Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"O Oysters, come and walk with us!"

It's more than a little bit sad that bookstores are going the way of the dodo. Not only are times hard for the independent booksellers, but even the big guys like Borders and Barnes & Noble are struggling. (Look for those two to merge and share the pain.) In little old Napa not that long ago there were at least three bookstores downtown. Now the total is zero. Their sales fell as rents rose. On our recent east coast trip I was on the lookout for one of those funky old book shops with stacks and stacks to poke through. Sorry to say after two weeks on the road I never saw a single one.

You don't have to be a rocket surgeon to conclude that the ability to buy books online is making the brick and mortar bookstore weak. If I want some old book, chances are I can find it for pennies from some Amazon re-seller - and if it's a new book I'm after, what keeps me from buying it at Wal Mart or some other discounter where you get the same book for several dollars less? (Other than the fact that I don't want to go to Wal Mart, of course.) I am surely to blame for the dwindling of the bookstores. I buy 90% of my books online. So be it.

But now and then it's a gift to wander around in the surviving stacks and see what tickles your fancy. When we finally found a bookstore on our east coast trip it was a big chain on 5th Avenue, we fell into Mark Kurlansky and this has been a good thing.

Kurlansky is one of those writers who makes something mundane something interesting. His book Salt: A World History got onto my radar when it came out in 2002. I thought it sounded worthwhile but never read it. In the bookstore a couple of weeks ago we turned up his more recent effort, The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, which is both a telling of the bivalve's story and the history of New York City. I love to read a book about a place I'm visiting while I'm there, so this was a major winner for me - and we were already on a seafood diet, having gobbled mussels in Philly and oysters on the half shell at the famous Union Oyster House in Boston (the oldest restaurant in the whole country), and then the best fried oysters I've ever tasted at a little joint on Plymouth Bay. I had days where I read about oysters, thought about oysters, and ate oysters. It was oyster-iffic.

So I'm continuing on a Kurlansky run right now. After the oyster book I read Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (and if you follow that link you'll see you can buy it used for $2.20 - goodbye sweet bookstores!) And on deck is The Basque History of the World. So I started with the oyster and now I'm on a roll.

Mmmmmm...oyster roll....

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Gracious behaviors for the tasting room and the dining room, si vous plait

It seems that I have three basic states of consciousness lately:
  • Mildly dissatisfied
  • Fully peevish
  • Overly sentimental
Oh, and I guess there is one more plane of existence for me - inebriated.

Today I seem to be trending toward fully peevish, and it was all set off by what I overheard while on a lunch run yesterday. But let me start at the very beginning, that's a very good place to start. (Cue the music.)

Having heard about the newest wine bar/tasting room to open in downtown Napa I popped in to check it out. (It's Gustavo Thrace in the Oxbow District, and you will be hearing a lot about Gustavo in the next few weeks with the opening of the new movie Bottle Shock. It's a movie about the 1976 Paris tasting, and he is portrayed in it.) After my visit I went to their website and noticed they had a blog, so I clicked over to that, too. It's not a real high energy blog - the most recent post is from December 2007 - but what I read was interesting: "Things we hate about wine tastings." That caught my eye. I know what bugs me when I am in a tasting room - like being made to feel that I should be getting down on my knees and asking nicely for the tasting I am entitled to as a wine club member when I am at a winery to pick up my club shipment, such as, oh, let's say Artesa Winery, last Sunday, let's say, and the nimrod back there thinks he is God's gift to wine tasters and tries to impress the giggly young women by bandying the phrase "volatile esters" (which would be a great name for a band) and when I finally get his attention he gives me a dollop of wine that is about a third of an ounce, and there's no way I am going to progress from mildly dissatisfied to inebriated at that rate - but it's interesting to see it from the other side of the bar, too.

Somehow that awareness of the server-served relationship made me more tuned in yesterday when I was at one of my all-time favorite places, ABC Bakery, getting a to-go sandwich. As I'm leaving, I hear a server saying to a table, "Are you done or are you still picking at that?" That is in my top five most unpleasant things to hear when I'm in a restaurant. "Picking at it" is something finincky children and scavenging buzzards do. "Picking at it" is what your mom always tells you not to do when have something you really want to pick at. Bad memories of being denied the simple pleasures. At the top of my list, though, is the commonly-heard phrase from the waiter, "Are you still working on that?" It always makes me want to say, "Yes, and I think I need a chisel and a trowel, it's starting to set up," or "Yes, almost have it solved but I need to go back and check my work." I don't think of eating a nice meal as "working on it." All the same, I do not want to hear "Are you still enjoying that?" That one makes me want to say "I was enjoying it until you showed up," or "No, I stopped enjoying it awhile ago, now I'm just poking it in and chewing for the exercise." It all seems so simple to me. The acceptable phrase is "Should I take your plate?" That one never makes me fully peevish.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The local grub

The was a good book a few years back (ok, I checked and it was 23 years ago. That's my new standard for "a few years" I guess) titled The Accidental Tourist. Anne Tyler wrote a character who was a travel writer for people who don't like to travel - the kind of people who always stay at a familiar hotel chain where there are no surprises, and seek out McDonald's and Applebee's so they're not confronted with culinary uncertainty.

I'd like to think there are fewer risk-averse travelers out there these days, due to the relentless promotion of "close to the ground" travel by people like Rick Steves, and "authentic experience" promotion by the Lonely Planet crowd. We are all expected not to stay at Ho Jo's when overseas - better to rent a spare room in some local's house - and seek out the local cuisine. With all those Food Network shows with Rachel Ray or Bobby Flay chowing down in every wide spot in the road - how can there be any local secrets anymore when it comes to getting some lunch?

And so I am adamant about looking for a neighborhood restaurant whenever we go traveling. Since as a tourist you inevitably end up in the most touristy places, the strategy is to walk four or five blocks in any direction away from the throng (farther if you've got the energy and time) and start letting your intuition guide you. In other words, hope you get lucky.

Our best success on the recent East Coast swing was in Boston. Having mastered the grueling 2.5 mile Freedom Trail (which wasn't really grueling but I thought this story needed some punching up) we had seen dozens of North End joints that looked good from the outside, but knowing there was a river of tourists passing through I was suspicious. So we wandered off into the neighborhood. Down on the next corner, we saw some guys sitting in chairs out on the sidewalk, looking like extra from The Sopranos. As we get closer we see the place is "Jimmy's Men's Club" or something like that. A good sign that we are off the beaten track. Instinct said not to walk right through these guys, so we make a quick left turn and the next thing you know we have entered pizza heaven.

I figure I have eaten pizza maybe 2,000 times in my life. I've eaten pizza in probably a dozen different states, three or four different countries. I've eaten pizza in Italy and on the street in New York. I've eaten deep dish in Chicago and vegetarian in California. Frozen, take and bake, home made, leftover cold for breakfast - I've has every permutation. So I can with authority say we found the best pizza in the universe on Thacher Street in Boston. I think this picture says it all - that is the face of ecstasy. Regina Pizza - how is this not a national brand?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Staycation my Aunt Fanny, let's go somewhere

Ask a dozen people how they define vacation and chances are good you will get something like 1 to 12 different answers. Some like a week at the lake, doing whatever it is people do at lakes. For others there's nothing better than the sun/sand/disposable fiction/rum-based cocktails combination. And then there are your guide book-toting types who need to visit monuments and museums. I admit I fall into the latter category. I can do the laid back beach routine for a maximum of two days before I am itching to read some plaques or slap on the audio tour headphones. I am not capable of just lying around doing nothing - at least not when I am on vacation. If it's a weekend at home and there are eleven projects I should be doing, that's when I am very good at lying around doing nothing.

So our recent east coast adventure was right up my alley and down my street - two weeks of tramping around in our three great eastern centers of history and culture; Philadelphia, Boston and New York City.

Philadelphia is a good place to go for people who think our government can't do anything right. You will see that they are, in fact, quite good at managing tourism. In the Old City where all the history is packed in, and where the tourists pack in to see it, there is an artful use of National Park Service guides and Wackenhut contract security to manage the crowds. And if you're lucky, you get the Independence Hall spiel from a guy with a great style. Our guide (that's him in the picture) did a good job of chiding everyone for knowing so little about their own American history, for taking it all for granted. He reinforced the idea that history is not about things - buildings, statues, monuments - but is about people and ideas and choices. (He said "If you just want to see an old building come on over to my house and I'll make you some french fries." Probably should have taken him up on that offer.)

It was a little inspiring to overhear, while we were waiting in line, the conversation among a large family, at least three generations all together there. The Indian or Pakistani father was telling his children the reason we were all visiting Independence Hall, quoting dates and names and imbuing his story with a sense of how truly meaningful it was. He was likely a naturalized citizen, a person who has learned and absorbed American history as an adult rather than memorizing, regurgitating and forgetting it as a child. That's something that's usually forgotten in our constant debate about immigration - the people who come here from other countries - legal or illegal - seem to show a lot more passion about the American dream than those of us who grow up here. We don't stop to consider how lucky we all are, and how we loudly complain about a country that so many others long for.

The tour guide made it clear - history is not about old buildings, it's about people and their visions, about their passions, their convictions. That was a great message to hear at the start of our history crawl.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

This blog is not dead!

Today we are back home after two weeks on vacation. Blessed home! The entire two weeks were spent in big cities - big, humid cities - and our quiet, modest abode has never seemed so perfect as this morning.

Do I have tales to tell of my travels to far-off lands? You betcha. More soon