pass a large truck, upon whose very dusty rear door someone has finger-written: “ABC, NBC, CBS – Shame on you! Do your jobs, you biased A-holes!” As the miles begin to rack up with agonizing slowness, I’m surfing fretfully amongst a mixture of media (I’ve not yet relaxed into the Zen of Driving, so no one can hold my attention). I start off with the very first “BB Road Mix,” from 2005, which begins with Steppenwolf (“Get your motor runnin’…head out on the highway”), and continues in that vein. Then I touch down with CNN for bit. After a no-time-to-stop-and-search-out-local lunch-ortunities-style snack (yogurt-covered almonds, dried cranberries, and a Slim-Jim), I judge it time to start listening to my first audible book: Life Sentences, by Laura Lippman.
A report back from the first fifty pages...

A report back from the first fifty pages...

My actual, interactional reading at the moment is dominated by Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession Julie Powell’s new book (in galley form—the actual release date is December 1). Second books are notoriously thorny, especially when they follow a break-out-successful first: expectations are, understandably, high, and what with Julie Powell’s precipitous rise from cubicle-bound blogger to book deal to the J/J movie and all, one imagines that knives have long been sharpening in anticipation of this particular release (which the studio delayed until the movie had had its chance to shine alone, unsullied). Within thirty pages, Julie has hooked me, in a fashion not unlike the one she elegantly uses to wield a meat hook: gently, expertly, and using force only when the tender bits are exposed. This is the kind of vein-opening writing that I gobble right up, and see far too infrequently. The writer who can mix personal imperfection (in the form of an adulterous affair, especially when the cheated-upon husband is known by all viewers of Julie and Julia to be a saint), self-deprecating humor, a love for and acrobatic facility with the written word, and devoted affection for pork, has my vote. (Plus, we share a butcher: Roadfoodie readers will remember soon-to-be famous Josh back when he was—inadvisably for a butcher, certainly—a vegan, and turned my squeamish sweetheart white as a sheet by prancing around Fleishers holding a severed pig-head in front of his own shouting “Squee-squee-squee.”)

Fie on the small-minded who may say she overshares: It takes huge guts to splay your own out on a slab and invite jealous writers and constipated critics to throw darts. Julie Powell (and let us remember now that this is the real person, not the two-dimensional character expertly portrayed by Amy Adams) is undeniably flawed, but cuts herself very little slack: she is infinitely harder on Julie than she is on a Flintstonian hunk of liver, which she lovingly places on a bloody block and gently carves with a scimitar (sic). PETA members, of course, need not apply, but those of us who choose to be carnivores should be mindful and respectful of the life that was given so we could put nourishing protein on the table, and there’s no better way to respect an animal than to know it—literally—inside out. I only wish the book were already in audible form, so I could keep reading while I drive. More on this later, when I have a chance to read on.

What’s the Question?

Posted By on September 9, 2009

stellanashvilleIn less than two weeks, I will hop in my trusty Toyota, trundle down the rutted driveway of my Hudson Valley (New York) home, and drive to California. Driving three thousand miles across the country is fairly common for me, as long-time Roadfoodie readers know—this will be my tenth drive in five years. Driving solo—with only the black-and-white dog for company—is not as common; only once have I made the whole drive alone. This blog was the result of the boredom that ensued (I bought the domain name and began posting from a motel in Pennsylvania on the second day out). My life-partner has been a frequent but not constant co-traveler; sometimes, he flies out of the drive (to teach, act, or direct) from one state and flies back in, a few days later, to another one.

Since the purpose of the annual migration is to escape the Northeast winter, we usually leave when the leaves have left the trees. This year I’ll be setting off when the trees are still lush (not to say rain-forest-like), because I want to try to get to know my mother, whose health has begun to fail. I’m leaving sooner rather than later because, on a project so fraught, there’s really no time like the present. On the plus side, this means I’ll be able to take a northerly route for the first time, and can breathe in the zeitgeist of Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and Colorado—states that Roadfoodie’s tires have never before touched—instead of the usual: Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas.

There’s another way this tenth drive will differ: normally, my sole goal and entertainment along the road is good, honest, non-chain-restaurant food, a glass or two of wine in the local watering hole, and edifying conversation of the kind rarely found on either coast. I’ve always found plenty of all of those, plus an eye-opening perspective on my erstwhile but imperfect country. On this trip, however, I’m searching for something entirely different: I want answers to a really big and important question.DSCN0877

Trouble is, I’m not sure what it is.

I could ask why it’s taken me forty years to want to fall truly-madly-deeply in love with my mother. I could ask why I can’t seem to settle down somewhere and call it a permanent home. I could ask what I should do with the rest of my life. But, sadly, these are not questions that can be answered by anyone but me.

Instead, I want to ask the people I meet along the way a trick question, that seems to apply to them and them alone, but will reveal truths of profound depth and clarity to me, the asker. In this trying time, I am not the only one examining her inner landscape, contemplating the road less traveled, allowing herself glimpses of a future that might once have belonged to someone else. We, as a people, are learning to think outside of the box.

Please, readers, help me find the question. This will not be easy, because it must resonate equally in Erie, Des Moines, and Santa Fe. When we figure out what it is, I’ll post the answers I receive as my drive progresses. Plus, of course, record the tastes, sights, and sounds of this entirely new route, one that weather has never allowed me to explore before.
If anyone has recommendations for farms, snacks (especially meat), or convivial cocktails along the way, please share them here (must be within 5 miles of the route below, ‘cause I’m in a hurry).

Roadfoodie’s Route West, 2009:
Catskill, NY to Erie, PA to Chicago, IL to Des Moines, IO to Kearney, NE to Denver, CO to Santa Fe, NM to Sedona, AZ to Palm Springs, CA.
Check out the actual route at
Catskill to Palms Springs 9/09 in a larger map

UPDATE 9/20: Suggestions for The Question

* When bad things happen, are you able to see a good side?  If so, how?  Examples?
– Josh Lipsman, Athens and New York City

* Do you equate your self-worth with your net-worth?
– Owen Lipstein, Athens,

* The Questions That Now Plague Me:
Why am I here?
Where is my croissant?
Who took my foie gras?
Why is the wine so expensive here?
Why can’t I get rillette at my local greenmarket?
Why am I here? (Wait…I asked that already…)
– Michael Flamini, West Stockbridge and New York City (recently returned from a trip to Paris for a Big Birthday)

* What does it actually take to get people to REALLY become more caring and empathetic? This question occupies my mind a lot, because it seems an absolute prerequisite for an end to suffering/war/hunger in the world.
– Ilana Stone, South Africa

* What gives you joy?
– Melinda Handy, Portland OR