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    Postcard: Amsterdam's Handmade Gouda-photo In Amsterdam, wax-encased rounds of handmade gouda are displayed like jewels at Henri Willig Cheese and More on the pedestrian shopping street, Leidsestraat. Made from Dutch cow's milk, the cheese is mild and creamy. (For a side trip from Amsterdam, you can visit one of Henri Willig's three farms, where traditionally garbed cheesemakers demonstrate their way with curds and whey.) - Betsy Andrews

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  • 06/26/12--09:00: Belgium Does It Better
  • belgian frites-photo
    by Jamie Feldmar
    Growing up in suburban Chicago in the 1960s, my father was a fanatically picky eater. Macaroni and cheese, frozen pizza, and McDonald's cheeseburgers with zero accouterments-those were his staples. No vegetables passed his lips, except for one: french fries. ("Dipped in ketchup only, or sometimes a vanilla milkshake," he clarifies.)

    In recent years, Dad's palate has expanded a bit: broccoli, white fish, and burgers with fancy toppings all have their place in his gastronomic repertoire. But his biggest step forward is still firmly tied to the picky habits of years past: today, my dad is a Belgian frites freak.

    Frites are the supercharged cousin to paltry American-style fries: made from soft Belgian potatoes called bintjes, they're thick-cut and-this is key-double-fried (in the olden days, in molten horse or ox fat, though modern options range from lard to vegetable oil). Served in a paper cone with mayo and ketchup, properly executed frites-the ones that have been fried, dried, then carefully fried again-are an addictive riot of textures: soft and fluffy on the inside, surrounded by a crunchy, greaseless crust, dipped in luxuriously flavorful sauces.

    Dad fell in love with frites far from Belgium. In New York City, a trendy, shoebox-sized East Village storefront called Pommes Frites serves nothing but, with 30-odd dipping sauce options running the gamut from sambal olek to creamy, caper-spiked sauce gribiche to a pomegranate teriyaki mayo. On his first visit, Dad was flabbergasted, questioning the reality of an entire restaurant devoted to fries. But upon his first bite from a freshly fried batch, his eyes focused to the middle distance and he theatrically declared that Belgian-style frites "capture the essence of a French fry- but better."

    Still, it's not just taste that accounts for dad's love of frites-for him, seeing fried potatoes move into the mainstream as an upscale, urbane side dish is the greatest possible validation for his childhood habits. "I used to be embarrassed that I only liked one vegetable, and it had to be deep-fried," he says. "But now I'm proud to say I eat frites all the time."

    See a set of 10 great dipping sauces for frites in the gallery »
    See the recipe for Pommes Frites »

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  • 06/27/12--09:00: The Road to Paradise
  • France's Route 7: The Road to Paradise-photo
    by Sylvie Bigar
    Every summer, my grandparents would rent a château near Cap d'Antibes, an unspoiled peninsula between Nice and Cannes overlooking the Mediterranean. I was too young to remember my first trip from Geneva, Switzerland, where I was born, to La Garoupe, as we called it, shorthand for the entire area which included beaches, a lighthouse, and an old chapel. It was the 1960s, and together with my mother, father, and three sisters, I would spend the next ten summers here. Though the landscape was incomparable, with steep marble steps leading from the grounds to the boulder-lined sea, the part I cherished most was the journey there. We'd pile into our 1969 Citroën DS and embark from our home in Geneva to the south of France. The trip could have been quick if we had taken the Autoroute du Soleil, the brand-new thoroughfare that could whisk us to the Riviera in less than a day, but my father insisted that we travel the scenic route, the Route Nationale 7.

    "La Nationale Sept" (the National 7), or "N7," was France's very own Route 66, a mythical road that defined summer for generations of people, including me. The meandering path, about 600 miles long, snakes its way from Paris to Menton, a small town near the border with Italy. According to historian Thierry Dubois, author of C'Etait La Nationale 7 (Editions Paquet, 2012), Route 7 is often called the spine of France, as it connected the cold north to the sunny south, traversing the Loire Valley, crossing the Rhône River, working its way through Provence, and ending at the Riviera. The road has existed under one name or another since Roman times (you can still see ruins along the way), until it became Route Nationale 7 in 1871.

    To travel the road was a rite of passage; the French singer Charles Trenet even penned a song in its honor.
    During its heyday in the 1950s and '60s, the road was dubbed La Route des Vacances. A newly extended paid vacation for French workers, combined with the production of two new affordable automobiles, the Renault 4CV and Citroën 2CV, kicked of an era of traffic jams, or bouchons (the French word for "cork"), as families inched toward the South with rowboats strapped to the roofs of their cars. Residents of one Provençal village joked that during those congested times, even the pastis smelled like gasoline. To travel the road was a rite of passage; the French singer Charles Trenet even penned a song in its honor.

    Restaurateurs were quick to open places where families could refuel, and there was food for every budget. My father would plan our stops according to the delicious things we would eat along the way. Each summer, we'd connect with Route 7 in Lyon, the gastronomic capital that marked the halfway point between Paris and Menton. "Three rivers flow through Lyon," my father joked, referring to the nearby vineyards, "le Rhône, la Saône, and le Beaujolais!" We'd forfeit the bouchons, the simple taverns Lyon is known for, in favor of a formal restaurant, such as La Mère Brazier, one of the first to win three Michelin stars, or the great Brasserie Georges, where I developed a taste for steak tartare, and my parents enjoyed the ripe local cheeses, like creamy St-Marcellin.

    Other times when hunger struck, we could count on the casual roadside restaurants that fed travelers, as well as truckers who drove the route year round. I remember filling my plate from their generous buffets with as much leg of lamb or entrecôte as I wanted. After spending a night at one motel or another, my father might say, "Let's push to Roanne," referring to the iconic Troisgros restaurant, and its famous salmon filet with tangy sorrel sauce. Or we might stop at Restaurant de la Pyramide in Vienne, the legacy of the epicure and founder Fernand Point, who died in 1955, about whom my grandparents liked to reminisce-they told me about his laugh, his expansive waistline, and the champagne magnums he polished off throughout the day.

    photo by Landon Nordeman
    And so the journey went, my sisters and me crammed in with beach toys, old suitcases, and tangled shrimp nets, my father gripping the wheel with his worn-out Hermès gloves, the Guide Michelin on the dashboard. We zigzagged from the charcuterie of Lyon, to the calissons (almond-paste candies) of Aix-en-Provence, to Cavaillon's melons the size of pétanque balls, whose musky perfume scented the car. The delicacies that lined Route 7 were as much an indicator of where we were as the bornes, the red-and-white cement markers that herald the passage of every kilometer. The flavors changed as we traveled south-the rich tripe dishes of Lyon were replaced by the lighter crayfish gratin in Valence, and finally, the olive-studded pissaladières that marked our descent into sun-drenched Provence. Each summer I grew to crave our Michelin-starred feasts, truck stop meals, impromptu picnics, and detours for local delicacies. Though this road is called so many things-La Route des Vacances, La Route Bleue-to me it was always La Route Gourmande.

    Twenty years later, I live in New York with my husband, Stephen, and our two children, Sébastien, 8, and Sophie, 10, who are around the same age that I was when we would make those epic journeys. Much has changed since those days. Since 2006, the road is no longer called the N7 but is now Departmentale 6007, a demotion of sorts that signifies the road's secondary status-there are far faster ways to get from Paris to the south. My father passed away in 2003, and each summer since I have felt an itch to retrace our steps on Route 7. In homage to him, I decided to plan a trip for my own family last summer, revisiting old favorites and making new traditions, too.

    "Are we there yet? I am hungry!" whines my son Sébastien. I momentarily panic. We are merely a few miles into our trip, and the scene in the backseat is much less romantic than in my fantasy. "Stop kicking me!" yells Sophie. Thankfully, our first stop, Pâtisserie Gâteau Labully in St. Genix sur Guiers, is only an hour away. (Now I wonder if this is the reason my parents always made it the first stop.) We are there to eat gâteau Labully, a Rhône-Alpes specialty. It's a brioche bun scented with orange blossom water, studded with rose-colored pralines that are also baked into the dough. Inside, the bakery hasn't changed-the glass display case is as I remember it, stocked with cakes-nor has the smell, a waft of yeast and sugar. As soon as we leave the shop, we sit outside and eat without a word: The bread is tender, fragrant, and crunchy with pralines.

    Back in the car, I unfold the Michelin map like a tablecloth on my lap. Our next stop will be Lyon. Like my father, I prefer Brasserie Georges, a convivial institution that has been feeding diners since 1836. My adventurous Sophie orders her first steak tartare and stares while the efficient waitress blends capers, onions, pickles, raw egg and beef so fast there's no time for a "but I don't like…" to be uttered. Sophie dives in fork first and utters what, to my relief, will become the refrain of our journey: "Mmmmm." I echo her sigh as I slice into thick disks of nutty saucisson pistaché, pork sausage with pistachios, another Lyonnais specialty.

    The following day, as we cruise past the vineyards of the Côtes-du-Rhône along the steep banks of the river, I glimpse the first well-worn Nationale 7 mile marker of our trip. As we whiz past the borne, I am overcome with emotion. Seeing this symbol after so many years has brought back sentimental memories. I hide my tears as we slow down in Tain-l'Hermitage-site of some of the worst traffic jams I remember-for a much-needed detour to the Valrhona chocolate factory. Taking its name from "vallée" and "Rhône," the place has been turning cocoa beans into chocolate bars since 1922. We visit the boutique, where the children choose enough bonbons to sustain us for months.

    Before I let them dig in, we have to eat lunch, and nearby I spot the truck stop restaurant La Mule Blanche. We enter the simple place, marked by the round red-and-blue sign of "Les Routiers," the stamp of approval from the trucking magazine of that same name. I take in the regional accents, the rosy faces, the wooden tables, the humongous bottles of wine that appear as soon as we sit down, and the all-you-can-eat buffet holding shredded carrot salad, homespun pâtés, and salade niçoise, rich with olives, tuna, anchovies, hard-boiled eggs, and more. It's basic, joyous food. I watch my American children, utterly comfortable, joking in French with the waitress, and I can't help but beam.

    photo by Landon Nordeman
    Determined as I am to make our own rituals, I still must make time for a favorite of my grandparents: Pic in Valence. What started off as a café in 1891 has expanded to include a hotel and fine-dining restaurant, and, most recently, the casual Bistro Le 7. They are all run by Anne-Sophie Pic, a fourth-generation chef, and the only woman in France to hold three Michelin stars. Near the entrance, a collection of antique Michelin guides reminds us of the inextricable link between the evolution of French cuisine and the road. Valence marks the gateway to the region of Provence, and what the waiter has placed before us celebrates the local cuisine: We feast on a deconstructed pan bagnat, a niçoise salad served as an open-faced sandwich topped with lightly fried anchovies. A Mediterranean daurade is doused in ratatouille; a luscious veal roulade showcases tapenade made from the olives from a nearby grove.

    For dessert, we visit Montélimar, the home of the sticky almond-and-pistachio nougat that is an emblematic treat of Route 7. I'd heard stories of motorists back in the day running out of gridlocked cars to buy the sweets to placate their children. As we pull up to the Soubeyran Nougat Museum, I have a sense memory of the candy clinging to my teeth.

    Chewing noisily on our sweets, we drive past the Arc de Triomphe d'Orange, a marvelous Roman ruin, and a few miles later enter the Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine region. Stephen, a wine lover, insists that a vineyard be on the agenda. We had our pick, as the route travels from the Loire Valley through the Côtes du Rhônes, then on to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and into the rosé-producing regions of Provence. We visit fourth-generation vintner Jean-Pierre Serguier at Château Simian, who runs an organic vineyard. He pours us his delicious Châteauneuf-du-Pape Grandes Grenachières made from vines planted as far back as 1880, and reminisces about selling wine as a kid from a shed on the road that cuts through his domain. It's the end of August, and the harvest has just started. "Finally, a wine I like," appraises Sébastien, sipping fresh grape juice but convinced he's discovered rosé.

    I expect steak frites simplicity, but am awed instead by a succulent guinea hen stuffed with morels, and golden pissaladières, the best I have ever tasted.
    It's hard to fathom that we are hungry again the next day, but there are cries of "J'ai faim" coming from the backseat. Without a plan and past Aix-en-Provence, where we quickly stopped to get my beloved calissons (almond-paste candies) at the Marché de la Place des Prêcheurs, we pull over at Côté Jardin, a roadside restaurant in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume. I expect steak frites simplicity, but am awed instead by a succulent guinea hen stuffed with morels, and golden pissaladières, the best I have ever tasted, topped with two shimmering sardines. I am thrilled to find out that the N7 still delivers delicious surprises.

    Another two hours and we leave the N7 to enter the lush courtyard of our hotel on Cap d'Antibes, which is just up the coast from La Garoupe, the château where I spent my early summers. I walk down the beach to search for the old rental. Eventually, I see the familiar rocky cape. The path that leads to the house is now guarded by a sturdy wall, but the overgrown garden, like my memories, cannot be contained.

    Lining the N7 as we drive through the Riviera, palm trees have replaced the sheltering platane trees of the North. At the covered market in Antibes, we graze on chickpea-flour socca, a savory crêpe baked in a wood-fired oven. I follow a buttery scent to Boulangerie La Belle Epoque, where warm madeleines await. Then, we taste pungent black-olive spread from the tapenade maker. It's high season, and the ripe tomatoes, plump apricots, and bundles of lavender resemble paradise.

    photo by Landon Nordeman
    As we drive through Nice, then above Eze, a clifftop village with spectacular views of the sea, I'm saddened by the knowledge that the trip is coming to an end. Our final destination is the lemon groves of Menton. We visit La Citronneraie, owned by François Mazet, a retired Formula One racecar driver who now cares for citrus trees. He sells the fruit here in Menton and to some of France's most discerning chefs. Mazet cuts open a lemon for me to taste. I brace myself for harsh acidity, but the fruit gives off hints of sweet strawberry and bitter orange. I relish those nuances again at a local restaurant called Les Saveurs D'Éléonore, where I eat a tart made from these very lemons. The bittersweet taste is a fitting end for this trip. I have discovered new haunts and lamented the loss of old ones, but it's time to turn around. We have come to the end of the road.

    See the guide to France's Route 7 »
    See more photos in the gallery »

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    by Chris Onstad

    Portland and the Air


    Because I do not sleep when it makes sense to, I stay up the night before our flight, mainly double-checking that the back door is locked (it is) and shining a flashlight along the refrigerator's thermal seal (none of my house's valuable heat escapes onto the potato salad). My duffel, already packed, contains a change of shoes, nine days' worth of fresh underthings, and a shirt with a collar. At the last minute I throw in a pleasantly frumpy brown velvet blazer I'd picked up for twenty dollars at the Crossroads recycled clothing boutique, which on many occasions had rendered me a plausible sketch of a teacher with a hangover. There is talk of Michelin-starred dining, and somehow this jacket seems appropriate to my unslept mind.


    "Should we use code names when we visit restaurants, like we do at home?" asks Laura, while we are on the plane. I am only recently, by profession, a restaurant critic.

    "You mean like how we always intend to, but I just end up booking with my full first name, and last name, and occupation, because I don't like lying and I get nervous?" I say.

    "Yeah, like how you should do your job, not how you actually do do your job." She sips on a crystal-clear lemon lime beverage with ice, making her neck pillow look almost sophisticated.

    We decide that she will be Lady Hpucek, and I will be simply Kermit, with the accent on the second syllable. "The accent will land like an angry fist on an oiled iron desk," I say. Since we're just talking about nothing in the air six miles above the sea, it doesn't really matter. I look around for my embarrassing neck pillow, but don't end up having the gumption to reach to my feet, and pass the next six hours mainly looking around the dark cabin and wishing I'd brought a pen for the crossword. I was getting hungry; the cheap airport sandwiches were a distant memory of fluff and mustard.

    Amsterdam, The Netherlands


    On the train from Schiphol we get directions from a young woman with a hip, thoughtful disposition that we will repeatedly discover is epidemic in the Netherlands. She asks where we're from, and when we say Portland, her face brightens as she replies happily to us, "Decemberists!" There is, it seems, a universal language of nostalgic maritime tragedy that unites our harbor cities.


    After a while of tramping around the warrens of Amsterdam's identically lovely, canal-lined streets looking for both street noshes and Orwellian dumpster misery, as was our naïve and romantic trope, Laura and I have found mainly the former. The personal shrines of vaunted and severe chocolatiers are just the beginning; the aged, cobbled molars of old European streetways lead reliably to hip bars, Gouda shops, and kebab stalls. Waterway railings bristle with layers of stationary, unlocked fixies-romantiques (a term I coined for the old-fashioned upright bicycles which virtually everyone rides-from fashionably shabby young men to elegant older women in pea coats), and on nearly every corner contented locals sit in front of "brown cafes" (locals' pubs) drinking Amstel and snacking on bitterballen, little goulash croquettes served with mustard that, alas, we never get around to trying. We do, however-at the urging of locals and guidebooks alike-try another national snack: the smoked eel roll.

    Credit: Laura Locker
    I will eat pretty much anything-recent adventures have included jellied snail salad and wokked buffalo animelles (testicles)-but I have a particular aversion to oily fish. Saving money on seafood is a religion with my Catholic-raised father, which means I grew up eating salmon that tasted of fermenting chum my entire childhood, and-as it is with homework and the SAT-I now sit bolt upright every morning at 7 a.m., pump my fist, and hoot with joy that my adult self no longer has to deal with it. But when in Amsterdam, eat as the Amsterdamers, and so the eel roll is a must.

    Our eel roll comes from Frens Haringhandel, a shop which also specializes in herring sandwiches. For about three euro apiece we load up, take a seat by the canal at our elbow, and bite. The eel is bracingly fresh, adorned simply with chopped white onion and thinly-sliced pickle, on a cold, soft white roll (served this way, it is a broodje). The fillets are roughly the size of a candy bar, with a gently smoky flavor and chilled temperature, as refreshing as it is a relief.

    The herring isn't as nice, and I do a highly scientific on-the-spot calculation that it needs fifteen to nineteen Amstels to wash it away. Maybe thirty.


    I should tell you something more about Laura, something intimate. We'd only been dating three months at that point, but I know that she likes a man who rolls up his sleeves and gets things done. I once built an impromptu barbecue pit out of firewood and scrap iron from my neighbor's garage, and that did something important for her, if you take me right. So I like to be a bit of MacGyver where I can. We needed a snack, I was feeling frisky and expansive, and it was two in the morning in Amsterdam. These are the raw materials of legend.

    At a McDonald's, I order a Coke, a soft-serve ice cream cone, and a milkshake that tastes like an apple Jolly Rancher. I make her a float out of the Coke and soft-serve, drink the milkshake myself, and throw the now-extraneous cone to some ducks who seem to be having a drunken domestic dispute in the canal. I'm not going to tell you how the rest of the night goes, but let's just say that at the end of the trip, we fly home on the same plane, on the same day.

    Antwerp, Belgium


    We glide by train into Antwerpen-Centraal, slowly rise several stories to street level on massive escalators, and pause to blink in the bright, spotless central square. Belgium won its indepdendence from the Netherlands in 1830, but despite its youth, the country feels older, more focused. If Amsterdam is a wild, extroverted, college party child, Antwerp is its hard-working father. At Brasserie Appelmans, a slick and polished gastronomic powerhouse that at first seems like just another another sexy, high-end absinthe bar, the nation is delivered in microcosm.

    Chef Ron Diephouse is the sort of man who happily holds forth on the hundred-plus varieties of potatoes the Belgians make use of in their cuisine, like the proverbial Eskimo waxing poetic on snow; when pressed to offer an impression of American restaurant culture, he guesses that maybe we eat a lot of hamburgers? He goes on to claim that the French have become complacent where food is concerned, and are resting on their laurels; Belgians, he says, offer perhaps the finest example of respectful modern cooking. His nationalistic pride is admirable, though Laura kicks my ankle when the old-world, brigade-educated chef patiently explains that women simply don't have the strength required to work the line: "How can a woman lift a seventy-kilo stock pot?"


    We duck into chocolatier Dominique Persoone's shrine to confectionery, The Chocolate Line, to load up on glossy little souvenir candies. Our local gastronomic fixer has assured us of Mr. Persoone's standing by relating an anecdote about how he created a custom chocolate powder snuff dispenser for the Rolling Stones. We are convinced, and though Persoone himself is not present that day, his staff operate with clear awareness that the man for whom they work is, in his way, a deity.

    Het Pomphius
    Credit: Laura Locker


    By virtue of our dinner reservation at Het Pomphuis we are lifted in the eyes of concierges and cabbies, all of whom speak of the restaurant in hushed tones. It's located on Siberiastraat, a fitting name for a street everyone assures us is too far away to walk to-that simply can't be walked to-so we hop into a deftly-piloted car and are whisked off to the harbor-side edifice, originally used as a pump house for the shipping locks (hence the restaurant's name). Massive iron turbines still fill the exposed basement, giving the building a sexy sort of power. Soaring ceilings and massive windows frame the setting sun as evening fades into night.

    Chef Christophe De Koninckx, handsome and commanding, strides out of the kitchen to greet us. To call his spring menu's compositions anything less than a vernal fantasy tableaux would be factually irresponsible. His plates are painstaking assemblies of nature with the carefree energy of, say, a handful of clematis and polished river stones strewn on a forest path. It is the successful illusion of happenstance natural beauty, built with superlative sets of ingredients. We settle into an elegant, hours-long meal, paced expertly so that each plate creates a new energy and appetite, with precise dishes bearing Belgium's bounty-white asparagus, petals of radish, pickled ribbons of fennel, dustings of baked, powdered kaases, smoked North Sea salmon -appearing and disappearing effortlessly on the hands of our affable but professionally distant old waiter.



    Brigitte, our punctilious and sophisticated Luxembourgish hostess, takes us to a casual dinner party at an ultra-hip restaurant and bar across the city from our hotel, where a local celebrity chef is judging a group cooking contest. I gently worm my way into the panel of contestants-I'm not sure if my nonexistent Luxembourgish will be seen as rude, or my Dutch novelty trousers (procured in a vintage Amsterdam boutique called Lady Day) boorish, but I can hold my own with a knife and hot pan, so I figure I'm equal to the task, which turns out to be stuffing shrimp inside chicken breasts and stirring ratatouille. The worldly young crowd of participants accepts my odd presence graciously, as Luxembourgers must be used to, given their historic location as a geographical crossroads of Europe.

    The kitchen's resident chef, a man who is quietly sneered at in town for his insistence on never speaking Luxembourgish, proves to be a macho hothead who stomps around brusquely slamming oven doors and trying to scare the women. I befriend a gentle French girl who is impressed by my confidence with a spatula, and in our dorky toques we earn our supper.


    We dine one night at the restaurant of Luxembourg's most exportable celebrity chef, Lea Linster. Lea is more than a woman. She is an education in feminine power. She is the aunt that you wish had taught you the brutal and exciting ways of the world-across a bistro table littered with the paraphernalia of vin rouge-during a teenaged summer abroad; she is a hot hand on the small of the back of someone who has no concrete plans. Her strong fingers slide into my own upon meeting for a photo, and linger long after. I look down; she is grasping Laura with an equal share of her affectionate magnetism.

    White asparagus at Lea Linster
    Credit: Laura Locker
    Lea's eponymous restaurant in Frisange has a Michelin star and the feeling of a spacious home, and we dine in a white, airy nook before the open kitchen. It is Lea's birthday, and she has a private room for two dozen celebrating friends, but this hardly keeps her from lavishing attention on the restaurant's many diners. She is the only woman to ever have won the Bocuse d'Or, and we are treated to the menu she prepared that day: an exquisite tour of lobster with tarragon, foie gras, olive oil-poached salmon, and potato-crusted lamb. The food is remarkably simple for all the flourishes of its pomp, a stark comparison to the forceful, complex, competitive culinary artwork we found in Antwerp. The food here, like the Luxembourgers themselves, seems at ease and sophisticated.

    As easily as breathing, and about as voluntarily, Lea launches into a monologue about how she is a large woman, and that that is fine, but it takes a certain kind of man-a "connoisseur," she says-to appreciate her correctly. When she says it that way, it makes you want to be that certain kind of man. Then, she surprises me by asking if I am Catholic. I say, with some confused hesitation, that I was baptized.

    "Good!" she says, thrusting a little white parcel into my hands. "These are for you!"

    It's a box of madeleines, extras from the Bishop of Luxembourg's recent state visit to Berlin, which she catered. In order to have special treats land on my lap, all I had to be was Catholic. Or, perhaps more accurately, be in the right place at the right time, like all Luxembourgers seem to be.


    We find that Luxembourgers become philosophical after dinner. Kremant, a silken local sparkling wine of delicate petillance, fills their flutes, and they fall into a comfortable contemplation of the issue of Luxembourgish identity. There are few true Luxembourgers left, they say, and the commuter country's tiny population is in danger of becoming entirely dilute. The consensus seems to be that it's a numerical inevitability that this little place must ultimately blend with its imposing border countries. Still, the human need for identity, for specialness, coupled with Luxembourg's proud but ever-tenuous history at the nexus of empires, provides fuel for a thoughtful if somewhat languorous post-dinner argument.

    Still, the Luxembourgers are as a whole far too modest and respectful for me to want to scoff at their happy, storybook lives. Laura and I marvel at the way that, with the luxury of time and comfort, they turn instinctively to introspection. The tiny nation lost much of itself when Belgium established itself as an independent nation in 1830 and took more than half of Luxembourg with it; like a parent, confidently passing time in a cashmere v-neck with a well-loved book, the country seems to know that while it may not now be what it once was, it has nevertheless done well. It's beautiful to see that here, in this ancient city of cliffside battlements and economic might. Given the chance, Luxembourgers seem to say, the human animal is a good and thoughtful thing, given to philosophy, pleasure, and art.

    Frens Haringhandel
    Multiple locations, incl. Koningsplein near Flower Market
    1017 AW
    Amsterdam, Netherlands

    Brasserie Appelmans
    Papenstraatje 1
    2000 Antwerp, Belgium
    tel: 03 226 20 22

    The Chocolate Line
    Meir 50
    2000 Antwerp, Belgium
    tel: 03 206 20 30

    Restaurant Het Pomphius
    Siberiastraat z/n
    2030 Antwerp, Belgium
    tel: 03 770 86 25

    Restaurant Lea Linster
    17 route de Luxembourg
    L- 5752 Frisange
    tel: +352 23 66 84 11

    Chris Onstad is an award-winning American cartoonist best known for creating the Achewood universe. A shameless spectator of the world's high and low food and cooking, he is also the resident restaurant critic for the Portland Mercury.

    All illustrations by Chris Onstad

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  • 06/29/12--09:00: Natural Woman
  • Natural Woman-photo
    by Marne Setton
    The day I left home, my mother put her copy of Frances Moore Lappé's Diet for a Small Planet in my hands. "This will guide you," she said. The laser beam of her loving attention had always been focused squarely on me, her only child - my father never was in the picture - and the most consistent expression of that love was the pointedly nutrient-rich food I ate throughout my childhood in the 1970s. Consistency, it should be noted, was sort of an issue. Mom and I moved around a lot; I was forever the new kid at school. And there were definitely times when I wondered, "Isn't it enough that I'm the one who wears the homemade clothes? Do I have to have alfalfa sprouts on my sandwich, too?"

    As an adult I've made different choices from the ones my mother made. I've lived on the opposite coast for 16 years, 11 of them in the same house. I got married and stayed that way for two decades. And yet to this day my diet is defined by dishes like Mom's mjeddrah, a brown rice-lentil pilaf that is, I've heard myself telling anyone who will listen, an excellent source of complete protein, with all the essential amino acids.

    To understand why, we'd better begin at the beginning. I was born in Southern California in the late 1960s, a flower child's child whose days were filled with sunshine and Beatles songs. My mother was barely an adult herself when I was born, and so we grew up together. An artist by temperament, she could never quite settle on a medium; I was, I realized early on, her proudest creation, and that realization carried with it a certain amount of stress. As we both struggled to define ourselves, our dependence on each other was intense. "I love you this much," Mom would say with arms outstretched. "I love you three times around the world and four times around God," I'd reply.

    In 1971, Lappé published her seminal guide to plant-centered eating, and Mom took it very much to heart, along with the mantras of macrobiotics and complete proteins, and the nutritionist Adelle Davis's warnings regarding the evils of processed foods. She was tapping into the zeitgeist, but she was also building on a foundation provided by her own mother, a Christian Scientist and native Californian who regularly administered doses of brewer's yeast.

    Mom made wonderful, earnest meals for the two of us with the foods she found at Lindberg Nutrition, a health food store tucked into a bleached-out, treeless strip mall at the corner of Crenshaw and Martin Luther King Boulevards in South Central Los Angeles. We were there most Saturday mornings, wandering the aisles together, Mom reading aloud to me from the backs of packages as our basket filled up with bags of buckwheat groats, dense loaves of whole wheat bread, nut butters, amber bottles of Chinese herbs, and unpasteurized cottage cheese. "You can have any cereal you want," she'd pronounce magnanimously in the cereal aisle, "as long as it has 100 percent of your daily vitamin and nutrient requirements."

    Lindberg's was utterly unlike the supermarkets of the era. It smelled weird - a complex funk born of fermentation and herbal supplements. Looking back, it had all the visual appeal of a Soviet-era apartment block, uniformly colorless as it was. But I loved the place. I loved it for the honey-glazed sesame crackers, and for the relaxed trips there discovering new foods at my mother's side. At home in our avocado green kitchen, the results of Mom's experiments were mostly delicious. I happily devoured the oatmeal pancakes she came up with and the creamy yogurt her Salton yogurt maker produced. But I also recall a batch of popovers that were an epic fail; wheat germ, it turns out, can't be shoehorned into just anything. It was Davis who set Mom on her mission to feed us more protein. The year I was in first grade, that meant lots of shakes. She'd play with the proportions of protein powder, raw egg, fruit juice, and bananas until the mass had a pourable consistency. And of course there was that complete-protein mjeddrah, as colorless as the interior of Lindberg's, and just as comforting. Over time, the knowledge that my friends at school didn't eat this way became a point of pride. What set us apart was what made us a family.

    Now a resident of New York City, I probably laugh harder than most at the scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen abjectly orders "alfalfa sprouts and a plate of mashed yeast" at an LA restaurant. But I remain deeply grateful for those trips to Lindberg's. Health food is the food of my people. It is my red sauce, my Sunday pot roast. It's the food I seek out to feel close to California and to my mother. I miss both more than I can say.

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    5 Things You Can Only Get in Seattle-photo
    by Anna Stockwell
    Seattle residents like to say that coffee is such a lifeblood to the city because of all the gray days that rest over their harbor home. Maybe that's true, but as I ate my way around the hilly, harbor town on a recent June weekend, I sensed something else, as well - the coffee in Seattle wasn't just good, it was fantastic, and so was almost everything else I consumed. There's a friendly, open-minded zeal for nature's bounty: I ate some of the freshest, sweetest oysters I've had, and wished for a way to teleport back to NYC a bright, fresh bunch of the pillowy peonies I found for sale at every farmers' market. On the plane ride home, a woman across the aisle from me had a bunch of the same purple beauties tucked into the pocket of the seat in front of her, slowly wilting - it's exactly these things we can't quite bring home with us that make travel special; the vibrant discovery of things you can't find anywhere else. If you're in Seattle, these five things don't get better than they do here:

    1. Geoduck

    For a visual person, it can be difficult to wrap your mind around a geoduck (pronounced gooey-duck), the alien-looking, shockingly phallic clam native to the Pacific Northwest. But it's a Seattle rite of passage to stare one in the face and then consume at least a bite, and so I headed to Taylor's Shellfish Farms, where an open-topped tank houses an impressive array of live oysters, clams, and geoducks, all ready to be packaged to go, or shucked and served on the spot. Sliced into thin, white, rippled slivers, the raw neck of the geoduck is pleasantly toothsome, with a mild, sweetly saline flavor. Taylor's serves it with soy sauce and wasabi, and they say the body meat makes for a killer chowder.
    Taylor Shellfish Seattle Melrose Market
    1521 Melrose Ave.
    tel: 206/501-4321

    2. Rachel's Ginger Beer

    While traveling in Britain, Seattleite Rachel Marshall was duly impressed with the phenomenal selection of fiery ginger beers available in that country. Returning home, she realized there was a void to be filled, and so in 2010, while working in a local restaurant, she started tinkering with a fresh ginger beer recipe during her off-hours. The result, a spicy-tart blend of fresh ginger and lemon juices, sparkling water, and organic cane sugar, is now served in more than two dozen restaurants and bars around Seattle, including Rachel's own bar Montana, where it's mixed with whiskey for the excellent pint cocktail, Montana Mule. Rachel's Ginger Beer is also available at three of Seattle's farmers' markets, where you can get it by the cup or re-fillable growler in both the original and a rotating seasonal flavor.
    See Rachel's Ginger Beer for locations

    3. Burnt Cream Latte at Monorail Espresso

    A pioneer of the Seattle coffee scene, Monorail espresso was one of the original espresso carts to set up downtown, first parked under the monorail station in 1980. After more than 15 years of operating out of a cart, they graduated to a small storefront where coffee and cookies are sold from a walk-up, cash-only window (festooned with political posters and vintage photographs) to a loyal following of bike messengers and locals. After just two mornings, the friendly barista knew my order by heart: a burnt cream latte, the best coffee confection I - a crème brûlée lover for life - have ever slurped down. The drink is perfectly balanced with a rich, buttery charred caramel flavor that was nowhere near cloying or overly sweet. On my last morning in town, I tried to coerce the recipe from my friendly barista, who told me (with a disarming smile) that it's a secret.
    Monorail Espresso
    520 Pike St.

    4. Gray and Smoked Salt Caramels at Fran's Chocolates

    The glorious gastronomic juxtaposition inherent in salted caramel is old news these days, and with its rising tide has risen Fran's, a Seattle mainstay for more than fifteen years that makes award-winning (and Obama-favored) chocolate-covered caramels topped with a flurry of gray or smoked salts. One bite of this surprisingly soft, intensely-flavored candy was all the explanation I needed to understand why tourists and locals alike crowd into these elegant storefronts, huddling in awe around boxes of chocolates displayed like so many precious jewels. Fran's ships anywhere in the country, but the caramels are at their best when fresh from the source.
    Fran's Chocolates
    Multiple locations
    tel: 206/322-0233

    5. Bacon Jam at Skillet

    Skillet was one of the trailblazers in the national wave of chef-driven street food: chef Josh Henderson started serving updated, local-ingredient focused takes on American comfort food from a vintage Airstream all the way back in the food-truck stone age of 2007. His food is flavorful, homey, and delectable, but it's his ingenious invention of bacon jam that really rocketed the restaurant to fame: the rich marmalade of smoky bacon, sweet caramelized onions, and tangy vinegar is an umami-lover's dream, melting into the bun atop Skillet's juicy hamburgers. With the trailer roaming Seattle, a brick-and-mortar location in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, a soon-to-be-published cookbook, and bacon jam available for sale in several flavors online, the bacon jam isn't quite an under-the-radar experience any more, but it's a special Seattle experience to take a bite into that burger, said by many to be the best in town.
    Skillet Diner
    14000 East Union St.
    tel: 206/512-2000
    For trailer locations, see the Skillet Street Food calendar

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  • 07/11/12--09:00: Passage to the Amazon
  • Passage to the Amazon-photo
    by Neide Rigo
    At daybreak, I'm standing on the deck of a small passenger ferry heading down a branch of the Amazon river, in northeast Brazil. On the nearby banks there is jungle; dense, lush walls of green interrupted only by the occasional handful of wood huts. The water is brown, the air sultry. We're not far from the sea, and a hint of its brine follows us, mingling with the scents of earth and vegetation. I'm hot and exhausted and immensely happy. Leave it to me to fall in love with a place that's so hard to get to: The journey to the island of Marajó has taken two days. So far it has involved a cross-country flight from my home in São Paulo to the Amazon port city of Belém, a predawn taxi ride to the ferry docks, and, now, a slow three-hour cruise down the river. Yet to come, there is a long drive through the jungle, followed by a hop across another river by barge before I reach my destination on the island.

    Marajó is in every way extreme. The island-the largest surrounded by freshwater anywhere in the world-is as big as Switzerland. It sits where the Amazon pours into the Atlantic Ocean, and on any given day, the fishermen might pull saltwater or freshwater species from water that can be sweet or saline, depending on the time and the tides. Even the landscape is fickle. Seasonal flooding covers half the island in shallow lakes for five months of the year, but Marajoarans adapt. Water buffalo swim, and people ride the water buffalo, or make their way by raft and canoe. Few Brazilians know anything about this place; more of my countrymen have probably been to Orlando, Florida. Every visit here turns everything I think I know about Brazil on its head. I find it incredibly exciting.

    The Amazon forest harbors ingredients that just don't exist elsewhere in Brazil, and I savor the impossible-seeming flavors that the island gives in abundance.
    It has been more than 15 years since the first time I traveled to Marajó, at the invitation of my friend Katia; her parents, Jerônima and Raimundo Cordeiro de Brito, hosted us at their home, a ranch and nature preserve outside the town of Soure on the eastern side of the island. To me, a denizen of bustling, cosmopolitan São Paulo, Marajó was paradise. That first visit lives in my memory as a mosaic of ingredients and meals: dozens of tropical fruits I'd never heard of, myriad dishes made from the meat and milk of the water buffalo that roam the island, river fish grilled with wild herbs, sweet freshwater shrimp steamed in their shells. Here was food that was elemental, ingredient-focused, intense, with kaleidoscopic flavors unlike any I'd encountered in Brazil's other regional cuisines. Since that first visit, I have returned many times over the years, always hungry for more.

    When the ferry disgorges us at a tiny village on the bank of the river, I'm greeted by Oseas de Cristo Moraes, a taxi driver and friend of the Britos' who is driving me to their home. I slide into the backseat, and we set out along a winding road through a densely forested, pancake-flat landscape. A couple of hours later, we turn onto a long dirt path. The car slows to a crawl, and I'm suddenly aware of the sound of the forest, ringing with birdsong. A clearing opens, and in the heart of it, there's a familiar collection of single-story wooden buildings which make up the ranch. Inside one of them, I find the Britos making lunch.

    Jerônima Brito, a strong and agile 73-year-old known to everyone as Dona (Mrs.) Jerônima, greets us warmly. Her sister, Angela, brings out a basket of soft, sweet palm fruits called inajás to snack on while they continue cooking. I sit down and take it all in. The kitchen is open on all sides, encircled by forest and grassy fields, with a little yard where herbs-alfavaca (a kind of basil), cilantro and its long-leafed cousin, culantro-and vegetables grow. The surrounding trees are thick with shaggy red annatto pods, with papaya and guava, with more kinds of palm fruit than I can name. Chickens scratch and peck in the yard, and water buffalo and horses wander freely in the fields beyond.

    Credit: James Oseland
    It's time to eat when slices of filhote-a giant freshwater catfish that can reach 500 pounds-emerge from the woodburning stove wrapped in banana leaves. The fish is served with a delicious sauce of fresh herbs, tomatoes, garlic, and shrimp, and garnished with sweet plantains. Dona Jerônima sets it out on the table along with rice and stewed red beans, pickled chiles, a salad of just-picked lettuces and tomatoes, and pitchers of juices: pineapple, papaya, and sweet, milky-white soursop. Here, too, is yellow farinha d'agua-a coarse meal of fermented, toasted, ground cassava-that's on the table at virtually every meal here. We mix a handful into the rice and beans and savor its nutty flavor and assertive crunch. For dessert, there are sliced fresh pineapples and papayas, both plucked from the yard. We eat at a big table outside, on a porch shaded by cashew trees. Fresh fish, wood smoke, banana leaves, the smell of the water and forest nearby: It's a perfect synthesis of Marajó. I feel welcome, part of this place. Immediately after lunch, I fall asleep, full, and content.

    My days on the island quickly take on a regular, relaxed rhythm. I stay with the Britos, sleeping in a simple guest room. Some days I spend in the kitchen, where Dona Jerônima is joined by a team of able cooks: Angela, and two men, Nonato Azevedo and Adilson Barbosa Cruz, who help to prepare, always from scratch, the many components of each meal. The ranch doubles as a bed and breakfast, and workers and guests often join us at the table. Other days, I accompany Senhor Brito on his errands around the ranch. One day-is it Wednesday, Thursday? I have a hard time keeping track of the days here-I go crabbing in the deep, dark stands of mangroves that grow in salty swamps near the shore, and swim afterward at the nearby beach. I climb trees to help harvest fruit, and sometimes venture into nearby Soure, a tidy little town of brightly painted wood houses, to shop at the fish market or to visit friends of the Britos.

    Invariably, such visits become meals. On this part of the island, fishing and cattle ranching drive the local economy, and my hosts pull together extravagant dishes that speak to the bounty of Marajó's rivers or ranches, or both: casquinha de caranguejo, stuffed crabs strewn with butter-fried cassava flour; filé Marajoara, meltingly tender fillets of buffalo steak seared in a skillet and topped with slabs of queijo do Marajó, sweet, soft buffalo milk cheese that melt luxuriously over the meat; sombremesa de banana com queijo, a layered, luscious dessert of sliced banana and queijo do Marajó drenched in sweetened condensed milk and sprinkled with cinnamon. The Amazon forest harbors ingredients that just don't exist elsewhere in Brazil, and I savor the impossible-seeming flavors that the island gives in abundance. There's a tree, cipó-d'álho (garlic bush), growing outside of the Britos' kitchen that smells of garlic and, interestingly, bacon; the leaves bring a smoky-savory depth to everything from soups to grilled foods. Another morning, at the market in Soure, I'm served a bowl of pork stew that's been simmered with aromatics and jambú, a wild cress that gently, pleasantly numbs the mouth in much the same way that Sichuan peppercorn does. I eat it with rice and beans, noting its layers upon layers of flavor. The tingling sensation of the jambú stays with me after I've drained the bowl.

    Every one of these meals is layered with history. The bones of the cuisine-the fresh and dried fish, the palm fruits, and cassava-have been used here for millennia; they were as essential to the ancient indigenous Marajoarans as they are to their present-day descendants. The beef and dairy were introduced by the Dutch, French, and Portuguese colonizers who brought cattle-and with them, African slaves to work the ranches-to the island in the 17th century. Today, Marajó and its cooking are at their core multivalent, polyglot, and multicultural in the truest sense, the result of 400-odd years of intermarriage among Europeans, Africans, and native Brazilians. It's a mix that pervades almost every meal here. The juxtaposition of all these different cultures and ingredients is constant, sometimes even in the same moment, sometimes in the same meal.

    Credit: James Oseland
    I return to the Britos' ranch one day to find Dona Jerônima, Angela, Nonato, and Adilson putting the finishing touches on an expansive lunch. The main event-a dish reserved for festive occasions-is the quintessentially Marajoaran camusclim, a layered dish of pasta, shrimp, béchamel sauce, and buffalo milk cheese, baked until gooey within and golden on top. Served alongside it is the lyrically named baião-de-dois ("ballad-of-two"), a dish served throughout northern Brazil made with sausage, air-dried beef, rice, and black-eyed peas. But I am especially pleased to receive a bowl full of pulverized açai, a dark purple palm fruit native to this part of the Amazon, eaten on this island in just this way for millennia. Sprinkled on top are white grains of puffed cassava flour, and we dip in bites of pan-fried yellow hake. Fresh açai has no equivalent in the world. With my eyes closed I savor its flavor, which I can compare to only that of good, fruity, freshly extracted olive oil. Lately dubbed a "superfood" due to its high antioxidant content, açai has become trendy throughout Brazil and in the world beyond; in São Paulo, it's served with sugar, sweetened condensed milk, fruit, and granola. But on Marajó, eating açai with anything other than fish or shrimp and cassava flour is heresy. Why dilute the pure flavor of this perfect food?

    One day, I walk with Oseas up to the village of Pesqueiro, about three miles from the ranch. It's home to around 300 families of fishermen. It is late afternoon when we arrive, and the small village, just above the tide line, is bathed in golden light. This place seems frozen in time. Children play among the small wood huts that are raised on stilts and decorated with geometric patterns, like those emblazoned on native Marajoaran pottery for centuries before Europeans set foot here. At the shoreline, men check their nets, and groups of women head home with full shrimp- and crab-traps in hand. Oseas asks one woman what she'll be making with her catch, and by way of explanation, she invites us to follow her and see.

    Her name is Suzanne Trindade Gaia, and her small house is full of happy children. "I'm making abafadinho [steamed shrimp]," she explains. She washes the prawns twice to rid them of sand, dresses them in lime juice and salt, and puts them in a saucepan with half a lime and a leaf of that bacon-scented cipó-d'álho, shaking the pot from time to time to cook the shrimp in its own steam. The dish is ready in minutes. She offers me a shallow bowl of cassava flour mixed with water to make a slightly crunchy porridge, and, smiling, gestures for me to help myself. We eat standing together in the kitchen, pulling the shrimp right out of the pot; they're sweet, firm, and pink, and they smell amazing, the essence of the sea mingled with meaty, garlicky notes from the leaf. I ask Gaia if she always eats food this fresh, and she laughs. "Since my husband is a fisherman, I always eat the best fish that God gives." I can't help feeling a little jealous.

    Oseas asks one woman what she'll be making with her catch, and by way of explanation, she invites us to follow her and see.
    On the final day of my visit, I go with Dona Jerônima to a little village named Joanes, where, she says, the Portuguese Jesuits who arrived in the 17th century left behind two main legacies: a chapel, now in ruins, and delicious caldeiradas de peixe, or hearty fish stews.

    We head down to the waterfront, where we find a little restaurant called Peixaria do Sales. We place our order and sit in the shade, sipping coconut water and surveying the calm ocean ahead, with the jungle at our backs. The woman behind the stove pauses occasionally to duck into the backyard and pick fresh herbs. I look in on her as she cooks, noticing how every movement is calm and easy. As she brings food out and carries dishes back into the kitchen, she has to step around the owner, who sits quietly on the porch peeling cassava. The food takes a long time to come out, but we enjoy the wait. As each dish leaves the kitchen, we catch whiffs of fish, cilantro, and chiles, a combination I now recognize as Marajó's signature scent.

    The caldeirada de peixe arrives loaded with eggs, shrimp, and potatoes, in a clay pot with rice and fish broth. The cook has also surprised us with a Marajoaran riff on moqueca, an Afro-Brazilian seafood stew made with palm oil and coconut milk. In both dishes, no ingredient seems unnecessary, no ingredient is wanting. We eat in happy silence, to the constant swell and sigh of the ocean.

    See our guide to where to stay and eat in Marajó »
    See more photos in the gallery »

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    It was one of those inappropriately gorgeous days that follows a dreary week of incessant rain when I pulled into Fairfield, Connecticut on a day trip from NYC to tour the tranquil grounds of Millstone Farm. Chef Brian Lewis of Elm Restaurant - where he runs a program for members of his kitchen to work at Millstone in exchange for produce (and a greatly improved appreciation of its cultivation) - introduced me to the farm's wide array of crops. Having already fallen while enthusiastically clambering over plots of brightly translucent shoots and lush, heady arrays of greens, I found myself munching on edible pea shoot flowers while brushing the dirt from my knees. Shortly thereafter, I was transported to the Chef's table at Elm, where I sipped a tangy beet margarita while watching Lewis expertly whip up a series of decadently fresh dishes with ingredients straight from the farm. -Niki Achitoff-Gray

    73 Elm Street, New Canaan, CT 06840

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  • 07/13/12--09:00: Mother of the Blues
  • Mother of the Blues-photo
    by Nick Malgieri
    During my childhood in New Jersey in the 1950s, summer was canning time, when the kitchen in our home filled with steam as my mother and grandmother put up jar after jar of tomatoes and fruit jams. Before the work could begin, we traveled from our neighborhood to the farmers' market on the opposite side of Newark. Farmers arrived there late in the evening, after their work in the fields was finished, and we bought tomatoes by the bushel out of the backs of their trucks. The parking area was bordered by what we referred to as "the stores"-large open sheds where wholesalers sold to food markets. That was where we bought flats of berries. I always angled for blueberries; I favored their sharp-edged sweetness. Besides, I knew blueberries were likely to end up in a pie or cake, which offered more immediate gratification than jars of jam, no matter how delicious. Luckily, the berries were abundant throughout the summer, because New Jersey was their home state as well as mine.

    Wild blueberries, which are found throughout eastern North America, grow close to the ground, making them difficult to harvest. Plus, many varieties are overly tart or lacking in flavor. The fat, sweet, modern fruit that is the pride of Jersey towns like Hammonton, the "Blueberry Capital of the World," was born in the Pine Barrens, the coastal forested plain in the south of the state, less than 100 years ago.

    The crop was the brainchild of Elizabeth Coleman White. Born in 1871 to parents who grew cranberries, White was raised on what became a 3,000-acre plantation known as Whitesbog, about 30 miles north of Hammonton. Keeping up on farming trends through Department of Agriculture publications, she learned of the USDA botanist Frederick Coville's work in blueberry propagation. In 1911, at White's invitation, Coville moved his office to Whitesbog where, with the help of farmers who provided the best-tasting wild varieties, he developed the first generation of high-bush blueberries. In 1916 Coville and White brought their first crop to market.

    By 1927, White had organized local farmers into the New Jersey Blueberry Cooperative Association. Her determination to domesticate the sweet-tart berries was a gift to those farmers, and to blueberry lovers like me. I think of her, and of those childhood summers, every time I bake a pie or a cake or a juicy slump full of the finger-staining fruit.

    See the recipe for Blueberry Slump »

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  • 07/17/12--09:00: Fair and Square
  • Fair and Square-photo
    by Jane and Michael Stern
    Profligacy reigns at state fairs. They are all about the bests and the biggests, the strongest oxen and fastest horses, the tallest space tower ride and slickest water slide. Fairs are especially notorious as orgies of nutritionally incorrect food. Contrivances like deep-fried butter and chocolate-dipped jalapeño peppers notwithstanding, many fairs have really delicious things to eat. Crunch-crusted Fletcher's Corny Dogs in Texas, fresh peach sundaes in Maryland, and cinnamon-dusted Navajo fry bread in New Mexico are signature temptations that make fair-going an avid eater's paradise.

    There is no fair bigger and better than Minnesota's, which attracts nearly 1.8 million visitors each year and offers a bill of fare that might have been concocted by a voracious Hieronymus Bosch. Held since 1859-the year after Minnesota joined the Union-the 12-day, end-of-summer blowout hosts more than 300 vendors selling food that ranges from salubrious wild rice soup to sinful deep-fried pie, and from predictable hot dogs and cotton candy to precocious sweet corn ice cream with hot honey-butter-bacon sauce. As we discovered when we arrived last summer toward the tail end of the fair, temptation is everywhere, in every imaginable form.

    The Minnesota State Fair is the last word in things served on sticks, offering more than three dozen impaled edibles: a class of food that is ideal for gobbling while walking among crowds. Some items are traditional stick cuisine, such as caramel apples and chicken kabobs; but the roster of skewered munchies also includes third-of-a-pound hunks of maple-glazed bacon, sausage-and-corn muffin breakfast lollipops, walleye, ostrich, deep-fried fruit, and even seemingly unlikely candidates like mashed potatoes, salad, coffee (in frozen form), spaghetti with meatballs, and macaroni and cheese.

    For easy ambulatory eating, nothing beats a serving of Minnesota State Fair french fries. "Big deal," you say? "What's so special about fries?" Taste these and know. If called pommes frites and served in a swank dining room on a china plate, they would earn four stars. These fries are fresh; crowds constantly lined up to eat them insure that every batch sold is still hazardously hot from the fry kettle. They are available all around the fairgrounds at booths stocked with bushels of skin-on potatoes, ready to be cut and fried. Once you begin to approach the head of the line, you smell hot-potato perfume and watch the hypnotic sight of glistening fries scooped into cardboard containers ready to be salted or spritzed with malt vinegar. Most of the potato pieces are gorgeous square logs with crisp honeytone crust and creamy insides, but there are always plenty of dark brown charred bits that crunch.

    Not all good eats at the Minnesota State Fair are deep-fried or served on sticks, though, and that's what makes this fair so special. Local churches run dining halls that serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner in venues insulated from the surrounding commotion. Fairgrounds church suppers, dating back well over a century, are a tradition at many fairs around the country; in their mid-20th-century heyday, there were more than two dozen of them in Minnesota. By 2011, there were only three, and in 2012, two remain. Run by volunteers for charity's sake, they are a surviving taste of the state fair as an opportunity for rural folk to come to town and share a square meal served by a polite staff in a decent setting.

    credit: Penny de los Santos
    The Salem Lutheran Church runs a snug dining hall with six tables where customers are served bowls of chili and Swedish meatballs by waitresses in hairnets, some of whom seem to have no task other than refilling coffee cups. A dollar gets you a bottomless cup. This is no ordinary coffee. It is Swedish coffee, made by adding an egg before boiling the brew, which clarifies the coffee and removes any bitterness. Colloquially known as Lutheran latte, it is a drink familiar to many Swedish-Americans of the upper Midwest, although it is little known elsewhere, including Sweden.

    The Hamline United Methodist Church started serving sandwiches in 1897 but has since become known for its ham loaf, coarsely ground and seasoned ham served in thick, pink slices under a spill of brown sugar-mustard-vinegar syrup. Hamline's hall is a big place with rows of long tables topped by red-checked cloths; service is cafeteria-style. Although it is a reassuring icon to repeat visitors, Hamline's ham loaf, of which perhaps 1,000 servings are dished out during the run of the fair, doesn't come close to competing with best-selling fair foods such as corn dogs (a half million are eaten), cheese curds (2.6 million), and mini doughnuts (338,000). According to Jan Bajuniemi, who has been on the Hamline dining hall committee for 20 years and points out that several volunteers have been awarded for a half-century of service: "It's mostly the veteran visitors who come for our meals. Newcomers want the novelties."

    A state fair is all about the prizes-for fat livestock, excellent horsemanship, perfectly spherical tomatoes, crop art (we particularly enjoyed a map of the Americas made entirely of different colored beans), and, of course, kitchen skills. The Minnesota Fair's Creative Activities building is devoted to the display of winners and contestants in all kinds of culinary arts, from baking to canning. Glass cases are filled with row upon row, shelf after shelf of cooks' best efforts, the blue, red, and white ribbon winners lined up with dozens of examples that didn't take a prize. Judges make their decisions before the fair begins so that ribbon winners are on display from opening day. Each cake has had its tasting slice removed. Jellies, pickles, and relishes are shown in sealed jars. For all there is to eat around the fairgrounds, it is strange indeed to gaze upon so much beautiful food that cannot be consumed.

    It makes some sense for the foods to be displayed like objets d'art. Beauty earns blue ribbons. Last year, Barb Schaller entered the maximum allowable entries in canning categories-20-and took home seven blue ribbons and six red; she seems to be gunning for the all-time record for canning victories. ("I am a ribbon slut!" she loves to say.) She insists the competition is not simply a recipe contest. "Its purpose is to determine how well you do it, and that includes much more than how it tastes."

    credit: Penny de los Santos
    The all-time Minnesota State Fair baking champ, Marjorie Johnson, has been banned from cake and cookie competitions because she published a book, The Road to Blue Ribbon Baking (Beaver's Pond Press, 2007), thus nullifying her amateur status. But over in the bee department of the agriculture building, in contests that judge recipes made with honey, Johnson still is welcome to compete, and took blue ribbons last year for her honey bars and cinnamon raisin bread. Johnson's tiny, fragile-boned frame belies her hearty personality and huge reputation among Minnesota's baking class. As we chatted, so many passersby wanted to take a picture with her that serious gridlock ensued.

    One other place where it becomes literally impossible to move during the fair is inside the dairy building, in the vicinity of the butter sculpture. Even more than the Miracle of Birth Center, where people coo over the sight of baby animals coming into the world, the butter sculpture exhibition elicits cries of unabashed joy and wonder. Sculpted butter has been a feature of dairy-state fairs since before refrigeration (when it was kept in ice-houses), but what makes Minnesota's exhibit so mesmerizing is that visitors watch the sculptor, Linda Christensen, at work. For the past 40 years, Christensen has sculpted busts of Minnesota's regional dairy princesses in a glass-walled, 40-degree studio that slowly rotates so spectators outside can see the princess and the sculptor as well as the butter heads that already have been sculpted. It takes six to eight hours to create each bust-one per day.

    The heads are all-butter-not butter affixed to a wire frame, as is the case with butter sculpture in certain other states' fairs. Nor is this some sort of specially textured sculpting butter. It is Grade-A edible. When the fair is over, each of the princesses is given her bust. Some have kept their heads in a freezer for years, even decades. But dairy princesses, being civic-minded sorts, usually share their likeness. When Emily Krekelberg of LeSueur County was sitting for her sculpture, she said that she planned to donate her head to her church for a community corn roast.

    See a list of six fairs worth the trip »
    See all the recipes in the gallery »
    See more photos in the gallery »

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  • 07/18/12--09:00: Six Fairs Worth the Trip
  • Six Fairs Worth the Trip-photo
    by Jane and Michael Stern

    Iowa State Fair

    August 9-19
    Inspiration for the Phil Stong novel State Fair, which was made into Rodgers andamp; Hammerstein movie musicals in 1945 and 1962, the blowout in Des Moines is everything a heartland fair should be. Hogs rule: Visit the Swine Barn, then go to the Pork Producers tent for a pork chop-not a regular pork chop, but an Iowa pork chop, meaning it is thicker and sweeter and so tender that a plastic knife slides right through with ease.

    The Great New York State Fair

    August 23-September 3
    Yes, there is a full roster of fried Oreos and snow cones (pictured, below), just like at any worthy devil-may-care fair, but this rural upstate event features a unique dish that is neither fried nor sugary. Cornell Chicken, introduced here in the 1950s by the late Professor Robert Baker (inventor of chicken nuggets), is bathed with an eggy marinade and cooked over coals until the outside is a caramel glaze: ideal al fresco summer fare.

    credit: Courtesy Empire Expo Center

    Puyallup Fair

    September 7-23
    Puyallup (pronounced pew-al-up) is a small city in Washington State, but its fair (pictured, at the top, during a sheep-riding competition) is huge, one of the 10 biggest in the nation. Since 1915, the essential snack has been a scone served almost too hot to handle loaded with butter melting into the soft biscuit and around a dollop of raspberry jam. More than a million are served each year.

    Eastern States Exposition

    September 14-30
    Held in Massachusetts, this is the big end-of-summer party for all of New England. The "Big E" features all kinds of concessions (a Mexican food vendor is pictured, below), but it is best known for its cream puff. Made while you watch and served fresh and fragile, it is the size of a softball, sliced horizontally and piled with fluffy white filling that is lighter than custard but thicker than whipped cream. The Big E menu recently was enhanced by the addition of the Craz-E Burger, a bacon cheeseburger sandwiched in a doughnut rather than a bun.

    credit: Courtesy Eastern States Exposition

    State Fair of Texas

    September 28-October 21
    This three-week extravaganza, one of the nation's largest, has dubbed itself "the Fried Food Capital of Texas" for such innovations as fried beer, fried latte, fried salsa, and fried bubble gum. On a (slightly) more serious note, the State Fair of Texas claims to be the original home of the corn dog, here known as a Fletcher's Corny Dog, first served in 1942.

    Arizona Exposition and State Fair

    October 12-November 4
    Bring a healthy appetite to the Arizona Fair and you will be rewarded by getting a jumbo Mexican funnel cake topped with strawberries and whipped cream for free-if you eat all five pounds of it in 30 minutes. On a smaller scale, there are little chocolate-dipped scorpions and skewered crickets. The prettiest (and most delicious) food at the Arizona Fair-which started in 1884, when Arizona was still a territory-is a hunk of tempura-crusted, flash-fried watermelon drizzled with strawberry syrup.

    See our article on eating at the Minnesota State Fair »

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  • 07/20/12--09:00: Viva Cantina
  • Viva Cantina-photo
    by Michael Parker-Stainback
    "Be sure to go into every cantina you can," a wise local friend advised when I moved to Mexico City in 2007. There are bars and lounges, but a neighborhood cantina is another sort of watering hole: over lit, rarely crowded, never impeccable, but nonetheless endearing. Interiors range from scratched-up mahogany banquettes and crumbling Gilded Age filigree to blaring TVs and plastic furnishings-sometimes all of this at once. Though all are welcome (boys club holdouts barred women until 1982), a laconic, masculinity permeates, at least until patrons start braying off-key torch songs. Beyond these similarities, you could say there's a different joint for every taste.

    Though cantinas are known best for drinking, one fantastic benefit is that, in the afternoon, every beer, soda, or shot you order gets you something from the kitchen-gratis. The best cantinas have a real cook who serves up three or four rotating dishes, typically stick-to-your-ribs, pyrotechnically seasoned "peasant" fare that can range from savory pork-and-hominy pozole to a chicken leg doused in tangy salsa verde, or fish served Veracruzan-style, in a tomato, pepper, and olive ragù. The idea is to ply customers with spicy, salty dishes that keep them drinking.

    My corner cantina, La Dominica, in Mexico City's ancient downtown, does not attract a soigné crowd, but receives me like a VIP. I pop in for tequila and their excellent turkey torta, a generous sandwich complete with perfect avocado and three-alarm chiles. There's another place I like, Bar Sella, in the Colonia Doctores neighborhood, for their chamorro: pork shank on the bone in caveman portions, greasy and marvelous, served to a mixed clientele of working stiffs and neighborhood families. Then there's the dive out by the bus depot, Ardalio, whose Sunday specialty is barbecued goat; or the art deco relic, Salón París, that serves an enormous plate of carnitas-pan-fried pork chunks eaten with fresh tortillas and lots of guacamole; or the lodge for Spanish exiles, Covadonga, shared by domino-slamming regulars and, lately, hipsters, who tear into runny potato omelets known as a tortillas españolas.

    For me, Mexico City's gritty cantinas are a sublime affair. With earthy grace, they weave themselves into the everyday life of this raffishly elegant, sometimes terrible metropolis, with food and drink at the ready.

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  • 07/20/12--09:00: Special Sauce
  • Special Sauce: Varieties of Mexican Salsa-photo
    by Hugo Ortega
    In Mexico, salsa is an endless journey. Every microclimate, every state, has its own ingredients, its own methods of making it. If you counted all the salsas in Mexico, I assure you there would be thousands. Yet there's one thing most Mexicans would agree on: There's no meal without salsa. It's more than just a condiment for anointing tacos, drizzling into soups, and spooning onto eggs, grilled fish, and roast meats-salsa adds a sense of place to everything it touches. Growing up on the border of Puebla and Oaxaca, I would pick deep-red tomatillos and tiny pequin peppers; they both grew wild near my home. I'd char them on the comal and grind them in a molcajete, a mortar and pestle, along with onion and sea salt, to make the salsa that defined my childhood. So many salsas are improvised from the foods available locally. In coastal Oaxaca, the abundance of seafood has led to the creation of a pico de gallo salsa of tomatoes, onions, chiles, and cilantro that's studded with shrimp. Sikil p'ak, a Mayan specialty of the Yucatán, features pan-toasted pumpkin seeds, available in abundance throughout the region, as the base for a rich salsa that's as thick as a dip. And in the hot lowlands of Chiapas, peanuts, sesame seeds, guajillo chiles, and chiles de árbol are fried together and blended to make a lavish sauce. Other salsas, however, are so universally appealing that they've been adopted throughout Mexico, and beyond. Salsa verde, a refreshing blend of tomatillos, onion, jalapeños, garlic, and cilantro, and salsa roja, a potent jam of charred tomatoes and guajillo chiles, can be found at nearly every taqueria in Mexico City. But no matter the type, I enjoy salsa best the way that I believe it is intended to be eaten plain, on a fresh tortilla. -Hugo Ortega, chef-owner of Hugo's Restaurant, Houston, Texas, and author of Street Food of Mexico (Bright Sky Press, 2012)

    See 6 different Mexican salsas in the gallery »

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    Behind the Scenes: Juchitandaacute;n-photo
    by Beth Kracklauer
    Travelling in Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec during the height of fiesta season, I had more fun than I've had reporting any other story. In this photo, I'm the one dressed in pink; standing next to me is my good friend and favorite travelling companion, Ellen Sharp. Ellen, an anthropologist, had just completed a couple of years of fieldwork in an indigenous town in the mountains of Guatemala when she met up with me in Mexico; after the rather reserved and very patriarchal Mayan society she'd grown accustomed to, the rowdy Zapotec fiestas we attended, with their powerful and flamboyantly attired female hosts, were something new. They certainly were to me.

    One day we visited the town of Tehuantepec, where we had the great good fortune of meeting Julin Contreras. An artist as well as a terrific cook and raconteur, she owns a local restaurant called Pueblo Mio and leads tours for the handful of travelers that make their way to the area. After feeding us delicious chiles rellenos stuffed with a picadillo of minced beef, raisins, capers, and olives, she hustled us over to her house and outfitted us like locals (i.e., fabulously) in woven huipil blouses, flowing skirts, and blingy gold jewelry, with flowers in our hair and a spritz of Anaïs Anaïs for good measure.

    Then Julin led us to a barrio on the edge of town called Santa Cruz Tagolaba, where Julieta Santos Castellano was presiding over a group of her neighbors preparing massive quantities of food for a celebration of the neighborhood's patron saint. Castellano inherited her position as cook-in-chief from her mother, her grandmother, and an unbroken matriarchal line of cooks leading back further than anyone can remember. She massaged the meat of a bull, sacrificed and butchered hours earlier, with a marinade made with guajillo and ancho chiles, canela, avocado leaf, and fistfuls of salt. What looked like a gringo-style potato salad-rich with sour cream and mayonnaise and spiked with plenty of mustard-was cooked in an adobe oven, alongside the cazuelas filled with the massaged and marinated beef, to make the creamy casserole called puré de papas. At least as much effort was expended cooking the foods to feed the cooks: a soupy red mole thickened with ground corn; silky hot chocolate served with tamales; a spicy stew called mondongo made from the bull's offal. The bull's blood they reserved to be used as a hangover cure; having attended the rollicking fiesta later that evening, I'm sure there were many takers the following morning.

    Back to the article In Full Bloom »

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    Postcard: Savoring Mithai in India-photo In India, no celebration is complete without some mithai to sweeten the occasion. They are present at weddings and festivals, shared with visiting guests or bought, as in the case of my recent visit back to see my family, for a daughter's homecoming. An umbrella name for a staggering variety of sweets that come in a range of wild colors (from white and yellow to green and pink), mithai are usually made from a combination of milk, flour, sugar and ghee; they're often decorated with dry fruits or coated with a thin, edible silver film. My favorite is soan papdi, which is made from chickpeas and named for its wispy, flaky texture (the literal translation of soan papdi is "golden wafer"). Biting into a piece, I feel the crumbly surface melt away into a sugary creaminess, and our joyful reunion is made all the happier. -Nidhi Chaudhry

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    A Guide to Mexican Grocery Stores in the United States-photo
    by Sarah Lawson, Sanaandeuml; Lemoine, and Eesha Sardesai


    El Mercado
    There aren't many Mexican grocery stores in Alabama, so it's a good thing this Birmingham storefront has it all: produce such as tomatillos, nopales, and calabacita squash; meats in various cuts; fresh bread from the panedería (including traditional pastries such as yeast-dough roscas de reyes, made during Epiphany); and an assortment of imported drinks and candies. The taquería inside serves fried pork carnitas daily and tamales on the weekends.

    El Mercado
    2085 Colonial Drive
    Birmingham, AL


    Food City
    Authentic everyday foods, such as fresh-pressed tortillas and inexpensive produce including jicama, mangos, key limes, and pre-cleaned nopales, are an attractive draw at this Arizona Mexican-American chain. Some locations offer prepared foods, such as hatch chiles grilled right before your eyes.

    Food City
    Multiple locations
    2950 S. 6th Avenue
    Tucson, AZ


    Mi Pueblo Food Center
    There are upwards of twenty Mi Pueblo supermarkets dotting Northern California, each one featuring bright interiors and massive inventories of Mexican food. Try the cremería for fresh cotija, Oaxaca and Mennonites cheeses, or the carnicería for chorizo, flank steak and spit-grilled al pastor pork. There's also a heaving produce section, a bakery and a seafood counter.

    Mi Pueblo Food Center
    Multiple locations
    1745 Story Road
    San Jose, CA

    La Palma
    Locals flock to San Francisco's Mission neighborhood to La Palma for more than just groceries. An in-store taquería has gained a cult following for its hot tortillas stuffed with anything from tongue or birria (goat stew), its masa-based huaraches and sopes, chiles rellenos, and overstuffed tortas (sandwiches). The store itself is a comprehensive source for spices, meats, loose dried chiles, prepared molés, and Mexican sodas and snacks.

    La Palma
    2884 24th Street
    San Francisco, CA


    La Pradera Meat Market
    "Todo es puro mexicano"-everything is pure Mexican at this Denver grocery, as one worker proudly told us. Piñatas with bright streamers hang from the ceiling over rows of packaged tortillas, spice blends, bottled salsas, fruit juices, and a meat case brimming with cuts of beef and pork, whole chickens, and links of chorizo. La Pradera's produce section is also notably good, with ultra-fresh nopales, cilantro, tomatillos, papayas, habanero peppers, and more.

    La Pradera Meat Market
    5460 E 64th Avenue
    Denver, CO


    Fiesta Farmers Market in the Plaza Fiesta
    This large Hispanic and Asian grocery store, located in Atlanta's sprawling Plaza Fiesta mall, is a landmark for Georgia's Latin American community. Surrounded by Mexican businesses-hairdressers, candy sellers hawking chili-spiked sweets-the Fiesta Farmers Market peddles a wide range of Mexican ingredients, including annatto seeds, epazote, avocado leaves, and baked goods from the on-site bakery.

    Fiesta Farmers Market
    4166 Buford Highway
    Atlanta, GA


    Mercado de la Raza
    Martha Sanchez is the owner of Mercado de la Raza, an authentic Mexican supermarket with a superb selection of dry goods as well as a variety of fresh staples, including tomatillos, plantains, and Mexican cheeses. Prepared foods such as guacamole, salsa verde and empanadas are favorites among the regulars-Sanchez herself makes fresh tamales here on the second and last Saturdays of each month.

    Mercado de la Raza
    1315 S. Beretania Street
    Honolulu, HI


    Maxwell Street Market
    Bursting with Mexican food stands, the Maxwell Street Market is a haven for those in search of real-deal tacos, delectable huaraches, and airy churros. It's been right here in Chicago since the early 1900s, and although the market has changed over the years, the street remains a destination with hundreds of vendors offering Mexican herbs, dried chiles, produce, and assorted breads, along with an eclectic array of electronics and clothing items.

    Maxwell Street Market
    S. Desplaines Street at Roosevelt Road
    Chicago, IL


    Tienda Morelos
    With eight locations in Indianapolis, Tienda Morelos touts itself as the "most recognized Hispanic grocery" in the city. It's a full-service grocer plus taqueria and full-service butcher, with aisles of fruits and vegetables, freshly baked pan dulce, canned and packaged goods, and dairy products. If you don't find what you need here, the stores also sell bus tickets to Mexico.

    Tienda Morelos
    Multiple locations
    3872 Lafayette Road
    Indianapolis, IN


    Bonito Michoacán
    In addition to being the standby caterer for Mexican cultural events across Kansas City, like the annual Cinco de Mayo festival and parade, Bonito Michoacán keeps its shelves and refrigerated cases stacked with meats, canned goods, Mexican paletas (popsicles), and all manner of produce, from yucca to plantains to prickly pears. Stop in on Tuesdays for $1 tacos and beef-cheek barbacoa.

    Bonito Michoacán
    Multiple locations
    1150 Minnesota Avenue
    Kansas City, KS


    Cinco de Mayo Mercado
    This is Baltimore's one-stop shop for fresh Mexican produce-like epazote, tough to find jitomate, tomatillos, and jalapeños-as well as quirky specialized offerings, such as piquant annatto paste (good for use in pollo pibil or Yucatecan stews), corn husks for tamale-making, queso fresco and queso duro, and "super cantinero," a spicy tortilla chip and peanut snack.

    Cinco de Mayo Mercado
    Multiple locations
    417 S. Highland Avenue
    Baltimore, MD


    El Chavo Mexican Products
    El Chavo proprietor Alejandro Rodriguez makes a point of sourcing hard-to-find Mexican products. Here you won't only find jalapeños and avocados, but also guava, jicama, dozens of fresh and dried chiles (mulatto, pasilla, ancho), herbs (epazote, hoja santa, hoja aguacate), and meats and cheeses. He also showcases specialty regional products like mole negro, chocolate, and string cheese from Oaxaca, and mole poblano and carne cecina (air-dried beef) from Puebla.

    El Chavo Mexican Products
    4524 Washington Street
    Boston, MA


    E andamp; L Supermercado
    The variety of high quality, inexpensive meat behind E andamp; L's 16-foot butcher counter-among them pork, steak, chorizo, goat, and marinated chicken-is this store's biggest draw. Yet the produce and bakery items, including sugar-dusted ojo pastries, orejas (like a French palmier), and fruit-filled empanadas, are nothing to sneeze at.

    E andamp; L Supermercado
    6000 West Vernor Highway
    Detroit, MI


    El Burrito Mercado
    Founded in 1979, this beloved market has garnered scores of "Best Of" awards in its home state of Minnesota. The store boasts a panaderia, a source of delicious pan dulce, as well as a postreria, stocked with tempting desserts, such as flan and tres leches cake. The market sells its own proprietary brand of tortillas and salsas, as well as plenty of produce, such as yucca, plantains, and fresh herbs. From spring through fall, patrons can munch on Mexican-style corn on the cob while shopping, and in the summer time, the owners open a seasonal taqueria.

    El Burrito Mercado
    175 Cesar Chavez Street
    St. Paul, MN


    El Mesquite
    This Albuquerque, New Mexico grocery store covers all the bases with a full selection of Mexican produce, a bakery, tortilleria, a cafeteria-style restaurant open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus a salsa bar, a meat market with items like their house-made chorizo, and a variety of Mexican cheeses.

    El Mesquite
    3765 Isleta Boulevard SW
    Albuquerque, NM


    Trade Fair Supermarket
    At this international superstore, though tomatillos can be found alongside bitter gourds (used for Asian cookery) in the richly stocked produce section, Mexican food is especially well represented here. Brands like La Fe and Goya abound, and there are fresh whole fish, Mexican pastries, an impressive selection of Hispanic cheeses, like Mexican queso blanco and boricua, a Puerto Rican white cheese. Trade Fair also has its own trusted line of beans and spice mixes.

    Trade Fair Supermarket
    2220 36th Avenue
    Astoria, NY

    Casa Latina
    Though this small shop in downtown Poughkeepsie sources its products from all over Latin America, they give preference to the foods of Mexico. Tomatillos, nopales, mangoes, and even fleshy red mamey fruits are in ready supply, as are marinated cuts from the meat counter (try the mildly spiced chorizo casero). Oaxacan specialties abound, including the region's crispy, plate-sized tortillas.

    Casa Latina
    651 Main Street
    Poughkeepsie, NY


    Su Casa Imports
    In addition to its supermarket and a meat counter, this Oregon-based grocer draws crowds with its full-scale taqueria and an extensive bakery featuring case upon case of Mexican pastries. Look out for Mexican snacks like cacahuates japoneses (seasoned peanuts) and cajeta (goat's milk caramel).

    Su Casa Imports
    Multiple locations
    16100 SE Stark Street
    Portland, OR


    Emilio's Grocery
    The Mexican and Latin American groceries at Emilio's, such as the prickly pears, hibiscus flowers, and Mexican oregano, are welcome tastes of home for Tennessee's Hispanic population. But the biggest sellers are the meats: marinated skirt steak, short ribs, and other meats, offal, and chorizo. A full-service kitchen offers specialties such as tripe soup, tacos, burritos, and Mexican-style cheeses, to go.

    Emilio's Grocery
    2757 Getwell Road
    Memphis, TN


    Fiesta Stores
    This Houston-based grocery chain has more than 60 stores and counting, all featuring fresh seafood and meats, produce, a taqueria, salchichoneria (a hot deli), and a bakery serving fresh bolillos (rolls) for torta sandwiches.

    Fiesta Stores
    Multiple locations
    2300 N. Shepherd Drive
    Houston, TX

    Canino Produce Co.
    Houston's Farmers Market

    Also known as "Houston's Farmers Market," at 3,800 square feet, Canino Produce Co. is a behemoth. In addition to the American fruits and veggies, there is a wide selection of rice and beans, as well as produce used in Mexican cooking, such as hot peppers, jicama, cilantro, and six varieties of onion. Products from mass-market brands such as Mrs. Renfro's, Queso Campesino and Goya are available, too.

    Canino Produce Co.
    Houston's Farmers Market
    2520 Airline Drive
    Houston, TX

    La Michoacana Meat Market
    As the largest independent Hispanic grocery chain in the United States, with nearly 100 outposts, these stores boast fruterias, well-stocked carnicerias, and panaderias rife with bready sweets. The cheese case is stuffed with Mexican quesos, and they stock hard-to-find Indio beer. The hot food bar and taqueria offer specialties like gorditas, sopes, and ceviches. Committed as they are to the community, sales circulars are written in Spanish.

    La Michoacana Meat Market
    Multiple locations
    1413 Gessner Drive
    Houston, TX


    Viva Market
    The sheer variety at this Utah grocery chain is astounding. There's a sweets-filled panaderia; a produce section stocked with the likes of cactus paddles, papayas, and habaneros; a carniceria with the makings of menudo, carne asada, and more; a deli with cremas, quesos, fresh salsas and guacamole-even ceviches. There's also an in-store restaurant that turns out tacos, tamales, tortas, and sopes, plus other favorites for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

    Viva Market
    Multiple locations
    900 W. N. Temple Road
    Salt Lake City, UT


    Bestway Supermercado
    This Washington, D.C.-area Hispanic grocery empire carries all the household staples, such as Goya dry goods, Jarritos sodas, and others, as well as a full selection of meat, cheese, and produce geared toward the Mexican-American home cook.

    Bestway Supermercado
    Multiple locations
    8457 Richmond Highway
    Mt Vernon, VA


    El Rey
    Brothers Ernesto and Heriberto Villareal developed a passion for serving Milwaukee's Hispanic community while working at their father's grocery store, El Rey. Founded in 1978, the supermarket chain no longer caters exclusively to the Mexican appetite, having expanded over the years to serve customers from all over Central and South America and the Caribbean. (Even so, El Rey supplies most of the Mexican restaurants in Wisconsin.) The in-store brand blends the best of Mexico and America, with Wisconsin and Iowa corn in El Rey's tortillas, and the Mexican-style cheese coming from Wisconsin cheese factories.

    El Rey
    Multiple locations
    916 S. Cesar E. Chavez Drive
    Milwaukee, WI

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    City Dozen: Gabriella Gershenson's Berkshire Mountains-photo Summer is the time to visit the small hamlets clustered in the Berkshire Mountains, a tree-covered highland that straddles western Massachusetts and Connecticut. Equal parts fertile farmland, high art, and Yankee liberalism, this corner of New England feels like a slice of utopia. But I have a particular fondness for the Berkshires' Massachusetts towns. The area is home to some of the best seasonal arts in the country: the Williamstown Theater Festival; Jacob's Pillow in Becket, host of the world's finest dancers in the summer; and Tanglewood in Lenox, summer home to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Talents past also lend this place gravitas-Edith Wharton's mansion in Lenox is now open to visitors, as is Norman Rockwell's museum in Stockbridge, and Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick in nearby Pittsfield. As rich as the culture is, there's a homegrown food scene to match it. From the small farms that dot the area that put forth excellent meats, dairy, and produce, to local cheese makers, coffee roasters, artisan bread bakers, and more, the Berkshires is a fine place to celebrate all the senses. - Gabriella Gershenson

    SAVEUR Senior Editor Gabriella Gershenson has been visiting the Berkshires, particularly Tanglewood, since she was a toddler. She's been spending even more time in the area since her parents' recent move to Pittsfield, MA.

    Barrington Coffee Roasting Company
    This airy roastery is ground zero for coffee enthusiasts in the Berkshires. Founded by self-described java geeks Gregg Charbonneau and Barth Anderson, Barrington Coffee Roasting Company specializes in certified organic coffees, roasted onsite in Lee. In addition to their signature blends, single-origin coffees, and "limited offerings"-from far-flung locales such as Ethiopia, Costa Rica, and Hawaii-the experts at Barrington regularly hold "cuppings;" professional tastings of their brews. Visitors are made welcome in a lovely ante room, where a carafe of hot freshly brewed coffee is available for sampling. The store also peddles in drinking accessories, such as the classic Chemex coffeemaker, whose headquarters are in nearby Pittsfield.

    Barrington Coffee Roasting Company
    165 Quarry Hill Road
    Lee, MA 01238
    tel: 413/243-3008

    Charles H. Baldwin andamp; Sons
    One of the Berkshires' most charming shops, Charles H. Baldwin andamp; Sons has been making vanilla extract at this West Stockbridge location for over 100 years. Owned by Earl B. Moffatt, Baldwin's great grandson, the general store is a destination for Madagascar vanilla extract, which percolates away in plain view in a copper still, and is aged in nearly century-old oak barrels. In addition to the extract, vanilla powder, whole beans, and vanilla sugar, Charles H. Baldwin andamp; Sons sells baking supplies, and doubles as a novelty shop carrying quirky gifts and paper goods.

    Charles H. Baldwin andamp; Sons
    1 Center Street
    West Stockbridge, MA 01266
    tel: 413/232-7785

    The Meat Market
    Chef-entrepreneur Jeremy Stanton's locally-minded butcher shop is a recent yet beloved addition to the Berkshires. Stanton's commitment to sourcing from nearby independent farms is apparent in the quality of his custom cuts, whether it's a porterhouse steak or a goat's head. In addition to selling the fruits of the abattoir, Stanton sells prepared foods (most of them are listed on the vast blackboard behind the counter) and runs a catering business that specializes in cooking over open fires. Depending on the day, you may encounter house-made headcheese among the charcuterie, as well as a menu of sandwiches and meat-centric specialties, such as beef pie with a leaf-lard crust.

    The Meat Market
    389 Stockbridge Road
    Great Barrington, MA 01230
    tel: 413/528-2022

    Berkshire Mountain Bakery
    This European-style artisanal baker makes the best breads in the Berkshires. Richard Bourdon, who runs the bakery out of a former paper mill, has been studying his craft for decades. He specializes in slow-fermented sourdough breads with incredible depth of flavor, an elastic, glossy crumb, and chewy, crackly crust. Popular loaves include the bestseller sunny flax, rich with flax and sunflower seeds, as well as the bread and chocolate, heavy with bittersweet chocolate chunks. A small adjoining café serves the bakery's own sourdough pizzas.

    Berkshire Mountain Bakery
    367 Park Street, Route 183
    Housatonic, MA 01236
    tel: 413/274-3412

    Rawson Brook Farm
    The winding road that leads to Rawson Brook goat dairy is gorgeous, and to describe its charms (brambly, sun-dappled, overgrown) would require many a rustic cliché. Though it's easy to miss the turn off to the farm, once you arrive, you'll know you're in the right place, as you'll be greeted by a small herd of Alpine goats. Their milk produces some of the freshest, tangiest soft goat cheese around. There's no store, but inside a small shed on the grounds is a refrigerator full of tubs of goat cheese (plain, chive and garlic, or thyme and olive oil-all delicious) that can be purchased on the honor system.

    Rawson Brook Farm
    New Marlborough Road
    Monterey, MA 01245
    tel: 413/528-2138

    Rubiner's Cheesemongers
    The inventory at this upscale Great Barrington grocer, run by cheese aficionado Matthew Rubiner, reads like a who's who of fetish foods: cheeses from Neal Yard Dairy in London, Mast Brothers chocolate from Brooklyn, vintage European sardines, Vermont-grown Japanese rice-you get the idea. Located in a grand neoclassical building, the carefully curated shop exudes prestige; as such, the selection is reliably beautiful, if preciously priced. In the summer, Brooklyn's Blue Marble dispenses ice cream from a cart out front, and year-round, Rubi's, the café behind the market, serves coffee, sandwiches, and even wines by the glass.

    Rubiner's Cheesemongers
    264 Main Street
    Great Barrington, MA 01230
    tel: 413/528-0488

    Guido's Fresh Marketplace
    With locations in Pittsfield and Great Barrington, Guido's Fresh Marketplace is the supermarket for discerning home cooks in the Berkshires. The store is an ideal place to stock a vacation rental, or put together a Tanglewood-bound picnic. The family-run grocer offers a fine selection of local meats, cheeses, seafood, and produce, as well as a respectable natural foods section. It's also good for specialty items -whether you're seeking Cholula hot sauce, Maldon salt, or SoCo Creamery ice cream. Be sure to pick up some Berkshire Bark, Guido's proprietary sweet, a chunky chocolate bar in fine-tuned flavors such as White Lightning, made with white chocolate, lemon zest, cashews, and candied ginger.

    Guido's Fresh Marketplace
    1020 South Street
    Pittsfield, MA 01201
    tel: 413/442-9912

    760 South Main St
    Great Barrington, MA 01230
    tel: 413/528-9255

    Chocolate Springs Café
    Classically trained chocolatier Joshua Needleman did some time at La Maison du Chocolat in New York City before opening this chocolate shop-café in Lenox. His store caters to sophisticated palates while maintaining a welcoming, family-friendly vibe. Here, you'll find delicate Early Grey-infused ganaches and handmade passion fruit marshmallows alongside chocolate-dunked Oreos and molded chocolate Buddhas. There are a few seats for those who wish to linger over hot chocolate, house-made ice creams and sorbets, or an assortment of pastry, such as macarons and chocolate chip cookies.

    Chocolate Springs Café
    55 Pittsfield Road
    Lenox, MA
    tel: 413/637-9820

    Moe's Tavern
    Though it shares a name with Homer Simpson's favorite dive, this craft beer bar is a bit more discerning. The dozens of mostly domestic brews range in style from robust IPAs to toasty porters. The breweries represented, such as Sixpoint, Troeg's, Dogfish Head, and Unibroue, hail from all over North America. Moe's looks as a beer bar should - with brewery paraphernalia covering the walls, and rotating tap selections scrawled on every available surface. Moe's doesn't serve food, but they do invite patrons to order in from local restaurants, and will even provide you with menus.

    Moe's Tavern
    10 Railroad Street
    Lee, MA 01238
    tel: 413/243-6697

    SoCo Creamery
    Every place needs its homegrown ice cream, and for the Berkshires, SoCo Creamery is it. Though the family-run operation is nearly ubiquitous - there are several scoop shops in the area, pints are sold in supermarket freezers, and a stand appears seasonally at Tanglewood - the quality stays true to their small batch values. SoCo uses local berries in their Berkshire Berry flavor, and entices with imaginative flavors such as lavender honey, mission fig, and deep, dark "dirty" chocolate.

    SoCo Creamery
    5 Railroad Street
    Great Barrington, MA 01230
    tel: 413/528-9420

    Farmers Markets
    The Berkshires are rich in local agriculture, and farmer's markets are especially bountiful during the summer. Two of our favorites are in Lenox and Great Barrington. The selection in Lenox tough to beat-each Friday, dozens of vendors display their wares, and the prices are quite reasonable. Keep an eye out for the gorgeous root vegetables and greens from Markristo Farm, and Cricket Creek Farm's Italian-style cheeses made from pastured cow's milk. The Great Barrington market gets the award for most charming - two-dozen vendors gather each week at the site the town's old railroad station. Among them are Maynard Farms, growers of superb stone fruit and berries, and Naga Bakehouse, makers of hand-shaped artisan breads. You may even pay for your spoils with Berkshares, the local currency, which is accepted by more than 400 area businesses. Each is adorned with a local hero, such as Norman Rockwell on the $50 bill.

    Great Barrington
    40 Castle Street
    Great Barrington, MA 01230
    tel: 413/528-8950

    70 Kemble Street
    Lenox, MA 01240
    tel: 413/528-8950

    DreamAway Lodge
    One of the most memorable places for a night out in the Berkshires is Becket's DreamAway Lodge. A relatively short, winding drive from Jacob's Pillow Dance Center, the 200-year-old farmhouse, perched on the edge of October Mountain State Forest, is equal parts roadhouse, indie music venue, and local hangout. The place is decorated in mismatched furniture and bric a brac, and the menu is as comforting and eclectic - offerings range from a juicy bacon bleu cheese burger to Moroccan tagine. The hippie vibe is palpable, and there's a reason - Arlo Guthrie was a regular back in the 1970s, and thanks to him, the restaurant appears in Bob Dylan's film Renaldo and Clara. Be sure to visit when there's a band (which is most of the time). There's nothing like starting the evening at the bar, progressing to the dining room, and ending it dancing barefoot on the grass.

    Where to Stay: Porches Inn
    Located next to Mass Moca (the Massachusetts Museum of Contempary Art) in North Adams, Massachusetts, Porches is a convenient and quirky perch in the Berkshires. About 30 minutes from Lenox and even closer to Williamstown, the refurbished Victorian row houses host 47 comfortable rooms, all furnished in a homey, grandma-chic style with wainscoting, decorative plates on the walls, and some rooms that come with their own porch. Breakfast is delivered to your room in galvanized metal lunch pails, a sweet touch.

    Porches Inn
    231 River Street
    North Adams, MA 01247
    tel: 413/664-0400
    Rates: $230-$304 double

    Where to Stay: Stoneover Farm
    Just a few minutes walk from Tanglewood and the Kripalu Center for Yoga andamp; Health is this charming restored farmhouse and inn. Proprietors Suky and Tom Werman refurbished the 19th century property into three well-appointed suites and two standalone cottages, both with views of the grounds-don't miss the picturesque duck pond-and above-and-beyond amenities that may include a terrace, fully equipped kitchens, a Bose sound system, and more.

    Stoneover Farm
    169 Undermountain Road
    Lenox, MA 01240
    tel: 413/637-9100
    Rates: $325-$425 double

    Where to Stay: Canyon Ranch
    Situated in the heart of Lenox, this renowned spa, with outposts in Miami, Las Vegas, and Tuscon, got its start right here in the Berkshires. The location is superb-rolling, well-manicured grounds of a nineteenth century mansion just a few minutes from the town center. In addition to accommodations, Canyon Ranch offers a full range of fitness classes, health, spa, and beauty services. But the focus here is on wellness, and in that regard, the place comes off more like an old-school sanitorium more than a ritzy spa. If you don't wish to make a stay of it, Canyon Ranch also offers an 8am to 5pm day rate that includes a spa service, lunch, and access to all classes for $310.

    Canyon Ranch
    165 Kemble Street
    Lenox, MA
    tel: 800/742-9000
    See room and spa rates »

    Interactive Map: Gabriella Gershenson's Berkshire Mountains Dozen

    The Saveur City Dozen: Gabriella Gershenson's Berkshire Mountains in a larger map

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  • 08/01/12--09:00: The Interview: Diana Kennedy
  • Diana Kennedy-photo
    by Beth Kracklauer
    Author of nine seminal books on Mexican cooking, a teacher and scholar held in the highest esteem by chefs around the world, Diana Kennedy has a passion for the traditional dishes and ingredients of her adopted country that is absolutely contagious. At 89, the British-born expert on Mexico's regional cuisines shows no signs of slowing her output, and she's as frank as ever on subjects ranging from careless Mexican cooking to the food at the revered New Nordic restaurant Noma. Kennedy talked to Saveur about all of the above, as well as why she does what she does, and what's coming next.

    I would love to hear what it was like when you first moved to Mexico City in the late 1950s, and what your impressions were of Mexican food in those early days.

    The markets really blew my mind. The local markets still are pretty authentic, but at that time they were even more so. It was just the color of everything, and the smells, and all the wild things that I hadn't seen. I simply had to go home and cook them.

    And then, skipping ahead a bit to the late 1970s, what was it like when you decided to build a house in Michoacan? How did the landscape strike you, and the place?

    Well, I wondered what I had gotten into, and it really required an enormous amount of tenacity to hang on. Still, it was enticing because it was a much fuller orchard area at the time-there were locals picking the fruits and sending them in trucks to Mexico City. It was such an adventure to find that I could grow coffee and tomatoes, and citrons-so many fruits-in the orchard, which was just neglected land when I arrived. Now, of course, climate change is having a toll on things. But I can't complain.

    You've done a lot of teaching in your kitchen in Michoacan over the years, and you've also taught in a lot of other places. When I visited last year, you shared some stories about the days when you were traveling to San Diego and teaching at the Perfect Pan

    Well, it was very interesting because at that time [in the 1970s], there was an absolute surge of cooking schools all over the country. The director of that cooking school was Anne Otterson, a great lady who lives in La Jolla; we still keep in touch and laugh about the old times. I would often be coming after Jacques Pépin, so he'd invite me to the class. There was Madeleine Kamman, there was Paula Wolfert, and a whole flurry of these cooks who became known at that time and were honing their skills.

    We all got to know each other. And we all learned from each other. You know, when you watch somebody else cooking in a class, even in a bad cooking class, you always learn something-or you learn what not to do.

    During my visit to Michoacan, you cooked all sorts of wonderful dishes-none of them complicated-but they all had so much flavor. Right now in the States there's such a rage for Mexican street foods, but you don't see a lot of restaurants serving the kind of home-style cooking-comida casera-that I'm talking about. Why, do you suppose? It's such appealing food.

    You know, the simplest food is a giveaway. The simpler dishes are much more difficult to come off right. And I think that those simpler dishes, if you haven't had a lot of experience or been brought up there, will often fail-or will not come up to scratch. It's a lack of experience.

    That's something that you really drove home to me when I was there, the unique approach that Mexican cooks have to building flavor in a dish. What are some of the fundamental respects in which you see this way of cooking and handling ingredients as different from, say, classical French cooking?

    To me, French cooking is high technique. In Mexico you might have fewer ingredients in a dish, and there's not much technique, but you've got to know how to handle them. If you put too much cumin in, it's fatal. If you overdo the chiles, you can't taste the other ingredients. It's knowing how to toast the chiles, whether you toast them, whether you don't toast them. Whether to asar [roast] the jitomates, or to cook them at all: It's those details about how you handle the ingredients that make the difference in the dishes.

    It's a point you bring across in your books, as well. One of my favorites is your memoir-with-recipes, Nothing Fancy, and I was really pleased to hear that you're working on a revised edition. What are you thinking about adding to the book this time around?

    Some things I'm actually going to cut out. I'm going to bring up-to-date something about the garden, and add a few more recipes. And I don't like to repeat other people's recipes, but I will make a reference to the recipes that I do from other people's books.

    What are some cookbooks you find yourself cooking from again and again?

    Paula Wolfert's, to begin with. I think she's an extraordinary cook. There are two of her books that I prefer above the others, and one of these is The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean, which I think is fabulous. I go to that because, when there's too much spinach in the garden, I do that spinach pâté of hers. And then, when somebody's coming in and I don't have any tomatoes, I do the country bread pie, although I change it a little bit-instead of putting all the cheese in it, I put ricotta and spinach in, and put a tiny bit, just a touch, of yeast in the dough. And you cook it in this 9-inch frying pan in olive oil, and it's done in 24 minutes. Of course, you have to do the pastry beforehand, you have to let that mature, but I usually have some frozen on hand. And I use Paula's The Cooking of Southwest France because I think she has the most wonderful way of doing magret-it's so, so precise. And it's very good for the magrets I can get from Guadalajara, which are Muscovy ducks, which aren't as tender, so I give them a little more cooking time. And I do her beef rillettes, and lots of things from that book, which I just love.

    Then I always use Carol Field [The Italian Baker]. She's got a wonderful filling for lemon pie. And the interesting thing is, in the filling, it has white wine. And you know, it is terrific. And then I do a lot of her breads, and her cornetto salato, a salted croissant, which is a fabulous sort of puff pastry thing, very light. I use Jacques Pépin for several things. I do his gravlax recipe. And, oh yes, I do that Jo Bettoya recipe for spinach and ricotta gnocchi [in her book In a Roman Kitchen]. They are quite lovely. And of course I love Anne Willan's château cookbook [From My Château Kitchen], and I do that twice-baked soufflé, which I think is fabulous. And I do another dish, which is actually rabbit-rabbit with mustard-but because I can't get rabbit, I do chicken with that recipe, and it's very good. Love that book. And of course then there's Regis Marcon [Marvelous Recipes from the French Heartland]. He does a dessert of sweet pumpkin pancakes. Now, I think they're terribly sweet, so I make the pumpkin pancakes, but with salt, or huitlacoche as a filling. I'm going all over the place, you know, but there are some cookbooks I would never use. And some I just love.

    Cookbook publishing has changed an awful lot over the years that you've been publishing books. What's your perspective on the current state of publishing?

    Well, I vehemently espouse the idea that real cooks want real books. I think [digital versions] are OK for the kids who want to look up something, do something fast. But real cooks want a book that they put their notes in. For instance, I will record the date on which I do a recipe, and then I can see the recipes I have done several years running-or ten years ago. And you need it there on the shelf.

    Anyway, that's what I feel. And I feel that Amazon, in a way, has spoiled us all with prices. The publishing companies say they can't afford to print cookbooks anymore. So I think real cooks have to be prepared to pay more for a book. Now, if you buy a novel, you maybe read it once or twice. But a cookbook is something you'll use probably for 30 years of your life, and if you work out the price-30 years, and you do five recipes from that book, and give everybody pleasure-you know, it's nothing. We've really got to get people to see it in that light, and tell the publishers that some of us will always want books. And we should be prepared to pay more for them, if that's the problem.

    You have a reputation for being a perfectionist. Why is it so important to get things right, in your opinion?

    What I always think about cooking is that it's the biggest comeuppance. I think it is rare to get things perfect. They can be very good, they can be okay, and they can be sometimes downright bad. When that damn soufflé flops, just when you want to show it off. I do think there is so much careless Mexican cooking. It is one cuisine that everybody plays around with. You know, you're not going to get people playing with a borscht recipe, putting in a little mango or something. I think I just try hard to do things as I first learned in Mexico, because I see how things are not quite the same and ingredients aren't the same, by any means.

    I must say, I've observed you're as critical of your own food as you are of anyone's.

    Oh absolutely, absolutely! That's how you learn, that's how you build a palate. I am hard on myself in all ways, actually. When it does come off, I will tell people. And when it doesn't, I will tell people.

    What would you say is a difference between your work and that of other writers on Mexican food?

    Well to begin with, they've not done the travel and the research that I've done. None of them, not one. I have traveled this country, wandering-it's why I'm not rich!-and taking time, and nobody else has done that. Nobody else has seen a certain chile at a certain stage in a market in Chilapa, and then gone back in 6 months and seen other chiles. Because I was fascinated! And when you're fascinated, you just go on from one thing and wander. And Mexicans will tell you, there is nobody who has traveled the country as I have. And as you know, I used to go on third-class buses-I didn't have a car-and had some enormous adventures. And then I had my own car, which I could stack up with stuff before coming back. With my own car I could wander and stop and come across an odd market, or see somebody in a market and ask about cooking. Really taking time. That is the difference.

    Over the course of your career you've amassed an enormous amount of research material, which I understand CONABIO (National Commission for Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity) is in the process of digitalizing. What sorts of materials are included in that collection?

    First of all, they're making a list of my research books. Secondly, they're scanning all my books. And thirdly, they're scanning all my notebooks. And I tell you, some of my notes are very funny-and not adequate! But it's quite amazing working with them-there's one in particular, a botanist I'm working with, she's a wonderful person-and we're going through my notebooks. And I say, "Oh my god, did I really say that in 1974, when I was out in Veracruz?" It's reliving all those journeys. And we've found enough recipes to form another book! Whether I'll have to strength to do it, I don't know. But she said she'd help me with it.

    What projects are you working on currently?

    There's a lot of work to be done with the botanist still. We've got several books to go through, and we're taking off on some field trips during the summer.

    What will you be doing?

    One thing will be checking the markets to see if I can see a change in what is available. These are markets way out there in Chilapa. And I want to go up to the Sierra de Puebla, and see if the wonderful collares of the pixtle are there still-I've heard they've disappeared-to make the enchiladas de pixtle. And just to see if there's anything that's changed.

    I'm working also on the revision of My Mexico, which will be out next year with University of Texas Press. And then the revision of Nothing Fancy, which will take much longer to do; that'll be coming out, probably, in two years. I am also working now with an editor on new Spanish editions of two of my books, so that's going to take most of the year. I've been approached to do a book on Hidalgo, and I said I just can't do it. But I'm so intrigued by the use of plants up there that what I may do is let them gather material for me, so I can look at the photographs and pick out the things that I think are worthwhile, and then go to those places and cook. I am sort of tempted to do that. It's crazy, it really is crazy-and there clearly won't be any pay, just my expenses-but it's so intriguing! And it's a state that few people know. It's very beautiful; the countryside is so gorgeous.

    Where else have you been traveling lately?

    I've just returned from the Scandinavian countries. I went, actually, for a friend's wedding near Oslo. And then we went to the Mad Foodcamp [the annual symposium on food and cooking founded by Danish chefs René Redzepi and Claus Meyer]. And we went to Noma [Redzepi's restaurant in Copenhagen] to eat, of course.

    How was that?

    Very strange. I mean, it is extraordinary food; it's all local. Some of the dishes were very contrived, but there were some wonderful, wonderful flavors. And we went to a place called Volt in Stockholm. We had wonderful food all over. You know, the breakfast in the hotels, the yoghurt, the butter, the milk, it's just extraordinary.


    And the breads, oh my god, the breads! We got about four different types of bread, all hot from the oven, ready to cut, at breakfast. I really was so, so impressed.

    It sounds not too different from the way you cook at home, good ingredients, well prepared…

    Yes, but different ones, you see. When I got back, right away, I had to cook a pot of black beans. So today I've just done some rice, avocados, and I haven't yet made some nixtamal, but I've got some [tortilla] dough here from a neighbor. It's just pure, basic Mexican food. I missed the beans when I was away!

    Back to The Expat »

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  • 08/01/12--09:00: The Expat: Diana Kennedy
  • Diana Kennedy-photo
    by Beth Kracklauer
    "The Julia Child of Mexico? Oh dear, what nonsense." Diana Kennedy is making her way briskly across the small central square of Zitácuaro, a town of about 150,000 in the pine-forested mountains of northeast Michoacán state. "Of course I'm flattered by the comparison," she adds, "but it's totally inaccurate." I have just arrived to spend a few days at Kennedy's home, in the countryside not far from here, observing the British-born authority on Mexican cuisine-renowned cook, ethnographer, naturalist, and perfectionist-at work. The slight 89-year-old calls out to me over her shoulder as she goes; it's all I can do to keep up. We advance into the maze of the covered market, and vendors to the left and to the right call out to Kennedy as she moves from stall to stall, vocally appraising what's on offer, in a crisp British accent that seems not to have diminished in the 55 years since she first arrived in Mexico. Of some pale guavas: "These are a little over the hill. I want them greener." Of the wild mushrooms called clavitos (little nails): "Unusual to see them this late in the year. Troubling." Of a sack of chiles de árbol: "Imported from China! The flavor is not the same! And look, they're 80 pesos to the kilo; the local ones are 120. How can the farmers be expected to compete?" At the table of a seller of wild greens, Kennedy's eyes light up at the sight of quelites (lamb's-quarter). "Señora, how do you cook it?" she asks. The vendor replies that she boils them in unsalted water, drains, and then salts them. It must be sheer reflex by now, this thing that Kennedy has spent a half-century doing: collecting recipes from cooks across the vast span of Mexico, a job that is never complete.

    As we head out onto the road in Kennedy's Nissan pickup truck, the parking attendant offers a blessing. Kennedy beams. "Always nice to get a blessing, isn't it? Especially as I'm such a pagan!" Next stop is a pulqueria-a cantina specializing in the sale of pulque, the fermented sap of maguey. The owner, whom she introduces as Rigoberto Medrano Soto, fills small earthenware cups with frothing, milky white pulque-bracing, sour, vigorously effervescent. Kennedy and the pulquero discuss the health of his plants, and the work of a maguey researcher Kennedy recently brought back with her from a conference in Hidalgo. This is another vital aspect of her work: the collecting and cataloguing of information about edible plants in Mexico, a place of astonishing biodiversity.

    "The Julia Child of Mexico? Oh dear, what nonsense."
    In fact, the more time I spend with Diana Kennedy, the more I'm reminded not of Julia Child, but of the 19th-century philosopher-naturalists, of Charles Darwin, or Henry David Thoreau, an impression only reinforced by a tour of her adobe house. It's beautiful but not at all grand, more like a thing that sprang from the rocky soil than a structure built by human hands, surrounded by evergreen forest and vegetable gardens heaving with produce. The man Kennedy describes as the foreman of the property, Carlos Ferrer, works closely with botanists from UNAM (the National Autonomous University of Mexico); when I arrive, he's preparing a batch of plant samples. There is an agreeable, industrious sort of feeling all around.

    In an outdoor kitchen equipped with wood-fired grills and two adobe beehive ovens, reflectors are set up to harness the sun's energy and heat water; pinned to a clothesline nearby, plastic bags, rinsed for reuse, bob on the breeze. Upstairs, Kennedy's bedroom opens onto a sun-drenched study; books and papers are stacked on every surface ("My out-box," she says, pointing to a chaise longue buried in mail), and dozens of morel mushrooms are laid out to dry. A door past the staircase leads to a greenhouse planted in specimens ranging from culantro to vanilla to bananas. A large tank collects rainwater throughout the year-it's the house's only source, and Kennedy monitors every drop-while a patch of land below the garden serves as a filter bed for waste water.

    I think again of Thoreau, and his own experiment in living close to the land at Walden Pond: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." Kennedy's statement of purpose, laid out in her book My Mexico (Clarkson Potter, 1998), is slightly less grandiloquent but no less firm in its convictions: "I wanted a house of locally made materials that would address itself to the resources of the area and be in tune with the restrictions with which my neighbors had to live, and had survived, for many years." And it must be said, while Thoreau lasted two years in the woods, Kennedy has persevered for 32, and counting.

    I return to the pulqueria one evening, and as the sun drops behind the mountains, Medrano Soto provides some perspective on what persevering in this part of Mexico has come to mean in recent years. The area has seen its share of the narco-crime currently oppressing the country. People are on edge, cautious about going out; whereas his father typically sold 500 liters of pulque daily back in the 1980s, today the pulqueria sells more like 30 liters in a day, most of it carry-out. Kennedy, he emphasizes, has set down deep roots in this place. "She's very altruistic," he says. "She cares about things a lot of Mexican people don't."

    It's a common refrain among Kennedy's friends and colleagues, in Mexico and abroad. Carmen "Titita" Ramírez Degollado, the chef-matriarch who presides over the El Bajío restaurants in Mexico City, is one of many Mexican chefs who have made the pilgrimage to Kennedy's kitchen to cook and learn. "Diana has dedicated her life to Mexican cooking!" she says. According to Fran McCullough, the editor at Harper andamp; Row who worked with Kennedy to produce her seminal early books in the 1970s (see A Life in Letters), "Because she started her work when she did, and with an anthropologist's eye but a home cook's approach, she had a unique appreciation of the cooks who shared their food with her. She has both authority and an amateur's total surrender to her subject."

    "I wanted a house of locally made materials that would address itself to the resources of the area and be in tune with the restrictions with which my neighbors had to live, and had survived, for many years."
    As for Kennedy, she's a stickler about giving credit where it's due. "Josefina Velázquez de León did it first, beginning in the 1940s," she says, "traveling to different regions, collecting recipes, and publishing them. She was the one who opened my eyes to Mexico's regional cuisines." As a writer, Kennedy's inspiration was fellow Englishwoman Elizabeth David, "though I'm not as scholarly-no, not nearly-as she."

    Writing books wasn't even a faint ambition when Kennedy (née Diana Southwood) arrived in Mexico in 1957, with her soon-to-be husband, Paul Kennedy, a New York Times correspondent living in the capital. In a poignant passage from Nothing Fancy (Dial Press, 1984), her wonderful memoir-with-recipes, Kennedy draws a sketch of her husband with characteristic candor and economy. "He would collect recipes for me when I couldn't accompany him on his travels," she writes, and then shares one that he recorded for "Sancocho (Dominican National Dish)," hilarious in its telegraphic terseness. "His typing was no better than mine, his spelling far worse-like me, he was always in a hurry."

    Over several afternoons in Kennedy's kitchen-the indoor one, with a great tiled "peninsula" equipped with gas burners, its counters strewn with yet more labeled, dated specimens (chiles, herbs, pineapple vinegars)-I get more mental snapshots from that happy period in her life, in the 1950s and '60s, when every day brought thrilling new flavors and exotic ingredients. Preparing a snack of salsa de albañil (literally, "bricklayers' sauce"), a tangy tomatillo salsa with sliced avocado, strips of queso fresco, and chopped cilantro, Kennedy recalls the first time she tried it, at the Lincoln Grill in Mexico City in the early '60s. It was served to "soak up the drinks," along with tortillas.

    In the late 1960s, when Kennedy was living in New York City following her husband's untimely death from cancer, it was her friend Craig Claiborne, the food editor of The New York Times, who pushed her to start teaching Mexican cooking classes. That's how McCullough, then an editor at Harper andamp; Row and a California transplant hungry for good Mexican food, found her, and ended up working on five books with her. By 1976 Kennedy was back in Mexico City; in 1980, she moved out here to Michoacán, to the property she dubbed Quinta Diana. Before long, the acolytes began arriving at her kitchen door.

    As we work, Kennedy's kitchen assistant, a young man named Miguel Angel, works alongside us; he and she cook in easy symbiosis, often taking over from one another mid-task. I'm assigned to slice an avocado, a duty of which I have, up to now, considered myself adequately capable. Kennedy takes one look and says, "Well, we won't be photographing that one." This qualifies as getting off easy. "I've seen her bring a very famous chef to tears by critiquing his efforts to make her food," McCullough tells me. But isn't learning the point? Here is a woman who went into the woods to live deliberately. If you don't want to do things her way, then why follow her into the woods?

    She has both authority and an amateur's total surrender to her subject.
    What strikes me above all about the dishes we prepare in Kennedy's kitchen is how simple, but also deeply flavorful and satisfying, they are. A Oaxacan egg-and-masa "omelet" infused with the rich, round, root beer-like flavor of yerba santa leaf. Lusty Central Mexican-style "pot" beans topped with soft cheese melting to cream. "I just mash the beans slightly," she says, "so they'll absorb more flavor." Requesón revuelto, a ricotta scramble with serrano chiles, is cooked until the curds are golden and sweetened ever so slightly by tomatoes. These are dishes she's made too many times to count, the kind of thing she'll produce in minutes for lunch. But she approaches each one as if she's making it for the first time. After all these years, the ingredients still turn her on. Sautéing some quintonil, a green in the amaranth family, on a ceramic comal, she inhales deeply. "Smells of iron, doesn't it?" she murmurs. "And the chickens are going to love it, because they'll get all those stalks!"

    Honest food. "Comida casera," she calls it, home cooking of the very best kind. The attention to detail and technique, to doing things properly, that she's observed in Mexican home cooks has earned her highest admiration. "To me, the interesting part of cooking is cooking," she says, "bringing flavors out of ingredients, not having to put flavors in." Fronting, in other words, only the essential facts of life.

    See the recipe for Requesón Revuelto (Ricotta Scramble with Tomatoes) »
    See the recipe for Salsa de Albañil (Tomatillo Salsa with Avocado and Queso Fresco) »
    See the gallery of books by Diana Kennedy »
    Read an exclusive web-only interview with Diana Kennedy »

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