Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Dental Wigs?

Walking around in downtown LA is one of my favorite things to do. You are guaranteed to see something extraordinary, often a drug deal or other bit of skid row "commerce" (I won't go into detail but you can be certain that I've seen a LOT of eye-popping activity). But a couple days ago I saw something so unique: a storefront offering something called a "dental wig."

Huh, now those are two words that just do NOT go together. And a google search yields only a handful of hits. According to one website, a dental wig is exactly what it sounds like: a wig for teeth; a fashion accessory, like shoes, for example. But these babies are not made by dentists, but instead are an impression made by the the consumer himself, then pressed into place "like a lego block." Of course. Makes perfect sense.

This might shed more light on the subject: a verbatim excerpt from the company's website (

What is Dental Wig?
Dental Wig or DENTAREL as a hair wig is a false tooth , a no medical, no damage , painless custom-made product , thanks to the oneself and only-use dental impression kit , international patented and copyrighted , which replaces missing teeth. Dental wig is an upscale product.

Remember, kids, you read it here first!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Why the Mall scares me.

How much would YOU pay for a 17-course lunch?

Last week I read in Time Magazine about one of the country's hottest chefs, David Chang, and his mini-empire of restaurants in Manhattan's Lower East Side. The thing that caught my attention in the article was that his food is not only incredibly inventive and borderline bizarro, but it is accessible to and borderline cheap. The problem of getting a table remains, but we arrived at Momofuku Ssam Bar at 11:28 am, just in time to beat the 11:30 am rush when they opened the doors on Saturday. And yes, the tiny place was full by 11:35 am.

After a truly kick-ass meal (I won't call it a brunch because there was nothing breakfasty about it) that included items like steamed buns with pork belly, a ham & chicken liver terrine sandwich, pork shoulder scrapple with egg, and a salad of . . . ready? thinly sliced beef tendon with pickled green mango and spicy peanut thai dressing. (The waitress sweetly pointed to her heel when explaining where the "tendon" comes from- thanks a bunch for the visual.)

After lunch we went to the adjacent/sister place- Momofuku Milk Bar- for dessert. We were boring and had a piece of brownie pie, but even this casual bakery/fast-food place has some crazy offerings like Chorizo Challah, and salty pistachio ice cream topped with potato chips. Around the corner and down a block is a third Momofuku location, Momofuku Noodle Bar, which is downscale but also extremely cool.

I know this is all rather boring to read about, but A) I need to keep writing and this is the most interesting thing I've done this week, B) I'm still amazed by the fact that we got a table at Ssam bar and also obsessing over the wacky food we ate, and C) this is all prelude to my stopping by the 4th location of the Momofuku empire, Momofuku Ko.

Momofuku Ko has a tiny street presence, is barely marked and has dark tinted windows covered by a heavy (but artsy) metal mesh. Thinking it closed, I literally pressed my nose to the door. What a DORK. Here are some fun facts about Momofuku Ko:

1. There are 12 seats. Total. Actually, they are backless stools. All at a bar. The restaurant is entirely visible here. And no waiters. Just the chefs.

2. Reservations are allotted only via the restaurant's website, only exactly one-week in advance, and are snapped up in literally a matter of seconds/minutes.

3. Although the other restaurants post reasonable approximations of their ever-evolving menus, Momofuku Ko's was shrouded in mystery (but I was able to find the general outline, here), begging for further inspection.

4. Opened just this year, Ko has a cult following.

After smashing my face against the metal exterior to get a glimpse inside, I could see people inside and opened the door. The conversation with the unexpectedly nice hostess went like this:

Me: "Hi, can I see a menu?"
Too-skinny-hostess: "I'm sorry, we don't publish a menu."
Me: "Well then, how do people order?" (I'm waaaaaay too smart, of course)
Too-skinny-hostess: "It's prix fixe."
Me: "Well, then, how much?"
Too-skinny-hostess: "$160 for lunch and $100 for dinner."
Me: [stunned silence]
Too-skinny-hostess: "We also offer wine pairings." (as in, that will cost you extra)
Me: "Why does lunch cost more than dinner?" (because normally a $160 lunch would translate into something like a $250 dinner, right?)
Too skinny hostess: "Lunch is 17 courses."
Me: [confused look on my face, walk out, still processing this conversation.]

So, wait, if I pay $160 for lunch, I get 17 courses, but at dinner I only pay $100, so do I only get 10 courses and walk away hungry? And how much is the wine? Turns out you have to shell out an additional $50, $85 or $150 for the privilege of getting a buzz on, during your $160 lunch. Which you are informed will take three hours. For lunch.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Bacon, Olive Oil and Bone Marrow: They're not just for breakfast, anymore!

Perhaps because there is so little variety in the food we presently have available (nearly three years into it, I'd kill for a fish taco!), we find ourselves being a bit more adventurous than usual when we do run across unusual offerings. And our frequent trips to NYC are feeding(!) this trend, big time. Perhaps these unusual ingredient combos have gone mainstream without my notice, but I still think they represent an exciting infusion of creativity into food that is accessible by Average Joes like us.

Perhaps it is a recession-favorite comfort food, but I predict that you will soon find bacon in common things like Ben & Jerry's ice cream. That was not a joke. Bacon's salty/greasiness actually pairs quite nicely with fatty sweets. Check out these examples I've recently seen:

BACON DONUT: You can bet this baby will be at the top of my eating agenda when I go to LA for Xmas. It's offered a very hip new diner downtown on the uber-sketchy block of 5th and Main at The Nickel Diner.

CHOCOLATE + BACON: Continuing with the bacon-meets-sugar theme, we have a $7.50 Bacon Chocolate Bar available at the super-swanky chocolatier, Vosges. Vosges gets bonus points, and almost warrants an entire blog entry, for its crazy ingredients like tobacco, curry, hot chili, and mushrooms. But more about Vosges chocolate later.

ANYTHING SWEET + BACON: As I was working up this blog entry in my little mind last night, reading an article in Time Magazine, I chanced across the reference that sealed its fate: A reference to a roving dessert truck taking NYC by storm that serves . . . chocolate bread pudding with a bacon crème anglaise, of course!

BOOZE + BACON: I don't know why this should gross me out any more than the above-mentioned things (which actually sound really TASTY to me), but a bacon martini just seems over-the-top to me. Can you imagine being on a date, or at a business dinner, and someone ordering this? Bizarre-o. Bacon does not belong in a bar setting. I don't care if it IS "candied."

Good ol' Olive Oil's lubricious qualities do not lend themselves to such compelling blog photos, but that is not to discount the subtle force of this ingredient.

CHOCOLATE + OLIVE OIL: Perhaps the tastiest piece of chocolate I've ever had was something from Vosges in SoHo called the d'Oliva. It is olive oil-infused chocolate truffle inside a white chocolate shell. But the magic comes in the form of the bits of kalamata olive sprinkled on top. Who would have guessed that those deep purple, super salty olives would be so freaking amazing on top of the perfect chocolate base?

GELATO + OLIVE OIL: Perhaps the most famous gelato place in NYC right now is Il Laboratorio de Gelato on the Lower East Side, an unassuming counter-window next to the popular Tenement Museum. Each day they offer just a small slice of their many, many flavors, and yesterday we got to try Olive Oil. How was it? Meh . . .

BONE + MARROW, Straight up: While having a nice brunch with some girlfriends in Tribeca last month, I chanced upon this item on the menu, amidst the various forms of eggs Benedict and funky french toasts: Bone Marrow. No, not "bone marrow infused omelet," not that it would make it so much more palatable, just . . . BONE MARROW. I almost ordered it, out of pure curiosity, but the place wasn't cheap and I knew no one else would be interested in sharing it. More importantly, one of the girls is a vegetarian, and I thought it would be quite rude to order up a stack of bones and suck out the innards, at least before noon.

I also caught it on the menu at a place in LA, Mario Batali's new Pizzeria Mozzo, so it seems to have gone bi-coastal.

Personally, I am hoping NOT to see Ben & Jerry's bone marrow ice cream at our local Wegmans any time soon. But hey, who knows? And, now that I think of it, Bone Marrow Lean Pockets might be . . . yummy?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Doilie Fest 2008

When we went to NYC yesterday, I did have the express goal of buying some stocking stuffers. Somehow, however, I found everything but, and returned after having purchased exactly 1 used book (for myself) and a couple of crispin apples (for the bus ride home).

Never fear, any readers who might also be on my Christmas list: Binghamton came through with a big dose of DOILIE, brought to you complements of St. Patrick's Catholic Church (I would have linked to the church's website, but regular readers will understand that such new-fangled things are not so common in Binghamton.) I spent less than $30 and came back with three bags full of delights, including homemade (that goes without saying, since 100% of the goods for sale were handmade) fudge, a $0.50 hand-painted Christmas ornament, blankets (yes, plural), a scarf, pumpkin bread, . . . the list goes on. I am hopeful that I was able to navigate through this sea of awful granny stuff and pluck out the handful of cool items, but who knows- my Binghamton goggles are probably pretty thick these days!

NYC: the literary city

One of the things that always impresses me about NYC is how literate everyone is. Not only does that city of 8 million people sustain the very smartly written New York Times, overflowing with feature-length articles, but it has readership to spare, for the New York Post and others. My theory is that the huge percentage of people who take public transportation to work have extra time- time that Angelenos spend frustrated in their cars- to take in the day's news.

But that theory does not go far enough to explain these two photos. The first is people lined up outside the famous Strand Bookstore and its "18 miles of books." This is in sub-30 degree weather, mind you. Granted, they are there to sell their used books, but the point is that there is a demand for these books, such that they are getting decent money for them. No one in LA cares about books enough to make such a big market for the used ones, that's for sure.

But the best observation I had all day was when we were parked in a (mercifully warm) coffee shop in the West Village, taking in the bohemian surroundings. That's where I spied these two guys, trying their hardest to be low profile, but they could not escape my eagle eye: they were hobos.

OK, maybe they did not arrive at the coffee shop by train, or even NYC by train, but they otherwise fit the hobo profile: borderline homeless looking, but with enough mainstream trappings (e.g., cell phone, ring, relatively clean clothes) to imply that they did not actually live on the streets.

I admit I was actively observing them. I especially liked it when one of them got up and returned with a glass of water that sported a hearty slice of fancy lemon wedge in it. The guy sucked down that healthy bit of fruit straight away. I mean, how often do hobos get access to citrus? Smart man. A savvy "gentleman of the rails," if you ask me.

But nothing could have prepared me for when one of them opened up his suitcase-style drag bag and pulled out . . . a stack of BOOKS. I'm not talking about road maps or girlie magazines, either. These thing were hard-cover. Literature, even.

So, there you have it: NYC, where even the hobos are bibliophiles.

Icelandic Schmaltz Fillets and Boneless Chicken Feet

Yesterday we went to NYC, with no particular agenda. A couple of themes did emerge, however. One of them was that New York really does have the craziest variety of food on the planet.

We stopped into a pretty famous Jewish deli on the Lower East Side, with the very cool name of Russ & Daughters. It offered seemingly every kind of Jewish comfort food, from egg salad to pickled salmon to caviar to blintzes and beyond. Unlike lots of old school delis, this place has made the transition into the 21st century quite gracefully. (I am going to attribute that to the presence of the "daughters.")

I can understand why real New Yorkers get wistful for their favorite comfort foods when they move away. Witness this photo: Not even in Beverly Hills/West Hollywood have I seen "Icelandic schmaltz fillets." And I had been craving those babies all day, let me tell you.

We ended up eating at a kitschy Cantonese place that I'd been reading about, called Congee Village, also in the Lower East Side. Thank god the menu had clear English translations, because the "special plates" were 16 of the most gut-wrenching items I've ever seen in one place, hands down. I will list them here, in their full glory (and including any typos):

#301. Duck's blood with ginger and scallion.
#302. Duck's blood with chives.
#303. Baked fish intestine in clay pot.
#304. Goose intestine with soy sauce.
#305. Goose intestine with black bean sauce.
#306. Boiled goose intestine with bean sprouts.
#307. Fried intestine.
#308. Pickle vegetable with intestine.
#309. Soy bean sprouts with intestine.
#310. Cold jelly fish.
#311. Boneless chicken feet with Thai sauce.
#312. Duck tongue & sugar peas with XO sauce.
#313. Cold preserve egg mix pickle.
#314. Wasabi mix three kinds sea foods.
#315. Sun dried dace fish steamed with preserved pig's belly.
#316. Steamed silver fish & dried squid with soy sauce.

Is this a joke list? It sounds more like something out of a haunted house horror chamber. I think the worst one is the #312- how many ducks' tongues can you really eat?- but then I think about #311 and picture the puddle of skin that must be . . . boneless chicken feet.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Welcome to Hunting Season

It's a good thing I read the local paper once in a while, or I might have missed the fact that the Venison Donation Coalition, Inc. is looking for donations of "field dressed deer" to local food banks. A good cause, I'm sure, but it begged the question: What, pray tell, is "field dressed deer?" Here's the Idiot's Guide to Field Dressing your kill, for handy reference. If you can get past the "False Hoods" (the misspelling makes it sound like a KKK reference?) section, through the bit about "tarsal glands," more power to you. I couldn't.

What the newspaper bit really announced is that Hunting Season is upon us. How I could have missed this, just by looking around, I don't know. The observant local will start to notice an increase in hunting-themed . . . dare I call it "sportswear"?

There are basically two kinds of wilderness t-shirt that I have learned to distinguish: the first I will call The Napoleon Dynamite, or the Lone Wolf style. These shirts are more for the urban hunting-enthusiast, or a frustrated hunter, but not necessarily someone who actually hunts. For example, I've seen older women in the Lone Wolf style, featured below. Also, teenage boys.

Then there are the kind favored by the real hunters. These are more "work shirts" but they can still be in t-shirt style. These cost more, which presumably explains why they do double and triple duty as hunting attire, mall wear and Sunday best. I've spotted the button-down collar kind paired with light-acid-wash blue jeans and work boots on what looked like a date, recently. Fancy.

We are taking our semi-annual trip to the dreaded Mall today. I have high hopes that my own hunting- for these sweet shirts- will be fruitful. I'll be sure to report back with any that I'm able to "bag" with my handy pink cell phone camera.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Word of the Day: "Pomace"

Continuing on with our celebration of the Harvest (or something like that), today we visited a local-favorite called The Cider Mill in Endicott, NY.

I was specifically on a hunt for these TREMENDOUSLY tasty apples we recently discovered, then could not locate again. They are called Crispin apples (note typo on sign) and they rocked my world. After I ate all 20 from the big bag we bought here a couple weeks ago, I went into withdrawals- I dreamed of these things, not kidding, all crisp and firm and sweet and tart and juicy, they are. So today I bought- ready? - FIFTEEN POUNDS of them. I think that's only(??) like 30 apples. Whatever. I can replenish next week, now that I know where to find them.

The Cider Mill is a local fave, in no small part, because people like to bring their kids there to watch the apples being "pressed" in this room full of big machines. It is mildly cool to see how they start out with whole apples, then put those into a grinder/mulcher type of machine, then those get pressed and pressed and pressed and pressed until all the juice comes out.

And that is where we get THIS nastiness. It's called "pomace" and it's just wrong, wrong, wrong.
The apples looked so beautiful going into the process, but this pomace shizzle that comes out the other end? YUK. I don't know which is better: the fact that the informational signs said that pomace is used for "feeding livestock and also for fertilizer," or the fact that some school kids wrote a Thank You note to the Cider Mill, and noted that the girls thought the cider press was "sick."

Saturday, November 08, 2008

In life and in Binghamton, you have . . . "Choice's"

Binghamton has so many "dive bars" that I really don't notice them anymore. I mean, these are bars that I drive by and think are out of business, but then I notice . . . a hov-a-round or something outside, and see a bit of neon creeping out of a dirty window.

But this one, directly across from the main post office, and right near the busy, family-oriented minor league baseball stadium, really takes the cake.

You see, in life, you have choices. Or "Choice's," as some people call them. And kids, if you make BAD Choice's, you might end up drinking your days away in this dump, conveniently located adjacent to the local sex-offender/prostitute-row.

I am almost positive it is long-closed, but that pile of rubbish at the base of the dilapidated sign is making me think twice about that assessment. I've seen worse . . .

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election Day: New York State-Style

The good news is that I waited in line exactly ZERO seconds to vote this morning (shocker- there are no lines anywhere in Broome County- you have to have PEOPLE to have lines!)

These voting machines are circa-I-don't-know-when but judging by the sweet wool plaid fabric of the curtains- maybe 1950s? 1960s? Once you are inside, there is a huge lever you have to pull a few times and it feels like you're driving a tractor or something. Crazy.

Apparently they are retiring these machines after this year- aw come on, they've got at least a couple decades left in them! Seriously, though, the layout of the voting card was so confusing- I had to have the poll worker talk me through it. I stuck my hand through the curtains and was talking to him and giving hand signs, counting off the number of races I was voting on, as I read them off to him, just to make sure I was voting in the proper number of places. It took me so long that a small (3 people) line formed behind me. John was trying to busy himself with his iPhone, and pretend he didn't know me!

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Sunday's auction

We made it to the monthly "estate" auction in Candor, NY on Sunday. Sometimes, a picture truly IS worth a thousand words.

(This reminded me of a great t-shirt we often see in NYC, one that reads "Welcome to the gun show" but is referring to the wearer's massive biceps, of course.)

Perhaps even freakier was the fact that, in addition to a tremendous amount of guns, the OTHER much- publicized thing was a collection of old dolls.

I don't know which scares me more, the guns (and their fans) or the dolls.

The Earth Room (SoHo)

Amidst a busy shopping trip to SoHo on Saturday, I dragged my two girlfriends just a block off crazy-crowded Prince Street to a slightly less-teaming, but still swanky and commercial section of Wooster Street. I thought I had the address, but wasn't feeling so confident about finding the place, so I asked a few shopkeepers if they knew where The Earth Room is. "Huh?" their blank stares said back to me. I started to get worried when I inquired with the store directly below The Earth Room and still had not received a trace of confirmation that I was not, in fact, nuts.

My two friends already know I'm a bit odd, so they weren't actually that surprised when we arrived at the nondescript gray door to the right in this image. On the building directory, amidst the Joneses in 6A and the Levys in 3B, we found the listing for "Earth Room- 2B." SUCCESS!!! We buzzed and were let in. As we walked up a narrow staircase, the air got cooler and the smell of dirt became stronger. You can imagine how much crap my friends were giving me as we ascended the stairs. They were loving it, though: "We came all the way from rural Binghamton to NYC to see . . . dirt? Wait until we tell the other girls where you took us!"

Just when I thought I'd seen the most random things possible in NYC- I mean, I have dug DEEP: under bridges, through abandoned ship yards, out to islands- I find THIS.

And THIS, my friends, is The Earth Room. It is essentially 22 inches of dirt plopped into a 3,600 square foot loft space on the second floor of a residential building. But not just some dumpy building: A unit upstairs is selling for $2,650,000. I wonder if the neighbors despise having this freaky thing in their building, or love it because it doesn't throw loud parties?

You still aren't getting this, because it makes no sense. WHAT is The Earth Room? I guess it would technically be called art. It was installed in 1977- that's right, this dirt carpet has been there for over 30 years! - in a long-gone gallery. It was supposed to be up for just 3 months, but the gallery owner decided not to dismantle it, custodianship has been passed off, and here it still sits. The artist did two other similar installations- both in Germany- but this is the only one remaining.

We didn't pause long, actually. There's only so long you can stand in a darkened room full of white walls and dirt. So I went over to talk to the attendant. "After hours, do you ever go in there and roll around in the dirt?" Turns out, he actually tends to the dirt. That's right - cares for the dirt. Each week he waters it and plows it under or something (I don't know the terms, here, as I'm a city girl.) He said something about it being unadulterated earth - free of outside forces and the elements.

The smart-ass in me quickly asked, "What if I came in with a handful of birdseed and threw it on there? What then, huh?" "It's already been done." Wait, I thought this dirt was pristine? At least, as pristine as something that is thousands of years old can be (dirt IS ancient, by definition, right? Or am I being really ignorant here?)

I don't know. I can't find out much about this Earth Room. Except that, with all those thousands and thousands of shoppers passing by outside every day, it only gets about 30 visitors a day. Which is kind of a bummer because I bet there are a ton of NYC kids who have never seen such a vast amount of fresh earth, even if they can't touch it!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Mr. Power Mullet

In keeping with the local hunting theme, it was only appropriate that the below-described Extreme Pumpkin Farm would have at least one hunting-themed vignette, amidst the scads of Little Red Riding Hood and Sponge Bob pumpkin-people.

But the real reason I include these photos is because the second one captures the aggressively-mulleted guy who had just offended us. Here's what happened:

John and I are watching a kid do the Apple Fling (think "giant slingshot with rotten apples") when this family walks up to check it out. The perfectly nice young boy starts talking to us about what kind of fruit flinging he is able to do in his own neighborhood. Then he turns to the dad-like-figure with him and says,

BOY: "Chuck, how big is our back yard?"

"Chuck" caught my ear- this was not "Dad" and, upon closer inspection of "Mom" and her other kid, "Chuck" was probably a Jim, Bob, Jim Bob, Larry, Daryl, and Daryl away from the kid's "dad," sadly.

So how did Mr. Power Mullet respond to the innocent question?

CHUCK: "Who the Hell cares how big our back yard is, jackass."
CHUCK: [Muttering under his breath as he lights a cigarette] "Eleven years old and too chicken shit to go in a Haunted House . . ."

Poor kid. At least we can surmise that Chuck won't be around long.

Extreme Pumpkin Patch: Jackson's Farm in Campville

By October, we have transitioned out of my beloved "festival season" (i.e., the summer full of Irish, Greek, Ukrainian, Pierogi, Garlic and Lumberjack Festivals) and I'm jonesing for a good excuse to get out and DO something on a Saturday. We wanted to get in some leaf peeping, so I suggested we venture about 15 miles west of Binghamton (i.e., heading into very rural New York) to a place I'd heard of.

Well, not exactly a "place" - more of a mecca. A pumpkin mecca, that is. No, not even a pumpkin mecca. Jackson's Farm in Campville, New York looks like Autumn EXPLODED onto a big patch of hillside off of State Route 17C. If it has anything to do with Halloween, the harvest, apples, pumpkins or being a kid, you will find it there. I tried to document some of its kitschy, homemade wonders, but I think I this covers about 20% of the offerings. There was literally EVERYTHING you could think of.

Yes, you are seeing an entire zoo made of pumpkin animals, including a HUGE elephant-sized one (the photos don't do it justice), a pirate-themed bouncy castle, massive spiders (there were like 10 of these things) outside a Haunted House (I couldn't capture the vast graveyard in front of it), face painting, pumpkin house, . . .

What I could not capture were things like the fact that the entire place- which must be several acres, is enclosed by a wooden fence with a double-row of mini-pumpkins standing only a few inches apart (that is a LOT of mini pumpkins!), the tractor show, the hay wagon rides, the dozens of fairytale-themed vignettes with dressed-up characters made of . . . pumpkins, the bake shop, the hamburger stand, the massive bins of every kind of apple, the funnel cakes, the tree house, the rock climbing wall(!!), the huge gift shop, the crazy squash, the full-size tee pee made of corn husks, candy apples coated in every color of goo you can imagine (including bright purple and blue!)

No, this is not your run-of-the-mill Pumpkin Patch that gets thrown up in a hay-covered suburban parking lot, just before the Christmas tree lot takes over. This is an EXTREME PUMPKIN PATCH. Side note: Sometimes I feel like an internet missionary or something, because many of things we come across here have not yet made it onto the ol' Information Superhighway. Not only does Jackson's Farm not have a website, but I can find barely a yellow pages entry for it online. Well, now we have glorious online photos online- hooray!

I wanted to pay special tribute to the Apple Flinger station (cost: 2 tickets) that was so simple and so simply awesome: some rubber tubing as the slingshot and a huge bin of mealy apples as your ammunition. GENIUS. This teenage boy was pulling waaaaaaaay back with all his weight and flinging these gnarly apples fifty yards uphill toward a pumpkin-headed scarecrow of a target. So awesome.

Special commendation also goes to the Pumpkin Hall of Fame, with its topical and well-executed Obama and McCain likenesses. Editorial note: Both of these pumpkins are smarter than Sarah Palin.

Leaf Peeping

'Tis the season for that beloved phase of foliage when the leaves turn crazy colors just beautiful enough to keep people from quitting the god-forsaken East Coast weather (hot/humid/buggy summers, dark/icy/snowy winters). I learned that the act of going out and actively seeking out the spectacle is called "leaf peeping" which always makes me laugh and feel like a but of a nature perv, or something.

As beautiful as the hillsides are right now, like a big dotted bowl of Trix or a pointillist's canvas, I confess that I am not a nature girl, and was just as happy to see the leaves in the car mirror, telephone wires and all, than to have gone for a hike or something naturey (as Gov. Palin might say).

Photos really cannot begin to capture the quality of the light as it comes through these leaves in the afternoon. It can be shocking sometimes, with the odd tree so bright red and glowing with sunlight that it nearly looks ablaze. Definitely something that Los Angeles misses out on!

Red Lobster, anyone???

I am vehemently opposed to national chain restaurants, so it suits me just fine that we live in a region where franchises mostly dare not tread. That leaves us going to lots and lots of family-owned restaurants and diners. The kind with hand-made signs in the bathroom, inconsistent offerings, and smoke-smelling waitresses, but really, really good pizza.

So it was pretty darn random that I inexplicably got the urge to try out, of all places, a RED LOBSTER restaurant in the vast strip mall of a town known as Vestal, New York.

We walked in the newly-remodeled space and I hit the ladies room. Was that . . . GRANITE counter tops? SO FANCY! I haven't seen granite since . . . before I moved here? OK, maybe once. Literally. And what's this? PROPER facilities that are actually code-compliant? And not a handwritten sign in sight. Amazing.

A look around the joint and I continued to be impressed. FOUR flat screen TVs, brand new nice wooden bar with brass details and everything (do I sound like a hick yet???)
As always with the ultra-American places (Applebee's anyone?), I was horrified by the blatant ways in which they brainwash you into buying the greasiest stuff (see the photo where I am commanded to "Taste the Possibilities" followed by larger-than-life photos of shiny, greasy, cheesy (and therefore tasty) food.

Another case in point: these biscuits. They can't just give you normal bread, they have to give you Bisquicky biscuits. But not just any Bisquicky biscuits- these are actually infused with cheese so they slide right down the gullet . . . I won't hide the fact that I consumed an entire one ("research for my blog," I reasoned).

When I told people at work that I'd ventured to Red Lobster, I was told that it had the best fish in town. This is probably a true statement, since there is virtually NO fish in town. And at nearly $50 (including tip) for the two of us, it cost about double what we'd normally pay for dinner out.

What did we order? We ran with the program and started off with some Cheese/Spinach/Lobster dip that inexplicably came with tortilla chips and salsa. But not just any chips- these were so super-infused with oil that I literally started to dab them with my napkin to get at the grease. No use, of course, that would defeat the purpose.

p.s. Gov. Schwarzenegger recently signed legislation, similar to new legislation in the City of Los Angeles, that will require restaurants with more than 20 (? I think?) outlets to post calorie and nutrition information. Normally I'm against putting more layers of bureaucracy on business, but man, this obesity thing is out of control and with restaurants like this, that are so expert at shoveling greasy fried stuff down hungry throats . . . one can only help that an informed public will make better choices and not pop down all those fried shrimp with tartar sauce, like I did!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Warning: Houses in Photo are Smaller Than They Appear

I know people in NYC live in tiny spaces, but people come to Binghamton for cheap housing and room to stretch out a bit in big old turn-of-the-century homes. So this new house that is going up a few blocks from our house, at only 220 square feet, is really, REALLY crazy. Note: This photo shows the house in its ACTUAL SIZE.

Our 1.3 mile drive to my office takes us past a site that had long been home to a neighborhood eyesore: the polluted corner lot that was the longtime home to a dry-cleaners. I'm not sure why this stretch of street is so grubby- possibly the toxicity of the old dry cleaners?- but I routinely walk past trash that has included . . . a dirty diaper. YUK.

The dry cleaning biz had been closed/abandoned for years, and the City of Binghamton finally got some state funds to tear the place down. That left the site - located in a once-nice stretch of Seminary Avenue that has become pretty run-down- bare and ready for development. The only problem is . . . no one is building any new housing for miles.

So along comes a guy- apparently an unemployed sculptor who mostly lives with his mom not too far away - who decided he's going to build his own house. Keep in mind- he's not a construction guy or a contractor or anything. He's a surfer-looking guy who I noticed early one morning as I jogged by. It struck me as odd because he was the only man on the construction site. It looked like he was driving a rent-an-excavator or something- he just didn't match the big yellow piece of machinery he was using to work the lot.

As weeks have passed, the foundation has been poured, the wood framing and plywood walls have gone up, and the roof is starting to take shape. I had planned to do my own research and blog about it, but there was a front-page article in the local paper today that did all my work for me: apparently the guy bought the lot from the city for $5,000 and spent another $8,000 in materials. He did almost all the work himself. How did he learn how to build a one-man-living-hut? The library!

Yup! He credits the book "Do-It-Yourself Housebuilding" with teaching him everything he needed to know. Here are some more photos. Two hundred twenty feet. Cannot wait to see the finished product. Too damn funny.

National Alpaca Farm Days

It's been a while since I blogged, probably because the summer festival season has tapered off. With the excitement of June's Irish Festival, July's priceless Lumberjack Festival and August's Garlic Festival fading from memory like hobos from the American rails. I will confess that I skipped the much-anticipated Cauliflower Festival yesterday, when I discovered that Margaretville, NY was about 80 miles from here. I don't care how much "white gold" they have for me- it still couldn't pay for the gas necessary to get there.

At the same time, we haven't quite yet begin the jam-packed Craft-Fair/Holiday-Fair Season, extremely busy in these parts. So you can imagine my excitement when I read that this weekend would host National Alpaca Farm Days. woo HOO! Hellllloooooo, fluffies!

I've written before about the ubiquitous alpaca farm in upstate New York. There are actually what appear to be "rival" alpaca farms around here, with multiple locations buying up TV ad time and generally marketing better than 95% of the local businesses. We decided to visit the one with the most clever name of all: located in nearby Apalachin, NY, the place is called "Alpacalachin Farms." Clever, eh?

Unfortunately, the weekend has been very rainy and the expected "fluffies" were, in actuality, more like "wets" and "matteds." At least they weren't also "stinkies." In fact, it turns out alpacas are very easy-to-live-with creatures: they are friendly, mild mannered, don't really bite or kick, have soft/non-hoofed feet, not particularly smelly and super-soft (when not carrying around 2 days' worth of rain in their fur). Bonus: they make a soft, sort of purring noise that the owners find quite soothing (I asked if it was like the roar of the ocean, or the hum of freeway traffic to him- neither of those analogies seemed to register.)

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Can an entire brand of soda really stay off the internet? in 2008?

Today we took a little trip to Owego (population 8,000), the bustling county seat of Tioga County (population 50,000). Owego is about half way between Binghamton and Ithaca, so- although it's the capital of a very rural farming region- it tends to feel a bit more like a cute Finger Lakes town than a burned-out industrial town.

Owego is a funny mix of really artsy boutique shops and throw-back stores straight out of 1952. My favorite is the J. J. Newberry's store- complete with teal facade and scripty-writing that you remember from your childhood.

Between lunch and browsing the great used book store and buying homemade fudge, we popped in to pick up a diet soda, but could not achieve that simple goal. How is that possible?? Because this Newberry's only sold something called "ADK" soda, in flavors like "cola" and "blue pop." Better yet? There was not a single diet soda in the entire store.

But the part of all this that really freaks me out is that I came home to dig up some info on this mysterious "ADK" brand of soda- and I can't find any information on it!!! It is possible that ADK is a product of Adirondack Beverages, but that is just speculation that even my crack-research skills cannot confirm or deny. What gives? Is it possible that this soda has escaped the information age? Has it been sitting in the storeroom of the Owego Newberry's since the 70s? I'm totally at a loss to explain it.

I guess I shouldn't be too surprised, however, because this Newberry's also sells this most-fantastic-ever "rain bonnet," definitely not produced since 1962 (they must have really stocked up on this one, back in the day).

Actually, I'm trying to do some research now on J.J. Newberry's, the once-ubiquitous national chain of five-and-dime stores, and finding that the entire chain never have even merged onto the Information Superhighway. Were the chain's stores mostly closed by the early 1990s, and this is just a locally-owned store that never bothered to change the sign? Craziness. Time warp, for sure.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Navy Yard Lounge - the best/sketchiest dive bar in hipster Brooklyn?

We've been going to NYC a ton lately, almost exclusively to Manhattan, and we've gotten a little bored by how clean and sterile everything seems to be. I even tried Hell's Kitchen, the Lower East Side and The Bowery, but still- a Starbucks and/or American Apparel on every corner, it seems.

Living where I do, I see some really BAD dive bars and other business establishments that I cannot believe are still open, given the sorry state of their exteriors. But I did not expect to see this phenomenon in a trendy neighborhood in Brooklyn (DUMBO). Well, it wasn't exactly IN the trendy neighborhood, perhaps, but certainly "adjacent," and definitely within stumbling distance of Williamsburg hipsters in pricey lofts who love slumming in places like this.

Yesterday, we walked several miles, from uber-trendy Williamsburg (Brooklyn) to newly-swanky DUMBO via Brooklyn's industrial waterfront. This trail is not exactly in the tourist guidebooks, but we self-styled "urban anthropologists" were looking for beauty like the dilapidated Brooklyn Navy Yards (which closed in the 1960s and parts of which are hauntingly decayed and overgrown at this point, particularly the Admirals' or Officers' Row housing).

When we came across this gnarly building, there was so much going on at the front door, I crossed the street for a closer look. The "rules" posted on the front door were just awesome- exactly like something I'd seen Upstate. Except they looked like a drunken pirate wrote them. What is with the 23-year-old-drinking-age? Belt-and-suspenders approach, I suppose.

It was about 4 pm and the front door was locked. Places like this usually open at like 6 am, right? I made a point to take a photo of the address so I could be sure to look the place up at the NYS Liquor Authority's website, to see how old the place was, and when it went out of business. Perhaps when the Navy Yard closed, 4 (count 'em FOUR) decades ago, leaving this area barren and desolate, except for a few public housing projects nearby?

WAIT! What was that catching my eye, a few feet around the building facade? Was it . . . a red neon beer sign light ON in the window? There is actually electricity running to this hellhole? I walked a few feet down the sidewalk to find the establishment's liquor license- valid 2006 through 2008! NO WAY!

I am all for dive bars- downtown LA's Skid Row has some excellent ones. But this one- I dunno, maybe it's because I don't know the area, but I just think you'd go in there and wake up in an alley, minus a kidney or something. It's just that scary. I have obtained liquor licenses before, and let me tell you- it is tough to get a liquor license in New York state. The authorities really put the applicant through the third degree, making them submit fingerprints, photos of the place, detailed drawings and an application so detailed it even asks what type of background music might possibly be played.

This place? How did it ever get - and keep- its liquor license? Even an allegation of prostitution, or one-too-many police calls to the place- and it's outta business.