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hungry

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Vintage German Advent calendar with very subtle Hansel and Gretel undertones. The angel in the upper left is about to munch on a hot pretzel.

There are lots of versions of Hansel and Gretel. This past week I read the most recent, so new that the book’s spine made a little creaking noise when I opened it. I got palpitations when I snatched it from the librarian’s hands and scurried home, one, because I’m an English nerd, specifically a folklore nerd; and two, because Neil Gaiman wrote it, and he’s no lily-livered twat who would shellac over snuggly themes like cannibalism and abandonment.

And bless his melancholic little heart, he didn’t do that. But despite the above, what struck me most was the gnawing, pervasive theme of hunger throughout his version. There’s the strictly food-hunger perspective:

-When we meet the children and their parents they are poor but not hungry. Soon, though, their country goes to war and they are always hungry. This propels the parents to leave Hansel and Gretel in the woods.

-The animals in the forest eat the bread crumbs Hansel has dropped to find the way back home.

-The children are so hungry that they eat bits from the old woman’s gingerbread house.

-The old woman is hungry for protein; her house is a trap for those who would snack on it.

But it’s also a story about how other kinds of hunger can motivate (for good and ill):

-The father doesn’t want to abandon his children, but his hunger to stay in his wife’s good graces makes him lead them into the forest.

-Hansel’s hunger to stay alive gives him wiles enough to trick the old woman into thinking he’s not getting fat enough to eat.

-Gretel’s hunger to save herself and her brother gives her wiles enough to feign stupidity and push the old woman into the oven.

-The father’s hunger to find his children and bring them home (and surely to assuage his guilt as well) sends him into the forest every day to search for them.

-The mother’s hunger (for what it is not clear, and even the author does not know) writes her early-death certificate.

It’s hunger—for food, certainly, but also for acceptance and for life and for freedom—that drives these characters.

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I’d be remiss if, in a post about hunger, I didn’t mention the hungry around us. Food shelters happily accept a single can of food or an SUV-ful. This week many supermarkets in the U.S. are asking patrons to donate a dollar or more to food banks as well. The other day the Pope spoke pretty powerfully about the dangers of greed, pinpointing it as our downfall if we keep turning a blind eye. It’s my hope that our hunger to do right will propel all of us to feed those who are food-hungry.

But in real life as in stories, there’s more to hunger than food-hunger; and no matter the variety, deprivation is all it’s cracked up to be. For those who are hungry in other ways—for attention, for a shoulder, for a laugh, for the truth, for a little peace—give a dollar’s worth if you don’t have much. Give more if your personal bank is in the black. Most of the time people, in my experience, are just hungry to be seen…really seen.

May we all be fed and be filled—bellies and hearts alike.

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royce’ chocolate

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Ready for action: chocolates in background, toothpicks and drop cup in foreground.

I’m a lifelong sweet-maker/eater, which in my case means I grew up making Duncan Hines cakes and somewhere along the line had a bite of homemade (the cold-truth wallop I needed). Today, a local specialty bakery sells my homemade candy, and occasionally I cater desserts for parties—with everything scratch-made. I can tell if a cookie has butter in it or shortening. I can tell Hershey’s from Mama Ganache*.

But there’s a whole lot I didn’t know, like, just for starters, that Japan has a taste-bud-blowing way with chocolate. Where did that come from? They know from fish, yes; delectable noodles, yes; immaculate presentation and technique, for sure. Chocolate…?

Well, first things first: all quality products start with a mindset of caring. You have to care; and if you do, the product will follow.

When I tried Royce’ Chocolate’s candies in the Village recently and was asked to come back to their Madison Avenue location for a more comprehensive tasting—well, at first I dilly-dallied, right, like you just met me, no, I was stunned at the luxurious mouth feel of these candies, and I couldn’t wait to learn more. Asian chocolates. I’m in.

The story of Royce’ Chocolate starts on Hokkaido, Japan’s northern-most island. Do you need a daydream worthy of usurping your job for an hour? Here: the island looks like the landscape beneath the snow-capped Alps, but carpeted in flowers. Google image Hokkaido because I’m not doing it justice. There really are places on earth that look like this. I kind of want to go now.

Here live the cows that produce milk and cream that are the basis of this chocolate. They get to eat what grows on Hokkaido. And I’ve also been lucky enough to spend time with artisanal cheesemakers who will tell you that what cows eat factors immeasurably into the final product, and which sounds obvious because it is. Look at a Hokkaido photo. I figure anything that ate what grew out of that ground would produce something akin to rainbows.

A final and groovy note: Royce’ Chocolate is easily more stringent about cleanliness than the Mayo Clinic. Workers must wear special uniforms and then go through fans that blow extraneous dust off of them as they enter work areas. Not impressed yet? The factory was deliberately designed without right angles, where dirt and dust can collect. Thank you very much.

Okay. So.

What we ate (my sister came along. Oh, the belabored arm twisting. You can tell we’re related.)

Potato Chip Chocolate Fromage Blanc–I’m open-minded, and I love chocolate, and potato chips, and cheese, but this threw me. I thought it would taste okay, tops. No. Awesome. Addictive.  Each chip is coated in white chocolate and fromage blanc cheese. Salty, crunchy, sweet, creamy.

Potato Chip Chocolate Original–Coated on one side with milk chocolate. This keeps the chips from becoming flabby; they were good and thick, and had a great crunch.

Maccha Almond Chocolates–Roasted almonds coated in white chocolate and then with green tea chocolate. (An obligatory word about white chocolate. Many hate it; to me, it’s always been just okay. I tried theirs, and forgive me for sounding like a QVC commercial, but it’s nothing like I’ve ever tried. It tastes like homemade vanilla fudge.)

Baton Cookie Hazel Cacao–A fragile, crisp hazelnut cookie, coated on one side with dark chocolate and infused with cacao nibs.

Marshmallow Chocolate Milk Coffee–I love these cuties. Tater-tot-sized marshmallows coated with coffee chocolate. Soft and lovely.

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Pure Chocolates Venezuela Bitter & Ghana Sweet–Simple medallions that showcase several different chocolate varieties, from white all the way to 90% cacao (that’s 90% cacao to 10% sugar). I love dark chocolate, but don’t usually go above the upper 60s because it usually tastes like dirt, to put it plainly. I tried the 80% and then the 90%, and was genuinely surprised that no matter how high the percentage, it remained smooth and complex. Not bitter at all. How did they do that? I’ll always be a 60s girl, but this was delicious.

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Prafeuille Chocolat Maccha–Green tea sauce sandwiched between green tea-infused chocolate. Very delicate and aromatic.

Duo Praline–Soft, white Maccha chocolate with ground green tea, covered with fragrant green tea sauce, and further covered in a milk chocolate shell.

Chocolate Wafers Hazel Cream–A really good-quality version of the wafer-and-icing cookies we grew up devouring. These have hazelnut cream between the wafers and are coated with chocolate.

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And these tasted like chilled chocolate butter cream.

Many thanks to Athena Pappas, who did the gracious inviting, serving, and question-answering. She’s at the Madison Avenue store. (They have three locations—here as well as in Bryant Park and the Village.)

I’m happy to chirp about a company I like, so please take this as an emphatic chirp: this chocolate is exquisite for holiday gifts, unlike any your giftees have tasted. Royce’ Chocolates made with cream need refrigeration, and the stores provide a complimentary ice pack and insulating bag for them.

Have a creamy Christmas.

Royce’ Chocolate

New York, NY

royceconfectusa.com

 

*Then again, so can a lemur.

scents memory

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Fall is such an evocative season. Since it happens to be fall, and you caught me mid-evoke, let’s expound on that.

Last week I was walking by the realtors’ office downtown, housed in a 100+ year-old building, and their door was open. The scent coming out of the office was one I haven’t smelled in 30 years: it brought me back to my aunts’ and uncle’s immaculately-kept house. Quite inexplicably. And awesomely.

Then there was the time I heard Mario Batali on TV rhapsodizing about marjoram, an herb not used in my house growing up, nor in my own as an adult. I bought a jar of it, opened it, and time-travelled again: I was a toddler, it was 1973, and I was looking at a storybook that featured a bunny and scratch and sniff panels, one of which must have featured marjoram.

I never saw that coming. I hadn’t even remembered that book until I smelled that herb. Curious as to why the author included it; what an unusual choice. Again, though, not complaining. It was incredibly cool.

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The smell of

…Grand Marnier will always and forever remind me of the copiously-spiked whipped cream my dad used to make.

…hot French fries and salt air means home.

…yeast means Easter bread. (I talk about this adventure a lot. Like a whole lot.)

…balsam brings me back to the living room of one of my childhood best friends.

…cinnamon means many things, but topping that list is my mom’s sour cream coffee cake. It won an honorable mention at the county fair one year; the judges’ only real quibble was that they wanted more of the gooey filling inside. (I have since, and wisely, doubled the filling. I know you’re all relieved to hear.) The picture above totally doesn’t do it justice because I don’t have a Bundt pan, which I’ll admit is egregious.

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Where do smells take you?

29 figs and 1 marauder

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The following account details a situation I should have handled like an adult and, head bowed, I regret I did not. Or maybe, okay, that entire sentence was a total head fake.

So it’s fig season, running a little late since it was a cool summer. I am lucky enough to know a farmer who grows them, and luckier still that a fair amount of customers don’t even know it. The clear upshot of this is that I end up with a shameless amount of figs, and eat most of their fat gorgeous selves on the way home.* Locally grown figs aren’t all that easy to come by, and for that reason I include them with Italian white truffles, or patience on the New Jersey Turnpike, in their rarity and in the hushed tones in which I speak of them. I love them, and while normally I am a kind and sharing person, I leave that person in the back of my Honda with my yuppie canvas shopping bags during fig season, to come back out again at Thanksgiving time and thrive just until the stuffing is served.

I was at the farm last week, and asked the girl at the counter if I could please go fig slinging. I leaned. I whispered. She and the farmer discussed it, during which another woman overheard and squealed. ‘Oh, you have figs? I love figs! Where are they?’

Did I wail to the heavens? Did I go all Jeff Gillooly? No. I took down a couple of baskets and offered to walk the nice lady out to the trees.

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Quite obviously not figs but dried thistle flowers, or possibly artichokes (they’re in the same family) that grow alongside the fig trees. Coolness.

That totally smacks of Snow White and the hunter, but you can relax. Much wile can be applied under the guise of nice, as any Thin-Mints-quota-driven Girl Scout can tell you. As we walked, the woman asked how to tell if a fig is ripe. I told her it’s been a cool year, and that goodness me, it has been tough to find a ripe fig; and we’re likely to have the same situation that cool and drippy day.

She went on one side of the row of trees and I went on the other. She’s chatting and sharing fig recipes, I’m chatting and marvelling that not everyone eats them all on the way home, and she’s saying, ‘Are you getting many? Wow—you’re right. There just aren’t that many to be had,’ while I am making agreeable tut-tut-it’s-a-shame noises while slipping fig after ripe fig into my coat pockets. Well, I couldn’t put them into the basket or she’d see how many I was picking. And…I was wearing decades-old, secondhand shoes, and I don’t have any problem at all with ducking under leaves to look for hidden fruit. This very nice woman, on the other hand, looked like she was going straight from the farm to Ann Taylor Loft, with her skinny jeans tucked into smart leather booties, and hair combed and everything.

She went to pay (she told me she found five figs) and I stayed on. I live a half hour away, and she told me she lives three houses away. She’s going to end up getting more figs as long as she thinks to visit more often than I do. But then again, maybe not. She’d have to wear crap shoes like me and be willing to brush spiderwebs out of her nose. She really didn’t seem the type.

I did well, as the title reveals. And I’ll be back this week.

*I do have recipes, but due to my above weakness they don’t usually see the light of day.

naming

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This is sassafras, which apparently makes a delightful root-beer-like drink that I have yet to try.

I love going off-roading and picking out plants. Especially the edible ones, because then I can add their location to the ever-increasing list of minutiae in my grey cells, and come back when their season hits. Oh, there’s a blackberry cane, I say to myself; wow, that is one colossal patch of garlic chives. I get a bang out of finding beeches, sycamores, mulberries, crab apples—trees people don’t tend to plant anymore because they’re considered messy.* I know them all well. To me, this isn’t just green stuff sticking out of the grass; it’s friends. I’m serious.

Walking through Huber Woods in Locust, NJ last spring, chill as a coconut granita, I thought of how many people I know who are uncomfortable in nature. I don’t mean uncomfortable camping, although the two probably go hand in hand. I mean just walking and bellyaching: ‘This is boring, is that poison ivy, what if a bug looks at me,’ etc.

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This is a pine tree, easy to discern from other evergreens in that its branches stick straight out like arms, parallel to the others.

Did you read the second book in the Wrinkle in Time series, called A Wind in the Door? In it, the characters are in a void and at risk of being ‘X-ed’—that is, wiped out, in Madeleine L’Engle’s cool vernacular. The only way they can be recovered is by what the author calls ‘Naming.’ Heroine Meg figures this out, calls by name everyone out of the void, and saves them all. The Naming re-integrates body, mind, and soul—makes them whole again.

And it occurred to me that I had practically grown up outdoors, and moreover had worked at Huber Woods as a naturalist, cuddling snakes, walking-stick insects**, and other assorted beasties. These things, once I knew what they were and learned about them, were as comfortable to me as the eight-year-old mint-green fleece I have on right now. If you know a lot about your surroundings, that makes a giant difference in whether you feel like a granita there, or as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers.

Names are powerful. If I can continue being a booky nerd for one more paragraph, let’s remember why John Proctor chooses to walk off to his death at the end of The Crucible.*** He’s happy to lie and say he’s a witch, as long as it’s verbally. But ask him to sign his name to the charges, and that’s where he draws the line. When you attach a name to something, that something gets imbued with power—sometimes for good, like in Meg’s case, or in ill, like in Proctor’s. He didn’t want his name, his very identity, stapled to a lie.

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These are tufts of coyote fur. I actually saw one trooping through Huber Woods one day. Told the rest of the nats and they didn’t believe me.

But the power of a name is good when it comes to nature. It gives us the ability to discern what’s around us, and can help us to relax. I think of earlier this year, when my friend Laura asked me to check the back of her property to see if she had any poison ivy. She wasn’t freaked out about it or anything; she’s just a gardener who’s out in the grass a lot, and was smart to want to know. And now she knows there isn’t any.

I love when my friend Lauren, a talented photographer, shows me a photo she took of a bird and asks its name, or gets excited when I name a flower she shot. She told me when she and her husband (a chef) go on hikes, her husband points out edible plants to their children, and often they all take a nibble. What a profoundly useful gift—to teach the kids to embrace the earth instead of to be afraid of it.

Bottom line: we’ve all gotten so detached from the earth that we have no idea what’s around us. Yesterday I picked wild crab apples and a little girl told me she thought they were cherries. Okay—she was three. Fair enough.

But an hour later an adult said the same thing to me. Cherries have a brief seasonal window, something like 2-3 weeks, in late spring. In other words, the adult was way off, and I’m sure it’s because supermarkets provide more or less the same produce all year round. I see this as a grave problem, and just goes to show I have a lot more work to do to educate. Not to spit in the eye of Madison Avenue (though I’m certainly not above it), but to re-acquaint, re-familiarize, and encourage people to see and feel and taste what’s growing in its own time. Because right now we’re lost in a void, and it scares me.

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These are wild strawberries (sadly, the ones without much flavor. Yellow flowers pre-berry denote no-flavor strawberries. It’s the white flowers you want for that incredible wild strawberry flavor. They’re my white whale).

On your next hike, take a reliable field guide with you. It’s cool, I’m telling you. Look up the plants and animals and birds you see. Name them.

And how wild would it be if you Naming them, getting to know them, getting comfortable with them, re-integrates us—helps to make us all whole again?

Or along with the field guide, take me along with you. You know I’d totally dig it.

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This is a groundhog. He and his ilk may look like Sherman tanks but they move like MiG-31 jets.

*Wow—made it to Sentence 4 before throwing in an editorial about today’s societal wussiness. Milestone.

**Hyperbole. I wouldn’t advise it. They’re really cute, but break easily.

***If you’re under 15 and haven’t read it in school yet: spoiler. Oops.

vintage birthdays

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From the days when birthday cards could be seasonal too. This is dated 1979.

I’ve worked lots of birthday parties for kids over the years—magician/illusion parties and face painting parties at different venues, cooking, crafts, and creative games parties at the JCC and parks system. They’re usually on a Saturday or Sunday, and parents of the miniature guests stay the entire time.

It’s a lot different from when I was little, when kids’ birthday parties were held at home for a couple of hours after school. In my case, my mom hired our favorite babysitter to help out with the games, and my aunts would walk over to help out. Moms dropped their kids off, and my friends wore dresses, stockings, and Mary Janes (we called them ‘party shoes’). We played games, then we opened presents, then we ate. Food was minimal; usually just cake, at the end, because we were only an hour or so outside of dinnertime. Done and over.

I can see the appeal of having birthday parties out of the house. First you have to clean the house, then you have the party, then you have to clean again; and that’s right after you organized games and cake and crowd control from 3:30-5. And more moms today work, and couldn’t do a weekday party even if they wanted to.

But I liked our way. Here’s why: If all of the kids today are having their parties at Gymboree, you’re signing up for a colored-blocked version of the movie Groundhog Day: the same party over and over and bloody over. There were no cookie-cutter parties back then, because the parents (usually the mom) took full reign on who and what to have at her house.

Years later my friends remembered the birthday parties I’d had when we were little, and I would bet hard cash that even today they’d remember. I was kind of famous for having the same game at all of my birthday parties. We lapped it up.

An October birthday is a pumpkin-theme requisite, and my mom either heard of or came up with the idea* for a pumpkin hunt, right in the house.**

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Even earlier–probably around 1977.

-First you buy as many sugar pumpkins as there will be guests at the party. Buy ones with stems attached. Place them in different locations throughout the house—up steps, down steps, into other rooms, around corners.

-Next, cut butcher’s twine in really long pieces—one for each pumpkin.

-Tie the end of one string to each pumpkin. Then walk each string to the middle of the living room rug.

-When you’re done, you’ll have a lot of string ends grouped onto the rug. Have each party-goer pick up one end of each string, and at the count of three have them follow it until she finds her pumpkin. There will be much bumping and limbo-style dodging and swerving and laughing.

-With a permanent marker, write the name of each guest on the underside of her pumpkin, and place them on the floor by the door. These are the party favors.***

One of my favorite specialty stores used to make the awesomest design for Halloween sheet cakes, and that was what I had for a birthday cake. It was the five little pumpkins sitting on a gate (like the Halloween poem we learned in nursery school****), in orange, green, and brown butter cream, all on a vanilla butter cream background. They still make their cakes and fillings and frostings from scratch, but regrettably, they don’t make that design anymore. One of these days I will recreate it myself.

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*And she reads this blog and has a memory like a steel trap, so she’ll let me know.

**You could do this outside, too, if you had a lot of yard and a sunny forecast.

***Or, if the kids are old enough and you have Xena-like powers of ambition, spread newspapers on the dining room table or outdoor picnic table, hand out smocks, and let the kids carve.

***I looked for a youtube video, but they’re all saying it wrong. This is the early 70s, Central NJ way.

Five little pumpkins sitting on a gate.

The first one said, ‘Oh my, it’s getting late!

The second one said, ‘There are witches in the air.’

The third one said, ‘I don’t care.’

The fourth one said, ‘Let’s run and run and run.’

And the fifth one said, ‘It’s Halloween fun!’

WHOOO went the wind and OUT went the light

And the five little pumpkins rolled out of sight.

three trees

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I picked quinces from a lone tree on Route 35 yesterday, because this is what crazy people do in their downtime, and I have the oven heating up right now so I can bake my little tart crusts for them.

Let’s back up.

Last year around this time I took a jughandle* and ended up heading east on this same stretch of highway. Between two parking lots, one belonging to a repair shop and one belonging to a defunct Asian restaurant, I spied with my little eye a very weathered fruit-bearing tree. This is something that makes my heart race, and I have given up trying to figure out why. I didn’t know what the fruit was—it had a yellowish-green cast, so it was either pears, Golden Delicious apples, or quinces (all botanical cousins)—but by the time I had the opportunity to get back out there again, they’d all dropped and were gone.

Yesterday I went back, and they were so gnarled that even after I pulled them down I still wasn’t completely sure what they were. Either pears or quinces. Here’s 5-foot-3 me, jumping to grab equally gnarled branches to get a hold of the fruit as cars tear past me, their owners likely wondering what I’m smoking. I got six of them.

It wasn’t until they were in the warm car for a while that they gave me their name: quinces. (There they are above.) Swanky women in days past used to put quinces inside their dresser drawers; it was their version of potpourri. The quince and its cousins the apple and pear are in the Rose family. But unlike their cousins, the quince cannot be eaten raw.** You cook it in a sugar syrup with cinnamon, or in red wine. The flavor and aroma are exquisite, like an apple or pear that’s just returned from holiday on the Italian Riviera and is full of delicious secrets that it finally pens in its later years, then pokes into the fire. This is a fruit that most people haven’t heard of or seen, and it tends to be expensive. Oh, but not this time.

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Just ate one. Good stuff. I forgot to prick the dough (as you can see) before I blind baked them, so they came out more like flaky cookies than tart shells, but I can handle a flaky cookie.

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Next we have the fruits, literal and figurative, of a walk I took to the beach a couple of days ago. I have a modest apartment in the kind of town that manicures everything, even the lion statues that stand post at their driveways.*** Enormous 100-year-old seaside Colonials maintained within an inch of their lives. It’s nice, but I’m more comfortable with the rustic and unprettified. I found it without even looking, between two properties owned by summer visitors, just steps to the street. And that translates to The Apples Are Mine.**** They, along with the quinces above, are examples of unsprayed, unwaxed fruit—something else the average person doesn’t usually see. This is how fruit looked to our great-grandmothers.

And I was startled to find a bonus: a crabapple tree that had been grafted to this old apple tree.

Haven’t decided what to make with them yet, but they’re so fresh that I can take my time deciding.

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So there you have it: a blithe admission that I am not above foraging from abandoned or forgotten trees. Why should I be?

‘Wait, Maris—that’s it?’ says the observant reader. ‘You said three trees, and we know you’re crap at math, but…’

I didn’t forget. There’s one more: a persimmon tree, the only one I know of in my area. Today I went by to check its progress. Coming along nicely, don’t you think? ;)

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*It’s a way to turn around on NJ highways. Along with pork roll, makes out-of-staters scratch their heads at us.

**Maybe not ‘cannot,’ but if you did, you’d be sorry. It’s tough and astringent. Let’s say ‘you’re better off not.’ There.

***Maybe hyperbole, maybe not.

****And the deer’s. I was surprised to find scat under the tree, just a 1/2 block to the ocean. Amazing. Until about 3 years ago, I’d never ever seen a deer in my area, and certainly not so close to the beach. Times be changin’.

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