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Posts Tagged ‘Jersey Shore’

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Salted-caramel vanilla and dark chocolate. It was a chocolate day.

I was back in Princeton last Sunday in order to eat ice cream. I say this without the faintest trace of shame. Apparently so were the 15 people ahead of me in line at the bent spoon. It was an eerie, balmy 64 degrees in late February. But the temperature matters not. Not when it comes to this place. More on that later.

For the past three years I’ve done prop design for the February show at my alma mater, which is near Princeton. And I arrange time to get ice cream as often as I can over the course of the contract, even though it’s around an hour to the school and another 20 beyond that to Nassau Street and the smarterati. I love the trip, I love the town, and I love that scream.

Ice cream is not much of a gamble; in my experience, at worst, it’s just okay. (Calling ‘just okay’ in this case ‘plain vanilla’ would be too gratuitous. Uh oh; I said it anyhow.) I have never had bad ice cream, with the exception of one place here at the Jersey Shore that touts its product as healthy, but quite resembles very cold malleable plastic. Melt down the clear plastic bins from Target that you use to store soccer cleats in your garage, pop them in the freezer overnight, and you’d have this. It’s test-tube ice cream. No milk, I don’t think. I doubt a cow was even consulted.

This ice cream place, the bent spoon, is the polar opposite. It goes beyond even good ice cream, the way some farms go beyond organic. It is a tiny, tiny place that somehow manages to offer a few dozen varieties of ice cream and sorbet every day (along with homemade hot chocolate, marshmallows, and baked goods), and they make a point to be seasonally and locally driven.

Princeton is blessed by location, and we patrons are the enormously lucky beneficiaries. The town is at the western end of the state, and borders farmland. It’s hard to overstate how proud the region is of its produce; nearly every food venue offers locally grown products and makes sure we know it.

The picture above is no example of local, I’ll admit. But the calendar has plenty to work with: strawberry and honeysuckle in spring, sweet corn in summer, apples and pumpkin in fall. The bent spoon owners want us to taste where we come from, and where we come from is the Garden State. Even in winter the place makes ice cream flavored with evergreen; it’s spicy and heady.

I’ve gotten two scoops on days that are 36 degrees, days where the bitter wind whips down the sidewalks of Palmer Square, but does devotion care for temperature? Does love follow rules?

We closed the show last weekend, and my trips to Princeton are benched for now. But I’ll be back with the honeysuckle.

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All through the ’70s and ’80s, on the first Saturday or Sunday (I forget which) of August, I did the same thing every year: Before my family would get in the car in the morning with all of our beach stuff, I’d walk down to the driveway’s apron and look north, a block and a half to the ball field, to see the flags posted. It was the official signal that volunteers were setting up our small town’s annual picnic. All kids love rituals—I defy you to show me one that doesn’t—but this kid is nutty about them. Another picnic!

(A note: Have you ever heard someone use the expression ‘small town,’ and then you find out it has 7500 people? Yeah, a recent census clocked in Interlaken, NJ at 820 residents. Small. Town.)

My best friend at the time lived a few streets away, and he called this event Interlaken Day. We just called it the picnic. It was neighbors, people who tiptoed over icy streets to my family’s annual Eggnog Party on New Year’s Day, who plowed out our driveway without asking when it snowed. We waved and called each other over from porches all summer. And it was extended family, many of whom who lived in town with us. The picnic was kind of like a reunion between people you never really said goodbye to in the first place.

During the day there were games and races, but not being especially sporty types, we kids never missed them. We’d walk over after the beach, around dinnertime. My parents would head under the trees, where all of the grownups would be parked in lawn chairs. Many of my relatives weren’t big beach people, so they made of day of it: three aunts (sisters), uncles, and lots of older cousins—the first- and second-removed type. They’d ask us how the beach was, and if we’d eaten yet. Italians, you understand.

One of my removed-type cousins was a plumber who had a glossy black toupee and a jolly demeanor—an admirable combination. He manned the beer stand and introduced the band, which was made up of local people. When he got old enough, my third cousin John ran the corn table and then the hot dog table; the latter were courtesy of lifelong residents, the Haydus, who lived a block away and had a hot dog company.

When we were little there were pony rides led by my babysitter, another resident. No Moonwalks or anything like that. They weren’t invented yet; and besides, people would have figured if you were at a ball field outfitted with ponies, a jungle gym, basketball and tennis courts, and a bunch of grass to run around on, anything extra was silly. Which it is.

One year we brought my dog to the picnic, a perpetually hungry Lhasa Apso, and while my parents were chatting with neighbors he ate a carton of sauerkraut that someone had spilled beer into. When we went home that night he drank a full bowl of water in one go.

I live right next to my hometown. Last Friday I saw signs posted around advertising that the the picnic was to take place the following day. We used to get notices in the mail on pale blue paper in the beginning of the summer. Maybe they still do that, too.

In the morning I went out to see if the flags were up. They were.

In the late afternoon I took to my bike and rode by. I saw people sitting under the trees, and food booths with little awnings, which was new. Still no Moonwalk, mercifully. Instead of a band they piped in music: it was Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.

I remembered a year I rode my bike to the picnic. It must have been 1986 because that was when the Monkees went on their 25th anniversary tour, MTV had a marathon of their ’60s TV show to promote the tour, and I became a rabid fan. I remember coasting through the streets humming, ‘The Girl That I Knew Somewhere’ (which is a fantastic song, and because you’re just dying to know, it was featured in the episode that guest-starred Julie Newmar.) I remembered the late-afternoon sun through the trees, riding with no hands, and a hot dog in the forecast.

Most of my family is long passed. The rest have moved away. I didn’t have anyone to visit under the trees when I went by yesterday. But the picnic was pretty much the same.

I think the biggest surprise you get when you become an adult is not that you have to work and pay taxes and take on responsibilities. You knew that was coming.

It’s how suddenly things change. Sometimes the changes are subtle, and other times they clobber you upside the head and blindside you. You climb a mountain and say to yourself, Okay, good, I’ve worked hard, I’ve got my footing, I’m getting the hang of this mountain, I can do this, and then you find out it’s not really a mountain, it’s actually really a river, and now you have to learn to swim, and you didn’t bring enough sunblock.

But people still sit under the trees at a picnic in a tiny town at the Jersey Shore. As I write this I’m walking in my memory, crunching over the first fallen acorns, telling my relatives the beach today was good; and starving, as all 12-year-olds, and Lhasa Apsos, are.

And they still set the flags first thing in the morning. They’ve been doing that for half a century or more. It’s not my family and my neighbors now. But it’s cool enough.

La la la la life goes on.

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Years ago Gourmet Magazine* published an article about a Scandinavian woman who, like the rest of her countrymen and women, grew up foraging. She took the lifestyle quite in stride, speaking of it the way the rest of us speak of lacing up New Balances. Hunting for chanterelles for breakfast with her grandparents, nibbling on bits of pasture as she walked home from school, she said with no pretense that her country was edible.

Someday I will forage in Scandinavia with faithful Swedish reader Pelle as my guide, I hope. In the meantime, I am determined to gobble up my own country, starting with the Jersey Shore. For the past couple of weeks I have been extracting local flavors and making simple syrups. Granulated sugar, cold filtered water brought to a boil, immersion—1:1:1.

My pastry chef friend Matthew made macarons with lilacs a couple of weeks ago, and you read about the results last week. I have since been drenching pieces of my olive oil-almond cake in it every day. The rest I poured into a one-gallon freezer bag, labelled, and popped into the freezer.

Matthew wondered aloud if wisteria is edible. I looked it up, discovered the flowers are (a member of the pea family. Look above: Don’t they look like sweet peas?), and grabbed my clippers. It dangles from the trees that surround my lake. I will not say how close I came to falling in, nor what the waterfowl were likely thinking as they watched me test the brush that was the only barrier between me, the brackish water, and them. I snipped a few blossoms (see above) and jumped to safety. Then I took them home, separated the flowers from the stems, and put the flowers in a nice warm bath. The flavor is lighter, sweeter, and more delicate than the deeply perfumed lilac.

Next up: wild peppermint, which I found last spring at a time when I really needed a treat in my life. Soon after I made a big bowl of truly fantastic tabbouleh, with all local vegetables and really bloody local mint. This time around I need a treat again and can’t wait until the tabbouleh vegetables are ready, so instead I clipped about six cups’ worth and made more syrup.

This one was a like a smack upside the head: The whole house smelled like mint for the rest of the day.

I have always hated mint-flavored things, never could understand the immense appeal of chocolate-chip mint ice cream. To me it always seemed like eating a giant, cold heap of toothpaste. But when you start with an actual plant, the whole ballgame changes. The peppermint syrup is grassy, pungent—a knockout. It, too, went into the freezer. And mint being mint, I know I’m good for more, as much as I want, until just after frost.

In cocktails, in marshmallows, in marzipan…there’s no end in sight to what I can do with these syrups. And don’t look now, but honeysuckle season is right on our heels. And elderflower, too. Another newbie!

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Below we have the fruits of my flowers: lilac, wisteria, and peppermint syrups, respectively. Totally digging that the mint at right is faintly green.

I can’t wait to see what else is out there. The earth never fails to be there for me, to teach me about starting over, and to surprise me.

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*Will I ever stop mourning the loss of this publication?**

**Nope.

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As the days begin to lengthen, the cold begins to strengthen. Right now it’s 12 degrees F at the New Jersey Shore, and everyone on Facebook is comparing our temperature to that of Anchorage, AK (32F) and Davis Station, Antarctica (31F). It’s totally whack.

I’ve been staying warm working backstage which, with the stage lights lending their colorful gusto, is about 85 degrees. Outside, the ice has been a femme-fatale combo platter of treacherous and strikingly beautiful. Most people don’t stoop to take pictures of the snowflakes trapped in the ice at the bottom of their driveways.

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But I’m not most people.

And a recent fire destroyed some of the stores and homes in Ocean Grove. I did my laundry in the laundromat a few doors down. It was intact, but smelled strongly of smoke. People did what they did when 9/11 struck and when Hurricane Sandy struck: wandered a little, stunned; collected provisions for those who has lost their own; and cleaned up. Water from the fire hoses froze in the trees in the foreground—an eerily beautiful counterpoint to the burned debris behind them.

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And I’ve been in the kitchen, for a change. I love Valentine’s Day, and filled orders for European-style chocolate truffles (55% semisweet Ghirardelli chocolate, cream, and sweet butter rolled in cocoa powder or topped with fleur de sel). I am told hearts were warmed, which makes me happy.

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And I made marzipan. The candy hearts were sold at The Flaky Tart in the Atlantic Highlands, NJ.

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The Japanese maple branches and dragonflies (detail below) were pitches for Confections of a Rock$tar in Asbury Park…

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…along with a little (2″) dinosaur egg. This little guy warms my heart, as he did for the shop proprietor. Hey, it’s almost hatching season.

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silly putty

Figure drawing, college. We had to draw a hand grasping something. This is a Silly Putty egg. I spared you the one with the Lady Speed Stick.

I used to have this problem with talking. It wasn’t a larynx thing, mind you—it was a chicken thing. But while the universe gives us locusts and Ann Coulter and Ebola, it also gives us many ways to express ourselves besides talking. This is a plus.

Here are the ways that worked for me. Feel free to swipe any or all.

1) Art

If you have a good teacher, and I had a lot of them, you can learn a lot more than art in art class. Miss Lieneck, for example, used to say, ‘draw with your eraser.’ In other words, get comfortable with taking away as well as with adding.

Lesson: Editing is crucial to quality.

I was used to drawing my still-lifes small, in the center of the paper. In another class, Katy made me draw to the edges—to cover every inch of the 18×24″ paper.

Lesson: Think big. Force your brain out of that tiny space.

Katy also had us set up our own still-lifes, and we were told to draw them from unorthodox vantage points. She was an ex-hippie who let her two-year-old daughter stretch masking tape all over one side of the room while we drew on the other side. In other words, she was exactly what I needed. I drew the below sitting cross-legged from the top of a three-drawer file cabinet, perched on a paper cutter.

At one point Katy suggested I go with the plant’s curved stem and make something new out of it. Blew my mind, honest to God, that I could actually choose to do that. Wait, I’m in charge of what I create?

Lesson: Make yourself look at the world from a new perspective. If you’ve never tried your own, give that a whirl.

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Be kind. I was 17.

2) Writing

It can be fun, not to mention ferociously lucrative, to BS around with writing, but my teachers giggled at that prospect. In high school we were constantly nabbed with the red pen when we weren’t clear with our assertions. Probably the most common school-wide margin scrawl on our essays was ‘Proof??’ This is why I’m not writing for Philip Morris.

Lesson: You can say anything you want as long as you back it up. Death to ambiguity.

3) Cooking

Then the spoken word finally burst forth! Like Bruce Banner’s biceps out of his shirt sleeves when he was served a grande instead of a venti!* Right? Nope. Not yet, anyway.

That took time and piles of therapy. But the reason why I didn’t implode and make a disaster all over one portion of the Jersey Shore is because I was nevertheless talking—through my drawing, through my writing. And through cooking.

Cooking is something I’ve done since I was a wee child, working my way up from cookies and muffins to being the go-to Easter bread dough kneader. I don’t draw every day (not even close, considering for the first half of my life I drew as often as I brushed my teeth, or more). I don’t write every day. But I cook every day. It’s helpful when one wants to eat. But it’s also valuable and powerful expression. I’m untrained, but I picked up a few things on my own.

I cook when I want to sort through a dilemma, or when I need to step away from a problem. I cook when I want to celebrate, or when I want to connect with someone. I cook when I’m upset, and also when I’m feeling all nesty and cozy. I cook when I want to speak but it’s not the right time, or it’s just not appropriate. I cook when there seem to be too many loose ends in my life that I can’t control, and I need to do something that has a concrete start and finish so I can sleep. This generates an awful lot of food, but darned if it doesn’t work.

These days I don’t usually have a problem with talking. But I’m saluting the universe for giving me options in speaking, and for the teachers who insisted that every expression be strong and clear. And I can’t forget the people around me who help share the spoils. My freezer’s only so big.

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*I’m clear, but I didn’t say I was good.

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Well, hiya!

Finally, after three weeks of Hurricane Sandy-imposed Luddism, my internet connection has been reinstated. (Being disconnected was a drag, but there was certainly one bright spot in it: I missed the graphic photos, videos and commentary about the destruction, especially here at the Jersey shore. I saw plenty just walking around my own neighborhood.) And after having no power for 11 days, staying in the dark and cold for six of them, and panicking about weather, losses among my friends and neighbors, endless gas lines and more, let’s put it this way: I’d rather direct my attention to comfort. Hence this post.

Below are shots I took on a recent, pre-Sandy visit to Ben’s Best in Queens, that despite its size (tiny) is an institution when it comes to authentic Jewish delicatessen. My brother and sister-in-law took me there for a belated birthday present. Clearly they know me well.

The shots below are about bounty rather than loss, bringing together rather than ripping apart, and warmth rather than cold. The trip and the food were both fantastic, but memories of them have taken on an extra layer of significance in light of the mess of the last few weeks.

I’m neither Jewish nor a grandmother; nevertheless, I offer these shots in the spirit of those great comforting women. Warm up with me.

Fried kreplach with caramelized onions.

Stuffed cabbage with tangy sweet and sour sauce.

Kreplach as dumplings in chicken soup. The mug it’s served in has emblazoned on the side: ‘Jewish Penicillin.’

My brother’s brisket sandwich.

My sister-in-law’s ‘Chicken in a Pot’. Huge. Massive. As big as a foot bath. She took half home.

Saved the best for last. This is my pastrami sandwich, fall-apart tender, salty salty, sliced thinly, and served on soft rye. Might be the prettiest thing ever.

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Soft shell crab sandwich, The Circus Drive In, Wall.

Been chowing some of our best-loved treats here at the Shore and wanted to share them with you.

My mom loves the fried soft shell crab sandwich at The Circus. It’s somewhat unnerving to lift the bun and see an entire crab lying there in state, but one taste—just utter sweetness—and you’ll get over it. A seasonal restaurant, The Circus’s site announces their opening day not as opening day but when ‘Flaps open’ 🙂 Here, a waitress comes out to your car and delivers your food on a tray that she hooks onto your window. Mom’s been coming here since her high school days in the 1950s. The pulled pork has a bit more kick than others I’ve tried—a welcome change.

Pulled pork sandwich, The Circus Drive In, Wall. Shot this on my lap in the car.

The best fries at the Shore are at the Windmill, and everyone here knows it. If you’re going make a point to consume a positively alarming amount of fat and carb calories, you might as well love every minute (words to live by).

Windmill french fries, Allenhurst Boardwalk, facing Asbury Park.

Okay, Freehold’s not really the Shore, but it’s only twenty minutes west and I’d be remiss to ignore this cake. Had a slice of it when visiting my friend’s restaurant. It was saturated with creaminess—cold, rich, and delicate all at the same time—and so good that I actually got emotionally involved with it. But I ate it anyway.

Tres leches cake, A Little Bit Of Cuba Dos, Freehold.

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