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Posts Tagged ‘restaurants’

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The holiday season is a cranium-clocker of a monkey wrench when you’re told to keep an eye on your sugar intake. Ten years or so ago I significantly lowered the amount I eat, but of late, have had to reduce it further. A treat now and then is fine, but when you bake a cake for yourself, that’s some ten or twelve treats. And if you only eat certain cakes once a year, and really look forward to them…well, let’s just say the treat quotient adds up.

I wasn’t about to bend on making my favorite holiday cakes. I have to have two—sour-cream cinnamon chocolate chip cake, and sour-cream coffee cake. I’d already reduced the sugar in them, and had for a few years. But now I either had to reduce it further, or go without. I think we both know what happened.

Solid recipes stand up to almost anything, thank goodness.

The result was surprising. When you’re already accustomed to tasting less of one thing, everything else on stage steps forward to mug for the audience. (This is why I rhapsodize about restaurants who have the stones to serve a plain dessert on a plate. It means they trust that it can hold its own without a pile of goo on top.) Going even further: Making a cake with far less sugar, even than usual, made the other ingredients pop that much more…and the biggest diva in this cast of ingredients was butter.

As I ate, I thought about the things in our lives that we’re used to doing, and the things we’re obliged to change for whatever reason. Granted, some things just don’t fly, and never will.*

But who among us, biting into warm homemade cake and eagerly awaiting the first hit of flavor, would snub butter?

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*Things That Don’t Work Despite Any Amount of Optimism
1. Driving while eating yogurt
2. Bruce Willis’s 1987 R&B album
3. Me wearing anything Empire-cut

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Whenever I tell people I’m a food writer they always assume I have Food Network standards, or that I’m a gourmet cook. And God knows I hate to be a buzzkill, but here I go.

Re: the first allegation—while the Food Network does hire some decent people, they also have no problem bringing on hacks who can decorate, or swear, or mug like rock stars, but not, you know, cook. In too many cases, shock value is what goes; the food, let alone the quality of it, is almost incidental.

Re: the second—that’s very nice of you, but still no. I’m actually way more boring than that. All I really care about is quality ingredients, prepared in a simple way that shows off how awesome they are. Ta dah. As opposed to the chef wrecking them as a sacrifice to his own ego. Can I please just eat without you handing me your resume with every bite?

Serenity now.

The following review isn’t for chain restaurants. They’re not about quality cooking; they’re about sticking to a formula. It’s for the independents that have gotten off track, or are new to the business, about to open a burger place called Berger’s Burgers Burgers and Burgers, and muse, ‘Wouldn’t a sushi bar look JUST FABOO in that back corner?’

Well—happy to help—it wouldn’t. And segues right into my first point.

1) For the love of all that is righteous, pick a cuisine. One.

Have you ever been to an Irish restaurant in the US that didn’t feature veggie fajitas on their menu along with shepherd’s pie?* Me neither. Restaurants and trying to please everyone are as cliche a pair as Rogaine and a Corvette. Be known for doing what you said you’d do, and doing it very well. I know a sock hop joint in South Jersey that’s known for their grilled cheese sandwiches (thepopshopusa.com. Count ’em—30 kinds of grilled cheese. Looky above for the one I got, the Haddon.). They’re freaking amazing at it, as evidenced by the happy customers who stand on line to get in without complaint.

2) Don’t throw flavors around like you trained at Chez Panisse.

Sometimes restaurants know how to combine unexpected flavors, and the results are successful. Other times it’s as if the kitchen staff wrote down every conceivable flavor on the planet, and some on Jupiter, tacked them to a wall, and then everybody did a shot, then started winging darts at the flavors.

‘Woo hoo—we’ve got two new flavors for our fish tacos! Let’s see…we’ve got…cilantro! And……..huh. Nutter Butter Swirl.’

Other times it’s clear they’re just cleaning out the fridge. That’s when they add ‘vinaigrette’ to throw us off the trail. Genius move.

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You forgot the applesauce and the bottom of the Hellmann’s jar.

3) Quit mailing it in.

Tomatoes. It’s high season. Buy local ones, for crying out loud. They’ll cost more than the pink ones that taste like wet tube socks, but people will remember how intensely flavored the tomatoes on your sandwiches were. They’ll be further impressed that you source locally (people do want to hear this today) and will be back, begging for it. Go ahead and charge more. We’ll pay it because it’s worth it. Promise.

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Juicy, runny, and worth licking off your arms.

Then there was the time last month when a bunch of us went out after a show. I asked the server what was on tap for dessert. My friend Tom started laughing and said, ‘You just want to see a dessert menu so you can mock it.’

But I’m hoping it’s good. I am! I’m genuinely rooting for you, hoping there’s somebody in the kitchen who’s making something yummy from scratch. I would be thrilled to order it, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at times with wonderful treats in restaurants. (That’s homemade Italian ricotta cheesecake below, from Portofino in Tinton Falls. Best I have ever eaten, anywhere. And it came just as you see it, with the lightest ever powdered-sugar snowfall.)

But oh yeah, I’ll cheerfully mock the dessert menu if I sense everything they offer is frozen, and/or was borne of a paper pouch, and/or otherwise tastes like it’s full of fake and acrimony. And wouldn’t they kind of deserve it?

Can we all agree that cake mixes uniformly blow? The real thing is chocolate, butter, sugar, flour and eggs. A five-year-old can swing that. $9 for something they shook out of a box is a fat no.

If your brownie’s essentially a little square of lab ingredients, I don’t care that on top of it you recreated the left wall of Taylor Swift’s walk-in closet in royal icing. Get the brownie right first.**

Whenever I order dessert out I always ask for it without all of the glitterati. This inevitably makes the server a little twitchy. With a big smile she assures me that the toppings are scrumptious. I am resolute. Then she scampers off to tell the kitchen her customer wants to see what the Toll House pie looks like in its birthday suit. They’ll panic, and, collectively twitchy now, they’ll press their little noses up against the kitchen door’s windows to inhale in short gasps as they watch me eat it. And maybe they’re inspired to mix together some butter and sugar.

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*By the way, authentic shepherd’s pie is made with lamb. No shepherds in it. Just sheep. (Made with chopped beef it’s called cottage pie. No cottages in it. Cows.)

**I wrote about this in my bora bora post when I said restaurants hand you a dessert covered with goo, betting you’ll be too impressed by this quaking, amorphous blob to notice they’re stiffing you and giggling about it in the kitchen. Hasn’t changed yet, and stoicism is such hard work on my part. Get with it, people.

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Lombardi’s outdoor sconce, lighting our way at the start of the tourney—an All-Carb Olympic torch.

Porta in Asbury Park, NJ makes a pizza carbonara so good I want to roll in it like a dog. Before I say anything about pizza anywhere else, I need to impress this upon you, because this kind of quality is what I had in mind when my sister and brother-in-law treated me to a pizza tour of Manhattan last October. Porta’s chewy, deliriously addictive crust and buttery, runny, full fat housemade cheese—my mozzarella muse, which I say with precisely zero shame—that’s the taste I had in my mouth, and it’s what NY was up against.

Five pizza places, some new, some very, very old; five thin-crust Margherita pies (tomato, mozzarella, basil) to keep the playing field level; five pies judged for quality of crust, sauce, cheese and overall experience.

Below, a photo essay of our day, and I’ll be sure to unpack my adjectives.

Lombardi’s (below), A.

Often enough, the big-name grandpas of the restaurant world strut their leisure suits and flash grins full of metal bridgework, hoping to convince you that they haven’t lost their mojo. But their best years are usually way behind them. Others, happily, have still got it, and the oldest pizza place in the city is one of them.

Crust: Straightforward with a bit of a crunch, somewhat light hand with the salt.

Sauce: Bright flavor, sweet.

Cheese: Chewy, perfect amount.

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Luzzo’s, A.

Crust: Delicate, thin as a Saltine cracker.

Sauce: Salty, but it worked.

Cheese: Creamy little dairy pillows.

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Luzzo’s beautiful old interior–brick, beam and detail.

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Well worn swivel chairs, bar paneling and vintage tile floor.

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Tools of the trade plus a bit of incongruous Indian corn just for fun.

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Patina in the old tin ceiling.

Motorino, A+. Good and soppy pizza extravaganza.

Crust: Chewy, rustic and doughy.

Sauce: Fresh and sweet.

Cheese: Happily runny cheese pillows.

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Worth a second shot.

Gruppo, B+.

Crust: Paper thin and crispy, somewhat forgettable.

Sauce: Spiciest so far.

Cheese: Plentiful, chewy.

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Okay, next was Grom, because with four pizzas down and one to go, we’d already thrown our hats over the fence, so what did adding authentic Italian gelato matter? Below is vanilla bean and chocolate. I was quite undone by it, and not because I was full from pizza. Out-of-the-ballpark good.

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Co. Pizza, A++ As close to Porta as I could find. We were stuffed and yet still ate two of these pies. Better than Motorino by a hair* (please forgive the indelicate expression; I know we’re eating).

Crust: Drug like. The doughy, pliable kind that stretches a little when you try to pull it away from the other slices. Tip: Everybody pull at once.

Sauce: Fresh, evenly flavored.

Cheese: Oozy, goopy and plentiful.

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More than a little dismaying to think that Co., which offers such outstanding pizza, felt they needed to add a disclaimer such as this to their menu. To the customers that inspired it: Kindly get a grip.

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Reigning champion.

Where’s your favorite ‘za? What makes a pie the best? Don’t hold back—it’s a cold night. Consider it a public service.

*I just grossed out my mom. Sorry 😀

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Help me out here. Something’s not making sense to me, it hasn’t for a while, and I want to pick your collective brains to try to get back on the trail.

I went to a restaurant a couple of weeks ago and ordered ‘carrot cake in a jar.’ It was a charming presentation, cake layered with icing, but the cake was dried out and the icing tasted like really sweet chemicals.

Last week I met a specialty foods store owner who apologized for the way some of his multi-grain loaves looked. The oven was acting up lately, he said, and was turning out loaves that were browning unevenly. None were burnt. He was just worried that I’d be upset that some parts of the loaf I’d bought were mahogany while others were tan.

Many local, hardworking farmers I know don’t set out produce that has so much as one flaw—a nick, natural russeting, a lopsided bottom—because they say the public won’t touch it. Some stores wax their organic apples to make them look more buy-worthy.

My favorite ice cream shop sells artificially dyed green chocolate chip mint ice cream. I asked the owner why he didn’t seek out a variety that didn’t, since I know they’re out there. He said he did, and set it out, ‘but no one wanted it. They won’t buy it if it’s not green.’

The affluent parents of the nursery schoolers I used to teach chose Go-Gurt—those brazenly colored tubes of chemicals—instead of pure yogurt for their kids’ lunches.

My local bakery makes luscious, three-layer chocolate cakes with Jamaican rum. But if one comes out of the oven with a crack across the top, no matter how slight, the proprietor doesn’t put it in the display case because she says it won’t sell.

Yet.

We pay top dollar for low-quality supermarket-made cakes, and we feed them to appreciative partygoers who gasp over the design but don’t pay attention to the flavor or to the fact that they are poking forkfuls of powdered head fake into their mouths.

We buy massive, brand new houses in developments in the middle of farmland, bells and whistles from the sun room to the butler’s pantry, but the basement floods as soon as it rains because when the mason was given instructions to make sure the foundation was tightly sealed, he just shrugged.

We spend $45 for a shower curtain at a big box store, so enamored with the cute embroidery at the base that we don’t actually FEEL the fabric to be sure it’s good quality, and it begins to fray after a month.

We pay six men to haul out the vintage cast iron clawfoot tub that came with the house, consistently holds its toasty water temperature for the length of time it takes to read Eat, Pray, Love, and has never leaked in all of its 80 years, then we install a five-figure plastic Jacuzzi (in ‘Creme Brulee’) whose finish begins to peel by the end of September. And after each use we see little pools of water at the corners.

So it goes.

What is UP with us? Why are we so preoccupied with perfection, even if it’s—absurdly clearly—just the look of perfection, a solar system’s throw from the real thing? Why don’t we see the manipulation that’s going on here?

And a more insidious thought comes to mind: If we DO see it, why don’t we give a flying Wallenda?

We used to care, I know we did. I have cookbooks that prove that people wanted, and ate, honest, delicious food made from real ingredients. I’ve seen old-time ads touting goods made with care and attention, with ‘family-owned’ splashed across them. But when I wrote for radio (18-35 demographic) a few years back I was told not to include ‘family-owned’ in my spots. ‘This generation doesn’t care about that,’ the head sales rep told me.

But I can’t shake the image—and the flavor—of farm-fresh chard so full of rainwater that it snaps apart when bent…of a funkily shaped Sugar Baby melon that’s so ripe that at the gentlest prick with the top of a chef’s knife it cracks and splits open in two on my counter top. Real tastes better than perfect.

I’m not saying there’s not a time and a place for convenience; I’m not saying every restaurant serves chemicals for dessert (and to be fair, the carrot cake was at a chain restaurant, so I wasn’t exactly surprised); and I’m not saying there aren’t notable exceptions to what I’ve outlined here.

I’m saying there seems to me to be a dismaying prevalence of choosing fancied-up crap over quality, and it’s a behavior that does not seem to be changing. There have been staggeringly positive advances in the food industry; maybe we all just need time to appreciate foods grown and made with integrity over ‘perfection’, or eating locally and in season, or what have you. And there will always be those who don’t care what they buy or eat. I get that.

But barring those who don’t know better or don’t care, I’m wondering where our predilection for mindfully choosing crap over quality comes from, and when and how the change took place. Thoughts?

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Raiatea

Mo’orea–>Raiatea and Taha’a.

Which was a great time, but before we get there I want to relay the essential differences between airport regulations in the US versus those in the South Pacific, and here they are: Locals go barefoot in the airport, and feral cats mosey freely in and out of the open doors and beg for a piece of your lagoon fish sandwich. I’m trying to imagine what Newark Airport would look like with the travelers free-footing it all hakuna matata, at customs and everywhere else in the building, while expertly swerving their Samsonite Tri-Core spinners to avoid hitting some 25 well-fed, roaming tortoiseshells.*

To put an even finer point on the no-shoe thing, the guy who picked us up from the airport and took us to Sunset Beach Motel sported a sun-bleached ponytail, equally sun-bleached tank and board shorts and chic French accent, but he wore no shoes the entire time we stayed. That includes driving and walking us into the local grocery store. I think it’s safe to assume that right now, this exact minute, he’s barefoot. On these islands you’re in flip flops, worn until the soles are translucent, or you’re barefoot. It’s awesome.

The above is offered to give you an idea of just how remote Raiatea is, and let me know if it did the job. Next to Mo’orea—which is pretty far-flung, I’ll grant; the locals cook their dinner in the ground as often as in the oven—Raiatea feels like the tropical outback. Yes, there’s a bit of civilization, but I felt more isolated on this island than anywhere I’ve ever been. It was a usually exhilarating, oftentimes uneasy feeling of being quite literally Nowhere. I love the feeling of being detached from what I know well; I love seeing vegetation and landscapes unlike anything I’ve seen before. Here I felt pushed to the teetering edge, to the razor-thin sliver, of that feeling. Which is good for a girl now and again.

Back to the food in the grocery store, because you knew I wasn’t going to let that slide. I love food shopping in foreign places. Here (as well as in Scotland and on the Caribbean islands I’ve visited) eggs are left out on the counter. Produce is exotic and spiny. And the vanilla yogurt wasn’t like any vanilla yogurt I have tasted, and believe you me, I live on Stonyfield. The stuff doesn’t even taste like vanilla, to tell you the truth. It’s not mellow and sweet; it’s tangy, sharp and floral. We ate cups of this every morning for breakfast and liked it more every day.

That was our cottage below; our living room strewn with freshly picked hibiscus (the bedroom and bathroom were, too); and the view of the ocean from our porch.

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Sunset Beach Motel, Raiatea

The dock was ours alone to use. The tiny island of Taha’a was visible on the horizon, as was Bora Bora. Snorkelling was terrific off the dock. Floating with fins and a mask, arms at my side, it was very easy to feel like one of the fish—a dreamy and exquisitely peaceful feeling. At night we lay on our backs and looked up at the stars. In so very remote a place, with so little electricity being used, they looked like rock salt thrown across black velvet.

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Twice we had dinner at The Sea Horse restaurant in town. When we first made the reservation, the guy on the phone said he’d come pick us up and bring us back. A little weird, but the lady at the front desk said that was a courtesy the restaurant typically gives, and not to worry about it.**

So we’re in the car with this guy and he casually tells us he’s not just the driver but the owner of the restaurant. We were speechless—can you imagine Eric Ripert chauffeuring you back and forth to dinner? It was normal here. We got there without incident, and dinner was great. Michael’s fried rice with salty dried fish was especially incredible. I’m hitting up my Asian friends to help me find that fish here so I can replicate it. Dessert was profiteroles—puffs filled with local vanilla ice cream in a very, very thick chocolate sauce and served in a banana split bowl. Num.***

Raiatea is called ‘the sacred island’ because it features so many maraes (ma-REYES), ancient areas of worship marked with stones, much like Stonehenge and similar edifices throughout the UK. They’re humble and at the same time magnificent. In the US, if former President McKinley once hiccuped near a building, we put up a sign commemorating that heartfelt event. But something nice about this area of the world: You more or less happen upon places. Or you ask a local and they’ll point in a direction. And there are very few signs saying what’s what. Stuff is what it is, and that sort of lends dignity.

Here are two maraes on the water.

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Marae, Raiatea

One day we visited a family-run black pearl operation called Tahi. A sweet, energetic Polynesian girl, married to a Frenchman, was our guide. With a heavy French accent, she asked us if we could come back at 1 o’clock. We did, and I rolled down the window to call out to her, ‘Tu es pret (are you ready)?’ We had just met her and I should have used the more formal ‘vous,’ but I didn’t. And even though it’s five years later, even though I’m on the other side of this big blue ball and will likely never meet her again, I am still kicking myself for speaking to her in the informal.****

The girl took us along with three grinning young Frenchmen by speedboat out to the black pearl ‘farm’, the small, enclosed wooden hut on stilts a half mile or so out into the Pacific. There she and her family do the delicate, labor-intensive work of cultivating black pearls.

A pearl nuclei (they get them from Mississippi) will be placed into each of the oysters below, which are about the size of a bagel and quite flat and scaly. Then they’ll be put back into the water for something like three years.

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Here is a pearl, still rough, being extracted from its host oyster.

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And now polished.

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The shade a pearl becomes depends on the unique colors of its host. Below is an example of the variety of colors available, along with a white pearl nuclei, held by one of the grinning young Frenchmen. He spoke a little English and I spoke a little French. It was cool.

Black pearls, Raiatea

One night for dinner we went to a local pizza restaurant called Le Napoli. The wood burning stove was smoky and the place was enclosed, but it was loud and fun, and the Quatre Saisons, Four Seasons, pizza was yummy. It was divided into quarters and each had a different topping. Une famille with two cute little kids sat at the counter, and the cook gave them each a little piece of dough and plastic rollers, and they goofed with them and had a good time. For dessert we shared a scoop of local vanilla ice cream—we ate vanilla shamelessly and in every conceivable guise throughout this trip—and a scoop of taro, brownish/purplish, musky sweet.

We took another trip into town to get a highly recommended coconut milk at a highly recommended place, but the store hours we were given were wrong, plus the place didn’t sell it anyway, so curse you, Frommer’s Guide. Returned our car to the Avis dealership, where the proprietor’s daughter was sitting on the sofa with her bottle watching Dora the Explorer in French, which still sort of freaks me a little.

It was time to pack up and leave Raiatea. We’d board the next puddle jumper to Bora Bora right after a day trip to Taha’a, one of the ‘vanilla islands.’

I’d read that there were places in the South Seas in which the very air smelled like vanilla. So entranced were we with this notion that we had to find out. And okay, Taha’a was not one of those places, but despite its very small population and drizzly weather, that island was such an adventure that it didn’t matter what it smelled like.

We met the tour group on a dock; the director, Edwin, was a cross between Don Juan and Buddy Hackett, if both of them spoke French. He assured us that once we got to Taha’a his son would take over in English for those of us who hadn’t spoken a word of French since college. (Cough.) In the meantime, I translated what he said to Michael, which was not missed by Edwin, who got quite the bang out of it.

Once we arrived on the island we got into 4x4s and headed to a vanilla plantation, where we toured the fields…

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…learned that vanilla, an orchid varietal, must be hand pollinated and sun dried…

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…and saw vanilla pods in various stages of curing. Below are unripe pods in a muslin sack with ripened pods. The smell of vanilla inside the little building was almost intoxicating, and we wouldn’t have minded getting drunk on it. Tahitian vanilla is quite different from Madagascar’s, which may be more prevalent in the US, and which might explain why the vanilla yogurt I was eating in French Polynesia was a completely different animal from what I’d eaten at home all of my life. Not to knock Madagascar vanilla, but they’re slimmer and have less going on. Tahitian pods are large, moist, soft, plump as raisins, and intensely aromatic. (When I got home and started eating garden-variety US vanilla yogurt again, it tasted kind of lackluster, vanilla-wise. I had gotten used to being clobbered with that Tahitian flavor.)

Tahitian vanilla beans, Taha'a

Next was the trek to lunch through the interior of the island. Driving along the bumps in the road (and please apply that term in the loosest possible way—imagine strapping old car batteries, Progresso soup cans, and empty 1-gallon plastic bottles of Tide to your car tires, and now drive) took about an hour. But it was a veritable jungle, Rudyard Kipling on his best day, with dense palms, fruit bearing trees, and tiny, vibrantly colored wild orchids wound around tree trunks. Again, it was breathtaking to be in an entirely new environment, even if it required shaking loose a few molar fillings to enjoy it.

Edwin pulled over to a little clearing and with a long knife stripped a branch from a wild hibiscus tree, cut off and reinserted a portion of it, notched it and had made a flute. His son jumped out another time and said, ‘I’m just going to get an anaconda,’ which we (okay, I) half believed; he came back holding an oddly shaped fruit. He split it in half and held it out to me, saying how sweet it smelled. Then he almost wet his board shorts laughing at me when I bought it, because it smelled like bleu cheese that had been left overnight in the trunk of a Plymouth. Now I see noni fruit everywhere in the US, at exorbitant prices. Marketers tout it as a cure-all, and so did he, deadpanning, ‘I’m actually 89 years old, not 30.’

Edwin stopped now and then to cut down ripe papayas and other fruits with his groovy knife (see him and groovy knife below with a coconut). Lunch was at his house, and his wife prepared it all: poisson cru (very popular Tahitian dish; it’s like tuna ceviche, made with coconut milk and lime juice), mahi mahi with a vanilla cream sauce (I loved how locals used vanilla in savory dishes as well as sweet ones), coconut bread, sashimi, fish balls and rice. The fruit Edwin had collected was our dessert. Papaya, pineapple, banana and guava, chopped up into fruit salad and all so meltingly ripe that it was half fruit and half juice. Never saw the inside of a refrigerator, either; and without the distraction of being cold we could taste the nuances of every sweet, floral, succulent, crazy-beyond-organic fruit. He joked that it was Del Monte. They wish.

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French Polynesia, and especially Raiatea, has one more charm, and that’s its gecko population. These little dudes are everywhere, including in your hotel room, including including in your bathroom, making me think twice about leaving the light off to sit on the toilet in the middle of the night (and once there WAS one on the toilet seat, and I shooed him away because he was way too tiny and cute to die in such a horrifying way). Geckos can be anywhere from an inch to maybe a foot long. When they crawl they sashay their little hips from side to side. We kept our carry-ons tightly zippered the whole time we were on Raiatea just in case any had delusions of adventure.

Gecko, Raiatea

There it is, on the horizon: Next stop, last stop…

Bora Bora.

Bora Bora, from Raiatea

*Kind of sounds like a gas. Not that our overburdened health system could handle it.

**It’s amazing how much trust we gave the people on this trip. I’m not kidding. First the sharks and then this. We’d seen the Indiana Jones trilogy countless times, plus are from the NY metropolitan tri-state area, and freely admit, ‘AAAAAH he says he’s from the restaurant but it’s really his shifty brother-in-law and he’s going to spear us or whatever they kill you with out here and leave us to be eaten by pythons and feral cats’ was the first thing that went through our minds. But if you think about it, what do we know about stateside taxi drivers, or car service guys? We jump in their cars without thinking. We trust them. Why, in God’s name? Do you ever wonder?

(To my newest readers, this is exactly the brand of lunacy I find myself paddling around in from time to time. Friendly heads up. Welcome to me.)

***The island kept surprising me. When we rented a car (a citron-colored Citroen, in the land of citron, no less!), the woman who dropped it off to us was brought back to the Avis office in a Rolls-Royce.

****Another fine example to illustrate the parenthetical statement, above.

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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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Last week I stopped into my favorite little grocery store and put my soon-to-be purchases on the conveyor belt.

‘Milk and cookies,’ grinned the cashier, young enough that he probably has them at snack time every day.

‘It’s been a long day. I’m an emotional eater,’ I replied.

He looked down and saw that I had opted for the package of three chocolate chip cookies instead of the single, then looked over at the two cartons of milk, then glanced up at me questioningly.

‘And I’m an over-achiever.’

I know and you know there are definitely less fattening* ways to assuage a bad day than to snack it away. But unless you have bad days every day or even every Thursday, I think it’s a perfectly reasonable way to feel a little better if it works for you. And it does for me.

Some good friends and I were talking about this notion the other night. They had just endured a grueling, heartbreaking couple of hours caring for a neighbor who has a debilitating illness, and our plans to go out for a pre-birthday** pizza dinner that same night were especially welcome. Our night out allowed them the opportunity to 1) celebrate my birthday with me 2) eat, because they usually eat dinner far earlier and were ravenous 3) blow the grime off the whole sad experience by going to a new place and trying some really wonderful housemade pizza***. We ate, and drank, and brooded a little, and laughed a lot. And while it wasn’t a silver bullet that fixed everything, it relaxed them.

I believe each of us needs to have a working plan, a list of proven ways, to reboot for when horror strikes. Because it’s going to. As long as the ways you reboot don’t hurt anybody, do them.**** Yours might be buying a new pair of chandelier earrings, dunking your feet in the pond at the end of your street, or a long car drive to nowhere in particular. Me, I reset by watching British movies of any stripe, texting my best friends and asking them to send me off-color jokes, and eating dark chocolate. Sometimes I go the whole hog and get the chocolate surrounded by a cookie. Then I pour a cold one.

This is peace to me—a very simple, inexpensive way to smooth the uncomfortable wrinkles that get jammed into my day from time to time.

For more years than I care to count I white-knuckled my way through my life, trying to work through stuff that was going wrong at the moment while also—I’m now bewildered by this—trying to prevent bad stuff that MIGHT come down the pike. Here’s what I learned: It’s not worth it. You could have spreadsheets dedicated to protecting yourself, each member of the household, your belongings, your favorite pop star and the place where she gets her highlights done…but stuff is going to go wrong anyway.

Having a coping plan that works for you is what matters. Recovery is what matters. This kind of preparation is okay—not just okay, but vital. It liberates you beyond belief so you can just live your life, and live it big.

Scribble down some ideas for yourself right now and stick it in your wallet. I humbly suggest you start with this post’s namesake. They won’t fail you.

c

*The milk was *1%*! Cut me that much slack.

** It was 10/18. Presents and special treatment are still being entertained.

***Porta, Asbury Park, the baddest new pizza place at the Jersey Shore.

****And don’t you feel guilty for a millisecond, or you’ll have me to answer to.

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