Dispatches TM_DP_BEERWLK_FI_001

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

Questionable Tastes TM_PG_ALTINTR_FI_001

Wine books almost always begin with a light-hearted tale of the author’s initiation into the world of wine via some crappy bottle of plonk. This is where you’ll normally read an anecdote of misguided youth involving, say, Thunderbird, Sutter Home white zinfandel, Boone’s Farm, Lancers, Mateus, Korbel, Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers or — for the generation of wine books soon to be written by millennials — boxes of Franzia. It’s sort of like an immutable law of wine writing.

So let me begin by saying I went through a period during my senior year of high school when I was very enthusiastic about Mogen David’s flavored and fortified wine MD 20/20, otherwise known as “Mad Dog.” MD 20/20’s Orange Jubilee was my particular tipple of choice, and the reason had more to do with how much easier it was to hide in the woods than a six-pack of beer. I vaguely remember it tasting like a a mix of chalky, watered-down SunnyD and grain alcohol, but I’ve mostly tried to cleanse that memory from my mind, along with other, numerous suburban New Jersey public school rites of passage.

My MD 20/20 connoisseurship ended soon after I left for college in the big city. During the first week of college I professed my enthusiasm for Mad Dog and shared some Orange Jubilee with the new friends on my floor. After gagging and spitting out the MD 20/20, my new friends laughed and gave me the ironic nickname “Mad Dog,” which stuck until I transferred schools at the end of my freshman year. It was an early lesson in how fraught it can be to express a wine preference. It was also a lesson in how it feels it to have one’s taste disapprovingly assessed.

Dispatches TM_DI_CFFELND_FI_002

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.

Dispatches TM_FP_BUFFET_AP_009

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

Dispatches TM_DI_MITHAI_FI_001

“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.

Questionable Tastes TM_PG_PORTU_FI_002

I am hopeful that Portuguese wines will take off in the United States one day and I eagerly await the meteoric rise of Portugal’s great-value reds, either from a famed region like the Douro Valley or from lesser-known regions such as the Alentejo or Dão or Setúbal. My wait has been very much in the vein of Waiting for Godot, and it has been going on two decades now. I remain patiently optimistic.

I’m always speaking with people who are fixated on a quixotic quest to find that “great bottle under $10.” I often get frustrated with this mythical idea of the under-$10 bottle, because it’s actually so rare to find one that offers quality and drinkability, let alone complexity. I’m almost always advocating that people bump up at least a few bucks into the $12 to $15 range. A $9.99 wine can just as easily offer bad value as a $29.99 wine can.

Portugal, however, is one big exception, one country that actually produces wines under $10 that offer honest-to-goodness value. Which is why their lack of presence in the U.S. continues to surprise me. MORE


From Mama’s Kitchen

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


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

Dispatches TM_DI_HORSE_FI_001

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.

First Person TM_FP_RAKJIA_FI_001_1

I tried not to grimace as I took a second swig of rakija from the tall plastic water bottle. I winced slightly, but then smiled and was met with chuckles and applause. I don’t usually drink straight booze at lunch, but I couldn’t refuse, not just out of politeness, but also out of curiosity. As the warmth of the homemade moonshine spread through my body, I looked toward my boyfriend’s grandfather for approval. The snow-haired man who I was told “only puts his teeth in for pictures,” flashed me a toothless grin that told me I’d crossed some sort of threshold of acceptance. He was entertained by how obliging I’d been; taking a swig every time he nudged me playfully with the bottle. We did not speak each other’s language, but I didn’t need a translator to understand that his cajoling was a sincere attempt to make me feel welcome. Despite being an American, if I could handle the drink, that meant there must be some Croat in me somewhere. MORE

First Person CRUISE_FI_001_1

Self: “Hello, my name is Erica.” (Insert handshake).
Prospective Employer: “Erica, nice to meet you. Tell me about yourself.”
Self: “I just finished working on a cruise ship in Hawaii.”
Prospective Employer: “A cruise ship! Doesn’t everyone on the ship have to be analyzed by a shrink? Who knows whom you may be living with!”
Self: “It wasn’t the crew I was worried about.”

She sat with perfect posture at a table for two next to the ship window, book poised in her hands as if it were a bird. Her eyes flitted up at me when I approached her side. “Could you stand toward the end of the table, please,” she inquired. “My neck cramps when I turn it too much to the left,” she explained.

Study Abroad TM_SA_GRAPES_FI_002

Zut alors!” my host mother sighed, exasperated, as I admitted that afternoon’s encounter with her respected, renowned winemaking neighbor. In typical “who… me?” fashion, I had managed to achieve local infamy in less than five days.

At sixteen, I was as ignorant of their language as of their wine culture when I alighted upon the cherished terroir de la France. And, if life wasn’t already terrifying enough at that tender point, thanks to crippling isolation and loneliness, I almost got myself killed learning about “The Almighty French Grape.”

Wine 101 TM_W1_TERROIR_FI_001

The first thing I wish I had known before I approached the car rental kiosk: Almost all cars in Europe are manual. The second: European car rental companies don’t really care about silly Americans like me that don’t know how to drive them.

Many young Americans are just like me. I learned how to drive in an automatic car. Five years have passed and I still cannot operate one with a manual transmission. At home, in my good old automatic, this is never an issue. But when I arrived in Europe last fall for a self-guided tour through wine regions in Spain, France, and Italy, my inability to manage a stick shift suddenly became a hindrance. Luckily, one rental company offered a solution to my problem: the Smart Car, which has an automated manual transmission and can be driven in either mode. It was extremely tiny, like a toy car — much smaller than any car I had ever driven. I wondered where exactly I was supposed to put my oversized suitcase. But while it wasn’t the most comfortable ride for a lengthy journey through wine country — certainly not very impressive to roll up to a winery in — the little car took me far.

Dispatches TM_DI_OYSTR_FI_002

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

Dispatches TM_TR_WTORO_FI_001

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