9:00 AM: Who needs a teapot-sized Aston Martin? Being a stowaway is riveting! Have successfully smuggled self (1) into The Girl’s luggage and (2) onto ferry bound for Victoria, home of The Empress Hotel and Earth’s most influential Afternoon Tea.
Plan to recruit elite Canadian teapots for key positions in my Delicious Plan starts now. I offer an attractive benefits package. It includes a free gym membership, absolutely no health insurance, and WORLD DOMINATION.
9:04 AM: AAAAAAAAAAAAA my ears bleed! Tea-vil laughter, coupled with motion of the boat, has triggered car alarm of highly sensitive BMW parked next to The Girl’s vehicle. Pangs of longing for teapot-sized Aston Martin. Perhaps I will sneak upstairs.
10:05 AM: Fresh sea air courses through my spout! A gentleman sits alone on a bench in the covered portion of the front deck. He plays a Bach partita on the mandolin. The music reverberates off the boat’s metal hull. Children scamper back and forth and point to the passing islands in wonder and stuff their faces with french fries. Other passengers move slowly, testing conditions on the deck, deciding, at last, that Flock of Seagulls Hair For the Rest of the Day is a small price to pay for a few moments in the salt and the sun and the wind. Melody lilts. Boat lilts. We dance.
10:05 AM plus 15 seconds: Have remembered am SUPERVILLAIN WHO HAS NOT THE TIME FOR POETRY. Especially with so much coffee being consumed on this ferry. To the snack bar!
10:07 AM: Unmitigated disaster. Unable to turn off all coffee makers on ferry without blowing cover. What’s more, discovered residents are not going straight to The Empress because they are staying outside of Victoria in Sooke. Patience. Courage.
2:00 PM: NO OF COURSE YOU DON’T NEED TO DRIVE THE CAR TO VICTORIA RIGHT NOW. Why would you make a beeline for the APEX OF TEA CIVILIZATION when you can stay in Sooke Harbour and eat a salad made completely of flowers?
Oh no no, please don’t DRIVE THE CAR TO VICTORIA RIGHT NOW. Take a long, leisurely walk along Whiffen Spit even though the fog prevents you from seeing past the end of your nose! How delightful. TAKE YOUR TIME.
3:00 PM: Fog has lifted!
10:00 PM: Bah! Girl and traveling companion have retired for the night, and nary a word re: when they will be Victoria-bound. No matter. Will meditate upon the peculiar piece of stained-glass art that separates the W.C. from the sleeping area in The Girl’s hotel room. When the restroom light is on, the fish eye glows red. Soon, my devious, aquatic friend. Soooon.
9:00 AM: Excellent tea selection during vegetarian brunch at Rebar Modern Food. However, attempts to recruit pot of jasmine green tea for Delicious Plan Part #342 unsuccessful. Fool! Part #342 is one of the best parts!
Drowned sorrows in housemade ketchup. Came up for air to steal bites of grilled buttermilk biscuit sandwich.
2:34 PM: For some godforsaken reason, have been forced to mingle with dirty hipsters and browse organic cotton thingamajigs at Sitka—a lifestyle store that sells outdoorsy stuff for surfers and skaters and other people who engage in leisurely, non-world-dominating activities. And yet, I rather reluctantly admit that I enjoy stealing bites of a simple ploughman’s lunch, served by the store’s sustainable lifestyle café on their sustainable lifestyle sidewalk patio.
That salty sea air. Do I hear a mandolin? Briefly consider complete change of Delicious Plan. Will instead become dirty hipster surfing teapot.
4:30 PM: AT LONG LAST.
The Girl called ahead to arrange a vegetarian Afternoon Tea service. Be still my cold, cast-iron heart—are those mini-chocolate teapots filled with earl grey marscarpone? And I see so very many potential recruits.
Good teapots of The Empress: Take me to your leader!
Right after I pilfer a scoop of blueberries and cream.
To be continued ….
The man who sat behind me on the plane to Austin spoke to his colleague in some digital language that I did not understand, save for the bits about his work schedule. It was Presidents Day Weekend, and he could not wait to work on a holiday. Vacation days made him feel anxious and “un-American.”
Processing this statement nearly kept me from falling asleep while listening to Lady Gaga. Nearly. But I did it. I am an American. Persistence courses through my veins.
As is our custom, Jules went to Austin to check Texas off his Marathon Maniac List of States, and I went to check out the food. Our newly opened hotel offered a discount to marathon runners and gleaming lobby floors and supersexypants sculptural fireplaces. It was just down the street from Austin’s Google Fiber Space, where you can test drive Google’s 1,000-megabit-per-second Internet service.
I felt excited to be at the center of Austin’s energy and creativity. And yet I also felt somewhat old and cranky. Perhaps this was because I have been somewhat old and cranky on the inside since childhood? Or perhaps I just needed a snack?
“Who needs the Internet to run at 1,000 megabits per second?” I asked myself.
“If you have to ask, you’re too old to need it,” came the response from the nether regions of my brain. Cheeky nether regions!
As we walked the trail around the lovely Lady Bird Lake and explored the rest of the city, signs appeared everywhere. Oh, the brutally cheerful signs! That spirit of the plains, that manifest destiny, hurtling toward me at 1,000 megabits per second.
Did any of you feel TOTALLY EXHAUSTED just reading those?
Me too. Let’s recover during a long, leisurely, sun-dappled brunch, shall we? Perhaps on the patio of the uber-charming Josephine House, a living Kinfolk Magazine diorama located in Austin’s Clarksville neighborhood?
I instantly and fully surrendered to Josephine House’s myraid perfect details, right down to the coasters, which are letterpressed in the same rich blue as the house’s exterior.
Almost too pretty to use, right? But I did, because I slurped down nearly all of Jules’s brunch cocktail after claiming that I only wanted “a sip,” as is my custom.
We ordered two vegetarian mains: socca, a chickpea-flour pancake, topped with roasted squash and broccoli, a fried egg, and chimichurri sauce; and a black rice bowl topped with a formidable pile of vibrant roasted brassicas. I would have been perfectly happy eating only the yogurt they brought out because our entrees were running late. I might even have been happy with just a sizable handful of the yogurt toppings: tart pomegranate seeds and pecans bearing a flavor I can only describe as marzipan toasty.
Of course, nothing cheers me like bread and cheese, which I generously applied at Home Slice. It was just over the Congress Avenue bat bridge from our hotel and, thus, far too close to base camp for me to visit only once. As we sat on the curb outside during our first visit, a storm blew over South Congress Street. Raindrops slithered down my back, but a slice topped with with fresh spinach and fat dollops of ricotta warmed my hands.
Visit #2 featured cozy indoor seating and Monday’s special: a thick, square, pillowy pizza duvet of a Sicilian-style slice, complete with olive-oil-fried crust. (Here is a link to plans for an actual pizza duvet. I love pizza so much, and yet this concept seems so wrong. Why?)
Feeling better? I think we’re ready to venture out on an Austin Taco Expedition. May I suggest a stop at South Austin’s Papalote Taco House?
Jules and I originally sought this place out because the their tortas di coliflor was the Austin Chronicle critic’s choice for best vegetarian taco, but our favorite turned out to be the rajas y hongos, topped with cream sauce and queso fresco to complement the deep, abiding heat of poblano peppers. We tried several other veggie taco options (think fried avocado; mushrooms and hominy; or all-day-breakfast-style with scrambled eggs, cactus, and calabaza; all available on your choice of corn or flour tortilla). In between tacos, we scooped chipfulls of a dead-simple guacamole so freshly prepared that I could still make out the avocado’s silhouette, a faint outline marking the scene of the smashing.
I drink so much sparkling water that I am pretty sure my innards froth, so I was very much looking forward to washing my tacos down with a super-bubbly Topo Chico. But then I was mesmerized by Papalote’s margarita machine and forgot to order water. Please try a Topo for me, if you go. Also please try a tamarind agua fresca, or at least convince your dining partner to try one and then steal some of it. Just don’t steal sips of Topo, or you could be accused of STEALING FIZZY LIFTING DRINKS. We all know how that ends.
Dinner at modern, vegetable-centric Gardner quickly returned us to Austin’s cutting edge. Its interior is the kind of minimalist space that usually makes me afraid to move my chair for fear of squeaking, but somehow the restaurant still managed to feel warm and friendly.
On the menu: Small plates, plus somewhat bigger plates. Flavors and textures that alternately comforted and challenged my bread-and-cheese-addled taste buds. Fried cauliflower and soft-as-silk gnudi soothed, but then, upon tasting the beet terrine with smoked curds and dill, my immediate reaction was, and I am not making this up, “This tastes like Ikea.” Dessert paired smooth milk chocolate with gelatinous pops of rose, beet, and pomegranate.
Back in our hotel lobby, Jules and I met up with one of my dearest friends. I hadn’t seen her since she moved to Austin several years ago. As we discussed our ever-earlier bedtimes, I told her that I’ve totally won the prize for oldest and crankiest, because I now sleep with my nose connected to a Darth Vader Machine prescribed to treat sleep apnea.
“My dad has that!” she said. About 90% of the people I have told about my sleep apnea have this same response.
“O.K. WHY does everyone I tell about my sleep apnea say, ‘My dad has that’?”
She looked at me with a bemused compassion that reminded me why we have stayed friends for so many years. “Because it’s true,” she said. “The list of People in the World with Sleep Apnea includes Everyone’s Dad. And you.”
And we belly laughed and belly laughed and our laughter traveled through the sleek hotel lobby and past the supersexypants sculptural fireplaces and out into the streets of Austin, traveling at a speed of approximately 1,000 megachortles per second, past new signs and better signs.
Oh hello there! Is that you? Hold on. Let me remove my face from the freezer.
It is 80 degrees in Seattle and I am melting like Fromager d’Affinois on a toasted roll.
Every day for the past few weeks, at least one person has warned me that “today is going to be the last sunny day.” This sounds suspiciously similar to what I tell myself in order to justify eating an entire bag of cheese puffs (because it is NEVER HAPPENING AGAIN, right?)
I wanted this. Seasons. Change. Discomfort. One can only exist for so long in a climate-controlled environment, yes? But apparently I have morphed into some kind of rare, highly annoying plant that turns to straw if the temperature is not maintained between 65 and 75 degrees. I finally broke down and bought one of those freestanding, one-room air conditioning units. Sometimes I leave The One Cool Room to go to work or to eat some cheese puffs or to put my face in the freezer.
Let us all now mourn the complete destruction of my Desert Cred whilst gazing upon The Chilly Things of Summer 2014:
Sangria-compressed watermelon with a dusting of goat cheese granita at Ataula, a new neighborhood tapas restaurant in Portland.
PS: You would be wise to order two cubes of watermelon and only two cubes of watermelon for dinner if you plan to order doughnuts for dessert. I was expecting dainty doughnut holes or bite-sized mini-churros, which I’ve seen on many a dessert menu. But Ataula’s doughnuts are the real deal: Perfectly fluffy-yet-chewy on the inside, rolled in so much cinnamon sugar that I advise you not to wear black to dinner, and at least as big as standard Krispy Kremes. Oh, and they come piled in triplicate on a fork that has been cleaved into a block of wood. Arthur, King of the Crullers, is destined to retrieve it one day.
I also had some veggie paella topped with crispy potato chips. The heat clouded my judgment. I’m not sure what excuse you will have.
Subtly spiced, chilled melon soup at the Blue Rock Inn in Washington, Virginia. Jules and I stayed in nearby Luray, Virginia for a family wedding, and the vegetarian options at Blue Rock were well worth the drive over the Blue Ridge Mountains. Bonus coolness: Jules’s “Fashion Man” floral shirt only makes appearances in the summer.
Extra bonus coolness: Our B&B in Luray was located near (1) A pig farm and (2) The home of a woman who hoards Chihuahuas. And there was hammock built for two swinging the front yard, and there were no streetlights, and oh, how the fireflies danced.
Supreme bonus coolness: The temperature inside Luray Caverns is uniformly 54 degrees. Plus, the Caverns are home to The Great Stalacpipe Organ, which plays “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” by using rubber mallets attached to stalactites!
The organ was designed by Leland W. Sprinkle, a Pentagon programmer who also worked on the first generation of computers in the 1950s. Legend has it that Sprinkle was inspired to design the organ when, while on a tour of the Caverns, his son hit his head on a stalactite and it produced a tone.
Let it be known that I very much want to be the type of person who WILL NOT REST UNTIL THE ORGAN MADE OUT OF A CAVE IS COMPLETE. Alas, I exist on the opposite end of the Spectrum of Persistence.
Let it also be know that, were I not allergic to cats, I would buy a cat and name it Leland W. Sprinkle.
Back in Seattle, Jules and I waited out one of our warmest evenings at (appropriately) Damn the Weather, a new craft cocktail bar in Pioneer Square. I had The Jungle Bird. Its pale-pink froth gave me a Campari-flavored mustache upon imbibing. Yes! A craft cocktail gave me an ironic mustache! I am pretty sure that the place doesn’t have air conditioning, but ordering their Aquavit-and-cucumber juice-based Scandinavian refresher for our second round made things feel almost climate-controlled.
The Mekong Coffee at TanakaSan in Seattle tastes like a frozen orange Milano cookie dipped in Thai iced brew. Also chilly: TanakaSan’s Green Man cocktail, which comes with a giant green-tea ice cube.
Finally, I may or may not have eaten several frozen mini fudge stripe cookies over the course of the summer. I inherited this practice from my dad, who freezes Peanut M&Ms and Hostess Cupcakes.
Unfortunately, I have no cookies on hand right now, which makes standing with my face in the freezer somewhat less enjoyable. So I’m retiring to The Cool Room to read this article about the “wonderfully absurd” specialty cocktail ice industry. See you again when the clouds roll in.
Recently, I attempted to lunch at The London Plane, a new restaurant/bakery/larder/flower shop/meticulously curated foodtique in Pioneer Square. The place was so bright and airy and ORDERLY. And it was so full of young, chambray-clad employees who somehow managed to make ticking-stripe aprons and clogs—yes, CLOGS—look effortlessly chic that I thought if I lingered there long enough, I WOULD TURN INTO A BEAUTIFUL BUTTERFLY. But it was packed to the gills with diners and browsers. Lunch for one would have required at least a 30-minute wait.
So I hastily bought a few items out of the case and trudged back to work. Said trudging required me to scale a rather steep hill that covers multiple blocks, as many Seattle-based trudges do.
While waiting at the intersection at the bottom of the hill, I encountered an intensely sweaty man who was doing some kind of CrossFit-esque workout during his lunch break. He was carrying a sizable kettlebell in each hand. This forced him to stop and rest about every 10 steps.
And he still made it to the top of the hill before me.
In my defense, I was carrying a croissant. An extremely buttery croissant.
In addition, I was hauling nearly half a pound of chickpeas doused in spicy tomato sauce and sprinkled with feta, as well as some freshly baked rye crackers. Later, I topped the crackers with sharp cheddar, thinly sliced by hand for a little extra bicep and tricep work.
1) Brunch at The London Plane is seriously good and seriously veggie-friendly. After my failed lunch attempt, I went back with Jules and a few dear friends. Pictured above: Thick slices of Matt Dillon’s frenzy-inducing sourdough bread, toasted and topped with parsnip-fig spread; cardamom tea cake with rose sugar and cream; stinging-nettle-and-porcini quiche buried under raw vegetable salad; and eggs, harissa-fried, with deeply crispy edges and still-runny yolks.
2) After brunch, I bought some garden roses. A chambray-clad florist carefully hand-tied them into a bouquet for me. Please don’t tell her that they ended up on such a disorderly desk. Currently, their divine fragrance mingles with a subtle hint of Eau de Cheese Puff.
3) Can we still be friends if I buy these silver clogs and wear them to work?
For at least a year now, I have received regular e-mail updates from Canal House Cooks Lunch. They are equal parts inspiring and exasperating.
WORKPLACE THAT SHALL NOT BE NAMED, TUESDAY, 11:47 AM — I have spent the morning sitting in a video training session that looks like it was produced in 1987. Lunch is approaching. I am considering running down to Starbucks to get a cheese-stuffed pretzel and my second refreshing, neon-orange drink of the day. However, I fear that consuming multiple refreshing, neon-orange drinks in a day will turn me into House Speaker John Boehner.
Thoughts flit between:
1) You know, I bet Starbucks would sell way more of the aforementioned refreshing orange beverage if they just called it what I call it: FancyTang;
2) Mental picture: House Speaker John Boehner as barista in limited-edition orange apron, selling FancyTang, weeping;
3) General hungry grumpitude; and
4) A headline I skimmed earlier about The Tree of 40 Fruits–a single fruit tree that grows more than 40 kinds of stone fruits, including peaches, plums, cherries, apricots, and nectarines. How can anyone work without first finding out how this is possible?
As soon as the training breaks, I turn to my phone to investigate the tree. I have a new e-mail. The creators of Canal House have cooked lunch, and they have informed me that they are eating a simple stew by the fire with their feet at the hearth. Or they are picnicking. They are filling their lungs with crisp, early-spring air and filling their bellies with spaghetti bolognese. They are living a little and making something delicious midday because, well, because what else are you living for? And the components of this Something Delicious are strewn about just so and bathed in natural light and photographed from above.
I ask myself: Perhaps, with just a little bit of forethought, could I also be so calm and joyful and mindful and tastefully arranged? Perhaps if I changed my lunch, I could change my life? And instead of turning my skin the shade of FancyTang, I would turn into a BEAUTIFUL BUTTERFLY? WHO WILL ASSIST ME IN THIS QUEST?
Would you believe that there is someone local? Peter Miller owns an architecture and design book shop near Pike Place Market. Every day, he heads down to the market to find ingredients that the bookstore staff improvises into lunch. In Lunch at the Shop: The Art and Practice of the Middday Meal, he details his process for making lunch personal and a pleasure. “It can save a workday all on its own,” Miller writes, “this moment of a little care and community.”
Lunch at the Shop is a gorgeous book, complete with photos that instantly soothe the anxious, FancyTang-addled mind. The photos are courtesy of—you guessed it—the creators of Canal House. My favorite recipe so far is the one for this deceptively simple sandwich:
- good crusty bread or a split roll
- a slathering of almond butter
- a small handful of arugula
- a few slices of pear or apple
- a squeeze of fresh lemon juice (toss with the arugula and fruit so it doesn’t brown)
- a few slices of Fromager D’Affinois
Say it with me now: Fromager D’Affinois. Fromager D’Affinois. It’s kind of like Brie, but silkier. It’s the first cheese I have ever tried that I could actually feel clinging to my esophagus as I swallowed it. This is not a complaint.
I wouldn’t have thought to pair soft cheese with almond butter, but trust me, it is a genius combination, especially when you add in the peppery arugula and sweet, crisp fruit. I found that toasting the bread slightly makes the whole operation even lovelier, but toasty bread is certainly not vital a Calming Lunch Experience.
I do recommend using an almond butter that is not too salty. I used a few packets of Justin’s classic almond butter with great results. When I ran out, I tried substituting peanut butter. It wasn’t terrible, but the peanut flavor kind of hijacked the whole sandwich. It reminded me too much of Ye Olde PB&J–a Sad Desk Lunch that I am longer eating because I am turning into a BEAUTIFUL BUTTERFLY, remember?
The only catch is that I ate this sandwich for three lunches in a row while attending to my extremely sedentary job. This risks that I will not sprout delicate, colorful wings, but rather lower extremities and belly that bear a striking resemblance to Fromager D’Affinois as it oozes—nay cascades—out of its plastic packaging.
1) Yes, my lower extremities and belly are already that color.
2) What? Is this not a calming photo? But I took it from above and in natural light!