Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Celebrity travel encounters - past and present

My first celebrity encounter occurred when I was a kid, still too young and inexperienced to have formed a properly cynical view of the rich and famous. But my naiveté resulted in disappointment (they say never meet your heroes) and subsequently stuck with me into adulthood. Lessons ensued.

To be clear, my first celebrity sighting wasn’t much of a celebrity. He was a local television personality who hosted a kid’s show that probably aired to only about half of the state of Massachusetts and possibly some of Southern New Hampshire. A big deal, for sure.

My family was vacationing at our time-share condo in Bartlett, New Hampshire, a small village right up the road from the slightly less-small ski village of North Conway. My parents took my brother and I to dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, a Mexican joint called Margaritaville.

We were lucky to get a table, since it was high summer season. As most restaurants in the area do this time of year, this one was buzzing with commotion. A lot of families stumbled in after a long, long day at Storyland, the nearby theme park, which caters mostly to children under 10 years old. Even then I could tell a father who would give up his firstborn child for a cold beer (or in the case of Margaritaville, a frozen margarita). My dad was one of them.     

But despite the cacophony of youthful zeal echoing around the place, one table in the corner was noticeably loud. Curiously, there were no kids there, just a group of adults lounging around a wooden table – or at least I think it was a wooden table, it was difficult to tell since none of the tabletop was visible under the slew of empty margarita glasses.

My seat at our table had a direct line of sight to the commotion in the corner. Most of the view was of the backs of adult heads, tipping back slightly at frequent intervals, assumingly to slug some frozen booze concoction. But between the heads I could clearly make out the face of that local television host, whose face I watched most days after school.

He caught my eye and there was no way he didn’t realize I recognized him. He made no attempt to engage and instead continued with the raucous group. Part of me expected him to jump up and give me an autograph. Part of me expected at least a deliberate nod.

But none of me expected him to drown himself in tequila, cause a minor scene, push past the other tables with his rowdy friends, knowingly look at all the kids in the room and ignore every single one of them on his way out the door.

Today, I can’t recall his name, what he looked like or even what station he was on. But the experience made a mark. It still sits way in the back of my brain, tucked away in the travel section, filed under people who disappointed me.

I was young and I had never met anyone on television, so I had a natural inclination to believe that his TV personality matched his real personality. Wrong. Lesson learned.

I grew up, as kids typically do. Here and there I’ve met famous people or saw them in person from afar, no more and no less than any average American. Some of them lived up to the expectations and some didn’t.

And some simultaneously did both.

The atmosphere at Bobby Flay’s MESA Grill in Las Vegas, Nevada compliments the spectacular steaks and chops. It is eclectic and vibrant, pungent with meaty aroma but with a relaxing mood, the perfect spot for dinner with friends. 

Our small group was on a guy’s weekend in Sin City, and me being the only one with any real sense of quality eateries, I frequently made the restaurant reservations. So we found ourselves sipping gin martinis and scotch, chatting about the night past and the evening ahead. 

We orderd what most guys order when out at a nice restaurants – large steaks. For me, it is most always a rib-eye, bone-in if possible. Bobby Flay’s MESA version – as do most of his offerings – came paired with a distinctive sauce. My friend ordered a plain steak – just a straight up charred piece of beef. It wasn’t a show of manly ruggedness, but rather a sign of his fearful palette. No sauce? The waiter looked genuinely insulted. The guy at the table next to us scoffed at the unrefined patron sitting adjacent. We all laughed at our friend too scared to try a potentially spicy chipotle sauce.     
At some point during the meal, probably while my friend was hacking away at his purposefully overdone slab of meat, a murmur began percolating in the dining area. It followed two people strolling through the restaurant, led by the hostess. 

The man was older and larger, more of a round shape but sharply dressed. His escort was the opposite. She was tall, beautiful, with exquisite posture despite a chest that would make a Barbie Doll jealous. Her dress was loud and tight, like someone wrapped her naked body in Christmas wrapping paper. But it accentuated all the right spots, which was why every man in the place had dropped their forks, jaws and dignity. 

But I was wrong. They weren’t ogling the beautiful woman who was obviously on a different level than the guy she was escorting. They were ogling what we all assumed was her client.
Even a casual sports fan should recognize notorious baseball legend Pete Rose. As soon as I stopped salivating over his lady, I did too. 

He clomped between the tables and spilled into a seat twice removed from our own. The woman sat across from him, a coquettish smile never leaving her face. 

The man at the table next to us and the man at the table next to him stared. We all did too. Pete Rose didn’t seem to mind, or care. He just muttered something we were too far away to hear and the hostess left them.

There are a lot of opinions of Pete Rose and many of them are founded in actual, nefarious deeds he committed – nefarious enough to get him banned from baseball for life. But truth be told, he was a damn good ballplayer and his rogue persona fit naturally in Las Vegas. So after a few quick conversations about baseball, my friends and I began debating who the woman was – and more specifically, how much she cost. 

The amazing food we were served became second fiddle to the all star nearby, even though Rose and his date didn’t do anything. They sat like any couple would and talked sparingly, ordered drinks and food and minded their own business. It was the rest of the restaurant that lost its collective mind – quietly, of course. Every man whispered to whoever he was with. It was like elementary school students gossiping in class. 

We could hear at least two tables actively debating whether or not to get up, go over and say hello. One man did, briefly. He shook Rose’s hand and went back to his seat. Rose wasn’t rude but rather looked ambivalent to the situation, which might have been even worse than if he told the guy to leave him alone. The man walked back to his seat – no autograph because he didn’t ask – with his head tilted down. 

Then the waiter approached Rose and his date. He very clearly, and a little too loudly, told Rose that a gentleman sitting across the way was a very big fan. The man was such a big fan, he offered to pay for Rose’s dinner, drinks and whatever else he ordered at MESA. 

Here is where my memory of Margaritaville came rushing back. I remembered that as a child, I was surprised by what a celebrity was capable of.

I didn’t expect Rose to jump up, rush over and embrace the guy. But I certainly didn’t expect him to accept the man’s offer. Rose was, after all, the celebrity in the transaction. Decorum suggested he gracefully decline, perhaps send a thank you or a drink back to the man, and continue on with his evening. 

Instead, Rose accepted. The waiter seemed startled. Rose and his date finished up, stood up and left. That was that. 

When they did, the murmurs started again, including at our table. After a few minutes, we concluded that, given the same history, talent, infamy and opportunity, we all would have done the exact same thing. A free meal is a free meal, especially when it tugs at the ego a little bit. 

We shifted conversation back to the beautiful woman with Rose. Later, we’d learn that we had all jumped to conclusions – she was not an escort but rather Rose’s future fiancé. 

I wondered about how we judge celebrities, often too quickly and too unfairly. Many deserve it, I’m sure. But then there are the times Pete Rose is out with his girlfriend and a nice fan buys them dinner. Or that local TV kid’s show host is on vacation in the mountains finally away from the screaming brats he deals with on a daily basis, and wants nothing more than to lose himself in a bottle of tequila.
To a naïve boy or adult fanboy, the situations are reprehensible. But to an adult, who was enjoying a dirty gin martini and spectacular medium-rare ribeye, it all seemed pretty reasonable.

And given the chances again, I’d ask both men for their autographs.   


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Noel at the Nonantum

The following article appeared in the holiday issue of Northshore Magazine

Take a trip north to spend the holiday season in Kennebunkort.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The sensory experience at Plimoth Plantation

You can’t fully appreciate the weight of a pike until you’re hefting the weapon in formation. Just keeping the metal-spiked twelve-foot pole upright is a difficult task - and then the commander orders you to prepare for engagement.

Put it at an angle in ready stance, he yells. Shift the pole’s awkward girth parallel to the ground, at ear height, he commands. Thrust the business end out over the right shoulder of the compatriot standing mere feet in front of you, he orders. Then, as long as no fellow soldier has been impaled, you are ready to advance.

I was selected by the militia leader at Plimoth Plantation and I was proud of it. In reality, my three-year-old daughter volunteered me and fatherly pride forced me to comply. But regardless of my militaristic motivation, I found myself at the literal center of a small battalion of pike-wielding infantrymen, prepping and practicing the use of colonial-era tactics.

The experience required more focus than any vacationer or visitor would expect. The militia commander was fully engulfed in his character, as are all of the employees in the 17th-century English village section of Plimoth Plantation. And when selected, he expects your very rapt attention as well. With some prodding, and after only a few practice attempts, our small division of twelve pikemen began to move more fluidly as one entity, pikes pointed outward like a soldierly porcupine.
Combined with the drummer’s heavy thuds, the muskets’ ear-splitting cracks and the fiery gunpowder smell, struggling with a pike made real this one aspect of a settler’s existence – and emphasized the full sensory experience you get at Plimoth Plantation.
On a beautiful weekend a few weeks before Thanksgiving, Plimoth Plantation, comprised of a recreated 17th-century English village and a Wampanoag Native American homesite, was bustling with activity – activity that catered to all senses.

In the English settlement, my family walked into a house and could feel the warmth of the fire, tended by a young woman carving slivers of wood. We listened to the young woman describe where she sleeps (a mattress on the floor) and how the slivers of wood she sliced keep her small cooking fire heated to the correct temperature.

Walking around outside, the livestock smell wafted from pens behind the houses. But those acrid flavors were soon overwhelmed by ones much more appetizing.

Inside one house, three women in era garb were roasting sausages and talking about how plentiful the hunting was in the region. The meaty, smoky pungency hit the nose immediately upon entering the house.
Over in the Native American village, the immediate attraction was the man roasting a whole turkey over an open fire. He had caught bird that morning and spiced it with wild onion and garlic, herbs he picked on site. The turkey was nothing you’ve ever seen on your Thanksgiving table. He had it skewered with a hefty branch, rotating it every once in a while to form a crackled, golden skin. Each herb hit the nose in tandem with that comforting smell of roasted meat. The gathered crowd collectively drooled each time a bit of turkey fat dripped from the thigh onto the hot coals and sizzled.
And then we all moaned when the man explained that the state of Massachusetts had not granted them a license to serve food – so he and his fellow workers would be enjoying this meal themselves later. Unlike in the English settlement, the people working in the Wampanoag homesite do not role play in character, but rather engage visitors with information and stories about the lives their ancestors lived in the 1600s.
Next to the roasting turkey was another burning fire, but this one blistered atop a massive tree trunk, lying horizontal on top of blocks. The man tending the slow burn explained that they were burning out the log to make a canoe, and would be doing so straight through the next few days. Burning it out would take time but the process was traditional and also allowed for the sap to work its way outwards in the wood, naturally water-sealing the soon-to-be boat. 
While the roasting turkey was off-limits, Plimoth Plantation still had options for guests to taste their way through the 17th Century. Up at the Craft Center, artisans show visitors how to make candles or bake bread in the traditional style. That bread is on sale later in the day. And the site even offers special ticketed dinner functions in the coming months, like a harvest meal with the Pilgrims, holiday events and a special Thanksgiving dinner.
While my family’s Thanksgiving meal certainly did not include a fire-roasted turkey caught in our own backyard, I’ll still be thinking about the smells, tastes and sounds we experienced at the home of the original Thanksgiving. And whenever I lift a big turkey leg to my mouth while my family chats around the dinner table, I’ll be thankful I’m not lifting a pike while my commander yells for me to advance on the enemy.



Monday, October 24, 2016

Into the wild in Washington, D.C.

While the nation focused this fall on who will occupy the White House, Washington, D.C.’s wilder residents were roaring for attention.

Elephants and donkeys are all over this city, but they are also literally walking around our nation’s capital for anyone to see – right there near the panda bears.

When it comes to visiting Washington, D.C., the monuments and museums take center stage, and rightfully so. Especially for first-timers, that initial glimpse of the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial or any of the National Mall’s landmarks, is a much-anticipated moment; and exploring the halls of the Smithsonian museums to see iconic American symbols, from airplanes to ruby slippers, is unforgettable. And as someone who worked in the city for years, I know that the excitement rarely wanes with multiple visits. For me, every glimpse of the Capitol’s magnificent dome still elicits a proud, patriotic spine tingle. 

But despite all of Washington’s tourist must-dos, one spot rates at the top of my list: the Smithsonian National Zoo. Sprawling but with an intimate, compact feel, the National Zoo has undergone considerable work over recent years, adding new animals and updated environments. The result is a thoroughly enjoyable zoological experience for all ages. The array of wildlife is diverse and the commitment to conservation is apparent everywhere from the elephant house to the panda pen. And like many of the city’s top attractions, it is free of charge.

I first fell in love with the Smithsonian National Zoo when I was a graduate student finishing up my degree in Washington, D.C. The housing offered by my program was located on Connecticut Avenue, a fair distance from any of the city’s main downtown monuments and museums, but just a few blocks away from D.C.’s best attraction.

I relished early morning, or early evening walks or jogs through the zoo. I would take any opportunity to get in before the gates closed and make my way around the park, down the main thoroughfare past cheetahs, zebras, elephants and various apes. Circling down around the lions and tigers, donkeys and meerkats, I would then loop down to the American animal pavilion to my favorite stop: the otters.

There really is nothing like having a zoo to yourself; especially during cooler dusk hours when the D.C. humidity subsides (sometimes) and prompts the animals to come out and about.

Ten years later, I make it a point to visit the zoo whenever I’m in the District. On a recent trip, I had the luxury of getting in before closing. I started in the newer Asia Trail section and was disappointed that many of the animals had seemingly tucked away already for the evening. Even my otter friends – both in the Asia section and further down in the America section – were nowhere to be found. The panda house was closed and only one elephant lumbered about the open-air enclosure.

Frustrated, I walked over to the big cat ring, where the lions and tigers make their home on hilly tableaus. Not much to see in the first two, but as I came around the circle to one of the lion sections, I bumped into a large crowd.

Several lions were standing at the edge of the water down below in the enclosure. They were staring, hungrily up at the crowd. A woman, with a dog on a leash, was laughing. The lions were making jerky motions and noises, clearly agitated and appearing almost as if they were ready to pounce. They were watching the dog. For the most part, the dog ignored them but when he finally caught wind of the predators below, his anxiety exploded.

The scene was surreal. A nervous dog, obviously in no danger perched high above a pride of lions, obviously in no position to attack. But the dog didn’t know this and yipped and bounced. And the lions didn’t know this, and proceeded to formulate a strategy for hunting and consuming the canine. It was a strange morphing of nature and I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse (and some video).

The experience wasn’t one that could be replicated ever again, which is why I enjoy the National Zoo above D.C.’s other attractions. Whereas most of the monuments are satisfying in their steadfast symbolism, at the zoo you rarely see the same thing twice and you’re guaranteed a wild time.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Culinary Kennebunkport

This story appeared on Northshore Magazine - August 17, 2016
Our entire evening was a culinary whirlwind of trendy modern and classic New England.
The Brussels sprouts were candied, the lobster was whole fried and the haddock was a luscious pillow. Candy boutiques mingled with local olive oil artisans. After popping into a gourmet ice creamery, we relaxed around a stylish wine bar’s communal bonfire, sipping hard-to-find Syrah. All of this within comfortable earshot of the ocean waves. 
Such are the culinary delectations that have become standard throughout Portland, Maine’s, thriving, well-deserving food scene.
But we weren’t in Portland.
Thirty minutes south, here in Kennebunkport, similar culinary creativity is regularly on display, with an added sprinkle of year-round, small town charm. Portland may be Maine’s most popular contribution to New England’s fashionable food scene, but when you come to Kennebunkport you better come hungry.
Kennebunkport has been on the tourist map for some time, of course, as home to fishermen and former Presidents. The village stands as a go-to destination for weddings and weekend getaways, while its annual Christmas Prelude is a town-wide, off-season celebration that regularly draws visitors from all over. Because of this, many establishments remain open into December to catch the Prelude crowd, making Fall a less-crowded and exceedingly enjoyable time to visit.
But regardless of season, the food scene here is reason enough to come.
Downtown, comprised essentially of one road bridging Kennebunk and Kennebunkport, is dotted with eateries serving waterfront fare variations. However, sailing a bit off course will bring you to Kennebunkport’s real treasures.
We navigated past downtown to Cape Porpoise, where the traffic dissolved and the food options materialized at a small intersection.
There, The Wayfarer restaurant stands out as much for its versatility as for its reliability. Every dish was fresh and unique, including the aforementioned Brussels sprouts and fried lobster. Lobster mac n cheese bubbled over with flavor, claws and tail meat. But the surprise was the bacon-wrapped meatloaf, a far cry from anything mom used to make. The meat was spiced Italian-style, offset by bacon and a sweet brown sugar glaze, as if a southern barbecue pitmaster decided to smoke up some meatballs. In a welcome break from the high-priced cocktail menus downtown, the Wayfarer is BYOB, which made our wine bottle and dinner all the more personal.
 Personal seems to be the only way they do things around here – personal and local. Farm + Table owners Liz and Bruce Andrews know how to do both. They assist Farm + Table customers with welcoming conversation and by organizing this artisanal food store geographically, with little placards identifying an item’s home state. The shop, located near the Wayfarer, is in its second season, housed in an old red barn and chock full of eclectic offerings, like a wall of Maine jams or a shelf of South Carolina cocktail bitters.
“Would you like to try some?” Bruce asked, as I perused jars of Maine-made bloody mary mix. I left with a jar.  
Back across the street, right next to the Wayfarer, Cape Porpoise Kitchen doles out fresh-baked pastries, baskets of moist blueberry muffins and prepared foods for those looking to cast away for the afternoon.
Cape Porpoise is not the only epicurean enclave in Kennebunkport.
Down Ocean Avenue, Mabel’s Lobster Claw takes Maine seafood to a new level. They specialize in lobster, of course, but special is an understatement – their variations of baked stuffed lobster are the stuff of legend. The Lobster Savannah is a massive crustacean split and swollen with scallops, shrimp, mushrooms and Newburg sauce, topped with provolone and broiled golden brown. The result is as overwhelmingly delicious as it is artistic.
Other notables include the hyper-locally sourced al fresco dining at Earth at Hidden Pond (two onsite gardens make sure of that); and the creatively spun selections at Salt & Honey, like the juicy chicken biscuit sandwich and a zesty bloody mary.   
Wherever you eat, be sure to stick around after dinner.
Rococo Ice Cream’s rotating selection of adventurous flavors keeps things interesting, like an exotically sweet Amarula Pecan and the Blueberry Chipotle, with a mild but noticeable heat on the backend of each lick. Our scooper encouraged us to try his own cocktail-based concoction, Dark and Stormy. A refreshing ginger/lime combo, we made sure to vote for it in Rococo’s summer staff contest for best original flavor.
We capped our night across the bridge at Old Vines Wine Bar. We lounged around their outdoor fire pit, wine glasses lazily swaying in our fingers, and tried unsuccessfully to recall something more satisfying than Kennebunkport’s culinary experience.
 Read the story here: http://www.nshoremag.com/culinary-kennebunkport/ 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Towering over Tuscany

San Gimignano, Tuscany

There was a moment, about three quarters of the way up, as the steps became steeper and the railing a little flimsier, when I considered the ascent a bad idea. My two year old daughter clung to me like unripe grapes to the vine, and in turn I clutched her with one arm so that my other was free to hold the railings.

The steps we had already conquered swirled around the inside wall of a centuries-old stone tower. We had reached a landing, looked down the center abyss to the ground far below, and then up at the remaining climb up an old wooden ladder. It was stifling hot and the air inside the medieval fortification pressed heavy on the body. It didn’t help that I had hoisted an extra 30 pounds up the stairs.

As my daughter and I slowly, carefully slid up the almost vertical ladder – the final lunge up the tower – my hands ached from gripping the worn rungs and her little body. The excitement I had felt with the first step down below was now hard to conjure.

We reached the last ladder rung. Simultaneously my daughter’s little head and my big one poked up through the hatch and into the glaring Italian sunlight. We emerged from the ladder onto the crown of San Gimignano’s tallest tower, the Torre Grossa. I was exhausted, hot and my knees were trembling.
Was the climb worth it? My eyes adjusted to the bright sunlight and as the whole expanse of Tuscany came into focus, hills and vineyard and cypress trees sprawled in every direction, the answer was instantly and profoundly obvious: yes it is.  

Every direction was a postcard panorama. Leaning over one side of the Torre Grossa, I pointed out to my daughter the hills, green and gold in midsummer splendor, rolling and cresting like waves to the horizon. Over on the other side, vineyards pockmarked the slopes, not yet heavy with fruit but close to providing fodder for the region’s local chianti and vernaccia wine. Still in another direction, the rooftops of San Gimignano jutted up and down, every once in a while broken by a medieval tower, like stepping stones leading the way to the walled fortress on the edge of town. My daughter pointed out the piazzas buzzing with activity underneath us.

Since we stood atop the tallest tower in San Gimignano, we had the benefit of looking down on the town’s other towers. Only eleven stone towers still stand out of more than 70 that once dominated the town in its medieval heyday, each a physical manifestation of power, built by the wealthy to show off (and to sometimes drop hot oil on potential intruders).

Every Tuscan hilltown has a unique trait, whether it is a landmark or local cuisine or artisan craft. Because of this, visiting a Tuscan hilltown is an intimate affair, like getting to know a new member of the same family. They are all distinctly Tuscan but also memorable for their own distinct reason. 

The towers are San Gimignano’s calling card, giving visitors a sight unseen anywhere else in the world – Tuscany’s version of a downtown skyline.

Because of this novelty, and the porcupine-like city photos it generates, San Gimignano is frequently a stop on many tour bus routes, making it a crowded place during the high season. But that doesn’t mean it is not worth visiting. Even with crowds, this small Tuscan hilltown has plenty to explore, from its churches, to the great views at the aforementioned fortress, to the small workshop off the main drag that has a full miniature model of the entire town.

As with most every small village or big city in Italy, San Gimignano is most Italian (and therefore most enjoyable), when experienced unscripted. Getting lost among the steep cobbled walkways off the main thoroughfare and sticking around in the evening hours after the tour buses have gone, will allow your eyes to feast on a relaxed San Gimignano. The whole town exhales as the tour buses clatter away.

I was lucky to be staying at a villa within a ten minute drive of San Gimignano, so experiencing it in both ways was easy. The difference was literally night and day.    

We spent several evenings strolling the streets alongside locals and other lucky overnight tourists. Peaceful, small town calm settled over the cafés and piazzas, save for the handful of children running around the central stone well in Piazza de la Cisterna. But who could blame them, with Gelateria Dondoli, one of the world’s premier gelato shops mere steps away. Award-winning in every way, my entire family indulged in Sergio’s frozen master craft on numerous occasions, sampling traditional flavors and the more obscure, like berry rosemary and eggnog vin santo (sweet white wine).

Dinners were unrushed and unforgettable, as most are in Tuscan hamlets. We ate at a restaurant situated in a garden high atop the town, had some quick pizza at a café off Piazza Cisterna, and snagged some wild boar sausage at a small shop.

On our last night, we indulged at La Mangiatoia Ristorante. My fork cut right through a local venison medallion glazed with fig sauce and in-season mushrooms, the savory meat bursting with flavor. Simple pasta dishes, like wild boar ragu and homemade pesto, thoroughly pleased the entire family. In all, the meal was a highlight during a week of culinary excellence in Tuscany. And of course, even with dessert and after-dinner drinks at La Mangiatoia, we had to end the evening at Dondoli.      

To consume the food here takes little effort, even though to consume the views requires a bit of leg work. Nevertheless, San Gimignano fulfills in both regards.

Back on top of Torre Grossa, before we descended, my daughter spotted some bright purple flowers growing out of the tower’s rampart. I picked one and gave it to her. She clutched it tightly, and I clutched her, as we prepared to back down the ladder to the landing and down the staircase. 
“It’s so beautiful,” she said.

I smiled at her, and then we both soaked in one more glance of the striking Tuscan vista before ducking down through the ladder hatch. My response to her was instantly and profoundly obvious: “Yes, it is.”