Friday, July 30, 2010

American Summer Vacation Series 2010: The Bell Chalet

From the outside it could be any other bar or restaurant. Fontecchio's Liberty Bell Chalet in Hurley, Wisconsin is non-descript except for the wooden sign hanging above the entrance.  But step inside and...

It's like stepping back in time. At least for me. The red awnings over the bar's liquor shelf, the dark wood that makes you feel as though you've entered a Swiss Alpen hut, the lack of any windows in the entire restaurant which make it darker still, the massive crowning chandelier, the local patrons crowding around enormous pizzas and Betty's famous ceasar salad, and the same jukebox (with much of the same music) bubbling and glowing in the corner. This is the first time I've been to the Bell since 1990 and the only thing that looks different is me - kids in tow.

It is also the first time I have been here in the summer. Once just the "Liberty Bell", the Fontecchio's added the "Chalet" at the end in deference to the skiers who come from as far as Chicago and all over Wisconsin and Minnesota to ski at Blackjack and Indianhead, two ski hills in Bessemer and Wakefield, in the Upper Peninsula or U.P. (der hey) of Michigan.

After a long day on the slopes, we would saunter into the Bell Chalet, sometimes still in ski boots, snow melting off our collars at the sight of the big fireplace. Our cheeks rosy with minus 30 degree wind chill would soon become rosy with a warm seat by the fire and a huge piece of pizza.

The self-proclaimed "world famous" pizza.

The story goes that Bernadino and Carmella Fontecchio were an Italian couple who had migrated to the area from Capastrano Italy in the early 1900s. The iron deposits and thick forests attracted miners and lumberjacks. Bernadino would work the mines all day while Carmella would prepare Italian food for the miners and lumberjacks next to the little tavern below their apartment. Carmella soon turned her free meals into a business, converting the tavern into a bar and restaurant of the same name, the Liberty Bell. It was 1923.

Today, the Fontecchio's three children still run the operation. One of the daughters, Betty, has patented her salad dressing recipe for their famous ceasar salad and apparently very few people are privy to the actual ingredients. Frozen Fontecchio's pizzas are shipped around the country they claim; they are that good. And while the pizzas are delicious, I would venture to guess that shipping a frozen pizza from Wisconsin to Arizona has more to do with nostalgia than a craving.

Not to harp on this point again, but lil' Hanky is the king of picky eaters. We specifically ordered the children's portion of ravioli, i.e. it was the perfect size for him and it was exactly what he has eaten with gusto a thousand times - pasta filled with cheese, covered in tomato sauce. And he took one look at it and promptly pushed it across the table. Pasta. Cheese. Tomato sauce. What's up, kid? HOWEVER, he then proceeded to polish off half of my mom's linguine with clams. CLAMS. The kid won't eat ravioli but now he's a connoisseur of clams. I can't win.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Darby Logger Days

A rare site: A hot saw hottie competes in The Cookie Stack. A competion of skill.

When the sawdust blizzard cleared, Paul Bunyan, the American legend, was staring me in the face. The burly, bearded man of the woods thrust a chainsaw high over his head and gave a victorious roar to the crowd packed into the bleachers behind me. No, he was not on a killing spree; he had just placed first in The Cookie Stack.

The Cookie Stack is one of the twenty timber sports competitions, including the axe throw, pole climb and speed chop that comprise the biggest festival of the summer in the Bitterroot Valley in Montana- Darby Logger Days. Like sawdust to honey, the event draws accomplished athletes in the lumberjack industry from around the country to flex their muscles and demonstrate their skills. In celebration of an industry and tradition that defines western Montana, it aims to keep America’s logging heritage alive.

The narrow main street of Darby was jam-packed with Harley-Davidsons and red, white and blue. The fairgrounds hosted booths with strong Libertarian messages, like: In God I Trust; the Government Is Another Story! Raffles auctioned off handguns and shotguns; corndogs and snow cones were served up to the kiddies.

Listening to the hollow thud of axes hitting wood stumps, the revved-up, buzzing whine of chainsaws and the casual voice of the MC, I marveled at this slice of the American pie, so completely foreign from my Midwestern roots. In awe of the remarkable diversity of American culture, I vowed to keep on truckin’ from sea to shining sea.

This post was entered into the totally awesome Grantourismo - HomeAwayUK Travel Writing Competition for July. We would love to hear your thoughts on the post in the comments section!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Tabaski 1418

Eid al-Adha, or Tabaski as it is known in parts of West Africa, is the "Festival of Sacrifice" in which Muslims remember Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son at God's request. In the Islamic calendar year 1418, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in a small Soninké village in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. Soninkés typically celebrate Tabaski with great flare, notably an elaborate feast and continuous dancing. Having looked forward to what everyone assured me would be the meal of the year, I gathered with the rest of the village to watch a few men slaughter a meager looking cow who was carved up and divided into equally distributed piles. Come mealtime, I was disheartened to find all the "good" pieces of the animal shoved my way, i.e. the testicles, intestines and other choice organs. While the others dug in, I shifted rubbery nubs of cow around to make it look like I had enjoyed the meal.
What the celebration lacked at the communal bowl, it made up for on the dance floor. Spontaneous circles formed throughout the day with children dressed in their holiday finest - flamboyant booboos in loud patterns and colors and painstakingly braided coifs adorned with golden hair clips. Children and adults alike took turns busting a move while the others clapped and cheered them on. The cheers turned into jeers however when I entered the circle, unable to match their rhythm and grace. But I got mad props for trying.

This post was entered into the Grantourismo - HomeAwayUK Travel Writing Competition for July. We would love to hear your thoughts on the post.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

American Summer Vacation Series 2010: Montana Snapshot

This sign sums up Montanians so perfectly, I almost feel silly explaining it. Freedom and Masculinity. They welcome Sarah Palin and her new champagne of ‘going rouge’, but wonder why it took her so long- Montana has always been rouge. America is free because they fought for it, anyone messes with their right to dominate the land in a manly, freedom-loving way and they will take action with their well-oiled, personal artillery. Or, of course, this is just a funny sign to get people to come in and beef up for what is left of bathing suit season.

Monday, July 19, 2010

American Summer Vacation Series 2010: Wisconsin-Style Drunken Chicken

Going home usually means going back to the familiar and traditional. There were plenty of comfort foods, family recipes and visits to favorite haunts during our trip to visit my mom and stepdad in northern Wisconsin last week. This, however, was not one of them.

Not to be confused with Chinese drunken chicken, marinated and cooked in Chinese wine, this version of Drunken Chicken, which I first encountered on this trip, is also called "beer can chicken". A bird, rubbed in butter and spices - these birds in Tony's Creole seasoning (my stepdad is from New Orleans) - sitting on a can of beer - in this case, Hamm's (Wisconsin's answer to Coors) - and set up on a platform on the grill for about 90 minutes. The beer steams up through the chicken, making the meat extremely juicy and tender and imbuing it with a slightly hops and barley-esque flavor.

Traditional, no. At least not in our house. Until now. And I can't wait to get a couple of birds drunk on our grill for the Germans.

Friday, July 16, 2010

American Summer Vacation Series 2010: An Organic Farm and Creamery

The Bitterroot Valley extends over 100 miles and has a population of around 36,000. Driving through the green rolling hills of the valley floor it becomes clear that there are more cows than there are people. This land is their land, along with the alpacas, sheep, horses, elk, moose, bison, etc. From what we learned in the earlier Montana post, animals are tasty and that, I am sure, is why they are allowed to share this great lawless plain.

Ranching and agriculture are two of the major industries in the Bitterroot Valley. This morning we visited the only organic farm and creamery in the valley, Lifeline Farm in Victor. We watched Jennifer, (she and her husband own the farm), milk the cows and feed the pigs. Basically, we trailed after Jennifer, trying not to trip on all of the chickens while she toiled away at backbreaking work. Any romantic notions I once had about being a farmer, having my own animals and making my own cheese for the masses were pretty much dashed as Jennifer very cheerfully recounted what sounded like an intensely laborious never-ending work day. She begins milking the hundred Brown Swiss cows at 4:30am and finishes around 10am. And that is just the first task of the day. She said she can't remember the last time she saw the sun rise or set- she works right through.

Following Jennifer around the farm made us hungry. We drove a few miles down the road to Lifeline Farm's Community Store where they sell all of the veggies and meats of their labor. Cuts of pig and cow, summer sausages, raw milk cheddar, mozzarella, cheese curds, butter, milk, and farm fresh eggs with shells of varying shades of tan blush and dusty powder blue are among the goodies you are rewarded with for stopping.

We came home and cooked breakfast for lunch- farm fresh eggs with aged cheddar scrambled in fresh butter, pork sausage and a salad of lettuce cut from my Dad's garden. A morning of hard work never tasted so good!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

American Summer Vacation Series 2010: New York City Family

In Montana, we reunited with my dad's side of the family including my siblings and their new babies, Smash and brood and her brother and parents and the matriarch of the family, my 90 year old grandmother. In Wisconsin, we visited my mom and stepdad at their new permanent residence deep in the north woods on a gorgeous little lake. And in New York, we visited more family, that is friends who are as close as family. Eva, TJ, Laura-Julie, Zia, Richard, Rachel, Dee, George, Leslie, Andrea, Natasha, Brian, Kalpana, Jess, Michael, Ian, Tessa, Clare, Matthias, Jay, Seth, Asma, Nathan, Ruthie - New York City and its environs probably has the highest density of people we love of any one city in the United States. To you, my darling dears. We love you terribly and miss you to match.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

American Summer Vacation Series 2010: Koreatown, NYC

Since our foray into Asian cuisine went over so well with the kiddies in Chinatown, I decided to fill my purse with bagels and cream cheese and pass them to the kids under the table while Leslie, Richard and I filled up on hearty Korean fare at Wonjo in Koreatown. K-town in Manhattan is more or less 31st - 36th streets bordered by 5th and 6th avenues with the main thoroughfare being 32nd Street between 5th and Broadway, known as Korea Way. When I was a grad student in New York, I interned at Human Rights Watch, whose offices are located in the Empire State Building about two blocks up from Koreatown. My friend Clare was working at an organization a few blocks in the opposite direction and every week we would meet in the middle at Wonjo.

This stretch of 32nd is packed with Korean restaurants and the only one I have patronized is Wonjo. It was Clare's pick and as a Korean-American with a palate far more nuanced in fermented cabbage than I, her recommendation was enough for me. We rarely strayed from our usual order: the bimbop. A delicious hot stone bowl filled with rice, vegetables, meat and topped with a fried egg. Again, not the kind of thing you would usually order on a 95 degree day but nostalgia for our old lunch meetings and lack of access to good Korean food at home made me do it.

The kids picked over the little plates that preceded the pots - kim chi, spicy root-like vegetables, sesame seaweed, minced tofu. But again, there were no big winners. The glass noodles that I ordered for them did not pass for "pasta" - a typical staple in their diets - the way I hoped it would. Ah, well, more for us.

Monday, July 12, 2010

American Summer Vacation Series 2010: Hunting Humor

The Rainbow Bar is the local watering hole in Hamilton and a good place to go if you want to be reminded you are not from ‘round here or to encounter someone who will challenge you to a duel for standing too close while trying to read what all of his tattoos say. Since the saloon doors opened in 1913 as a pool hall, it has attracted a grizzly crowd with strong views about, well…. hunting. The rustic wooden walls are adorned in classic Montana style with dead animals, rifles and signs publicizing the obvious to all of the believers. My favorites are…

“’Vegetarian’ an old Indian word for lousy hunter.”

“WOLF the other white meat.”

The prize goes to the pool hustler making more than a fashion statement in a t-shirt that read, “PETA: People Eating Tasty Animals” and on the back, “All God’s creatures have a place in this world, right next to my mashed potatoes.”

I mean, really, what isn’t funny about hunting? A cheeky show of the local humor is best seen in the photo above. Look carefully between the two deer heads. Is the other half of the buck peeping in on the ladies room or does one of these poor animals have to look at his own stuffed ass for eternity?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

American Summer Vacation Series 2010

So with our great American Summer Vacation eclipsing three completely different parts of the United States, and being that our first stop was New York City and the second two were, how shall we say, a wee bit more rustic, we decided to go easy on the burgers, hot dogs and other hearty summer Americana in NYC and go straight for what we knew would be hard to come by in the Bitterroot Valley and the Great North Woods: anything ethnic. Good Indian, Chinese, Thai and Mexican were all high on the list as well as bagels because I am a lover not a fighter of carbs.

So one sweltering heatwave-warning afternoon with cranky sweaty kids, we hightailed it to the deep innards of Chinatown to a little joint called the Excellent Pork Chop House. This was not an accident but a planned sojourn spurred by an intriguing review by the Amateur Gourmet. And he did not disappoint.

We had the pork chops - I mean, can you NOT have the pork chops at a place called "Excellent Pork Chop House"? As well as the marinated tofu with jelly fish and a few delicious pork wontons as well as the fabulous rice cakes - not the dry "healthy" alternative to crackers that I give my kids but the slightly chewy flat oval skipping stone-like discs that are kind of the Chinese answer to gnocchi - at least that is what my stomach was saying after we walked out into the 96 degree F afternoon in lower Manhattan.

The kids were most excited about all the ice cubes in the water - which you only find in Germany if you specifically request them. We got a few spoonfuls of rice in them and a bite or two of tofu and meat but otherwise, they're sticking to PB&J and string cheese for now. Still, I have to believe that being exposed to different foods will hopefully make them more adventurous eaters in the future .. or drive them in the complete opposite direction resulting in 40 year olds who still eat only PB&J and string cheese. Only time will tell.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

American Summer Vacation 2010 Snapshot Series

Sniff and Smash running free after dropping the kids with the grandparents! Vacation is ON!

Sniff and I kicked off our summer vacations with a Yippee-Kai-Yo in Hamilton, Montana (after short visits visiting friends in and NYC and LA). I have stayed on for two more weeks of pure indulgence in the American West- country music twanging on the radio, fly fishing in the evenings, discussing the best way to kill and cook an elk, marveling glorious mountain views under the umbrella of the famous Big Sky. Sniff and family departed for the next chapter of their jaunt- keeping it real and going back to her Wisconsin roots- lazy docks stretching over chilly lakes, accents that turn the English language into a comedy and cheese curds.

In the spirit of summer reading, we are going to post a daily snapshot and a quick blurb about the beauty and culture of the places and spaces we are pondering and exploring on our Great American Vacations! So, check back frequently!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

4th of July Is a BLAST!

Fireworks and TweedelWinks- a little something for everyone! Sniff and I have reunited in Montana to meet three new family members, play a few rounds of horseshoes and it being 4th of July in America and all... to blow stuff up! I took this photo on the way to the Reservation to buy the really big stuff. This holiday, as celebrated in Montana, should be called "Pyro's Christmas". The back of my truck is loaded with goodies sinisterly labeled as, "Major Combat", "Solar Spawn", Not in My Backyard", and "Shogun Powder Grid". They call Montana "The Last Best Place"; this is just one reason why.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Tamarind Ginger Fizz: A Sassy Summer Cocktail

From Mumbai to Bangkok to Guadalajara, the tangy flavor of tamarind is a bright zippy addition to soups, curries, chutneys and beverages. I love it and I always have it on-hand as one of my secret ingredients. With summer in full swing, windows are left wide-open, screen doors are slamming behind flip-flopped feet and the BBQ is constantly lit. The days are long and the dry hot heat makes many of us want to” sit and sip” all day long. So, to combat the feeling of lazy sloth-dom , I got busy and came up with this deliciously refreshing beverage.

My inspiration comes from agua tamarindo, or tamarind water, made from tamarind pulp, water and usually lots and lots of sugar. Served everywhere in Mexico, it is a thirst-quenching change from lemonade or ice tea. I have eased up on the sugar and added ginger and lime for a spicy bite. The chili salted rim is a fun surprise on the lips—a great addition to any margarita as well!

**A note about tamarind pulp: I buy tamarind in blocks of the sticky tamarind fruit, the seeds and fibrous bits still mixed in. To obtain usable pulp, put ½ cup of the tamarind in a pot with just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, then let sit for 30 minutes (or overnight) and press it through a strainer. Your pulp should be the consistency of yogurt. If it is too thin, let the pulp settle and strain out the water. It can be kept in a tightly sealed container, in the fridge, for a week. Salud!

Tamarind Ginger Fizz
Serves 6

¾ cup ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
¾ cup tamarind pulp
¼ lime juice, freshly squeezed
1.5 quarts seltzer water
tequila, optional

Chili Salt

2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons ground chili, use any dried chili you have and grind it to the same size as the salt

1. Combine ginger, sugar and water in a pot. Boil for 5 minutes, then transfer to a container and refrigerate. Allow the syrup to cool. When it is cool, strain the ginger. The syrup can be kept refrigerated for 3 weeks.

2. To make the chili salt: mix the sugar, salt and chili powder in a bowl. Spread it onto a plate.

3. Combine tamarind pulp, ½ cup ginger syrup, lime juice and mint in a pitcher.

4. Slide a lime wedge around the rims of 6 glasses and sink the rims into the chili salt. Fill the glasses a generous amount of ice. If using tequila, pour 2-3 counts into each glass.

5. Add the seltzer water to the pitcher and mix well.

6. Pour the Tamarind Ginger Fizz into the glasses, and sip away while the grill does its thing!