November 5, 2012
The presidential candidates look as suave and dapper as ever each time they step to a new podium on the long and winding campaign trail—but each man’s well-groomed countenance belies the rigors of the arduous road each has traveled during the 2012 presidential race. Following is a discussion, with some facts and figures from behind the scenes, about the two men fighting to have America’s most demanding job and each candidate’s long, long journey that ends tomorrow at the polls.
Where the candidates have been:
Between June 1 and November 2, the Obama camp—including the president, the vice president and each man’s spouse—made 483 campaign-related appearances. Barack Obama was present for 214 of them. The same four-tiered Romney party, meanwhile, made 439 appearances, with 277 by Romney. In late September, the Obama campaign’s efforts seemed to max out: on September 22, the Obamas and the Bidens made 11 appearances, and 10 the day prior. The Romney camp has more recently made its most active efforts, with 10 appearances on October 31, and 11 the next day. Barack Obama has not visited Montana, Idaho, or Wyoming, among other states, and neither candidate has bothered appearing in Maine, Kansas, Nebraska, Tennessee, Kentucky and Oklahoma.
On October 24, Obama had what may have been the busiest day of his campaign. He flew 5,300 miles and made appearances in Iowa, Colorado, California (to appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno) and Nevada, before, at last, catching some sleep on an overnight trip to the major swing state of Florida (which has seen 112 campaign visits by both presidential husband-wife quartets since June), where the campaigning commenced the following morning. Later that day, the president continued to Virginia, Ohio and Illinois, where he cast an early vote. A week later, Obama made another campaign sprint beginning on October 31; forty-eight hours later he had bounded 6,500 miles around the country. November 1 was a particularly exhausting day. After leaving the White House at 9:20 a.m., he hit Green Bay, Las Vegas, Denver and, finally, Columbus, Ohio. And on November 4, he left the White House at 8 a.m. and made visits to New Hampshire, Florida, Ohio, Colorado and Illinois.
How they get there:
The president gets around in his own private jet, called Air Force One. While “Air Force One” is, in fact, the call sign of any Air Force plane on which a U.S. president is traveling, the term more commonly refers to a particular pair of customized Boeing 747s used exclusively by the White House. Operating the planes is not cheap. ABC News has reported that an hour of flight on Air Force One costs about $180,000–usually of taxpayers’ money, unless a flight is considered strictly part of the campaign. But Obama does occasionally journey overland by bus—specifically in a black, slick and shiny armored coach that, just like its duplicate vehicle, cost $1.1 million when the Secret Service purchased the pair last year. By some guesses, Ground Force One, as it’s been dubbed and which has been active during this campaign, travels just six to nine miles on a gallon of gasoline.
Mitt Romney has also covered some impressive distance during his campaign. According to the Huffington Post, Romney will make a last-minute, four-day, 15,000-mile dash that ends tonight after visits to seven states, and he has traveled tens of thousands of miles throughout the campaign. As of late August, he has been traveling mostly on a private jet—a McDonnell-Douglas 83. Running mate Paul Ryan has his own plane—a similar model called the DC-90.
Where they sleep:
Luxury travel goes hand in hand with luxury lodging, and the president has stayed at the Beverly Hills Beverly Hilton Hotel in a room that costs $4,000 per night, the Ballantyne Hotel in Charlotte, North Caroline, the Hotel Bellevue in Washington, and many other fine establishments. And Romney has stayed at the Charleston Place Hotel in Charleston, the New York Palace Hotel, which can cost $9,000 per night, and the Millennium Bostonian Hotel.
How they stay fit:
In spite of their busy schedules, Obama and Romney both take the time to care for themselves and maintain physical fitness. Romney, it’s been reported, jogs three miles daily, whether on treadmills, around the hotel premises or on trails. Obama, too, keeps an exercise routine and aims for 45 minutes of boosted heart rate per day, achieved through running, basketball and even boxing. Although one of the Air Force One jets contains a treadmill, as Obama recently told Jay Leno, the stationary running machine was installed during a previous presidency and Obama does not jog on it during flights.
In the end, for all the sleepless nights and airport marathons and shaking of hands, we wonder: Did their campaign efforts steer the election? Whether Romney wins or Obama, America will know soon which man will get to spend the next four years flying in Air Force One.
October 17, 2012
Today we continue on the thread we left dangling a week ago—of unexpected places to find locally made wine. We looked at Baja California, China, India and North Carolina—each of which offers wine-tasting trails for unknowing tourists who might have been bracing themselves for a dry vacation. This time, we find a surprise wine industry in America, unlikely vineyards bearing the heat of the tropics, and grapevines planted by experimental winegrowers nearly two miles above sea level.
Kenya. For decades, travelers to Central Africa were content to spend their days watching some of the most spectacular animals on the planet. As of recently, tourists can also go wine tasting, for vineyards are now growing in Kenya, almost smack on the Equator, on the shores of Lake Naivasha. The industry here dates back to 1985, when an experimental winery released 4,400 bottles of the nation’s first grape wines. Since then, local wine culture has not exactly flourished but has continued in a wavering, uncertain path. Several wine labels have appeared, and the industry has been troubled by everything from tropical diseases, muggy air and seasonal rains to the difficulty of correctly spelling complicated grape names. “Cabrenet Sourvignor,” “Chardonney,” “Cheny Blanc” and “Chaney Blanc” are all named in a single 2008 article about Kenya’s wines at allAfrica.com. But the arrival of seasoned wine pro James Farquharson in 2007 at Rift Valley Winery may have marked the beginning of better times. A winemaker trained in South Africa, Farquharson immediately ripped out 70 acres of struggling vines in the Lake Naivasha basin, imported new rootstock from home and started fresh under the label Leleshwa. In 2008, the property’s vines produced 10,000 bottles of wine, and subsequently production exploded: in 2010, Farquharson reeled in a bumper crop amounting to 88,000 bottles (although that’s because the exuberant plants produced two crops that year, something that grapevines may do in the tropics), and Rift Valley Winery has said it has plans to boost its bottle yield into the millions within several years.
Texas. They say that red wine goes well with beef—and in Texas, grapes grow among the cattle herds. In fact, the Lone Star State has been a home to winemaking for centuries. One of the first vineyards in America was planted here by Franciscan priests around 1662. Today, the wine industry of Texas includes eight American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), shared by 190 wineries at last count. Among these is Becker Vineyards, the first winery to grow both Viognier and Roussanne grapes in Texas. Becker’s wine is mostly grown in the Texas Hill Country and the High Plains AVAs, with an emphasis on grape varieties of France’s Burgundy, Bordeaux and Rhone Valley regions. In Fredericksburg, in the Hill Country, Pedernales Cellars focuses on Tempranillo, the superstar grape of Spain, and also makes a Merlot, a port-style sweet wine and a sort of spiced wine called Glögg, popular as a holiday drink in Sweden. And representing the Texas High Plains AVA is, among others, Caprock Winery, known for Roussanne—its flagship white—and its heavyset Tempranillo. And while the industry is thriving by all accounts, Texas’s wine country amounts to just a drop in the bucket of American wine production. While California makes more than three billion bottles of wine each year, Texas produces just 16 million.
Israel. Even Greece, France, Italy and Spain only adopted the wine grape in relatively recent times—but in Israel, the world’s favorite juicy fruit is truly at home. For this is old Bible country, and according to at least one written document, wine was flowing here perhaps 4,000 years before Jesus was born, even if drunkenness was condemned. Today, 300 Israeli wineries collectively make 35 million bottles each year—enough wine to fill 53 Olympic-size swimming pools. The five appellations include Shomron, Samson, Judean Hills, Negev and, the most reputed of all, Galilee. Located in the northeast of Israel, the Galilee appellation includes two of the nation’s best grape-growing regions, the Upper Galilee and the Golan Heights, where vineyards dwell at some 4,000 feet of elevation. Though the nation was once home to a variety of indigenous grapes, the era of Muslim rule, which began in 636 and continued in waves for several hundred years, squashed the local culture of winemaking, which came to a halt in the eight century. As this article tells the story, “Vines grew old and handsome on the plateaus of the Golan Heights and in the desert oases to the south, but they were not propagated; no loving hands cut and cloned the favored cultivars of the country. … [H]eritage grapes melted into the wild. The genetic material remains in the wild grapes of the land, yet it is essentially lost.” Oh well. The superstar French grapes would probably have taken center stage anyway, and today Cab, Pinot, Merlot and Syrah are alive and well in Israel’s wine country. Want to take a tour? Go with a guide—or wend your own way. Tourist-friendly tasting destinations include Golan Heights, Tishbi and Carmel wineries.
Japan. Wine grapes were born in Asia Minor. Many varieties went west and assumed star status in France and Italy. A few wound up rooted in Muslim soils and were either relegated to raisin-making duties or destroyed entirely. And a few varieties went east. Of these, one traveled so far that it could travel no more, and it made itself at home in Japan: the Koshu grape. Eventually, this variety became the source of a traditional white sweet wine of the same name. Though the world’s wine cognoscenti reviled Koshu for years as simple, sugary rotgut, wine connoisseurs have more recently decreed that, whoops, we were wrong—Koshu is actually good. It’s an unlikely and abrupt turnaround—but it’s true. Even the New York Times has reported that Japan’s native wine is gaining a place at posh tasting bars and has become the cherished craft of a handful of Japanese wineries, each striving to create an export market for high-quality Koshu. But don’t wait. Go get it at the source. In the Yamanashi Prefecture, south of Tokyo on the main island, you’ll find Katsunuma Winery, Grace Winery and Chateau Lumiere. Each features a selection of table wines as well as some of Japan’s most highly regarded Koshu.
More Wines from Weird Places: The Short List
England. In England, winemaking traditions have waxed and waned with natural climatic cycles, like the Little Ice Age and the Medieval Warm Period (a boom time for local wines). Now, temperatures in England’s southwest have increased by about 3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1961—enough to allow a resurgence of production. Today, more than 400 wineries are in operation, and in this corner of the globe, the weather forecast is bright and sunny.
Morocco. The fermented juice of the grape is a forbidden pleasure for 98 percent of the mostly Muslim Moroccan population. Yet winemaking is legal in Morocco, and the wine is said to be perfectly good—though it takes a tourist with a keen nose to find it.
Thailand. Where Western winds blow, wine seems to grow. And in Thailand, touched in recent times by the strong influence of global tourism, several wineries have appeared in the past 15 years or so. Thai wine is made using both the local Pok Dum grape as well as classic varieties from Europe. This review says the Siam Winery Pok Dum wine carries notes of seaweed.
How High Can You Grow? Grapevines are marvelously adaptable and can grow from sea level to lands far, far above—but how far above? The Wine Institute of California has reported the Shadow Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard in San Diego County to be the state’s highest, at 4,400 feet above sea level—but that’s nothing. As reported above, Kenyan vineyards lie at 6,500 feet. Wine grapes in Colorado are doing their business at up to 7,000 feet. But it’s in the Andes where California-based wine star Donald Hess, of the Hess Collection, has ditched the competition in the valleys below. At Hess’s Bodega Colomé in Argentina, wines are made from grapes grown as high as 10,200 feet above sea level in Argentina’s Calchaqui Valley. These go unchallenged as the highest vineyards in the world.
October 3, 2012
Where would we be without snakes? Rodent populations might boom, the native bird assemblage of Guam would probably remain mostly intact today and 100,000 people every year would not die of venomous bites. As we can see, snakes bring both good and bad to the world we share with them. But mostly, these reptiles have been cast in the role of evil.
It’s easy to see why, if we just take a glance at the scariest of the lot—the venomous snakes. Indeed, it might take a very persuasive herpetologist on field sabbatical in Ecuador to convince the locals that the pit viper of his thesis focus is anything but a device of the devil. Throughout the New World tropics, roughly 2,000 people die every year from the bite of the pit viper (Bothrops atrox), known also as the fer-de-lance. Its close cousin, B. asper, goes by the same common names and is comparably devastating and said to be so aggressive it will chase people, bent on sharing some of its powerful venom. And in Africa, the black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) seems so wicked it’s absurd: It is the fastest snake in the world and can slither more swiftly than the average city cyclist pedals to work; it is the second-longest venomous snake, growing to 14 feet; it may strike a single victim repeatedly like a psycho with a butcher knife; its venom is so potent it can kill a horse—and a person in just 30 minutes; and, in bite victims who go untreated, the mortality rate is—get this—100 percent. In other words, nobody—that’s nobody—on a trek in the wilderness of tropical Africa, hours from the nearest doctor and without antivenin, survives the bite of the black mamba. As locals say, this snake delivers the “kiss of death.”
Stories of such creatures can leave indelible impressions on the tender minds of men—so indelible that no matter how plain and obvious it is that the harmless gopher snake—or king snake, or rat snake—is a peaceful friend of society that wants little more than to eat a rat (a job that somebody’s got to do, and how grateful we should be that snakes have volunteered), many people still call snake control and removal experts when one appears on their property. Forgive them, Mother Nature, for they know not what they do. Now, whether you love them or hate them, here are a few iconic species to watch for when traveling, from those wickedly venomous to those worth learning more about before you cast your judgment.
Reticulated python (Python reticulatus). Probably the longest snake in the world (if not the heaviest), the reticulated python of Southeast Asia is also an occasional man-eater and a popular pet. (Go figure that one. I’ll stick with my yellow Lab.) Recently, a 25-footer weighing 350 pounds was named the largest snake in captivity—but just how big the largest “retic” ever to have lived might never be known. In 2003, one snake was reported to be 49 feet long and weigh more than 900 pounds. Only when journalist John Aglionby of The Guardian made a trip to see and measure the creature, being kept in a cage in a village in Java, was its real size revealed: 23 feet. Why should we believe an English journalist and not the keeper of the snake, you ask? Come on. Forty-nine feet? Anyway, read Aglionby’s article, which explains the difficulty in measuring large, coiled-up snakes. Worthy to note when discussing the biggest snakes is that between 1997 and 2002, the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society offered a $50,000 reward to anyone who could produce a 30-foot snake. The prize was never collected.
Ashe’s spitting cobra (Naja ashei). And you thought camels were nasty for spitting in strangers’ faces (they’re actually belching up their cud). Well, the spitting cobra doesn’t just spit; it spits venom. And since the venom is harmless to intact skin, the mean evolutionary tactic behind this nasty habit seems to be, precisely, to hit the victim in the eye, which can cause permanent blindness. Ashe’s spitting cobra is the largest of the dozen or so spitting cobra species, which live in Africa and Asia. N. ashei, first named only in 2007, reaches nine feet in length, has been seen eating five-foot-long puff adders (another deadly venomous snake) and, like all the spitting cobras, can also inject venom by biting. And while we’re discussing cobras, the king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) can grow to twice the length of the Ashe’s spitting cobra and may administer, in one bite, two-tenths of an ounce of venom to its unfortunate victim—enough to kill an elephant. The species acts aggressively when cornered or when guarding a nest, in which the females lay their eggs, but does not commonly attack humans.
Green anaconda (Eunectes murinus). It is the biggest of the boas and perhaps the bulkiest of all snakes, but the South American green anaconda’s pop culture reputation as a killer may be entirely undeserved. The snake, which gives live birth to 20-inch babies and can reportedly grow to 28 feet and 280 pounds (according to the San Diego Zoo), is relatively sluggish and does not, with any regularity, attack humans.Yet people hate the creatures. Just check out the comments following this blog post about a pregnant anaconda killed by South American villagers. The author of the post questions why the animal was killed. Scores of readers responded like raving idiots at a public hanging. One argued that with 70 baby snakes inside her, the big snake was a population bomb about to go off and would have left the village crawling with hungry anacondas. And another reader said, “[W]e don t need snakes on this world.they are dangerous. i hate the snakes it s the animal of the devil…” Well spoken. Thank you. Next! “[T]hat thing could kill a horse.” No, it probably couldn’t. Next! “How could it possibly have been pregnant? It’s a SNAKE, snakes are REPTILES, and reptiles LAY EGGS!!!” Obviously not a herpetologist. Next! “[S]nake’s aren’t nice animals…there more like monsters who just wanna eat.” Brilliant. Next! “Either you eat the Anaconda, or the Anaconda eats YOU !” All right, all right! Order! In fact, there is no documented case of an anaconda killing a human.
Beaked sea snake (Enhydrina schistosa). Though the Australian inland taipan tops the list of the world’s most venomous snakes, the beaked sea snake isn’t far behind. Rated as the world’s sixth most venomous snake, it is considered the most dangerous sea snake. Its fangs may measure just four millimeters, and surfers and divers wearing wetsuits may be protected, though just barely, from this animal’s bite. Yet nine of every ten people killed by sea snakes are killed by the beaked sea snake, which is said to be easily provoked and very aggressive. It inhabits shallow, murky waters in Australia and much of the Indian Ocean, often among mangrove roots. Wading fishermen are frequent victims.
Santa Catalina Island rattlesnake (Crotalus catalinesis). If the flared hood of a cobra is the icon of danger in the heat of Africa and Asia, then the sound of a rattlesnake giving its warning might be that of the American desert. Which makes the rattlesnake without a rattle a riddle of evolution—though scientists have supposed that its rattleless tail may be a result of evolving on an island mostly absent of other creatures to communicate with. Otherwise, the Santa Catalina Island rattlesnake is a rattlesnake in every way—from head almost to tail. It is a dwarf among rattlesnakes, however, reaching a maximum size of just 28 inches long. It is also endemic to (that is, entirely limited to) the single Sea of Cortez island on which it lives, and—with just 100 square kilometers to call its own—the species is critically endangered. Predation by feral cats is a considerable threat.
Sobering facts about snakebites: In 2011, the BBC reported that snakes bite as many as 5.5 million people every year, killing at least 100,000. In India alone, the article stated, a million people may suffer snakebites every year. The Indian cobra, Russell’s viper, saw-scaled viper and common krait are the main perpetrators in India, while the king cobra tends often to be wrongly blamed. In sub-Saharan Africa, carpet vipers, black mambas, puff adders and boomslangs are snakes to be feared. In Australia, the snake blacklist is long and frightening, while in Europe vipers are the main culprit, and in North America, rattlesnakes. What to do if bitten by a snake? Antivenin is said to be the only reliable treatment, unfortunately. According to the 2011 revision of Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook, the wound of a snakebite victim should be firmly wrapped in a bandage before the person is carried on a makeshift stretcher to the nearest doctor. “If you can, also take the snake,” the authors advise, as identifying the needed antivenin can otherwise be difficult. And things not to do after receiving a snakebite? Cutting the flesh near the wound, applying ice, trying to suck the venom out of the bite and having a beer (as alcohol can reportedly make symptoms worse).
August 10, 2012
Where does a traveler go to best taste the foods and flavors of a region? Local restaurants? Not me. Because when a dish arrives at the table in a fine restaurant, it is more often the artful work of a chef, not the pure product of the land, and I don’t know about you, but I travel to experience a place, not its chefs. When I visit the East Coast of America, I want a steamed lobster, plain and simple—not shredded and rendered into a bisque, or folded into a delicate soufflé. And when I visit Southern California, I want to see the avocados, whole and complete, one variety beside the next, not whipped into some unidentifiable frothy salad dressing or blended into ice cream. And when I travel to Turkey, I want to eat Turkish figs, fresh off the branch as the tree offered them—not wrapped in bacon, doused with oil, stuffed with cheese and grilled. And in Alaska, there may be no better summertime dinner than a steak of salmon, grilled over open flames and drizzled with lemon—no fancy kitchen tricks required.
No, it doesn’t take a culinary college graduate to make good food. The land does it for us—and here are a few walk-around festivals this summer and fall, each starring some of the world’s greatest ingredients.
Tomatoes. The 16th Annual Sonoma County Heirloom Tomato Festival arrives on September 14 for a two-day gala at Kendall-Jackson Winery in Fulton, California, where visitors will meet 175 varieties of tomatoes that have almost slipped to the wayside in the shadow of Romas and other dominating commercial varieties. Tasting opportunities will abound for those interested in discerning the subtle and dramatic differences between varieties, while local star chefs will also get their hands on a few tomatoes for a competitive cook-off. In Valencia, Spain, meanwhile, the annual giant tomato fight arrives again on August 29 as thousands of revelers engage in La Tomatina. There is less food at this event than there is tomato smashing, stomping and squashing, plus half-naked wrestling in freshly pulped tomato sauce.
Figs. In Fresno, California, heart of America’s fig-growing industry, the 11th Annual Fig Fest comes this Saturday, August 11, on the front lawn of Fresno State University. The gathering will feature farmers, each at their own stalls and each showcasing the fruits of their mid-summer labors for guests to see and taste—like the Calimyrna, black mission, Kadota, brown Turkey, panache and other varieties of fig grown in local orchards. Wine and fig-based hors d’oeuvres can also be sampled, while a “Fig Feast” later in the evening at the Vineyard Restaurant will present the sweet and squishy fig in a fine-dining context. I’ll sate myself with unadulterated figs on the university lawn, thank you—though I’ll venture to guess (and correct me if I’m wrong) that those who buy the $75 meal ticket will find figs wrapped in salted swine and grilled.
Oysters. Any seafood fan knows that the best oyster is a raw one, slurped down minutes after being shucked from its shell—and oyster lovers at the annual International Oyster & Seafood Festival in Galway, Ireland, held the last three days of September, will find no short supply of their favorite cold and clammy mollusk. Events at the the festival include an oyster- shucking contest (watch that knife!) and Irish dancing. And don’t mark my words, but I would bet that somewhere in that three-day spell you could find yourself a pint of oyster stout. We just missed another oyster fest in June in New Orleans, as well as in Arcata, on the wild, black bear-trodden North Coast of California. Pencil them in for next year.
Wild Salmon. In British Columbia more than anywhere else, perhaps, a sharp line separates farmed salmon from wild. The former is abundant, cheap and likely a direct cause of the decline of some wild salmon populations—and proceeds from the annual Wild Salmon Festival of Lumby, British Columbia, held each July, go toward restoring local salmon-spawning habitat. As the event’s website poignantly states, “This festival honors the Wild Salmon who still come here to spawn and die.”
Mangoes. A festival each July in Coral Gables, Florida, features all things mango in one of the only American states where this tropical rock star of fruits can thrive. Florida farmers grow unique local varieties that festival visitors may taste nowhere else. In Guam, a celebration each June in the village of Agat showcases the island’s summer mango harvest with tastings, music, two- and five-kilometer runs and plant sales.
Watermelons. Festivals for America’s favorite and clumsiest fruit abound each summer. In Hope, Arkansas, watermelons take the stage this weekend at the 36th annual Watermelon Festival. Other similar festivals occur in Fair Bluff, North Carolina, in Carytown, Virginia, and in Mize, Mississippi. Throughout the Old World, too, summertime festivities honor the big juicy fruit, native to Eurasia. Upcoming is the annual watermelon festival in Salamanovo, Bulgaria, while the one in Beijing, China, came and went in late May.
Avocados. The Hass is the king of commercial avocado varieties, but hundreds of others can be found in Central American forests, in smaller orchards in California and Florida, and in government tree collections—like the experimental orchard at U.C. Irvine, where we just missed the annual walk-around-and-taste tour of the 80-variety avocado grove. But yet to come this year and early in 2013 are the avocado festival in Carpinteria, California, from October 5 to 7, next February’s avocado festival on the Big Island of Hawaii, where 200 varieties of avocados grow on local farms, and still another festival next April in Fallbrook, California. At each event there is sure to be mountains of guacamole—and even avocado ice cream.
Maine Lobster. We missed this one by a week—but pencil the Maine Lobster Festival into your 2013 calendar. Here, at Harbor Park in Rockland, the East Coast’s favorite crustacean will be served up in almost every manner. Consider getting to know the lobster first with a whole steamed two-pounder before moving on to more complicated dishes, which will be served by competing chefs in the lobster cook-off.
Mushrooms. They rise unpredictably from the mossy forest floor, in dark, damp places, and in a vast array of colors, shapes and sizes—and the fact that some wild mushrooms are gourmet-grade edibles stirs fascination in millions of human admirers, who wait for them aboveground, frying pans greased to go. And so it’s hardly a surprise that countless fungus festivals celebrate wild mushrooms. In California’s Mendocino County in November, the annual Wine and Mushroom Festival spotlights one of the world’s most productive mushroom hotspots. Visitors will see and taste such culinary stars as the porcini, chanterelle, morel, lobster and black trumpet. Other annual mushroom festivals occur in Madisonville, Texas, Boyne City, Michigan, and Telluride, Colorado. And the world’s favorite underground mushroom, the white truffle, stars at the 82nd Annual International White Truffle Fair, which runs October 6 through November 18 in Alba, Italy.
Zinfandel. The largest single-variety wine tasting in the world, held each January in San Francisco, is a celebration of the Zinfandel grape, but just as much, it is a celebration of California itself, producer of virtually all the Zinfandel wine in the world. This Croatian-native grape variety makes a distinctively sharp and peppery red wine, which may owe its unique qualities in part to the chemistry of California soil. Scientists have found compounds of marine origin in the skins and juice of Zinfandel grapes—delivered, so the theory goes, from ocean to inland valley via migrating Chinook salmon, which die after spawning and whose carcasses were historically hauled from the rivers by bears and eaten in the state’s future vineyards. Taste a Zinfandel today, and you’re tasting California of yesteryear.
Yogurt, garlic, apples, wild game, olives, durians, cheese, jackfruit—foods of almost every sort are celebrated by the people who love them in the lands that produce them. So tell us: Which great or off-the-beaten-path food festivals did we leave out?
July 21, 2012
About 10 years ago, while passing a hot afternoon on the deck of a tourist lodge in Belize, a friend on his way out to go bird-watching asked why on earth I had my nose buried in a book. “Here we are in the jungle of Belize,” he said. “There are jaguars in the woods, and crocodiles in the swamp, and grackles in the trees—and you’re reading a book?” I explained that reading while traveling—if done right—can serve as a sensory supplement to one’s surrounding environment, not necessarily a distraction, as he believed. I explained that many years from now, any mention of Dove—a sailing memoir by Robin Graham—would sweep me right back to these Belizean tropical forests where I read the book, and the coral reefs off the coast, and the croc-filled lagoons, and the villages, sulking in the boggy Caribbean heat and odors of fermenting cashew apples and mangoes. And I was right. When I think of Dove, I go right back to Belize. Because reading a book charges up the mind with information and memories. These become entangled with the scents and flavors of reality, and rather than detract from an experience, a good book can enrich it. Never in the past 15 years have I left home for a week or more without a piece or two of literature, and below I list some of my favorite reads—and where best to read them.
Montana, Night of the Grizzlies. On August 13, 1967, two different grizzly bears in two different parts of Glacier National Park attacked and killed two unrelated young women in one of the most bizarre stories of modern wilderness tragedy. Night of the Grizzlies, by Jack Olsen, recounts the events that led to the attacks. He describes the tourist lodges and the bear-viewing balconies above the garbage dumps, where grizzlies regularly gather—growing accustomed all the while to humans. When the victims—both 19, for another coincidence—go on their respective overnight trips into the backcountry, butterflies begin fluttering in the reader’s stomach. Night falls, the campers go to sleep and their fates are sealed; the worst nightmare of the human psyche is about to become reality. The deadly maulings were the first bear attacks in Glacier National Park, and Olsen’s book acknowledges the inexplicable nature of the coincidences of that night, then delves into the uncertain future of bears, people and wilderness. NOTE: You might lose sleep in the backcountry after reading this one—but that snapping tree branch outside was probably just the wind. Probably.
Paris, Down and Out in Paris and London. Ernest Hemingway may have spent his days in Paris thoughtfully fingering his beard at sidewalk cafes and drinking the house wine, but George Orwell voluntarily dived into a life of grim poverty as he made a journalistic effort to understand the plight of Europe’s working classes. In Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell describes short-term jobs in the Parisian restaurant circuit, weeks of unemployment, living in a pay-by-the-week hotel and selling his clothes to scrape up the rent. He lives franc to franc, describing the logistics of saving coins and managing free meals and dodging the landlady. In one especially dismal spell, Orwell and a friend named Boris, living together at the time, go three days without food. Following false rumors of job openings, they drag their feet throughout the city, growing weaker every hour. Orwell even goes fishing in the Seine in the hopes of landing something to fry in a pan. When the pair finally acquires a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine, they devour what must be among the most satisfying dinners ever eaten in Paris. Orwell eventually lands steady work, but not before learning how strangely liberating it is to hit rock-bottom, to own nothing in the world but the clothes you’re wearing and have no worries but finding a bite to eat. T. S. Eliot, an editor at Faber & Faber at the time, would later decline the manuscript offered by the young writer: “We did find [the book] of very great interest,” Eliot wrote, “but I regret to say that it does not appear to me possible as a publishing venture.”
Texas, Lonesome Dove. Author Larry McMurtry creates a lovable cast of characters in the cowboy era of Texas in this Pulitzer Prize winner of 1985. The year is 1876, and Gus and Call, a pair of retired Texas Rangers, now operate a cattle ranch by the Rio Grande and spend their days tracking rustlers and warring with bands of Comanche Indians. Just as the reader grows cozy with life on the farm, the prospect of joining a cross-continental cattle drive pulls Gus and Call from their idyllic home and on an adventure to Montana. Through dangerous encounters one after another, the men convince readers they’re invincible, but a tragedy ends the party, only one of the pair returns alive to Texas, and we remember that the American frontier is as brutal as it may be alluring.
Mediterranean Europe and the Middle East, The Innocents Abroad. In 1867, Mark Twain joined a group of wealthy Americans on a cruise ship bound for the Mediterranean—-and in one of his best-selling books he boldly makes a mockery of the most cherished sites and attractions of the Old World. No museum, ruin, impoverished village or biblical site is off-limits to Twain’s criticism. He ridicules, especially, the patriotic Italian guides who lead the group to famed statues and artifacts—such as a particularly dazzling sculpture of Christopher Columbus. “Well, what did he do?” they ask the tour guide (I’m paraphrasing), who had thought the Americans would be flabbergasted. “The great Christopher Colombo!” the guide stammers, incredulous. “He discover America!” “What? We’ve just come from there and we haven’t heard anything about him.” The Italian almost faints. And another hired guide shows them an Egyptian mummy, 3,000 years old. Twain and the boys stare in silence, stifling giggles for ten minutes, before one of them finally asks, “Is he, uh, dead?” Onward, in Greece, Twain sneaks into the Acropolis at night; in Turkey, he describes the “illustrious” stray dogs of Constantinople; in the Bible country, Twain mocks almost every artifact and scrap of cloth advertised as once belonging to Jesus—and only in the presence of the Egyptian sphinx is his teasing manner at last humbled. As he stares at one of the oldest creations of humankind, he likens the sight to how it must feel to finally encounter “the awful presence of God.”
Somewhere on the tropical ocean, Men Against the Sea. The sequel to Mutiny on the Bounty, this novella describes the voyage of the 19 men set adrift by the Bounty’s mutineers. The sailors locate themselves via celestial tracking, set themselves on a course for East Timor, and row more than 3,000 miles across the open ocean with only one man lost—killed by the hostile natives of Tofua. Hunger weakens the men nearly to starvation, but a few mahi mahi, flying fish and fruits harvested from island trees barely keep the men alive. The reader feels their hunger pains and likewise grows queasy each time they must make a landing to find water, surfing their boat over tremendous breakers onto unfriendly shores, often astir with threatening people. The men observe strange hopping animals as big as a man in the vicinity of Australia, and beneath their boat the shapes of monsters appear as fleeting shadows—probably the fearsome estuarine crocodiles so infamous in Australian swamps today. NOTE: If you’re reading aboard a boat at sea or under a palm on a tropical atoll, the aforementioned Dove can stand in ably.
Central America, The Mosquito Coast. In Paul Theroux’s novel about a brilliant but wayward man who transplants his family to the upstream wilderness of Nicaragua, protagonist Allie Fox builds a self-sufficient paradise—but in the metaphor of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the protagonist loses his mind, and the dream goes up in flames.
California, My Name Is Aram. From William Saroyan, this 1940 novel hashes out the comedy and drama of life in the farm country of the San Joaquin Valley, where the Saroyan family, from Armenia and still embracing customs of the home country, have set new roots.
Baja California, Log from the Sea of Cortez. John Steinbeck’s travelogue from the scientific collecting voyage he joined in 1940, aboard the Western Flyer, describes the rich Sea of Cortez and the shoreline of the Baja Peninsula. In 2004, several Stanford marine biologists re-enacted the voyage on a vessel almost identical to the original. En route, the scientists compared Steinbeck’s descriptions of a bountiful sea with the dwindling fish and invertebrate populations of the present.
Southeast Asia, Catfish and Mandala. In this travel memoir, Andrew Pham tells of his pilgrimage by bicycle from his home in the San Francisco Bay Area to the land of his roots, Vietnam. Here, Pham seeks out old friends and familiar places, but haven’t we all been warned never to go home again? Indeed, much of the world that Pham hopes to see again has vanished or transformed.
Finally, the brand-new guidebook Oregon Cycling Sojourner, by Ellee Thalheimer, provides local insight and tips helpful for anyone considering riding a bicycle through Oregon—and camping, dining out, drinking beer and even doing yoga along the way. The glossy paperback details eight routes through all regions of the state, covering 1,826 miles of highway, 12 breweries and 14 mountain passes. Those not wishing to have a tour route described down to the turns in the very road might read the book for pointers, take a few notes, then leave it behind and wend their own way.
Have any more book suggestions? Add any ideas to the comment box below, as this list continues next week.