Thursday, August 29, 2013

Food you can listen to, Music you can eat

When I cook I prefer to have music on, frequently loud, always something I can sing along with.  And I go out of my way to be sure that I am loud enough to be heard outside so as to most effectively embarrass my soon-to-be 11 year old stepdaughter.  Isn’t that part of a parent’s job?  Often the music and smells draw the family into the kitchen and little, impromptu dance parties develop.  It’s a fun, chaotic, loud, delicious scene.  Recently it got me thinking about music that’s about food.  I tried to come up with my favorite songs that feature food and I discovered that there is actually quite a bit of foodie music.  In fact, numerous blogs have already covered the subject.  One webpage ( has an exhaustive list organized by food.  Alas, I share with you my favorites in the order they came to me and invite you to share yours. 

That's Amore by Dean Martin – American or not, it makes me feel like I am sitting at a sidewalk café in Rome enjoying a bowl of pasta, vino rossa, and some sunshine.
Scenes from an Italian Restaurant by Billy Joel – One of my all-time favorite songs to cook with.  It’s almost long enough to boil pasta, it tells a great story, and is “told” over a meal.  And it’s long enough that my stepdaughter sinks all the way to bribery to get me to stop singing.     

Pour Some Sugar On Me by Def Leppard – I read somewhere that misheard lyrics, mondegreens, are most often about either food or sex.  To take the idea a step further, I would suggest that most often songs that talk about food are actually talking about sex.  This song has to be one of the best examples of the last 30 years and always gets the crowd going in the kitchen.  My, won’t they be embarrassed in a few years?
Cherry Pie By Warrant – How is it that women always get equated with food?  See above.  I am the last person you’ll find defending the value of eighties hair bands.  I spent most of the eighties listening to what was then called college rock, now alt. rock.  But a few cheesy pop tunes (didn’t eighties pop include its hair bands?) had to seep into my consciousness.  No matter what you thought of this years ago, doesn’t it make you grin and reach for some hot fruit?

Eat It by Weird Al – I’m sorry to have to include this, but it cracked me up as a kid and sitting down to think about food and music brought this to mind immediately.  Now I find it disgusting and somewhat offensive.  I don’t sing to this in the kitchen.    
Jailhouse Rap by The Fat Boy’s – I know The Fat Boys had more than a few other songs that revolved around food, but this is the one that comes to mind.  Motivated by a pizza craving, a crime is committed and he ends up in prison.  Another song that’s a story.  Listening to it, I am struck by how much I miss the humor, fun and beats of Old Skool hip-hop.

Alice’s Restaurant Massacre by Arlo Guthrie – When I was a teenager I learned of this song listening to St. Louis’ KSHE 95 on Thanksgiving Day.  Again, I love a song with a story and this is the epitome of storytelling.  It’s also a great sample of late sixties politics and a piece of American history.  And since I identify it with Thanksgiving, I also identify it with eating and cooking. 
Sweet Potato Pie by James Taylor and Ray Charles – My wife brought this song to me and we had it played at our wedding.  Again, we have a love, a woman, turned into food, but isn’t it wonderful?  Simply put, it’s a sweet song.  And I don’t even like sweet potatoes! 

Sweet Potato by Cracker – I guess as I was thinking about these the word “sweet” got something going.  I love this band and find so much of their music catchy and fun.  This song is in my “happy song” category and I can’t help but sing it loud and proud.
Sweet Pea by Amos Lee – If there’s a perfectly happy, sweet, romantic song this is it.  Soulful, bluesy and I can’t stop singing when I cook.  We also had to have this played during our wedding weekend.

Breakfast in America by Supertramp – For a guy who loves punk and alt. rock there’s little worse than Supertramp.  Truth is, Supertramp is one of my guilty pleasures.  Breakfast in our house is a big deal.  Rarely do the kids eat just a simple bowl of cereal more than three days in a row.  Now that school has started each weekend will have at least one breakfast feast.  And this song will roll around in my head while cooking each and every one.
Pulling Mussels from a Shell by Squeeze – I have no idea what this song is about, but I love it and virtually everything Squeeze made.  As for mussels – I remember my first ones in Luxembourg as a teen and have loved them ever since.  White wine or a hoppy beer, shallots, garlic, some herbs to steam them and a good baguette to dip in the juice and you have the perfect winter meal.  And I will hum the song in my head the whole time.

Margaritaville by Jimmy Buffet – A great meal has to have a great drink.  And is there a greater song about a drink than this?  Nuff said.
The Pina Colada Song by Rupert Holmes – Pina Coladas were the first mixed drinks I remember.  And this song just gets stuck in your head.  Has anyone had a Pina Colada since 1980 without thinking about this song?

Lunchladyland by Adam Sandler – The other night we made sloppy joes from scratch.  You have to do this – it is easy and easily customizeable to family tastes.  But I simply cannot say “sloppy joe” without thinking about this song.  I shared this video with the kids after dinner.  They giggled in awe of Chris Farley.
Do Fries Go with That Shake by George Clinton – Food and sexual innuendo – they go together like, well like fries and a shake!  This song and video is hysterical, and to my wife’s dismay, I sing this to her all the time, normally with the kids around so they think I am just excited about eating again.

Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk by Rufus Wainwright – This actually doesn’t sound a like a good combination to me, but to each his own.  The year I moved to California I listened to this song a lot and find myself humming it often. 
Cups and Cakes by Spinal Tap – From one of my favorite movies, a song about baking, right?  Every birthday celebration we find ourselves making cupcakes or a cake and me humming this.

Ice Cream Castles by The Time – Remember Purple Rain?  Remember Prince’s rival, Morris Day?  I wanted all the music from the movie and picked up The Time’s album at the same time as Purple Rain and discovered this one.    
Brown Sugar by the Rolling Stones – Supposedly this song was inspired by one of Ike Turner’s back-up singers…not food.  I can’t help but sing when I hear this, loving the blues influence and all that soul.

Peaches by The Presidents of United States of America – I love music that tells a story and has something substantive to say.  Art ought to get political.  It’s okay for art to be serious.  This is none of the above – this is just silly.  But a peach can’t be eaten without singing this. 
Lost in the Supermarket by The Clash – Everything from The Clash was right up my alley.  I loved the politics, the international influences, the raw aggression in some of their music.  But this song makes me smile.  And then….listen to the lyrics…this is not the result of happiness.  And it speaks to a kid’s worst fear, being lost in a large store.  But the image sounds great to me as an adult.  The only place I actually enjoy shopping is the supermarket. 

I Want Candy by Bow Wow Wow – I know this is a cover, but I love Bow Wow Wow’s version.  The drums make me move.  There are some amazing stories about this band and its underage singer, Annabella Lwin, and the song really irritates lots of people.  Somehow when I was younger I just knew there was something inappropriate about this song.  But I liked it.  It might be the most overplayed eighties retro song after Come On Eileen.  My kids love the song because the say its title all the time! 
Red Red Wine by UB40 – This is another cover song (Neil Diamond wrote it) but this is the version I grew up with.  And for our purposes here today, at least this really is about wine. 

I Want A Little Sugar in My Bowl by Nina Simone – This is another old song, but I think Simone does it best.  I am pretty sure if you had never heard the English language then heard this song, you would absolutely know beyond any doubt that this song is not about food at all.  Not sure?  Listen carefully to Bessie Smith’s version.  Both of these women epitomize the raw sexuality of the blues.  In fact, if you listen to the blues you know there’s a whole lotta music about…food.
Cinnamon Girl by Neil Young – I love Matthew Sweet’s version, but grew up with Young’s.  I often wondered what on earth a cinnamon girl was, and I still can’t define it, but since meeting my wife, I can say I know.  I sing this to her all the time and the kids beg me to stop.    

C is for Cookie by the Cookie Monster – Bring on the cookies!  Isn’t this everyone’s first food song?!

Eat the Rich by Motorhead – This band rocks!  This is metal…period.  Those eighties hair bands got nothing on these guys.  Metalli-who?

Ice Cream Man by Van Halen – About the same time I was cracking up listening to Eddie Murphy’s Delirious (The ice cream man is coming!  Want some?) I was also listening to Van Halen.  They rocked, and they had a sense of humor, at least until they thought an inability to drive 55 was the height of rock 'n' roll rebellion.  And what’s better than ice cream in the summer time listening to your favorite tunes?
What are your favorite foodie tunes?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Rest of the New England Trip

Like so many summers over the last 20 years, I spent quite a bit of time in New England this summer.  This summer we split time between Narragansett, Rhode Island, Cape Cod and New Haven, Connecticut.  Hopefully you have noticed that my trip stirred quite a few reflections on food.  Traveling ‘home’ tends to make one reflective and hungry.  Traveling also means eating out.  I would be remiss then if I didn’t write up a little bit about where we ate.  Obviously, Frank Pepe’s in New Haven inspired a full essay – great pizza does that to me.  Here’s the rest of the trip.

Aunt Carrie's in Narragansett – Aunt Carrie’s occupies two corners of a busy intersection, physically manifesting all that is wonderful about New England food – ice cream on one corner and (mostly fried) seafood walk-up on the other.  I confess now that we didn’t sample the ice cream, but ate a great dinner.  In typical New England fashion, there’s a busy counter backed by a yellowed, plastic menu board and a few paper-taped additions.  Teens flutter about behind the counter and throughout the kitchen turning massive amounts of food over to hoards of customers.  The atmosphere is simple fish shack.  So how’s the food?  First, you must know that Aunt Carrie’s features two lobster rolls, one warm and simply buttered and the other cold with just a little dressing and seasoning.  And of course, both are served in flat bottom hot dogs buns unique to New England.  Both were excellent and filling.  The scallop roll was filled with lightly battered fried bay scallops.  Chowder was available in three styles, white, clear and red.  White is traditional from Massachusetts northward.  Clear is seen in southern New England, and red is sometimes called Manhattan clam chowder for its home.  At Aunt Carrie’s we stuck to our familiar white chowder and it was light, flavorful and filled with chewy bits on every bite.  The fried clams were excellent, with fleshy, squishy bellies.  A local specialty, stuffies were simply small, stuffed clams – you’ve seen something like them in the freezer section of the grocery store – but these were great.  Final verdict – if you’re looking for quality, traditional, straightforward seafood in a New England fashion, Aunt Carrie’s will fit the bill 
Champlin's  - Like Aunt Carrie’s, Champlin’s is both an ice cream place and a seafood shack.  Begun generations ago as a very small fish shack, it has grown to incorporate many additions and an extra floor.  Ice cream and fish market downstairs, walk-up counter and dining room upstairs.  Situated on the working harbor of Galilee, this is an ideal spot for an evening of seafood, ice cream, a walk on the beach and restful celebration of a sunset while the ferries and fishermen come home.   If there’s a trademark to Champlin’s food, I think it would be cornmeal.  All the fried seafood had a touch of cornmeal and the fish and chips – cornmeal, not beer batter.  As a fish and chips fanatic, I think that’s important to note.  However, Champlin’s also uses local flounder for their fish and chips, to which I must say, “Amen” for being local.  Their lobster salad roll was finely chopped and seasoned, easy for eating as there were no giant chunks.  The seafood platter was covered in enough fried seafood to feed a family and featured lots of clam strips, and just a few clams with full bellies.  The clam cakes were dense, filling and delicious.   These are essentially a dense hush puppy with chunks of clam. Champlin’s clear chowder was excellent and well worth starting with.  Champlin’s also serves a local classic, Narragansett lager.  When I was a kid I remember relatives saying that this was a beer that tasted like its name – and that wasn’t a compliment.  However, its reintroduction to the kitschy, hipster beer world has gone well and Narragansett hit the spot with the seafood on a hot day.  Finally, the best of the meals was a baked flounder that was light, flavorful and perfectly cooked.  Downstairs the ice cream was also delicious, though served just a little too soft.  I definitely prefer my ice cream to be served as cold as possible and hard.  Champlin’s melted just a little too fast.  That said, coconut, banana, chocolate and grasshopper pie were all great ice creams.

Just a hundred yards away from Champlin’s is another delicious seafood spot, George's.  This place is just a little more upscale; they feature a full bar and table service.  The first thing I noticed here were the reasonable portions.  Sure, there were fries with many dishes but not a mountain of them.  My fish and chips, flounder in a beer batter, was superb.  The swordfish was thinner than I have seen it cut in most places, but perfectly cooked.  The kids loved their lobster rolls, even as they were falling asleep next to them.  The sautéed calamari with peppers, a local specialty, was excellent – in fact my mouth is watering as I write this.  And the clam cakes – just as dense and filling as everyone else’s in the area. Service was efficient and great with the kids.  If we return on vacation to Narragansett I know George’s will be a stop.   
We took a drive one night a few miles north along the water to Brickley's Ice Cream.  A large parking lot gave an indication to its popularity.  What isn’t noticed at first is the much larger strip mall lot next door that also fills.  This place draws a crowd, and it is well-deserved.  But do not let a long line keep you from it.  They move fast.  The ice cream was served very cold and hard in large, truly New England-size servings.  Flavors – wicked awesome!  The banana was all natural and not overpowering.  The cookie dough was great, but the show stopper was the pumpkin.  Sounds a bit strange maybe?  But it was amazing – like pumpkin pie, but cold, creamy and in a waffle cone.  Wicked!            

We spent some time out on Cape Cod for a family wedding.  One morning we headed all the way to the end to see Provincetown and stopped at The Wicked Oyster in Wellfleet for breakfast.  We managed to nail our timing and were able to walk right to a table on a Saturday morning.  But we got lucky.  Signs around the place indicate to me that they are used to people parking some distance away.  And there sure is a reason.  Breakfast was delicious.  Housed in an old house with parts dating back to 1750, the floor itself is a work of art.  But the food… pancakes as big as your head, light and fluffy.  Blueberry pancakes that still wander through my dreams.  Omelets that were just the right size, perfectly cooked and full of flavor and toppings.  Home fries really were just like you would make at home in an iron skillet.  I really didn’t want to leave.  You can eat all day here, and the menus for lunch and dinner look just as incredible.  This is on my return list. 
The final place to give a shout-out to is in New Haven.  Just up the street from Frank Pepe’s is a great place for a post-pizza dessert.  Libby's on Wooster Street is a dessert cornucopia, heaven for the sweet tooth, nirvana of caloric indulgence.  Pastries, cakes, cookies, confections of all kinds – it’s an Italian Willy Wonka.  Gelato, Italian Icees, coffee, cannolis.  And wonderful service – always kind and patient while orders seem to be added to as we walk down the counter.  You might go in thinking just one cookie, and before you know it you have a dozen, some pastry and an ice cream cone.  And it all tastes as great as it looks. 

Now I am hungry….wicked hungry.     

Monday, August 19, 2013

Heavenly Pizza

The foodie world is a weird one.  We can get all wound up over the sourcing of ingredients, the treatment of livestock, the legal availability of foie gras, or the terrior of a wine.  This is rarified air in an economy where more and more people would just like to eat three good meals a day.  Fortunately, foodies, myself included, can get awfully romantic about a simple pizza.  Pizza truly has become America’s egalitarian food.  It’s available virtually anywhere, as often from a locally-owned place as a national chain, and even in the best pizza places, available at affordable prices.  Seemingly, every region has its own style and traditions and elicits its own passionate support.  (Check out the variety in The Thrillist’s recent list of America’s top 33) Better yet, I must admit to hardly ever having a bad one.  Truth be told, I am pretty happy with a couple $1.25 Totino’s from the freezer section at Safeway.  Pizza taps into a foodie passion everyone has and everyone can talk about. 

But what inspires me to write about pizza or travel to eat a pizza is a particular style.  I get excited about real Neapolitan pizza.  The widely recognized, sometimes disputed history of pizza places its genesis in Naples, Italy.  The native style calls for certain elements, now outlined by legal certification and European Union protection (Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana).  To me the key elements are an excellent dough stretched extremely thin by hand only, topped with a simple, fresh tomato sauce, quality toppings, and cooked very quickly at around 900 degrees.  There’s more to it, but this is the essence.  A great Neapolitan pizza will never be perfectly round, will always be very thin, and will virtually always have charred bubbles of crust. 
Unfortunately, I have never been to Naples.  My favorite of the style so far is Assisi, Italy’s Monaci.  In the US this style of pizza has been spreading across the country.  While there are many new places making great Neapolitan pizza, I think we need to begin with the old regime.  In New Haven, Connecticut a Neapolitan pizza has been served since 1925 at Frank Pepe's, and it is wonderful.

Visit Wooster Street, New Haven’s Little Italy and at the halfway point you will likely see a long line next to a parking lot.  You’re at Pepe’s.  At the back of the parking lot (talk to Joey about getting a spot, but odds are slim) you will see a small Pepe’s.  This building houses the original coal-fired pizza oven, built in 1925, and a beautifully simple restaurant.  This oven served as the model for all following Pepe’s locations – they even took a mold of the door so they could forge exact replicas.  Next door you will find the newer Pepe’s (fear not, it was opened by Frank in 1936) and a slightly nicer dining room.  Both places feature the same menu, same ingredients, and same ovens.  But we aren’t here to look around – we are here for pizza.
The menu is simple and seems to be unchanged in years as there are no faddish additions or twists.  There are 16 ingredients other than tomato sauce and basil and just a few classic combinations including their legendary hallmark, the white clam pizza.  You can get a salad too and wine, beer, and sodas.  But don’t expect a wide selection – pizza takes center stage.  And what a pizza!

On my most recent visit our server, Nancy, got my group of seven set up nicely in the front window of the “newer” location.  Getting there just after 5pm allowed us to sit down immediately.  Be warned, after 6 on a weekday or most anytime on the weekend the line can be quite long.  With a simple, limited menu it was easy to get our order in quickly – a bottle of Chianti, a pitcher of Genesee, a bottle of Foxon Park Cream Soda, and three pizzas – a large with sausage and pepperoni, a medium fresh tomato with anchovies and a small white clam.  In moments Nancy returned with drinks and only about 15 minutes later with pizzas.  The three rectangular trays covered our table - irregular, hand-made, bubbled and charred and smelling like I hope heaven smells.  I had to stop for pictures of these works of culinary art.

 While they looked gorgeous, they tasted truly heavenly.  The tomato sauce was light and fresh, not sweetened or pasty in any way – simple, straight, unadorned, fresh tomato sauce.  The crust, the key to any great pizza, was thin in the middle, but firm enough to withstand being picked up without too much slouching.  The charred and bubbled bits tasted so good, and the kids gave most of theirs to me!  The toppings… well, the sausage and pepperoni looked delicious, but was consumed before I tasted any.  No complaints, though.  The clam pizza, while unlike any pizza I have ever had, was worth the trip alone.  It tasted like the most perfect combination of pizza crust and the sea.  The clams were fresh, not canned, and their juices blended with the crust like nothing I can really describe.  The fresh tomato pizza with anchovies was wonderfully balanced – the anchovies were obviously present but not overpowering.  The tomatoes popped with summer flavor.  Nancy dropped by a few times to make sure all was well - and was it!  While this looked like a huge quantity of food for seven, we had little problem devouring it all, even if I was responsible for more than my share.  These are the things we do in the name of research.
I enjoy pizza too much to name an absolute favorite other than Monaci, and let’s face it, it’s hard to compete with an ancient stone oven and a hilltop view of Umbria.  State-side, lots of places are doing great Neapolitan-style pizza, from Brooklyn’s Grimaldi’s to St. Louis’ The Good Pie to San Francisco’s A16.  Frank Pepe’s history and simplicity gives it a unique place in American pizza history.  For any pizza aficionado, Pepe’s is a must – it’s like visiting Fenway Park for a baseball fan or seeing a show on Broadway for musical fans.  Get to Pepe’s for a taste of pizza history.     

Monday, August 12, 2013

Eating Out of Place

For some odd reason I vividly remember learning the word anachronism in junior high.  I have no idea why we needed to know that word, but must admit that I have found it useful from time to time.  Driving through northeastern Ohio at 70 miles an hour, looking out the window, and seeing a horse and buggy traveling through an Amish community certainly brings the word to mind.  Getting excited to watch a movie like Breakfast at Tiffany’s or even Dirty Dancing feels rather anachronistic. The current trend in speakeasy-style bars and throwback cocktails captures the essence.  Eating out recently forced me to find a new, but similar word.  If an anachronism is something seemingly out of proper time, what is it when something is caught out of proper geography?

While visiting family in New England we needed to find an easy place to grab a lunch.  We decided that a Cracker Barrel would fit the bill.  I’ve never been a real lover of the place for anything but breakfast and have never been in one outside the Midwest and South.  In fact, I pretty much identify everything about the place with the Midwest and South.  We walked up the front patio, and like many chains, it simply felt like every other Cracker Barrel.  Then we opened the door.  Right in front was a table decked out in New England Patriots garb.  I suddenly felt completely confused.  Where was the John Deere table?  Wasn’t there a selection of Atlanta Braves or St. Louis Cardinals pajamas, shot glasses and hats?  A model of a red barn with See Rock City on the roof?   Patriots shirts, really?  This can’t be right.  Upon further inspection the rest of this Cracker Barrel looked like the others – classic candy, odd Halloween decorations, classic Coca Cola trays and flowery candle holders.  The menu even looked the same – not a lobster roll or clam dinner in sight.  The only thing on the menu I could place in New England was Vermont maple syrup.  I ate still wrapping my brain around seeing a Patriots table in a Cracker Barrel.  It felt so dramatically out of geographic place.  So what is a word for this? 
The word I needed, I later found out, is anatopism.  I got to thinking about this idea – of things being out of geographic context.  Of course I saw the intersection of food and travel.  Recently having some incredible avocadoes in Minneapolis rather than San Diego felt anatopistic.  Finding a good BBQ joint back home along Monterey Bay feels anatopistic.  I once had fried clams with bellies in a restaurant in Del Ray, Florida and was surrounded by Boston Celtics paraphernalia and other people wearing Red Sox gear sporting Bostonian accents and that sure felt like an anatopism.  Aren’t all Irish and British pubs outside the British Isles anatopisms?  American fast food places worldwide, some serving beer and wine and varieties of local foods – are they anapropisms or have they adapted to local culture? 

If we can agree that trying preserve local character, customs, and culture is important, are anatopisms threatening?  Do they threaten the local culture or just add to the diversity and curiosity of a place?  Do they bring far flung experiences to us when we can’t all afford elaborate travel?
Is pineapple on a pizza a mini-anatopism on a plate?  How about lobster in a burrito or sushi made with Maryland crab?  Are any of these things anatopisms or just evidence of globalization – or both?

What are your favorite or most disorienting anatopisms?   

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Eating New England

I grew up in New England, at least until the age of 8.  Extended family for the most part remained, and for the last twenty years or so I have spent some vacation time each year with family on the New England coast.  Now in my forties with two kids, I find myself reflecting quite a bit on where certain interests and passions come from.  All it takes is a brief return to New England to realize where so much originated.  I travel the roads driving from family event to tourist site to family event trying to explain this seemingly foreign culture and landscape to the kids in the back seat.  I can’t help but think about my youth and what remains.  I am a Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins fan, have thoroughly enjoyed the last decade or so, and feel comforted by hats and stickers everywhere.  I see housing developments hidden behind forests on the outskirts of small towns and realize I think housing developments should cut down a minimum of trees and keep the ponds, roads should have bends, yards should have stone walls and hardware stores should be small and locally-owned.  In the fall the forest should explode with color, and it ought to snow enough to plow.  On the perimeter of Boston and Providence I adjust to aggressive driving and realize that there’s nothing wrong with using the breakdown lane at rush hour or ignoring your blinker, lest you give the guy behind you a chance to cut you off.

My foodie passions and opinions also have New England roots.  Like most childhood memories, I know some of them are romanticized, but my returns to New England confirm that many of my ideas are founded in past and current reality.

I grew up in a world almost void of chains.  The closest McDonald’s to my house was at least 15 miles away and the closest with a playground was more than twice that far.  My neighborhoods were not lined with box stores and fast food restaurants.  Going out to eat called for patience and was rewarded with local creativity.  Fast food meant pizza and subs, and every town had a few places to choose from.  I suspect anyone my age or older anywhere in the country has memories of the world before chains took over.  

Aunt Carrie's in Narragansett, Rhode Island
The visuals of my childhood were filled with uniqueness – roads turned and traveled past stone walls and through small towns with various arrangements of church, town hall, library and general store.  Produce stands stood on the outskirts featuring seasonal, local foods grown on farms of human scale surrounded by forests.  The drive-thru didn’t exist and the only multi-colored lights on at night were small Narragansett and Schlitz signs in bar windows.  I didn’t see a generic suburbia until I was a teen.  This might all sound like a quaint childhood memory, but much of New England still feels this way.
As an adult foodie, I am seeing even more roots of my opinions and passions.  As a kid I didn’t know seafood was cooked any way but boiled, steamed or fried.  When I was about 11 my grandmother took me to Anthony’s Pier 4 in the Boston harbor, and I tried lobster Newberg, a dish combining of butter, cream, sherry, and cognac.  It was there that I decided that seafood should only be boiled, steamed or fried. (As an adult I can add broiled and grilled)  Fortunately, New England is still loaded with seafood shacks that do little more.  Spots with simple walk-up counters selling steamed or fried clams with bellies, broiled or fried sea and bay scallops, steamed lobsters, lobster roll, fish and chips with choices like haddock, cod, and flounder, but sadly no mushy peas, and perhaps clam chowder – these places abound.  They scream simplicity.  Some of them haven’t altered their menu in decades; the back-lit plastic has dried and become brittle and cracked.  If they’ve added anything they’ve just printed its name on a piece of paper and taped it to the menu on the wall. Salt, pepper and butter are the extent of flavoring.  Teens back from college work the counter and many of these places feature a little old lady who has worked the same window since the end of World War II.  Food is served in little paper boats with a side of tartar sauce.  What more can anyone want from seafood?  Some of my favorites are Ronnie’s in Auburn, MA, Aunt Carrie’s in Narragansett, RI, Captain Frosty’s in Dennis, MA, Bob’s in Kittery, ME, Day’s in South Yarmouth, ME and The Clam Box in Ipswich, MA.  You’ll notice that in New England Red Lobster, Captain D’s and Long John Silver’s are virtually non-existent.  There’s no need for them.  I can’t imagine New Englanders would tolerate them, much less patronize them.  Oh, how I wish someone on the California coast would open some real fish joints.  There are a few… Sam’s in Half Moon Bay, CA nails a lobster roll, and Phil’s in Moss Landing, CA is a good fish place, but every coastal town in New England has one or two spots that are just as good.  And unfortunately they don’t have whole-belly clams anymore.  My own California beachside village of Capitola would have three or four fish shacks if it were in New England.  It has none.  Business opportunity, anyone?              
Subway has made the sub sandwich ubiquitous nationwide.  I grew up knowing them as grinders.  The Jolly Giant in Worcester made the best Italian grinder – salami, capicola, mortadella, provolone, shredded lettuce, tomato, peppers, onions, olive oil, vinegar, salt, pepper and herbs.  Seemingly every grinder spot in New England has their Italian and others, including a meatball, a meatball and sausage, lobster salad, crab salad, and various melts.  You can also customize with meats, cheeses and veggies of your choice.  The bread had a slight crunch to the crust.  A special note – the meat was put on by the handful, not in layered, flat slabs and is cut paper thin.  It’s important that the meat not be flat – the bends and folds hold air and flavor and add to the texture.  Bushel ‘N Peck in Worcester still does a reasonable job.  Orbit in Holden, MA has a great meatball grinder.  I just had an Italian at Sweet Tomato’s in Chatham, MA that was ok.  Sadly, Jolly Giant has closed for good.  I am in search of an amazing, authentic and carefully crafted Italian grinder, but they do seem to be increasingly rare.  To my shock and horror, Subway is almost as common in New England as the rest of the country.  Jimmy John’s isn’t awful and their Vito (#5) satisfies a craving sometimes, but they don’t exist in New England.  Many of you can find one in your nearest college town.  Some basic sub/grinder rules learned at Jolly Giant – an Italian never has mayo or mustard.  For all grinders - the bread always crunches, the bread always is split down the middle, the meat is generously thrown on by hand, a grinder or sub is never grilled, crushed and heated unless a melt or meatball, and it’s always big enough to challenge you.  It isn’t available on whole wheat, gluten-free, seeded, sourdough, or sandwich bread.  It does not go on flat bread under any circumstances.  Follow the rules or call it something else – and that’s ok.  In fact, it is called many other things – hoagie’s, po’ boys, panini, etc. and that’s fine and they can all have their own rules and expectations.  All that said, many grinder places in New England have shunned these rules and now cater to all sorts of peccadilloes.  Whatever – just give me the authentic.            
After a wonderful day eating an Italian grinder for lunch and some fried seafood for dinner, how does a perfect New England day end?  Ice cream!  And not just any ice cream.  Step back Baskin-Robbins, Cold Stone and other pretenders.  In New England you get ice cream from your local, mom and pop shop and it is a fundamentally different product.  It truly does seem as though every coastal town has a half dozen, every inland region has a few and they all have lines, college kids waiting on you, giant servings, wonderful, classic flavors, souvenir t-shirts for the travelers and very few gimmicks.  What is a large three scoop on the West Coast is your basic, entry level in New England.  Flavors?  Black walnut, raspberry, Indian pudding, maple, ginger, frozen pudding, pistachio, and more.  Bubble gum, cake batter, peanut butter cup, or cookie dough?  They sure exist right alongside the classics.  Drive through the Cape or from Boston to Portland, Maine…how many could you count – seemingly hundreds and all with lines.  Frozen custard, frozen yogurt, soft-serve be damned….this is ice cream country!  Hard packed, rich, and served by hard-working teens with no corporate gimmicks.  This is the capital of ice cream!  I will eat more ice cream during a New England vacation than the rest of the year all together.  And when I do get ice cream at home, more often than not it’s gonna be my New England grocery store favorite…Ben & Jerry’s.  My favorite stops…Brown’s in York, ME, Pinecroft Dairy in West Boylston, MA, Brickley’s in Narragansett, RI, and The Ice Cream Smuggler in Dennis, MA.  To be fair, Marianne’s and Penny Creamery in Santa Cruz, CA fill the bill well when I am at home.

Much of the country, New England included, has fallen under the spell of the national, generic, standardized chains.  We are at risk of losing our regional characters.  Regional quirks in all corners are getting scooped up, homogenized and pushed out nationally.  Now we can get a Philly cheesesteak almost anywhere, Tex-Mex has long gone generic, and Buffalo wings are more identified with buffalos than Buffalo (WTF?).  I applaud the small shop owner who wants to bring a little bite of New England lobster roll to California or some real San Diego fish tacos to Florida.  Keep it real, but I don’t want to see it all standardized, dumbed-down and available from my car window at the lowest common denominator. Bring regional specialties to all of us, but do it authentically.  Tempt and inspire us come to New England for the full, authentic experience – and let’s preserve it so it remains available.  In fact, let’s try hard to keep all our local traditions excellent, from hushpuppies to gumbo, BBQ styles to chowder and chili styles.  Go to your local mom and pop place and preserve character and authenticity.   
What local idiosyncrasies did you fall in love with as a kid?  Do you have a favorite pizza or BBQ style?  Is there a certain way you think a taco should be prepared and served?  When you’re back home is there something you must eat to let you know you’re there?  What local culinary delights are you dismayed to see losing character and getting standardized nationwide?