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A few years back, while I was driving through the States, I passed a hitchhiker holding a sign that read “Hiking for Beer.” This abstruse notice made me wonder. Was he offering drivers beer for their service or if this were the goal of his trip — to hitchhike in search of the best beer across America — did he hope motorists would empathize with his mission? But I also got this idea in my head: I could hike, too, but proper hiking…for beer.

I had trekked a number of impressive trails. They provided a communion with nature; a temporary retreat from modern distractions; an enhancement of necessities, making the simple feel luxurious. A bag of gorp was forest caviar. Tap water from a rusty faucet tasted as if it had flowed from the purest mountain spring.

But after a long walk among green trees or russet mountains, nothing compared to drinking a golden brew; this was a luxury heightened to the libations of royalty. Of course, a beverage of this nature was never actually enjoyed in nature. Typically, after a hike I would have to scrape off the mud from my shoes, scan my body for ticks, and then jump into the car and drive out of the forest if I wanted to end with an ale. MORE

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On the weekend after Labor Day in the hilly town of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, a group that totaled 80,000 people gathered to celebrate. Many drove across state lines to get there. They weren’t commemorating a monumental day in history or an important win at the Little League World Series. No, these people had arrived to celebrate the humble little mushroom at the town’s 29th annual Mushroom Festival.

Located about 30 miles outside Philadelphia, Kennett Square isn’t that unusual of a place to host such a quirky event. After all, it is renowned for being the “Mushroom Capital of the World,” an area where half of America’s mushrooms are grown. As you drive through it, you’ll occasionally catch a mildly unpleasant whiff of the nearby farms and the compost used to grow their prized product. You’ll also see Kennett Square’s nickname branded on the town’s water tower. If there’s anywhere that deserves the rights to a funky fungi festival, it’s here.

But what is it about mushrooms, exactly, that draws such an enormous crowd year after year? I was curious. So I went to find out. MORE

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Towards the end of our foraging journey, there was a flurry of excitement. Someone had spotted a lone morel mushroom growing on the side of our trail. This sought-after fungus, for which connoisseurs will pay up to $35 per pound, was the most valuable find of our entire trek, but no one ventured to pick the specimen — perhaps because of its neighbors. The cone-shaped mushroom grew right next to a leaky-looking battery and just steps away from a rusty razor blade.

We weren’t foraging in a beautiful park or someone’s woodsy backyard. No, on this Sunday morning, we were looking for edible and useful plant life in “The Cut” — an abandoned, four-track-wide section of Philadelphia’s abandoned Reading Viaduct railroad, sunk some 40 feet below street level. We entered, somewhat ironically, through a chain link fence separating the encroaching wilderness from the employee parking lot of a Whole Foods market. A few members of the tour took the opportunity to forage for some coffee inside before signing the requisite waiver form and venturing down the parking ramp and into the unknown. After circumnavigating a moderately sized pile of general trash, it quickly became clear that this little section of abandoned city space was home to more than just weeds and rats (and a few vagrants). Tall grasses, sprawling bushes, and full sized trees had spent the previous few decades reclaiming The Cut and creating an impromptu slice of nature.
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It was a busy Friday night and the street was packed with vendors – food carts called lahris, and people enjoying a relaxing evening. Music was playing, a different song at each lahri, everything from the latest Bollywood hits to the classics. Oil sizzled in pans and aromas at each lured the hungry. And the price at the restaurants on wheels? Less than a dollar for a hearty portion. A bargain, but a healthy, strong stomach was a prerequisite.

There I was, among the carts and people, fanning my face frantically, as it was getting abnormally warm for the rare, cool night that Vadodara city was having. The pani puri, full of spices and flavors, was the most delicious that I had ever tasted, but it was also the hottest.

“Another?”

“Definitely!” I said and the lahriwala served up another. It was a small bite-sized puri, filled with potatoes, sweet chutney, chickpeas, and doused in a spicy mint water concoction. I had about fifteen of them that night. My nose was running, tears streaked my cheeks, and pictures were snapped to commemorate the time I had my first lahri pani puri.

“This is the best pani puri I’ve had!” I said, caught up in the tastiness of the moment.
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As I was sitting seiza, kneeling on thin tatami mats with my legs folded tightly underneath my thighs, my feet began to go numb. Our host had yet to even enter the room, still outside of it preparing the utensils on her tray. I had only been seated in the position for a few minutes and was already concerned about the lack of blood flow to my ankles. I worried I wouldn’t make it through my first Japanese tea ceremony, let alone any of my future lessons.

One of my instructors, Drew, was busy explaining the hanging scroll in the cove in the corner of the tea room — too busy to notice my very visible physical discomfort. On this snowy morning, the scroll featured Japanese calligraphy and the characters for beautiful, moon, and flower. “It serves as a reminder that beauty can still be found even in the depths of winter,” he said calmly, “and that the snow will eventually melt its way into spring.” I did my best to embrace his message as I felt my body shivering from the cold draft entering the tea room from outside.

Below the hanging scroll rested a narrow vase with a simple flower arrangement, which Drew also pointed out to our small class. “The flowers chosen for each tea ceremony will always represent the current season. I picked these from my garden this morning,” he said proudly. Every other student in the room listened carefully and attentively while I fidgeted in my spot, struggling to focus on anything besides the lack of sensation in my legs.

This was my first of many Japanese tea ceremony classes, which I attended for four consecutive weeks at the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden in Philadelphia. Early every Saturday morning, I rushed to get ready in my messy studio apartment and make it to my 9 AM lesson on time. When I arrived, I shuffled out of my puffy winter jacket, slipped out of my salt-covered boots, and tied a wide sash around my waist before gliding onto the tatami mat flooring in my mismatched socks.
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The first thing Azeb wanted to know about me was if I was on Facebook. After that she got to the less important stuff: Where I was from, if I was married, had kids, believed in God — and what was I doing in southern Ethiopia? Azeb, a 25-year-old business student with big glowing eyes and long dark hair, was born and raised not far from where we were having breakfast. We ended up sitting together when we realized we were the only people in the dining room at the Lesiwon Hotel in Yirgacheffe, the namesake town of a region known to coffee cognoscenti for producing some of Ethiopia’s highest-quality coffee beans.

As Azeb scooped up pieces of her omelet with torn-off hunks of bread, as is the Ethiopian custom, I stabbed at mine with a fork and told her about my travels thus far in her country. But it was something I mentioned in passing that seriously broke the ice. Until this trip — specifically the day prior to our chance encounter, when I had driven down from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, to the southern part of the country — I had never seen a coffee tree.

Azeb’s mouth fell open, her head tilted heavenward, and she let out a high-pitched laugh. “You’d never seen a coffee cherry before?” she said, and then she just stared at me, her mouth still agape, as if I’d just casually asked her if airplanes drive on invisible roads in the sky.
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Anyone who’s visited Las Vegas knows that the formula is fairly cut and dry. Walk up to a table with 60 or so dollars, briefly allow yourself to be tricked into having a good time, then about an hour later, walk away empty handed and slightly shell-shocked. I don’t even mean gambling. I’m talking about the world-renowned Vegas-style all-you-can-eat buffet.

Vegas didn’t invent the casino, and it certainly didn’t invent the buffet. But when Las Vegas’ own Herb Macdonald charged a single dollar for his adaptation of the European tradition of smörgåsbord dining, all-you-can-eat was born and pushed to its furthest, most American limits. While Europeans were perusing modest selections of breads, cheeses, cold fish, and desserts, Las Vegas diners were presented with ever-growing heaps of luxurious-sounding food.

The Las Vegas buffet was marketed as an idealist’s dream restaurant, a place where everyone could win. Dad could have three kinds of steak, the picky eater could have seven different shapes of buttered pasta, grandpa could have two courses of shrimp cocktail interrupted by a slice of triple chocolate cake – all at the same table. The idea is so convincing that families, complete with restless children, are willing to wait two, three, even four hours before spending upwards of $60 a head just to get a coveted table at buffets at the Bellagio or Caesar’s Palace. MORE

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“Two hundred and fifty grams of Bombay halwa for me and amba barfi for your mom,” my dad began on the phone. I was nervous about the task he had assigned me. But there was no way to avoid it; surely my parents would have been incredibly disappointed had I returned without the good stuff.

A trip to Poona city in Maharashtra, India is not complete without a trip to Chitale Bandhu, the premier sweet shop that is always crowded, since it carries the best mithai in the city. I had been there many times before, but always with my mother. Going there alone meant that I was faced with the responsibility of ordering the perfect amount of sweets and battling an impatient crowd of customers.
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In this excerpt from D.O.M.: Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients, author and chef Alex Atala explores the role of ants as an ingredient in the Brazilian Amazon. The book is available now from Phaidon Press, in bookstores, and on Amazon.

“Which herbs did you put into this dish?”

“Ants.”

“I would like to know which HERBS you used in the recipe.”

“Son, there’s only ants.”

This conversation took place in São Miguel das Cacheiras in the very north of Brazil. The person asking about the herbs was myself. And the woman answering my questions was Dona Brazi, a member of one of the 23 ethnicities that inhabit the region and who sells delicious food in the town’s central square. She did not speak Portuguese very well and, after trying her food, I thought she had not understood my question. I wanted to know which herbs and seasonings she had used to make her delicacies. But she had understood perfectly what I was asking. And the answer was simple. The seasoning used in that recipe was ants.
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Dispatches

From Mama’s Kitchen

Our photographer's perfect lunch in a tiny, family-run Positano restaurant

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This summer, photographer Rachel Wisniewski found herself careening up the side of a mountain in Italy – toward what turned out to the best meal of her life (so far). Check out her photos below.

“As our tour guide, “Crazy Carmine,” drove us up the winding mountain road in Positano, Italy, I felt my stomach lurch. By the time we reached the mountaintop, I swore that I’d be sick. I didn’t expect Carmine’s next announcement: “It’s lunch time.” He quickly ushered my family into a small, stone home. The sign over the door read “La Tagliata Fattoria.”

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    The best tomatoes I'd ever eaten grew in Mama's vast garden — firm on the outside, yet surprisingly succulent on the inside. I popped one into my mouth; as I chewed, my disposition changed instantly from nauseous to ravenous. I couldn’t help but pluck a few more from Mama's basket before she left.
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    It wasn’t until we neared the end of the trail to La Tagliata that I realized how high up we were. The garden extended dangerously over the side of the mountain — allowing us to see turquoise water for miles. The air was sweet, but the view was much sweeter.
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    The first wave of appetizers: peas, eggplant, chickpeas, broccoli, and fried cauliflower. Each vegetable was prepared simply—accented by herbs, but not overpowered by them. I took second helpings of everything.
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    I indulged in several balls of Mama's homemade mozzarella. The cheese was undeniably fresh; as I cut into it, buffalo milk oozed onto the plate.
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    The pasta course began with gnocchi filled with buffalo mozzarella, blanketed with a thin tomato sauce, and garnished with basil and cherry tomato halves. The mild sauce allowed the light, fluffy gnocchi to shine.
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    Strozzapreti, a hand-rolled pasta that reminded me of cavatelli, was covered in a chunky sauce made of pumpkin, mushroom, and basil.
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    As we dug into the tomato sauce-bathed ravioli, Carmine informed us that Mama had woken up at 5:00 that morning to make them by hand. In addition to ricotta cheese, the pasta was stuffed with minced, smoked eggplant – a vegetarian's dream.
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    For dessert, homemade limoncello and apple liquor accompanied a dessert plate with ricotta and chocolate cheesecakes, fruit tarts, chocolate-dipped profiteroles and “Mama’s cake.” We couldn’t eat much before our already-stuffed stomachs cried for mercy.
Dispatches TM_DP_BLUEB_FI_002

Americans love a blueberry festival. This year, they’ll celebrate the small fruit in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, North Carolina, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Virginia, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Vermont, New York, Washington, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Maine. In states red and blue, blueberry fans will pick blueberries, eat blueberry cakes, drink blueberry milkshakes, watch blueberry pie-eating contests, buy blueberry art, and run blueberry 5Ks to celebrate nature’s synchronous gifts of berries and summer. MORE

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If you are an inmate in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s prison system, and you misuse food items, refuse to return uneaten food items, destroy or throw food items, or use food containers to throw human waste, you may be assigned a Behavior Modified Meal the state calls “Food-Loaf.”

The public recently had a chance to experience Pennsylvania’s Food-Loaf at Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary. The historic site was the world’s first true penitentiary; with the urging of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, the state opened the site in 1829. It aimed to inspire true penitence through isolation and silence. Eastern State closed in 1971, but in 2013, it was back to serving meals, if only for two days.
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A few weeks ago I ate horse. On purpose, while a scandal erupted in Europe regarding the presence of horse DNA in frozen meals and processed meat products. Traveling in Mongolia, my husband, Garrett, and I wanted to eat like locals. So we ponied up to a table in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, scanned the restaurant’s menu, and ordered horse meat soup.

Our first bite of the thin broth wasn’t bad—slightly salty, with a hint of pepper. Not four stars, but serviceable. We stirred, and up popped hunks of yellowish fat, goopier than Vaseline, meant to bestow some flavor. Then we found the meat.
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When Denmark realized a few years ago that it had an oyster invasion, it turned the problem into a tourism opportunity, inciting people to gather up the pests and eat them. It wasn’t too difficult: Danes and oyster-eating go way back, at least to the Stone Age, as evidenced by ancient heaps of discarded shells called kjökkenmödding. In 1587, King Frederick II made oyster fishing a royal monopoly—those who broke the law three times risked the death penalty.

For most of their history, Danes ate the Ostrea edulis, a flat species indigenous to Europe that also goes by the name Belon (though this appellation is normally reserved for those that come from an estuary in France). But overfishing, pollution and disease have driven the flat oyster nearly to extinction, so the Pacific oyster, or Crassostrea gigas, is now the type most people eat the world over. Introduced from Asia to the United States in the early 20th century and to France in the 1960s, the Pacific is more resistant to parasites and variations in temperature. However, in some places—including the western coast of Denmark—it has become an invasive species, blanketing the sea floor like beds of concrete. MORE

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When it comes to wine, we rarely consider its journey from grape to glass. Instead, we fixate on describing its characteristics, like fresh and fruity aromas, savory flavors or an elegant finish. Sometimes we complain that the complexity of a wine doesn’t correspond with the amount we paid for it. And far too often, we ponder the perfect food and wine pairings.

We readily use our senses of sight, smell, touch, and taste to evaluate the quality of wine, but we seldom consider the story behind that bottle. Every wine has a specific place where it was made and the greatest ones have the fingerprints of passionate and intriguing workers all over them. Just like knowing the roasted chicken you are preparing for dinner was raised cage-free or the organic apple you’re about to bite into isn’t covered in pesticides, hearing the details of any bottle of wine can absolutely make a difference in your enjoyment of it. At least, it does for me. MORE