Grazing with The Head Nut

We’re not really a meal eating culture anymore. Certainly that’s something that future culinary historians will acknowledge as they float in tubes of phosphorescent liquid writing books with their IBrains. Instead, we “graze,” grabbing a snack here, eating it in the car or on the train. While a meal is a defined and ordered system (if you’re Asian, for example, it must include rice, if you’re a Westerner, probably meat. If you’re me, than bread, yummy, delicious bread) a snack breaks rules. Savory or sweet, raw or cooked, a complement to a meal or a subset of it. All of these count.

Head Nut SignAnd yet, we like to pretend to be healthful at the same time that we’re snacking on energy bars that are no different than the candy bars sold one aisle over. The rising stock in such snacking must partially explain the appearance of The Head Nut at the Reading Terminal Market.

Row after row of clear plastic canisters contain various crispy, snacky treats, as well as teas, coffees, spices and condiments. But, truly, the reason to visit is for creative grazing. Like okra chips, for example:

Okra spearsthough they should be renamed okra spears since that’s what they look like. What do they taste like? Crisply hollow, like a cheap Easter rabbit, but with a slight vegetal flavor. They need to be saltier, if you ask me, but my companion loved them.

Beet and Carrot ChipsOther vegetarian snacking included such colorful items as purple sweet potato and carrot chips, clearly inspired by companies like Terra chips and others. For those with a sweet tooth, the cocoa dusted almonds are addictive. Seriously, we nearly devoured a bag on the car ride back to South Philly, and the few that remained disappeared before I could take a photo.

I’ve got visions of a dried vegetable crudite platter at my next party (don’t worry, you’re invited!) and then heaps of cocoa almonds for myself. Course, the real question is can a store devoted only to such items survive? The prices aren’t cheap and the customer service leaves much to be desired. But, perhaps as long as Americans keep grazing, we’ll need places exactly like The Head Nut.

Recommended: cocoa dusted almonds. Also, a jar of ginger spread by The Ginger People, which is intensely spicy and wonderful.

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Simple Pleasures–The Grill at Smuckers

Good coffee (or a decaf americano for me). Bread with some chew. A place to sit and read the free weekly for a few minutes.

Smuckers-SignI’ve got to add another item to my list of simple pleasures: a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich on a roll from the Grill at Smuckers.

Locavorism has become quite the catch phrase recently (locavore gets nearly 1.3 million hits on google), but, let’s get real. There are lots of people and cultures who have practiced locavorism for a long time now, not just in response to foodie faddism. I’m talking, of course, about the Amish, the religious sect that eschews buttons and cars, has problematic pet raising policies, and may or may not act like the mafia on occasion. But with its rural culture and with each family having its own garden plot, local eating is more than a slogan for the Amish.

Pennsylvania Dutch food has long been a tourist draw. I remember squealing with glee when, on a road trip through Lancaster County, we came across a roadside stand selling shoo fly pie, which I had only ever heard about in a song that my mother liked to sing in her rare happy moments. Reading Terminal Market, with its large Amish section, clearly is using a similar strategy. From whoopie pies (Beiler’s Bakery) to candy (Sweet As Fudge), one can get a substantial taste of Amish cooking.

But maybe what the Amish do best is making simple, everyday fare tastier by using high quality, local ingredients. The Grill at Smuckers is a mini diner, specializing in eggs and pot roast sandwiches, which are raved about everywhere. Even though it was well into the afternoon when I stopped by recently, I decided to go with a breakfast sandwich. Down Home Diner, you have been dethroned as my go-to breakfast at RTM.

Egg-SandwichThe egg sandwich I received was nearly perfect. A fluffy scrambled egg was nestled between sharp white cheddar and crisp bacon on a kaiser roll. Egg sandwiches are a dime a dozen (to mix food metaphors), but this was what they all strive to be: greasy, salty, creamy, filling. I washed it down with a diet root beer, like a good American should.

root-beerRecommended: egg sandwich, root beer, trying that pot roast sandwich and getting back to me

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Hidden Treasures — Pearl’s Oyster Bar

I admit it, trying to eat my way through Reading Terminal Market is a chore sometimes, though one I’ve taken on willingly. I like food and all, but not everything’s to my palate. Other times, there’s trepidation. What if the food is just bad? That’s how I felt approaching my date with Pearl’s Oyster Bar. The Yelp reviews are not good. And since oysters on the half shell are among my favorite foods, my trepidation was bordering on a preemptive nixing.

Pearl's Oyster Bar Menu

all photos were taken by Whit Strub, photographer (and eater) extraordinaire.

Well, you can put away your cease and desist order, Pearl’s Oyster Bar lawyer. I was more than pleasantly surprised with my meal, which acted like a portal back in time to an earlier culinary era. One when the phrase “American cuisine” might have had some meaning because there were a cadre of people working hard to claim it. I’m referring to the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century, when it became a national project to rationalize that which had formerly been idiosyncratic. Most of us are pretty aware of what happened in government, thanks to our history teachers, but may know less about the birth of “domestic science” (which became “home economics” and has now morphed again into the very disturbingly named “family and consumer sciences”) and which was led by women who wanted to make sure that the food created in American kitchens was as clean and pure as the meat being butchered in Chicago slaughterhouses (joke). Course, part of the goal for domestic scientists was to take the new immigrants who brought pungent foods like parmesan cheese, pumpernickel bread, sauerkraut, and pickles with them and turn them into Americans. Part of that process meant teaching immigrant women to sap out those tasty flavors in order to create food that was deemed nutritious but not overly exciting to the system. As you can imagine, this wasn’t particularly popular with the immigrant women, but it did spawn a whole new definition for American cooking.

What does this have to do with Pearl’s Oyster Bar? Everything! See this oyster stew?

Oyster StewI’m sure that this recipe could date back to at least the early 20th century, if not the early 18th. Milky and mild, the dusting of paprika on top was wholly for aesthetics. The dish reminded me of a passage in Laura Shapiro’s wonderful book Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Centuryin which she describes domestic science’s founders’ “fondness for whitening their food before eating it.” But floating throughout were meaty oysters chased by flecks of green onion, giving it some chew and substance. Better yet were the oyster crackers that accompanied it, those hard nubbins of plain dough that were invented for oyster stew and which were manufactured first in Trenton, NJ, at the Original Trenton Cracker company. This was food for childhood, both my own and our nation’s.

not OTC, but they'll do

not OTC, but they’ll do

Stew wasn’t enough for a real review and there were no oysters on the half shell available that day, so my companion and I opted for an oyster po’ boy sandwich.

Oyster Po' BoyReally, no po’ boy in the Reading Terminal Market is going to beat Beck’s Cajun Cafe’s offerings, but this one had its merits, especially the crispy oysters, though there weren’t many. I slathered my half in tabasco, which added brightness and zing.

All in all, we left Pearl’s sated and happy, having spent a lovely time in its dining area (and having its own seating is one of Pearl’s advantages). A place like Pearl’s reminds us of our food heritage, as much as a soul food or a Polish restaurant does, even if that heritage was created more for the purposes of scientific triumph than pure taste.

Recommended: oyster stew, Laura Shapiro’s Perfection Salad

Oyster Bar Neon

Pearl's Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

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Pickles and Fermentation–AJ’s Pickle Patch and Blue Mountain Vineyard Cellars

Aside from a pregnant woman in some sitcom, there are few people who would probably willingly wash down a pickle with some wine. But why not? After all, they’re based on somewhat similar processes that extend the shelf life of otherwise fragile fruits and vegetables. Both fermentation and pickling have been shown to be extremely healthy. Plus, nearly every culture has a tradition of both (it is one of the disappointments of my life that I have never made it to the Lower East Side Pickle Day which celebrates the “rich history of pickle vendors of the Lower East Side). And, to be honest, I’ve never met a pickle or glass of wine that I didn’t like (not that I’ve become besties with all of them, mind you, but like? sure.)

IMG_3986So in honor of all of you pickle-and-wine lovers out there, here’s an RTM twofer: AJ’s Pickle Patch and Blue Mountain Vineyards.

Blue Mountain SignSometime in the 90s, it seemed that every out-of-the-way patch of unsuburbanized land in New Jersey was being turned into a vineyard, as if some Nate Silver type whiz kid had analyzed the data on longitude, latitude, microbes, and water table for the south of France and figured out that Monroe, NJ was almost exactly the same. Now, I’m a Jersey booster through and through, but, with a few exceptions, wine from Jersey is terrible. And, I figured wine from PA couldn’t be much better. I was wrong.

Enter the Blue Mountain store and you’ll find racks of PA wines and paraphernalia. Sidle up to the counter and, if you’re going to buy a bottle, you can get a taste of that wine, which seems a little counterintuitive, but so be it. You can also buy a glass to taste there. I walked away with two, Victoria’s Passion and a Cabernet Franc.

Victoria's PassionVictoria’s Passion sounds like an 80s nighttime soap opera and, indeed, this wine might well fit the heroine of such a show. It’s thin bodied and sweet, but with a pleasing bitterness on the way down.

In a wine daze, I made microwaved mulled wine with it using Martinelli organic spices. This was a mistake. Maybe the microwave made it seem harsh, or maybe it just needed a bit of honey or sugar to do the trick, but it was bitter and muddled in flavor, which is a shame because hot mulled wine always brings back good memories for me–from standing outside watching an historical reenactment in freezing weather sharing a thermos of it to a big pot bubbling on the stove for holiday parties in Minneapolis.

don't judge my mug

don’t judge my mug

The Cabernet Franc was hugely different, much more what an imported wine would taste like–drier, though also with a thin consistency and a  considerable amount of smokiness. My companion thought it tasted salty, but I think he’s missing several taste bud regions.

PicklesWine drinking needs snacks, amirite? And what better than three kinds of pickles from AJ’s Pickle Patch, an adorable spot with barrels of old-fashioned pickles and jars of preserves. We walked away with a quart of fresh pickles, the last two pickled tomatoes, and a half pint of pickled beets. All were delicious, though the pickled beets might have been the winner. Red orbs floating in a brine bright enough to tie-dye with, they were sweet, tangy, and delectable.

Pickled beetsThe fresh pickles were my joy–crisp and with the light brine that allows the cucumber to really shine. Problem is, after a few days, they get a bit soggy, so perhaps better in smaller quantities. Pickled tomatoes were new to my companion who realized that he could meet a pickle he didn’t like. I, as you may have guessed, loved them too. They were firm and sour, with a great deal of bite to them and would be perfect accompaniment to a fatty sandwich. Or to a glass of wine.

Pickled tomatoRecommended: Cabernet Franc. Pickled beets and tomatoes.

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Dienner’s BBQ – Chicken on a Roll

Is it me, or does it seem like all this breathless excitement about BBQ excludes chicken? The City Paper’s review of Fette Sau was all pork belly this and pulled pork that implying, rightly it seems, that no chickens were harmed in the making of this restaurant. The Philadelphia Weekly’s judgment of Percy Street Barbecue included a glancing nod at our fowl friends before skipping on to detailed descriptions of ribs, brisket, and chili. Even on a Chowhound thread comparing Fette Sau to Bubba’s Texas BBQ chicken doesn’t even rate a mention.

Is it because, as David Rees put it in one of his delightful Top Chef recaps, “Chicken is fucking boring and anyone who orders it at a restaurant is just being contrary. I will physically fight anyone who disagrees with me”? No, I tend to think that in our contemporary nose-to-tail food moment (not beak to claw!), that while even the simplest foods can be remade with the right combo of skill, sourcing, and marketing, BBQ chicken is too familiar. Few of us grew up with a pit master in the family, but I’d wager that nearly every suburbanite had a mom that slathered store bought barbecue sauce on a pile of thawed chicken pieces destined for the backyard propane grill. Familiarity breeds contempt.

going the extra mile by adding the "ar" after "B"

going the extra mile by adding the “ar” after “B”

But not at Dienner’s Bar-B-Q Chicken in the Reading Terminal Market. Dienner’s, in the Amish section, only does chicken–whole, half, pieces, sandwiches. You want a side, you go somewhere else, boy. The chicken’s provenance isn’t known, but it’s method of cooking sure is: rotisserie.

Two pieces stand before you/that's what I said now

Two pieces stand before you/that’s what I said now

I ordered a couple wings and a thigh and, for $.60 a small container of sweet bbq sauce and hot. The wing tips were shatteringly crisp, and irresistible with their char. The meat was moist, too. The sweet bbq sauce didn’t do much for me, though my companion liked it on his too dry grilled salmon lunch, but the hot was better, with more of a vinegar tang and a heat that never exceeded pleasant tingling.sauces

The thigh and leg were better, in their dark meat goodness. The skin was appropriately crisp. Dienner’s understands the most basic rule of cooking chicken: lots of salt. It’s so bland that without it there’s no amount of saucing that can help, but with it, you’ve got a fighting chance. The juicy, saucy residue on my fingers attested to its flavor.

crispy chickenDon’t tell David Rees, but sometimes chicken is the right thing. And it’s especially easy when you can just drop by Dienner’s and buy it by the pound.

Recommended: Chicken, duh. Hot bbq sauce.


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A Slice of Civic Duty, By George

apparently originally photocopied in the first Bush administration, this barely readable pamphlet sits in the jury room.

I’ve never been called for jury duty. Never. Even though I vote (I swear!) and have a driver’s license. I guess it’s because I’ve moved around a fair amount, between states and interstate, over the last several years? Well, maybe it’s a sign of more permanent residence because I was summoned to jury duty in Philadelphia last week.

Course, my mind went to one thing–Reading Terminal Market, located one block from the justice building. Particularly its policy of giving jurors a 10% discount at a number of vendors. Hard to resist.

Jury duty is a study in contrasts. On one hand, the whole process proceeds with a smooth, bureaucratic efficiency that nearly hums. Fill out forms. Get juror number. File into courtroom. Decide someone’s fate. On the other, it’s a defiantly human system, with all the idiosyncracies that suggests. Like the strangely worded questions that can cause metaphysical consternation–would I believe the word of a police officer more than someone else? Have I been the victim of a crime? Or, like the prosecutor who looked eerily like Jerry Stiller, but who acted like Jerry Lewis, dropping papers, saying “um” while addressing the jury, and apologizing for losing his notes. Even the court clerk, an attractive woman with blow dried helmet hair and a brisk demeanor, shook her head in disbelief. I wondered which branch of central casting he came from. Hey, Nice Lady? Maybe you can help him out?

All this self-questioning and evoking of hardships (what an archaic word!), leads one to hunger, so I found myself at the Market in front of By George Pizza, Pasta & Cheesesteaks. Since my partner doesn’t eat much in the way of cheese, unless its vegan–also known as devil spawn–I haven’t had pizza since I’d moved to Philly. In fact, the one night I convinced him to go to Birra with me, the electricity went out at the restaurant and they couldn’t serve us. Course, that left me with an appropriate craving for By George.

There’s a brick oven there, a good sign that I got to consider while some tourists confused an already exasperated pizza slinger. I wanted to try a standard and then a fancy slice, so I started with what looked like a not-quite-tomato-pie and not-quite-margherita slice. Mostly covered with tomato cause, it had small rounds of mozzarella but no basil. For the second, I ordered a vegetarian behemoth, which essentially was a dressed salad on top of a pizza slice. The line grew behind me and as every man on it only ordered one slice, I, a former fat kid, felt a bit of shame as I was handed my heaving paper bag.

While I’m a lover of a classic pizza slice (god rest DeLorenzo’s in Trenton), this tomato pie was a bit underwhelming. By stacking my second slice nearly on top of the other to fit it in the bag, the cheese had mostly been pulled off. The tomato sauce was sweet, no bite to it. The crust was crisp, though, but still foldable, important to a Jersey girl.

For lack of a better name, the salad slice was excellent. Covered in a weighty mix of spinach, artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, tomato slices, and a hard, salty cheese that may have been feta, and dressed lightly in a vinaigrette, the slice was anything but bland. The mix of textures–soft tomato v. toothsome cheese v. bitter spinach v. briny olives and artichokes–kept it interesting. The main misstep were the tomato slices. Round discs, they still had their leathery skins which peeled off in long ribbons in my mouth, an unpleasant feeling. Leaving just some heels of crust behind, I returned to the jury room.

The bureaucrat who was running the proceedings asked whether any of the hundred or so people waiting there were supposed to be in a courtroom. When one woman stood, she was politely told that she was late. When it was clear that she’d gone, the bureaucrat conspiratorially whispered into her microphone that the rest of us were free to go home, but she just didn’t want that other woman to hear. I hung around for my check. Turns out a day of my time is worth $9.00 to the City of Philadelphia. Fine with me. That’s plenty of pizza money.

Recommended: go for the fancy slices at By George, like the salad slice.

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Queering the Cheesesteak–Carmen’s Famous Italian Hoagies

As Brian Freedman correctly noted in his recent review of Vedge in the Philadelphia Weekly, we live in a food world defined by a binary–carnivorous or vegetarian. And, like any binary construction, each term earns connotative qualities over time, dependent on power (and maybe marketing). So, some might replace carnivorous or vegetarian with:

  • manly or wussy
  • pleasurable or ascetic
  • satisfying or meager
  • desirable or healthy

I’d say, too, that Philly’s got a secondary binary at work in its sandwich society. There are the gutbusters (Italian hoagie, anyone?) and the lighter side. I’m not saying that a banh mi is diet food by any stretch, but you can probably bite into one without dislocating your jaw, unlike most Philly-style sandwiches.

Now, not to push this metaphor into preciousness, but as anyone who’s taken a gender studies class in the last 20 years knows, binaries are ripe for deconstruction. Queer has been an operative term in this regard. According to David Halperin (via Wikipedia), “‘Queer’ then, demarcates not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative,” meaning that it defines itself through and against what’s considered normal, which are, at heart, those binary terms.

This is where cheesesteaks come in.

A recent trip to Reading Terminal Market took my companion and me to Carmen’s Famous Italian Hoagies, which specializes in cheesesteaks. I don’t have to tell you what a cheesesteak is–thinly sliced beef, fried, on a long roll, with cheese (either Cheez-Whiz or provolone), maybe some fried onions or peppers–or where it falls on the Philly sandwich binary. But if that combination counts as the norm, than Carmen’s, like many places in Philly, is queering the cheesesteak too, with a vegetarian version made with seitan, vegan if you forego the cheese (but let’s not get crazy here, people! To quote George Costanza, “we’re living in a society.”). And what better way to understand positionality vis-a-vis than with a taste test? On one side, the regular cheesesteak, with Whiz and onions, on the other, the vegetarian version, with Whiz, onions, mushrooms, peppers, and everything else that the man at the counter asked if my companion wanted before he realized that each addition was $.50 more on my tab.

The meat version of a seitan cheesesteak.

They both looked good, and, honestly, meaty. My normative cheesesteak was moist and juicy, and while the bread could have been a bit crisper, this steak beat all the others I’ve had, and won bonus points for not making my hands smell of onions for the rest of the afternoon.

The seitan version of a meat cheesesteak.

Comparatively, the vegetarian version was a good substitute, but the seitan just didn’t have the seasoning to give it the heft needed to be the star of a sandwich. My companion loved it, though, placing it nearly at the top of the vegetarian cheesesteak pyramid in Philadelphia (I’d give that honor to the offering at the American Sardine Bar). With its layers of flavor-boosting additions, it was a satisfying meal, that often exploded out of its bread, while my daintier cheesesteak stayed contained.

Dainty, this is not.

I do have one quibble, though not with Carmen’s. As more and more restaurants offer vegan options, it seems like fewer and fewer actually include vegetables in them. In recent months, I’ve seen seitan cheesesteaks, pulled “pork” bbq tofu, and meatless buffalo wings in addition to the more expected veggie burgers and hot dogs. Not to draw too many parallels, but if vegetarianism has been one method of bodily critique of the excesses and structures of our contemporary society (from factory farming to fast food), than is it wise strategy to make a vegetarianism based on seitan and tofu a new norm? Do we want vegetarianism to mirror the protein-based diet of mainstream America, which is really what is happening here? Sure, more people will feel comfortable with vegetarian food that looks like what they’re used to, but shouldn’t part of the point be to stretch people’s minds while also stretching their culinary habits? Something to chew on.

Recommended: cheesesteaks, people, haven’t you been paying attention?

Carmen's Famous Italian Hoagies on Urbanspoon

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